Renault vs. Yourcenar on Greek Love
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Alan Brady Conrath’s essay on Mary Renault in the May-June issue. He justly praises Renault for her “realistic prose” and her contribution to our general understanding of the role of male love in classical Greece. He goes one step too far, however, when he suggests that she writes the “most authentic and beautiful prose about romantic love between men in all of literature.” Conrath is undoubtedly thinking of this, later, when he complains that Renault is usually ranked below Marguerite Yourcenar. He suggests that Renault might occupy a less elevated rank because she was a woman, writing in the 1950’s and 60’s about explicitly homosexual characters. But, of course, Yourcenar was also a woman, writing in the same period about homosexual characters. I suggest that the difference is based on their prose style.
Consider these two excerpts, both describing a similar event, Socrates touching Phædo’s hair. Here is a description from Renault’s The Last of the Wine. In this case, the narrator is Alexias, the lead character. Recall that Phædo had been a slave, forced into prostitution, which provides the motivation for Phædo’s reaction.
I forget the conversation, which I suppose related to what had passed; Phædo sat silent and attentive, his head close to Sokrates’ knees. The slopes round the theatre catch the late sunlight, which shone on the boy’s fair hair, showing its lucid beauty; Sokrates, as he sat talking, put out a hand half absently to touch it, and ran a strand of it through his fingers. It was as a man might touch a flower. But I saw the boy start away, and his face change. His dark eyes looked quick and ugly; he made you think of a half-tamed animal that is going to bite. Sokrates, feeling the movement, glanced down at him; for a moment their eyes met. Suddenly the boy was quiet again. His face grew still as before; he sat listening hands clasping knees, and Sokrates stroked his hair.
Here is the description from Yourcenar’s short story, “Phædo, or the Dance.” (The story appears in a collection entitled Fires.) The speaker in this case is Phædo himself, and it takes place at the end of Socrates’ life, as Socrates prepares to drink the hemlock.
There always comes a moment when one learns to be quiet, perhaps because he has earned, at last, the right to listen; a moment when one stops doing things because one has learned to look fixedly at an unmoving thing, and this wisdom must be the wisdom of the dead. I was kneeling near the bed: my master put his hand on my long hair. I knew that his existence, devoted to sublime failure, drew its principal virtues from amorous delights reached only to be surpassed. Since, after all, flesh is the most beautiful garment the soul can be dressed in, where would Socrates be without Alcibiades’ smile and Phædo’s hair? To this old man who knew of the world only the crossroads of Athens, a few loved bodies had revealed not only the absolute but also the Universe. His slightly trembling hands were wandering on the nape of my neck as though in a valley alive with spring: guessing that eternity is only a series of instants, each one unique, he felt the silky blond form of eternal life flee under his fingers.
Keep in mind that Yourcenar wrote in French. The quoted paragraph is a translation by Dori Katz in collaboration with Yourcenar. Yourcenar’s French prose won her membership in the French Academy, the first woman ever to be so honored.
I love the books written by both Renault and Yourcenar, two lesbians who wrote historical novels centered on male lovers. Mary Renault performed a singular service bringing classical Greek culture alive. Marguerite Yourcenar did something similar by immortalizing the affair between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his young lover, Antinous. Each author obviously worked hard to accurately portray the historical attitudes and events of her selected era. If one simply focuses on their prose styles, however, then I think these passages make it possible to see why Yourcenar is honored as both a historical writer and one of the greats of modern fiction. Renault’s prose is descriptive; Yourcenar’s prose, even in its English translation, is beautiful.
Paul Harmon, San Francisco
Philo Not a Christian
In your July-August 2004 issue, Andrew Holleran refers in his review of Homosexuality and Civilization, by Louis Crompton, to “Christian figures like Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Philo of Alexandria.”
Philo of Alexandria was Jewish, and never became Christian. According to The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, he was a “Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher, the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism. His writings provide the clearest view of this development of Judaism in the Diaspora.” As an undergraduate at Harvard (where Holleran and I were classmates), I had the privilege of hearing the great Judaic scholar Harry Wolfson lecture on Philo.
I will, in fairness, point out that Britannica goes on to say of Philo: “He is also regarded by Christians as a forerunner of Christian theology.”
Robert R. Walsh, Richmond, Virginia
Can cultural diversity go too far?
To the Editor:
A few issues ago [Jan.-Feb. 2004] you ran an article by Samuel R. Delany that criticized a recent GLBT literary conference for its lack of ethnic and cultural diversity, followed by a lively debate in the next couple of issues. Sympathetic though I am to Delany’s concerns, I recently found myself asking, Can too much diversity hurt our cause?
I never thought I’d ever find myself posing a question like that, but there it is. Watching this year’s Boston Pride parade for the first time, I was impressed by the panoply of GLBT cultural, ethnic, musical, religious, and youth groups. The affection displayed by same-sex couples, which is not something one encounters every day, was both heartwarming and affirming. All this aside, I couldn’t help but wonder if the presence of certain groups did more to set us back than advance our collective integrity.
The first group that comes to mind is an organization called “Poly Boston,” which, as may be derived from its name, advocates for the legitimization of group relationships. While I am sure that some gays, just as some heterosexuals, are engaged in polyamorous relationships, what does polyamory itself have to do with being gay? I could understand if Poly Boston was specifically a GLBT group, but it is not. Perusing the Poly Boston website, I discovered that the group also includes heterosexual men seeking validation for living with a harem of women—hardly the image of a progressive sexuality (but I suppose that’s a separate issue).
That a polyamorous group would take part in the Boston Pride Parade makes the situation all the more vexing. Anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows that the gay marriage issue has been at the forefront of Massachusetts politics for the past couple of years. Likewise, anyone who has recently read a New England newspaper, or better yet, a national newspaper, knows the “next they’ll want group marriage” argument that’s the weapon of choice for our opponents. The participation of a polyamorous group is a slap in the face to the many gay men and lesbians who have been fighting so assiduously for marriage rights. Either the members of Poly Boston are inexcusably politically oblivious, or they are just plain insensitive to the current events that are affecting gays and lesbians on a grand scale. Either way, they don’t seem too conflicted about piggybacking onto the gay rights movement to promote their wholly irrelevant agenda.
“Boston Leather” is another group that has little inherent relevance to being gay. While many in the group are gay men, many others are not. Some argue that all people with leather fetishes, GLBT and heterosexual alike, are “sexual minorities” in their own right. Until heterosexual people are denied marriage licenses and other benefits just for playing with leather in the bedroom, I have trouble believing that. People of any sexual orientation who are into leather and other forms of S&M have the option of leaving it in the bedroom. Being gay, conversely, is about life both in and out of the bedroom. Haven’t we been trying to tell mainstream society for decades that being gay is about more than what we do behind closed doors?
It may be argued that the other organizations promoted at Pride, such as the business and religious groups, are not spearheaded exclusively by gays either. That would be correct. Just like the sex-related groups, the churches represented were comprised of a mixture of gays and straights, as were the corporate groups such as Verizon and Starbucks. However, it is important to keep in mind that gay Unitarians, gay Jews, and gay businesspeople don’t flirt with regressive stereotypes of gay life. Sex-related groups, on the other hand, add little more than fading shock value and tired projections of gay hypersexuality.
For the most part, we as gays and lesbians are naturally drawn to others who, like ourselves, don’t fit into the mainstream. We’re often the first to run to the aid of others who feel disenfranchised by society. While sensitivity to others is one of our hallmarks, it is self-destructive for us to shy away from setting limits and boundaries on others when our inclusiveness starts to become counterproductive to our original cause. We have Pride for ourselves as whole beings, not as pigeonholes for our parochial interests.
It is a mistake for gay people to sexualize our identity just as it would be for any other minority group to do so. There are black people who are polyamorous and into leather, but has anyone ever seen, heard, or read about Poly Boston and Boston Leather attending events that commemorate the African-American community? I thought one of the points of Pride was to demonstrate to the world that, contrary to the beliefs of many, being gay isn’t “all about sex.”
I’m of the opinion that it’s important to celebrate and express our sexuality in a way that respects both ourselves and others. Be open with your sexuality, show public affection for your loved ones, and discuss sex without shame. But given both past and present political contexts, how is aligning ourselves with fringe sex groups, especially ones that aren’t distinctively gay, helpful to the pursuit of gay equality?
Christy Burbidge, Somerville, Mass.
Queer Eye for Straight Social Values
To the Editor:
The TV reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has been discussed in these pages a number of times, most recently by Melinda Kanner [March-April ’04], who objected to the use of gay people to promote a consumerist message. I agree with this assessment and would go even further in critiquing the show’s materialist values.
Queer Eye, one of several fashion makeover shows currently running, differs from its competitors in the way that it uses sexuality as a positioning statement. To be sure, in other reality shows there are characters who correspond to stereotypical representations of gays. However, Queer Eye uses those representations as its unique selling point. The sexuality of the “Fab Five” becomes a product in its own right. The Five have been marketed by Bravo TV as “an elite team of gay men dedicated to extolling the simple virtues of style, taste and class.” Each week a straight guy is selected, and Ted Allen, Kyan Douglass, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley, and Jai Rodriguez give him a thorough makeover. The Five are the self-proclaimed superheroes of good taste and class as they travel America rescuing males from the bane of bad taste.
Queer theory, which takes a social constructionist approach, seeks to understand the relationship between our concepts of gender, sexuality, and power in terms of our shared cultural and historical meanings. It does not see sexual orientation as based on a biological instinct, but instead sees sexuality as a product of power relations. Their contention is that cultural forms create and reinforce heterosexual images. In that case, Queer Eye could be read as a vehicle within popular culture for constructing both homo- and heterosexuality.
In the program, heterosexuality is depicted as synonymous with bad smells, messiness, and slovenliness, while homosexuals are clean, fashionable, and cultured. However, comments alluding to the sexuality of the characters, while frequent in some episodes, are not the central plot, as the program is more a guide to consumerism than a guide to homosexuality. Queer Eye showcases a variety of products in different categories, including product placement of specific brands that crop up on the show and its website.
Materialism can be understood as the value a person assigns to the acquisition and possession of material objects. Consumption is a socially accepted vehicle for seeking happiness and success. However, the relationship between materialism and well-being seems to be complex, because the more materialistic a person is, by definition, the harder it is for him or her to be satisfied. Thus there’s often a negative relationship between materialism and happiness. Queer Eye is a program that serves as a normative institution embracing consumerism and vigorously promoting a culture of consumption. Excessive and unnecessary consumption and waste of resources are elements of capitalism that the program reinforces. Beyond the customary shopping, the Fab Five serve as role models of consumption within the structure of capitalism.
This is evident in the language they use. One of their most frequent comments, for example, is “In with the new, out with the old,” reinforcing the idea that consumption of the latest version or model is necessary for self-improvement. In one episode Carson observes, “Nice cashmere, because he’s worth it,” thereby associating material objects with personal worth. Also, consumerism is depicted as a form of self-discovery. In the closing of one episode Carson declares: “Cheers to us for helping him find the real Rob.” The quest for authenticity, the journey to self-discovery, is achieved through consumption as the makeover is completed.
Television is a cultural nexus that serves to maintain and transform social constructions. In Queer Eye there are frequent references to sexuality, but the central plot is always consumption. The programs uses the sexuality of the five main characters as a selling point. Their “queerness” becomes a product attribute, a marketing tool, yet another gimmick to attract the consumer. Because the program’s intent is to alter patterns of consumption, shape æsthetic decisions, and create needs, one could well argue that it is not serving the best interests of the gay community or society as a whole.
Yarma Velazquez-Vargas, Florida State University