Letters to the Editor

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Princeton Demo Raises New Questions

To the Editor:

Amin Ghaziani’s article, “Out of the Classroom at Princeton” [Sept.-Oct. 2009 issue], saddened me. His classroom exercise trivialized the seriousness of genuine political action. No doubt the students felt very proud of themselves: it must have taken the courage of their convictions to stand in one of Princeton’s posh quads, holding umbrellas, dressed in rainbow colors, and handing out fliers. How much fun politics is! I suppose the campus police were around to make certain no one got pushed or shoved.

I am perfectly willing to assume that Dr. Ghaziani’s students were all game to dress up and hand out fliers. I would be, too. But he does not seem to realize how his classroom procedures could be abused by less sensitive professors. He sought permission by having students who objected either standing up in class or sending him an e-mail. In both cases, they needed to identify themselves. But even if he had developed some method so students could object anonymously, he wouldn’t have eliminated the possibility of undue influence. It is hard for some students to stand up not only against the majority of the class but against their teacher. He tells us that the students who didn’t demonstrate weren’t penalized, but how could students be certain that their unwillingness to play along with a teacher’s pet project wasn’t going to hurt their grade? Moreover, it’s not clear how many objections would have scotched his plan. Would one objection have been enough? Would it have taken a majority?

There are practical issues I wonder about. Did the students go along with the project because it would take up class time? If it were so valuable a lesson, wouldn’t those students participating be willing to demonstrate on their own time? We are told that two students refused to demonstrate (though “demonstration” seems too militant a term for what they did) and were made to stand around and watch. That decisions sounds punitive to me. Ghaziani doesn’t tell us what they were supposed to do, cut off from all of the fun.

Are there no organizations at Princeton that conduct such demonstrations? I thought there was a pretty active queer student group on campus. Wouldn’t it have been better for Ghaziani to use his expert knowledge to help that group to develop direct action demonstrations, so it could carry out an effective campaign to challenge the status quo? But perhaps that would have required a commitment on his part for real change. To me, Dr. Ghaziani sounds precious and silly. Is this what queer politics has come to?

David Bergman, Baltimore

 

Not One of Flannery’s “Freaks”

To the Editor:

I’d like to make a few comments about what Andrew Holleran had to say in “Lives of the Saints” in the July-August 2009 issue.

It is clear from this article that Holleran is assuming that Flannery O’Connor was indeed homophobic. Yet, Mr. Holleran says, “her affection for freaks makes us feel she’s one of us; for if homosexuals aren’t freaks in this world, what are they?”

I don’t know who Mr. Holleran is speaking for, but that statement is, I think, wrong on two counts. First, the very Catholic Flannery O’Connor would certainly not have felt “she’s one of us,” and her supposed “affection for freaks” certainly doesn’t make me feel that she is. Second, after all these years of the GLBT struggle to discover the value of our true selves and to enhance our collective self-image, does Holleran really believe that homosexuals are “freaks in this world”? If he wants to continue to think of himself as a freak, he has that right, but I don’t think most GLBT folks think of ourselves that way, if we ever did. Most of us, I believe, are finished at last with that kind of internalized homophobia and self-inflicted hatred.

In any case, in her own writing, what with that “mordant sense of humor,” O’Connor seemed to exhibit little kindness toward or compassion for the sad characters she created. Who knows what she would have written about an openly homosexual character?

Regarding Holleran’s admiration for O’Connor’s literary ability, I’m sure she’s earned herself a place on one of the lower shelves of literary history, but I seriously doubt that “Good Country People” is one the greatest short stories ever written, as Holleran claims. In my opinion, O’Connor expressing her dislike of D. H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, or Tennessee Williams is like a fly swatting at giants.

Peter Grahame, Albuquerque, NM

 

Whitman’s Tomb Worth the Trip

To the Editor:

John Polly’s “Top 10 Historic Gay Places in the U.S.” (July-Aug 2009 issue) lists Walt Whitman’s tomb as worth a visit to pay your respects. Since I sometimes drive on I-295 near Camden and pass within five miles of the cemetery, I decided to visit. Knowing that Whitman had lived about twenty years in Camden, I googled Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, and found his last residence (326 Mickle Blvd, two blocks from the waterfront and 1.5 miles from the tomb).

The Harleigh Cemetery, the site of Whitman’s tomb, is state-owned and its personnel are friendly and helpful. The tomb is worth a visit. Whitman designed it himself, situated it well, and placed his whole immediate family’s remains there. It effectively presents a sense of his later life. It has a lot of his possessions and a vivid sense of his presence. I have dabbled in reading Whitman’s work and about it, but never before experienced his being so deeply.

Thanks for the fine work you do.

Ed Raffetto, the Internet

 

On the Passing of Bruce Rodgers

To the Editor:

As you are the premier gay literary publication in the U.S., I wanted to bring to your attention the passing of a literary pioneer, Bruce G. Rodgers, whose magnum opus is coincidentally cited by Larry Kramer in the current [Sept.-Oct. 2009] issue.

Bruce passed away from early onset Parkinson’s at the age of 66 on August 10, 2009, in San Jose, California. In 1972, he authored The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. This has been cited by many scholars as one of the first serious dictionaries of gay slang in English and as the definitive gay American jargon resource. “Serious” is really not a good word to describe this book, however, because reading it even today one cannot help but laugh at Bruce’s witty remarks.

As often happens with the innocent, Bruce had trouble keeping his copyright. While he worked on updating the book for the rest of his life, this work never saw the light of day. Bruce was a dedicated scholar in the world of gay literature, as well as a talented linguist of Ladino (a Romance language spoken by Sephardic Jews). His presence will be missed.

Richard F. Knablin, North Bend, OR

 

Kudos to Kramer on Queer Theory

To the Editor:

Finally, I am in total agreement with Larry Kramer [Sept.-Oct. 2009 issue]. It’s time we unmasked “queer theory” as a case of the emperor being completely naked. The real problem is not so much that queer (and non-queer) academics can’t see the reality and validity of homosexual desire, romantic feelings, and unwritten longings in the past, as much as a whole post-liberation generation of academics that cannot deal with the psychotic levels of homophobia in Judeo-Christian history, and today.

Queer theory argues that homosexuality has been “socially constructed” in recent decades. Its defenders maintain that the rest of us are “essentialists”—those of us who believe that Jonathan was in love with David, as the Old Testament tells us; that Achilles really was mad for Patroclus, as the Iliad makes clear; and that Simon Rhodes, T. E. Lawrence, and Ernst Roehm—even if they didn’t use the same name for it—shared the same feelings experienced by gay men today.

As a member of the Gay Liberation Front (1969–1972), which embraced a radical political analysis of the queer past facilitated through consciousness–raising, I and my radical brothers and sisters saw the evidence of this kind of denial all around us and could read it in the cover-ups, and in the language, of our society.

Perry Brass, The Bronx

 

The Ins and Outs of Greek Pederasty

To the Editor:

This journal published James Jope’s review of James Davidson’s 2007 book The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World [May-June 2008]. A highly qualified, openly gay Princeton Ph.D. in Classics, Jope took down this book in the G&LR for its serious inaccuracies. Several issues later [Nov.-Dec. 2008], this journal allowed a non-classicist, English professor Richard Canning, to review Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella’s Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods (2008). Canning also referenced the Davidson book and opined that it was superior to that of Lear and Cantarella. (Disclosure: this author is personally acquainted with both James Jope and Andrew Lear.)

Since then, two serious classicists have published double reviews of both books. Thomas K. Hubbard of the University of Texas, Austin, in a lengthy on-line review for H-Histsex (February, 2009), devastates Davidson but pronounces Lear and Cantarella to be sound as far as they go. G. W. Bowersock in The New York Review of Books’ lead review (“Men and Boys,” September 24, 2009), also takes Davidson apart. He faults Lear and Cantarella for confining their study to painted pottery despite the broad scope that their title implies, and makes a curious reference to the work’s “excruciatingly detailed verbal descriptions of what is going on. The size and state of every penis is duly noted….” It’s hard to tell if Bowersock is appalled or titillated.

The question of pederasty in ancient Greece, fraught as it is with taboo, revulsion, and fascination, has provoked scholarly dispute for centuries. Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978) in recent times dominated the debate among Anglophones. It is perhaps worth pointing out that although neither of the authors under review or either of the reviewers mention my Pederasty and Pedagogy in Ancient Greece (1996), Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University in his review of it for International Historical Review (19, 1997) wrote that I was the first to try to go beyond Dover.

Thomas K. Hubbard, in my view the world’s foremost expert on Greek homosexuality, castigates Davidson almost line by line. He acknowledges that some of Davidson’s earlier work had charmed him—Fishcakes and Courtesans (1997) and especially “Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex” (Past and Present 170, 2001), in which Davidson identified Dover as a homophobe, Michel Foucault as a disturbed S&M devotee, and David Halperin as a sort-of dominatrix, so to speak, because of his claim that sex in ancient Greece was simply a matter of aristocratic men penetrating anyone of lower status that they wanted. But, as Hubbard notes, Davidson makes a hash of things in the newer book. Aside from many lapses in scholarly accuracy, Davidson panders to present-day concerns, such as his preposterous assertion that erastes (mature men) delayed having sex with their eromenoi (adolescent wards) until the youths had turned eighteen.

For his part, G. W. Bowersock fails to point out this error. He also compares Davidson, Lear and Cantarella, and all other authorities unfavorably to Kenneth Dover, whose Greek Homosexuality appeared thirty years ago. “None … comes close to [Dover’s] lucid, concise, and scholarly exposition,” which, Bowersock claims, “was as clear as it was thorough.” Dover was in fact neither clear nor thorough: he ignored writings about Greek homosexuality that appeared after 323 BC, limiting his sources to the Classical period. That Bowersock did not fault Dover for this strategy is a bit odd, given that his criticism of Lear and Cantarella’s focuses on painted pottery. If Dover didn’t err in leaving Plutarch out of the picture, why must Bowersock go after Lear and Cantarella for ignoring non-pottery artifacts with homoerotic motifs from post-Classical Greece? And, as Charley Shively noted when reviewing Dover shortly after the publication of Greek Homosexuality, the book primarily addresses a tedious 4th-century speech (Aeschines’ denunciation of Timarchus) and also includes a misinterpretation of cartoons on pots. (Dover concluded that most male-male sex in ancient Greece was “intercrural”; although a majority of the erotic vase paintings from the period do indeed depict between-the-thighs intercourse, other evidence suggests that this was a matter of euphemism, not a reflection of actual practice.)

Bowersock’s deference to Dover raises questions about how well he knows the scholarship on homosexuality in the ancient world. He is informed enough to cite the work of Karl Muller (1824), Moritz Meier (1837), and Erich Bethe (1907), but doesn’t mention the pioneering three-volume masterpiece of Hans Licht (pseudonym of Paul Brandt, three volumes, 1825–1828), the epochal work of John Addington Symonds (ca. 1884), or the work of Félix Buffière (1980), who produced by many reckonings a far more comprehensive and balanced work than had Dover two years earlier. Bowersock claims that the “real contribution” of Lear and Cantarella’s book is the reprinting of Keith DeVries’ comprehensive inventory of pederastic scenes on pottery. Yet somehow, inclusion of the inventory “underscores [the book’s]great weakness”—its exclusive focus on painted pots. DeVries’ list shares that exclusive focus! Another example concerns the Warren cup, dated by some to the mid-first century AD, which vividly depicts older males anally penetrating younger ones. Bowersock, who takes both Davidson and Lear and Cantarella to task for not considering this artifact, seems unaware that many scholars still consider it a fake.

But the main issue concerning both of the new books is their departure from the prudish and constricted view of ancient Greek sexuality that scholars like Dover, Foucault, and Halperin elaborated. Dover portrayed pederastic relationships as strictly hierarchical affairs wherein older “lovers” had all the fun at the expense of sexually and emotionally passive—i.e., indifferent, or even suffering—“beloveds.” As Hubbard cogently points out, recent scholarship offers “a more nuanced and multi-dimensional picture of relations that were often mutual, not always radically age-different, and seldom crudely exploitive.” Although Bowersock alludes to this central point, his insistence that Dover still represents the “gold standard” of scholarly understanding of the topic reflects a certain squeamishness in coming to terms with homosexual realities both ancient and modern.

William A. Percy, Boston

 

Correction

A teaser on the cover of the September-October 2009 issue incorrectly announced an interview with “Lawrence Blechner,” whose first name is actually Mark. (The interviewer was Lawrence Mass.) We regret the error.

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