Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity

September 30, 2010

Few people talk straight when it comes to sex - even otherwise very straight people tend to become coy, facetious, sanctimonious or simply silent. This book examines the role played by Greece and Rome in the homosexual and (to a lesser extent) the heterosexual fantasies of the Western world.

Alastair Blanshard states at the beginning that "sexuality as a field of discourse encourages a riotous ludic disposition in its interlocutors": this is potentially a problem for Blanshard, as an academic writer on sex, but he delivers a book that is both instructive and a pleasure to read. Its first part argues that the orgy is "the key signifier of the sexuality of Rome" and that this fact would have surprised the Romans themselves. The second part traces the history of Greek love (and its Christian apology, platonic love) from antiquity to the Oscar Wilde trials and beyond.

Blanshard discusses a broad and interesting range of evidence when discussing the Roman orgy: from Pompeii to "terror sex". In the aftermath of 9/11, he recounts, a group of Manhattan professionals celebrated a Roman-themed orgy, with threesomes, foursomes, wife-swapping, light bondage and Roman-themed sex shows. Despite his impressive range of evidence, I wonder whether Blanshard overstates the centrality of the orgy, and indeed of sex, in the modern reception of Rome. For example, he takes Federico Fellini's film Satyricon as evidence that "even when artists attempt to break the rules in their depiction of Rome, none seems happy to jettison the sex". None?

In the second half of the book, Blanshard compellingly argues for the centrality of Greek love in the history of homosexuality. He offers a tour de force, starting with Plato, travelling to Rome and through the Middle Ages, then focusing on the rediscovery of Plato in the Renaissance, and carrying on through the Enlightenment, the 19th and the 20th centuries. The epilogue describes two professors arguing about Plato in the courtrooms of Colorado in 1993. In that context, Plato was deemed relevant to the issue of discrimination against homosexuals. On the face of this and many other pieces of evidence, Blanshard argues - partly against Michel Foucault - that "when it comes to homosexuality there is always someone, somewhere, who won't let you forget the Greeks".

This opens a larger question about sex and history - a question Blanshard does not confront directly, but which is important, not least in response to Foucault. Blanshard rightly insists that sex has a history, and that sexual discourse is culturally determined. Nudity, for example, need not be sexually charged. Indeed, in making that point, Blanshard goes as far as arguing that "sex is possible with both parties fully clothed". (On this I had to think of my younger self: when my parents first explained making babies to me, I objected that it would not work with knickers on.)

The point here is that the history of sex, and of sexual fantasies, is not the same as the history of, say, shipbuilding or even gay rights. There is little sense of linear development. On the one hand, we can assume a certain repetitiveness in the acts performed (at the very least in order to explain the survival of the species), and on the other, there is an ever-changing, but not necessarily improving, stream of sexual fantasies.

It is not clear to me that sexual fantasies can be clearly mapped on to the history of homosexuality, or women's liberation, for that matter. Female sexual fantasies, for example, often seem rather unaffected by the social and political emancipation of women. Blanshard does not reflect on this and indeed says little about women. What he does say seems, at times, rather one-sided. He argues, for example, that the maenads were not objects of desire "but of revulsion and fear". The countless satyrs who are depicted pursuing them on Greek vases would have disagreed.

In all this, there is of course an element of the personal, that is, my own personal interest in the female experience. Blanshard has a lot of pertinent things to say about sex and the personal. He points out, for example, that "in order to have a sex life, one needs to have a life" and argues that the discourse of sexuality is often a form of (auto)biography.

Accordingly, he speculates that Michelangelo was a practising homosexual, whereas art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann sublimated homosexual desire in his private life, just as he did in his writings.

It is because of the personal narratives - as well as the sophistication, wit and learning of the whole enterprise - that this book is highly recommended reading.

Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity

By Alastair J.L. Blanshard. Wiley-Blackwell, 240pp, £70.00. ISBN 9781405122917. Published 9 April 2010

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