Summertime: Age of Enlightenment

Published in: July-August 2019 issue.


THE THEME COLOR for this issue is gold, as befits the Age of Enlightenment, which is, after all, our civilization’s Golden Age, our answer to 5th-century Athens. Then too, the world of 17th- and 18th-century Europe seems to be in vogue these days, possibly because its values and legacy are under assault. To be sure, some of the new books have taken a revisionist approach, pointing out that this was also the age of mercantilism and the slave trade, which many Enlightenment philosophers justified with racist arguments.

         And of course all that is true. But still, where would we be without the Enlightenment? It doesn’t take a terrific leap to connect the dots from today’s LGBT movement to its values of individual liberty, legal equality, and social tolerance. The fact that these ideas could coexist with racism, sexism, and so on, helps explain why it took a few centuries for us to get to this point, and why we’re still fighting for our rights today.

         It also hints at the question: to what extent can a direct connection be made to recognizably “gay” individuals or subcultures in the Enlightenment? Based on the articles in this issue, what can be said, if nothing else, is that same-sex sexuality was talked about a lot. In fiction, diaries, letters, and police records, the topic arises in ways that suggest an awareness of same-sex proclivities as well as activities, with “sodomy” and “pederasty” the preferred terms for male offenders.

         The coexistence of “enlightened” values and their opposite is apparent in this issue. In a review of two books about Spain’s colonies in the New World, Vernon Rosario describes how the Spanish Inquisition was imposed on colonized peoples, notably sexual minorities, with a special ferocity. But elsewhere in Europe, there were pockets of sexual experimentation.

         Laurence Senelick introduces us to the real Cyrano de Bergerac, the model for Rostand but surely not the swashbuckling—or heterosexual—hero of the play. David Tacium presents a series of letters by an “Austrian Officer” who details with feigned disapproval the goings-on at private clubs in 1782 Berlin. Moving to France, Jeffrey Merrick dives into the archived police records of arrests for same-sex cruising in public places and finds a lively subculture despite routine arrests and interrogations. In an interview, Susan S. Lanser discusses how “sapphic” desires were a recurring theme in the literature of the age.

         Even in Puritan New England, it was possible to talk about same-sex relations, however obliquely. William R. Sargent has discovered in the diaries of the renowned theologian William Bentley repeated references to a close friend whose “inconquerable habits” he could not fail to notice. The fact that we can recognize this man as “one of us” suggests that cultural barriers of time and place can be crossed, after all. Perhaps; but reading these accounts reminds us just how peculiarly, how queerly to our ears, people thought about sex in general in times gone by.

Richard Schneider Jr.