Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Kate Fisher, Rebecca Langlands (ed.), Sex, Knowledge and Receptions of the Past. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 350. ISBN 9780199660513. $95.00.

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (geert.lernout@uantwerpen.be)

Version at BMCR home site


The use of the word "classical" in the name of the series may be misleading: this is a book about knowledge about sex and about the use of the past, but that past is only Greek or Latin in a few of the essays appearing here. This review will devote more attention to the essays relevant to most of the readers of BMCR.

Some of the work in this collection grew out of a 2009 conference on the theme of Sexual Knowledge: Uses of the Past at the University of Exeter and out of the wider Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History project directed by the two editors at that university. In their general introduction the editors make clear that the project focuses on the way that the history of sex "has been thought about at various periods from the eighteenth century to the present day" (1). The authors of these essays are not so much interested in the past itself, as in the use that is made of the past in the creation of knowledge about sex. Change is of the essence here: "the volume highlights the changing status of historical thinking in changing constructions of what counts as knowledge, and charts the politics at stake in the construction of authentic knowledge" (2). In a footnote to this sentence, they make it clear that in their definition they are on the side of Barry Barnes's "strong program" of the sociology of knowledge (it may not be a coincidence that Barnes also taught at Exeter). Later on in the section we read that their introduction will "further theorize the role of 'authenticity' in the practice of history and the construction of knowledge" (3).

This perspective on the social construction of knowledge informs most of the individual essays, but even more the introductory statements by the editors that turn this first essay into an apologia for these types of research program: any evaluation of these studies must depend on the reader's own theoretical allegiances. Yet even those of us who cannot write the word authenticity without scare quotes may wonder at the reasons given for placing the individual contributions to this volume alphabetically, by author: "to highlight their diversity in subject matter and discipline, and to enable to them to speak to one another in as wide a range of productive ways as possible" (4-5). Against my better judgment I will discuss the essays in their order of appearance.

The first two essays belong to the general field of queer studies and both address classical studies. The alphabetically privileged Alastair J.L. Blanshard looks at the moment in the late nineteenth century when the study of the classics played an important part in the reform of laws on homosexuality, but he stresses the ambivalence in this strategy which found acceptable classical antecedents for homosexuality in Greece. This same evidence was then used by the first generation of sexologists to turn homosexuality into a medical issue that could be "conflated with conditions such as criminality, insanity, and mental retardation" (27).

Sexology was a late invention and homosexuality (at least the English word) first appeared in the 1892 translation of Krafft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis. But Blanshard begins the story of the scientific interest in sexuality with Voltaire's dictionary and Richard Burton's famous "Terminal Essay" published with his The Thousand Nights and a Night, before moving to the German pioneer of the new discipline, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In the last part of his essay, the writings on homosexuality by John Addington Symonds are discussed, together with Wilde's famous speech at his trial: what these two authors have in common is the idea that "Hellenizing aesthetics" can be seen as an alternative to the science of sexology.

A public programmer for the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, Debbie Challis describes her involvement in a number of events trying to remedy the "institutional homophobia" that earlier writers on the issue had identified in the world of museums (47) and that came on top of a general reluctance to address sexual themes. Challis begins by describing the construction of sexual knowledge in museums, using the Egyptian god Min's erect penis as a prime example of the prudery that only came to an end nearly three decades after the famous moment when, for the English poet Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began.

The article then continues with a description of a number of different initiatives on the occasion of LGBT History Month, a British initiative "to promote equality and diversity for the benefit of the public." In what is essentially a detailed report on her accomplishments at the Petrie, Challis describes how she was able to work with the local LGBT community in organizing exhibitions, talks and other events. The most interesting feedback on the events centered on what the LGBT History Month blog had called "the first openly gay Emperor" Hadrian, came from the German representatives of a religion of Antinous who attended the opening. What Challis fails to notice is that this is only a postmodern version of the cult initiated more than a century earlier of the German poet and cult leader Stefan George for his Blessed Boy Maximin. To her credit, Challis is not uncritical of the unproblematic coopting of historical figures into modern classifications of sexual behavior or identity. The essay closes with a set of recommendations for both museum practitioners and academics working on Greek and Roman sexuality.

In a fairly straightforwardly litcrit essay, Peter Cryle reads the evolution of the interpretations of what the French call "libertinage," beginning with the Goncourt brothers who rediscovered the eighteenth century as a sexual utopia (in comparison with their own more straight-laced time) and ending with a discussion of the concept of libertinage in the novels and essays by the contemporary French novelist Philippe Sollers.

The two editors themselves discuss the various and divergent reactions to a marble statue found at Herculaneum depicting the god Pan having sex with a goat. They begin in 1752, when it was discovered in the garden of a villa and follow the story down to the present. Scholars cannot even agree on the question whether this is a depiction of a brutal rape or of tender eroticism. The essay is an extended and detailed example of the editors' approach to the reception of classical art and literature, situating each of the stages of the history of this object's interpretation in its own context.

The first interpretations could not escape being marked by the Enlightenment's critique of established religion and more specifically an anti-Catholic polemic. No wonder that the infamous Marquis de Sade refers to the statue in his novel Juliette. The authors then move to a section in which attempts are described to understand the past in terms of anthropological similarity or difference. In the case of the public display of such a blatant example of bestiality, the difference or similarity of past practices is essential. In the next section they then look at the way in which the object has been linked to "other material from the ancient world" (105), most famously a story in Herodotus about a goat kept at a temple in Mendes that would have sex with one of a number of naked women. The essay closes with a theoretical conclusion that, perhaps inevitably, echoes the volume's introduction.

Jana Funke then looks at Magnus Hirschfeld's use of the primitive and of racial issues in his sexological account of a trip around the world. Here again the notions of sameness and difference play a crucial part and Johanna de Groot does something similar to the sexology of Burton's "Terminal Essay." Leslie A. Hall takes up the role of the Victorians in the history of sexuality, starting, like so many of these authors, with Michel Foucault's books on that subject. She looks at the problem of clearly defining this era or its various uses as the repressed "other" in Freudian and other liberating discourses, concluding that the Victorian age is a kaleidoscope that can be made to mean many things to many people. Purely by alphabetic accident, Chris Mania continues the discussion of nineteenth century sexology with an essay on scholarly discussions of prehistoric sexuality.

In what is again a more straightforwardly litcrit fashion, Sebastian Mantzner then provides an interpretation of the Greek and Latin classics in the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the pioneering German theorist of homosexual love. In a close study of the correspondence, Mantzner describes the development of Ulrichs's thinking on what he himself called "Urianismus" and he concludes that Ulrichs was not just a pioneer of gay emancipation but also "a godfather of literary gender criticism" (218). Alison M. Moore then moves closer to our own time by looking at the interwar development of psychoanalytical thinking about gender, with a close reading of not just of Sigmund Freud's and Marie Bonaparte's work but also of that of the lesser known Gregorio MaraƱon who discovered what he called "intersexuality."

Karin Sellberg again starts with Foucault in order to study the work of Stephen Greenblatt, Thomas Laqueur and Stephen Orgel in the 1980s and 1990s on early modern hermaphrodites, She situates these authors in their own context, the "political and theoretical conceptions of sex and gender, in particular late twentieth century queer theory" (245). Demonstrating how they misread their sources, Sellberg still finds in their work the possibility of a dialogue with the past. In a thoroughly documented essay, Chris Waters then finally returns us to the 1950s and to readings of the case of Oscar Wilde as both a gay icon and a martyr. At the beginning of the period, Wilde was still the failed artist and sinner, but this began to change when after the death of Alfred Douglas a lot of new materials could be published, even though at the same time in Britain homosexuals were still arrested and tried for homosexual offenses. Sir John Gielgud, who had been knighted the previous year and who was supposed to speak at the unveiling of a plaque on Wilde's house, was arrested in a Chelsea lavatory before he could do so. Other luminaries declined, among them T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell and Laurence Olivier.

This is book is carefully edited, despite the fact that Darwin's German bulldog has inexplicably become a Joachim Hackel instead of the Ernst that he is correctly named a few pages later. As with many recent British and American books, the English language bias prevails. With just a few exceptions, texts not in English are not mentioned or studied only in translation. But the editors do succeed in clearly identifying the general theoretical framework of this work and they are especially successful in tying the different contributions together into a single argument.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands
1. Queer Desires and Classicising Strategies of Resistance, Alastair Blanshard
2. Queering Display: LGBT History and the Ancient World, Debbie Challis
3. Anachronistic Readings of Eighteenth-Century Libertinage in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century France, Peter Cryle
4. Bestiality in the Bay of Naples: the Herculaneum Pan and Goat Statue, Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands
5. Navigating the Past: Sexuality, Race, and the Uses of the Primitive in Magnus Hirschfeld's World Journey of a Sexologist, Jana Funke
6. Hybridizing Past, Present, and Future: Reflections on the 'Sexology' of R.F. Burton, Joanna De Groot
7. The Victorians: Our Others, Our Selves?, Lesley Hall
8. Scholarly Visions of Prehistoric Sexuality, 1859-1900, Chris Manias
9. Literary Criticism and/as Gender Reassignment: Reading the Classics with Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Sebastian Matzner
10. Androgyny, Perversion, and Social Evolution in Interwar Psychoanalytic Thought, Alison Moore
11. Queer (Mis)Representations of Early Modern Sexual Monsters, Karin Sellberg
12. Wilde in the 'Fifties, Chris Waters

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