Reader’s Thoughts

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Equal Partners in Ancient Times

To the Editor:

It’s a bit difficult to identify whether certain statements in Toby Johnson’s review (Jan.-Feb. 2014) of Gilles Herrada’s The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love reflect Herrada’s views, which Johnson is perhaps just credulously passing on, or instead Johnson’s own. One suspects perhaps both, given the sympathetic tone of the review. And for all I know the book may have some value.

But Herrada or Johnson (or both) start to lose me pretty quickly when they state factually false howlers like the claim that “pre-modem” gay relationships were “always characterized by status differences between the partners.” Always? Beware of that extreme term!

One exception is all it takes, so consider the Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus, a novel dating from the 2nd century AD, in which the male lovers Hippothoos and Hyperanthes appear not to have any great difference in age or social status, but simply fall in love. Hyperanthes is a “lad” and Hippothoos “still young” when they meet. Hippothoos is said to be from “among the most distinguished” families in Perinthos, but Hyperanthes was also a “sacred citizen” of that city. Hippothoos could not have been very rich because an older competitor for Hyperanthes’ affections uses his wealth to bribe Hyperanthes’ father. Their tragic romance is plainly not depicted as any sort of “mentoring” relationship on the Greek model.

I realize that Herrada, Johnson, and many other theorists will probably quibble about my using the word “gay” to refer to relationships from 2,000 years ago. But then why call them “homosexual” either (a neologism invented by German psychologists in the late 19th century)? Words may change, but they seek to describe deeper human feelings and realities that probably haven’t changed as much during the eye-blink in time that is recorded history.

Keep in mind that novels like the Ephesian Tale represent rare surviving fragments of the literature of their times. How many other records were lost depicting similar gay relationships? And of course, in the vast majority of “pre-modern” societies (unlike ancient Greece and Rome, to a large extent), in which gay sexuality was fiercely repressed and condemned, how likely is it that we would have any surviving expressions of such love at all?

Gay relationships as we know them today may not have had much of a chance to develop, survive, or be recorded in most human societies more than a century ago. Only “modern homosexuality,” argues Johnson, “involves love and sex between equals, where sexual versatility is honored and long-term, loving relationships—not just sexual conquest—are valued.” This kind of relationship, he adds, “can perhaps be traced as far back as Walt Whitman’s poetry but only comes into its own after World War II.”

It seems to me far more likely—as Boswell and many other scholars have more sensibly argued—that gay people have always existed with the same desires and inherent identities that we have today, but our ability to express or record such desires and relationships has varied over time and place, with the differing social context prevailing in different societies.

Bryan H. Wildenthal
Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson
School of Law, San Diego, CA

 

Bernstein’s Boycott of Bayreuth

 To The Editor:

I enjoyed “Lenny’s Letters on Display,” Irene Javors’ review of Leonard Bernstein’s recently published letters, in the current issue [March-April 2014] of the GLR. But a quick correction: Lenny’s lover, who died from complications of AIDS and whom I knew both at Berkeley and here in New York City, was Tom (Tommy) Cothran, not Cochran.

Also, Javors states that “when [Bernstein] conducted at Vienna and Bayreuth, Germany, Jews all over the world felt a sense of pride in his triumph.” It is my understanding that despite invitations from Wolfgang Wagner (Richard’s grandson), Bernstein never conducted at Bayreuth. Negotiations for him to conduct Tristan und Isolde there in 1970 fell through ostensibly because of scheduling conflicts. What I recall is that this happened primarily because of Lenny’s discomfort with Wolfgang Wagner’s and Bayreuth’s still inadequately addressed Nazi past. While many questions about Nazi collaboration permeated the Vienna Philharmonic and other German venues where the wildly popular Leonard Bernstein conducted, Wolfgang Wagner and Bayreuth seem to have represented a greater level of challenge for Lenny in confronting this history.

Lawrence D. Mass, MD,
New York City

 

May Sarton’s ‘Political’ Writings

 To the Editor:

In the Nov.-Dec. issue, you published a piece called “A Moment with May Sarton,” by Dolores Klaich. The introduction explains that the writer had been invited to deliver a “tribute speech” in honor of May Sarton at an awards dinner almost thirty years ago.

In the speech, whose text is printed in its entirety, Klaich acknowledges Sarton’s literary achievements but suggests that she didn’t do enough as a feminist or lesbian activist: “Sometimes, by the standards of those of us who have labored in the lesbian and gay rights and feminist movements, she has seemed to be, on the subject of homosexuality, politically incorrect.” Without offering any specifics, she continues: “I for one am willing to forgive artists almost anything, for they sometimes have a hard time with political correctness.” Klaich was surprised and dismayed by Sarton’s cool reaction to the speech—but how would any award recipient react to this smug comment, surely inappropriate for the occasion?

One must remember that Sarton reached maturity in an age when lesbians were classified as congenital inverts. Her teenage diaries reveal intense and painful crushes on women, though she never saw herself as a man trapped in a woman’s body [i.e., as an “invert”]. The 1965 publication of Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, with its positive portrayal of a lesbian protagonist, caused Sarton to lose teaching positions and speech engagements. As Klaich acknowledges, this was before Stonewall: “[W]e sophisticated, politically aware, openly gay and lesbian people, with our high consciousness … often forget how privileged we are.” Indeed!

Klaich’s speech quotes from only three of Sarton’s works: Journal of a Solitude, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and her then most recent memoir, At Seventy. Sarton primarily identified as a poet, but no poetry is quoted in the speech. The “ln a Dirty Time” section of The Selected Poems of May Sarton would have been a good resource for poems dealing with war, civil rights, and contemporary issues.

No mention is made of Sarton’s best novel, Faithful Are the Wounds, set during the blacklisting eras of 1949 and 1954. This is Sarton’s most political novel, detailing attacks on academic freedom and the treatment of liberals during this time period. The protagonist is based on F. O. Matthiessen, the Harvard English professor and literary critic who committed suicide in 1950. The entire October 1950 Monthly Review was a tribute to Matthiessen, including a poem by Sarton. Anyone publishing in a leftist periodical was suspect and received government scrutiny. No wonder Sarton told Klaich “I was too political” when they passed on the podium.

Faithful Are the Wounds was a finalist for the National Book Award, as was an earlier novel, A Shower of Summer Days. In 1958, Sarton was the first writer to be a finalist in both the fiction and poetry categories, for The Birth of a Grandfather and In Time Like Air, respectively. Shouldn’t critical accolades have been mentioned in the speech?

The last two paragraphs detail Klaich’s recent perspective on her speech. She seems stunned that Sarton declined her handshake and gave her “the coldest eye I had ever received.” Klaich wonders: “Should I have saved my political correctness view for an essay rather than a tribute speech?” I thought the obvious answer was Yes, given the purpose of the speech, but Klaich concludes: “And if I were delivering the speech today, I would still feel compelled to point out, however gently, that May Sarton stopped short of becoming a hero to the aspirations of either the feminist or the lesbian liberation movements.”

Given Sarton’s huge popularity among feminists, lesbians, and gay men, one wonders why Klaich would make such an absurdly sweeping statement. Even twenty years later, her pride and political correctness apparently blind her to the inappropriate content of her “tribute.”

Michael Sirmons, Retired professor of English
Austin, TX

 

The Incomparables

 To the Editor:

This is in response to Mark Merlis’ retrospective on John Rechy’s City of Night at fifty in the Jan.-Feb. issue. I find it a peculiar characteristic of some of your reviewers that they are forever drawing literary parallels between two or more authors rather than appraising a work on its own merits.

For example, I’m not convinced of the value of mentioning Jean Genet’s name when talking about City of Night. Genet is in the end utterly French, his early works capture a Europe that is all but gone today. Rechy, by the same token, is utterly American, achieving something similar for a lost gay world in 1960s America. Rechy’s book is far more evocative of the syntax of B movies and film noir than it is of Genet and his French worlds of Parisian thieves and Marseilles whores.

Is it still a characteristic of American criticss that they always feel it necessary to compare themselves to European culture, and in the process misappraise their own culture while also appearing terribly self-deprecating?

Julien Teasdale,
London, UK

 

Corrections

The cover of the March-April 2014 issue incorrectly listed Cassandra Langer as the author of the aforementioned review of Leonard Bernstein’s letters. In fact, the author was Irene Javors. We regret the error.

Punked again (it happened once before). The “BTW” column in the March-April issue (“Another Surprised Father”) riffs on a widely circulated story about Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, whose son Chipape was reported to have come out as gay. Subsequent reports indicated that the story was a hoax.

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