Reviews:David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality

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On David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality


Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York, 1990) highlights the absurdity of social constructionism. If homosexuals first appeared in the English speaking world when the word was first attested in 1892, then they must by that logic have appeared in the German speaking world in 1869, when Kertbeny coined the German equivalent. We homos also must have not yet appeared among speakers of such languages that do not yet have the term – even if some of those speakers know English. This exaggerated form of social constructionism ignores the habitual, exclusive sodomite known to medieval and early modern Europeans, as well as to the Greeks and Romans whose authors often satirized such queens in terms all too familiar today. For solid historical analysis, see Vern Bullough’s Sexual Variance in Society and History (Chicago, 1979), who avoided the errors introduced in John Boswell’s fatuous, pro-Roman Catholic diatribes Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1982-3) and Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York, 1994). Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization (Cambridge, 2003) corrected Boswell, Halperin, Dover and Foucault. Eugene Rice has an even more erudite, yet unpublished work, parts of which he is putting online, that sets the matter straight! Halperin should give up on history and theory and go to work studying cowboys, now that he has relocated from the Hub to Australia and then to the mid-west – not far from the Wild West. His expertise seems to extend from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the Lone Ranger and Tonto!

John Addington Symonds, who was as familiar or more familiar than anyone else with German scholarship about inversion*, must have known about the German neologism in 1869 long before 1892. In Halperin’s twisted, tainted logic did he therefore become a homo avant le mot anglais? The same must also apply to gay if indeed “gay” in that sense was another neologism, as many claim. A “gay” differs from a “homo”, and both differ from a more in your face “queer”, in the sense of a member of the Queer Nation.

John Lauritsen, who wisely republished Symond’s landmark A Problem in Greek Ethics in 1983 (New York, Pagan Press), was kind of enough to provide the following information about the work:

A Problem in Greek Ethics Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the editor. http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/greek.htm

[Written in 1873, privately printed in ten copies in 1883; expanded and printed as an appendix to Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion, 1897, but immediately suppressed; surreptitiously reprinted in 1901, in two different `limited' editions of 100 numbered copies, but many extant copies have the place for the number left blank, an indication that print runs and distribution were much higher than many think.

No one has done any systematic analysis of how Symonds revised the 1883 edition for republication as the Appendix of Sexual Inversion (1897), but there are some quite interesting differences, most of them consisting of the suppression of criticism of modern puritan morality. I have examined the text of the copy in the British Library -- number 10 of only 10 numbered copies -- in which Symonds himself has crossed out passages to be deleted and made various amendments in pencil. Most of the changes are minor, and infrequent, and in general the revised edition is better: notably, Symonds translates passages from Greek rather than cites them in Greek. There was nothing about lesbians in the 1883 edition; Section XIX on lesbians is entirely new for the 1897/1901 edition. In all other respects the changes involve omissions rather than additions. The following is a composite of the 1873 and 1897/1901 editions, in which I have reinserted [in square brackets] some passages that were omitted from the 1883 edition. I have included some of the omitted passages in an appendix below. In addition, some spelling has been modernized, minor textual errors have been corrected; some large sections and many notes are omitted.]

I

[Original 1883 introduction: To ignore paiderastia is to neglect one of the features by which Greek civilisation was most sharply distinguished. Yet this has been done by nearly all writers on Greek history and literature. The reasons for evading the investigation of a custom so repugnant to modern taste are obvious; and it might even be plausibly argued that the topic is not sufficiently important in its bearing on Greek life and thought to justify its discussion. Still the fact remains that paiderastic was a social phenomenon of one of the most brilliant periods of human culture, in one of the most highly organised and nobly active races. The fact remains that the literature of the Greeks, upon which the best part of humanistic education rests, abounds in references to the paiderastic passion. The anomaly involved in these facts demands dispassionate interpretation. I do not, therefore, see why the inquiry should not be attempted; why some one should not strive to ascertain, so far as this is possible, the moral feeling of the Greeks upon this subject, and should not trace the history of so remarkable a custom in their several communities.] [compare 1910 edition]

[...]

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Section I as it appeared in the 1897/1910 edition:

For the student of sexual inversion, ancient Greece offers a wide field for observation and reflection. Its importance has hitherto been underrated by medical and legal writers on the subject, who do not seem to be aware that here alone in history have we the example of a great and highly-developed race not only tolerating homosexual passions, but deeming them of spiritual value, and attempting to utilise them for the benefit of society. Here, also, through the copious stores of literature at our disposal, we can arrive at something definite regarding the various forms assumed by these passions, when allowed free scope for development in the midst of a refined and intellectual civilisation. What the Greeks called paiderastia, or boy-love, was a phenomenon of one of the most brilliant periods of human culture, in one of the most highly organised and nobly active nations. It is the feature by which Greek social life is most sharply distinguished from that of any other people approaching the Hellenes in moral or mental distinction. To trace the history of so remarkable a custom in their several communities, and to ascertain, so far as this is possible, the ethical feeling of the Greeks upon this subject, must be of service to the scientific psychologist. It enables him to approach the subject from another point of view than that usually adopted by modern jurists, psychiatrists, writers on forensic medicine.

A selection of short passages in the 1873 edition omitted from later editions:

With AEschylus, Solon, and Pindar for companions, it is probable that Sophocles would only have smiled at those modern apologists, who seek to screen him from what, according to our notions of morality, is a reproach.

But enough has been adduced to show that we cannot read Greek biography by the light of modern notions, or criticise Greek morality by our own canons of conduct.

The common reproaches of "sowing the barren rocks," and so on, were met by the advocates of paiderastia in Greece wtih reasoning which offers considerable difficulty to those moralists who do not prohibit sexual intercourse with women past the age of childbirth and with prostitutes.

It is very well for the sages to frown and talk majestically. Nothing will persuade him (Lucian) that Socrates suffered Alcibiades to leave his side unsmitten, or that Achilles sat opposite Patroclus and stroked his lyre. The real ladder of love is to begin with modest kisses, to proceed to sensual caresses, and then -- but decency cuts short the eloquence of even Theomnestus at this point.

- Posted 10-29-05

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