When Michel Foucault set out to write his History of Sexuality1 , he found that it was impossible to begin with the recent past. Modern attitudes could be understood only in the light of earlier ones, and the investigation of sexuality in the Christian period led inescapably to the world of pagan antiquity. By “sexuality” Foucault meant not facts or actions of the biological order but the “complex political technology” by which society categorizes, discusses, and so creates, the sexual behavior of its members. His book aimed to show that this behavior, and the group of ideas and desires that controlled it, was less a natural than a culturally created affair.
Both David Halperin and John Winkler, who work in close collaboration, write explicitly in the wake of Foucault, who receives forty-two entries in Halperin’s index, and both emphasize repeatedly that ” ‘nature’ stands for ‘culture’ ” (Winkler), and even that “we must accept that ‘sexuality’ is a cultural production no less than are table manners, health clubs, and abstract expressionism” (Halperin). Halperin refers, in an apparently innocent manner, to Foucault’s “matchless penetration.” The other important impulse for these writers is the work of K.J. Dover, especially his Greek Homosexuality.2 This book, pioneering in its refusal to be shocked, collected a mass of evidence on the topic, especially that of representations on pottery—the pictures which earlier scholars had, according to temperament, reserved for private perusal or ignored altogether. In Halperin’s index Dover rates even more entries (forty-six) than Foucault.
The combination of facts assembled with British empiricism and theories expounded with Gallic verve thus forms the point of departure for two current American studies of ancient sexual theory and practice. Both are learned, with a full panoply of footnotes and bibliography, but both are written also with passion and some personal self-revelation. Halperin begins with an emotional passage:
Since 1978…in a period, in other words, when much of western Europe and America seems to have sunk into a reactionary torpor, embracing with a hollow and cynical enthusiasm the comforts of conventional pieties and rushing to rediscover the demagogic possibilities of a self-serving obscurantism, intellectual ferment within the universities has been quietly but inexorably proceeding at an accelerating rate, and research [on the history of sexuality] has made great strides.
The book has a double aim. Halperin wants to show that “our own cultural assumptions are inappropriate to the interpretation of sexual life in ancient Greece.” But a more important aim is to show that “a radical reinterpretation of sexual life in ancient Greece has the potential to transform our own cultural and sexual self-understanding.”
The argument is that in the ancient world, as indeed in all societies until the late nineteenth century, the category of “homosexual” did not exist: “Before 1892 there was no homosexuality, only sexual inversion”—but in that year the word “homosexuality” was used in English for the first time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Hence Halperin’s title, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality—though One Hundred Days of Sodom, by the Marquis de Sade, seems not to have been in the author’s mind, and one must hope that it will not be in the mind of purchasers of the book, who will find that what they have bought is something very different.
What is meant by saying that homosexuality did not exist in the ancient world? The claim is a surprising one, in view of the freedom with which acts and sentiments of a homoerotic kind are described and depicted in Greek literature and art. And can a change in our view of ancient Greek practices really transform our own self-understanding? In order to uphold his first claim, Halperin argues that Greeks of the classical period attached no importance to the biological sex of the object of a man’s desire. Boys and women were equally acceptable: what mattered was who performed the active sexual role. “Sex is conceived…to define itself around an asymmetrical gesture, that of the penetration of the body of one person by the body…of another.” Or, as Winkler puts the same point, “The calculus of correctness [proper sexual behavior] operated not on the sameness/difference of the genders but on the dominance/submission of the persons involved.”
The whole relationship, according to both Winkler and Halperin, thus was primarily one of power, and of its nature hierarchical. It was assumed that men were naturally attracted both to women and good-looking boys; for an adult male person to be penetrated sexually by another was a disgrace to him, but to perform the act on a boy was not shameful. Thus there was no category of homosexual. “Only in the high middle ages did certain kinds of sexual acts start to get identified with certain specifically sexual types of person”: Halperin even goes so far as to say that in Greece “no moral value, either positive or negative, attaches to certain kinds of caresses, sexual postures, or modes of copulation.”
Here he generalizes and exaggerates an argument of Foucault, who pointed out, correctly, that the preachers and moralists of later antiquity were much less concerned to discountenance particular acts than to insist on the paramount importance of retaining one’s self-command amid one’s pleasures, of continuing to show oneself, even during sexual enjoyment, as a rational and superior being, not swamped and mastered by self-indulgence. That, however, is not at all the same as saying that all positions and caresses are equally licit. All through antiquity there was a highly articulate prejudice against oral practices, for instance, which were the constant subject of insults, graffiti, and dirty jokes; the high-minded moralists whom Foucault has in mind did not tell their readers not to indulge in those pleasures, because they took for granted that their readers already knew that they were off-limits. The sort of people who read such works did not need to be told what even coarse and vulgar people knew already.
What of the assertion that classical Greece classified no types of person by their sexual tendencies? Halperin must face some obvious counterexamples: such as the existence of the word kinaidos, which means a man who chooses to play the passive role in sexual inter-course. The word is an abusive one in that macho society, and not uncommon—although of course it cannot appear in the highest literary genres, like tragedy or epic verse. Halperin replies that “kinaidoi, even if they actually existed, represented a type quite distinct from what is specified by the modern category of homosexual.”
The answer is a curious one. It is hard to know what to make of the suggestion that the men who were regularly referred to by this word might not have existed at all. Winkler, when he discusses the kinaidos, makes the good point that he represents a bad example, a warning held up to men to urge them to their proper role of assertive males and, at need, good soldiers; he does not doubt the existence of “the group,” as he calls them, but is concerned, in the teeth of some of the ancient evidence, to assert that Greeks always said the kinaidos acted for some other motive than pleasure. Halperin’s argument that the kinaidos represented something different from “the modern category of homosexual” raises the question: What is that category?
He finds himself, I think, driven by his argument to an extreme and rather unreal definition. That emerges clearly when he wrestles with another obvious counterexample to his thesis: the unforgettable myth narrated by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Aristophanes describes how originally the human creature was twice as large as it is now, spherical in shape, with four arms, four legs, two faces, and two sets of genitals. These ancestors of ours were powerful and overweening; they offended Zeus, who cut them in half, pulled their skin tight, and tied it up in a knot, still visible at the navel. The severed halves roam the world in search of the half they have lost: those who were wholly male or wholly female seeking a partner of the same sex as themselves, but those who were originally androgynous seeking a partner of the other sex from their own. Hence unsatisfied yearnings and the need for completion: hence, in fact, love. This story is quite at odds with Plato’s own cherished theories of love, since it seems to support what might be called the Hollywood theory, that there’s somebody made for you. Plato must have included it—a point which Halperin does not make—because such ideas of unique attachment were held by contemporaries, and so they could not be entirely omitted in a work on the nature of love. Plato was confident that his own distinctive and peculiar ideas would succeed in effacing them.
Now, it has seemed to most readers that Plato here does precisely what Halperin denies to the ancient world: he speaks of people as forming separate groups by their sexual tendencies, including homosexuals. That is indeed the view taken by writers of homosexual history such as John Boswell. To rebut it, Halperin argues that Plato’s account differs from “the modern” one in two respects: first, it envisages not two categories (homosexual/heterosexual) but three: heterosexual, all male, all female. Second, Plato describes his homosexual males as liking men when boys and liking boys when men. This is “to avoid conceptualizing sexual behaviors according to a binary opposition between different- and same-sex sexual contacts.” It is in line with the emphatic strictness of that binary opposition that Halperin envisages sexuality altogether: what was missing in the ancient world, and is vitally present now, is “conceptual apparatus available for identifying a person’s fixed and determinate sexual orientation“:
Where there is no such conception of sexuality, there can be no conception of either homo- or heterosexuality—no notion that human beings are individuated at the level of their sexuality…or belong to different types of being by virtue of their sexuality.
Fixed and determinate sexual orientation, different types of being; this is indeed remarkable language. Halperin is convinced that it is the way in which modern society thinks—or, rather, “bourgeois” society; it is “modern European and American middle-class attitudes” which are to blame, and “exclusive and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’…appears to be a distinctively modern, Western, even bourgeois production.” Here as elsewhere the Jewish tradition, for instance, is disregarded: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). Exclusive homosexuality is one thing which cannot, historically, be simply blamed on that universal scapegoat, the modern bourgeoisie—quite apart from the assumption, surely more than dubious, that the modern Western proletariat (say) is more broad-minded in these matters.
Halperin goes so far as to say that “we” find unintelligible the numerous passages in Greek literature that assume that many men in positions of power or wealth will go in for sexual relations both with women and boys. We are bound to misunderstand such passages, “associating as we do sexual object-choice with a determinate kind of ‘sexuality,’ a fixed sexual nature.” He even thinks that by the category of “heterosexuality,” since 1892, is meant “the production of a population of human males who are (supposedly) incapable of being sexually excited by a person of their own sex under any circumstances” (Halperin’s italics); this, he observes, is “a cultural event without, so far as I know, either precedent or parallel.” The reader may be inclined to think that this alleged straight man is a straw man, the first uninflammable straw man, perhaps, in the history of thought.
Such bourgeois figures as the authorities who run prisons, navies, and boarding schools have never taken this wildly implausible view of the nature of men or boys; and since Freud, notwithstanding all the criticisms that have been made of his view of sexuality, the view that ordinary human nature is potentially more or less ambidextrous has surely become familiar to many people. It seems surprising that Halperin can believe that “we,” as he says in another place, think of people who make different sexual choices as belonging “to separate and determinate human species,” a line of thought which leads him to speak eloquently of “sexual racism.” Halperin observes that “most premodern and non-Western cultures” behave in the way he ascribes to the Greeks and “refuse to individuate human beings at the level of sexual preference and assume, instead, that we all share the same fundamental set of sexual appetites, the same ‘sexuality.’ ” That is indeed what most Greeks seem to have felt, a view which (insofar as it was ever really lost to sight) was reinstated by Freudian thought. Thus, Freud wrote in 1915,
Psycho-analytic research is most decidedly opposed to any attempt at separating off homosexuals from the rest of mankind as a group of a special character. By studying sexual excitations other than those that are manifestly displayed, it has found that all human beings are capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious.3
But the book goes on to a striking and poignant conclusion. After repeating that sexuality is the product of society and the categories which it imposes, and that “it is only within the last hundred years or so” that any people have really been homosexuals, he goes on to insist that, nonetheless, now there are people who do conform to the categories.
To say that homosexuality and heterosexuality are culturally constructed, however, is not to say that they are unreal…there really are, nowadays, homosexual and heterosexual people, individuals whose own desires are organized or structured according to the pattern named by those opposed and contrasting terms.
So true is this that the author himself remains ambiguous about the truth of his own arguments:
I don’t think there’s any way that I, or anyone else who grew up in bourgeois America when I did, could ever believe in what I’ve been saying with the same degree of conviction with which I believe, despite everything I’ve said, in the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Those categories aren’t merely categories of thought, at least in my case; they’re also categories of erotic response, and they therefore have a claim on my belief that’s stronger than intellectual allegiance…. I can’t imagine de-acculturating myself any more than I can imagine de-sexualizing myself.
This moving utterance is not easy to reconcile with the argument of the book as a whole, which asserts that by understanding past patterns of sexuality we can change our present—as Halperin says of Foucault that we should read his work because “he helps us figure out how to pursue the elusive project of discovering, and changing, who we are.” How is that to be done, or undone?
He does not seem to me to succeed in disproving the natural reading of a number of Greek texts, which is that some forms of sexual activity were discountenanced, and that some people were categorized by their sexual activities. In the earliest period, from the Homeric age to that of Pericles (roughly 700 to 400 BC), there was no type of the bachelor or the spinster either. Later on, in the time of Plato, we find the first unmarried men. No doubt there were differences between the attitudes of ancient men and our own, and Halperin well brings out the important role of macho masculinity in Mediterranean sexuality, then as now; but the changes are, not surprisingly, less radical than he supposes.
The second half of Halperin’s book is a set of essays on particular topics related to his general theme. “Heroes and their Pals” compares Achilles and Patroclus, in the Iliad, with the Old Testament figures of David and Jonathan, and with the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh. He is surely right to see the relationship of Achilles with Patroclus, passionate but not sexual, in the light of Near Eastern precedents and parallels, rather than in that of later Greek explicitly homosexual ideas; that is an important point. But his angle of approach distorts the nature of the Homeric epic, so that he says, “The texts under discussion are, for the most part, uninterested in exploring the more general features of men in groups,’ ” concentrating instead on friendship “in couples.” That is quite false of the Iliad, whose plot turns on a quarrel between two chiefs in an open assembly, which leads to a crisis in the relationship of the leader with his comrades, and to a conflict between loyalty and self-assertion that ends in tragedy. Other essays also make interesting points, but there too the reader feels at moments the tug of special pleading.
Winkler deals less with homosexuality than with the position and sensibility of women. His book is, even more than Halperin’s, explicit and aggressive in its ideological intention: to attack “male-prominent phallocratic society.” “Our matrices [are] feminist, anthropological, pro-lesbian.” In a revealing passage he asks whether his very original account of Longus’s novel Daphnis and Chloe really is in accord with the attitudes of the author:
But the larger methodological issue is whether readers should simply be trying to reproduce the author’s meaning (if he had one—that is, if he had one) as the goal. Should we concede that much authority to the writers we read? If our critical faculties are placed solely in the service of recovering and reanimating an author’s meaning, then we have already committed ourselves to the premises and protocols of the past—past structures of cultural violence and their descendants in the bedrooms and mean streets and school curricula of the present. This above all we must not do.
That is a challenging and also worrying proclamation. No doubt it is more important to prevent girls from being raped in mean streets than to interpret an ancient novel in line with the intentions of the author, but is that really the choice? More than once, in this often brilliant series of studies, the reader detects the magnetic pull of the politically correct attitude, the ideologically sound answer, which seems to dictate the course and conclusion of the discussion.
Winkler has a sophistication in approaching the evidence which is not always shown by writers who describe sexual relationships in any society. He begins by stating the vital fact, obvious yet regularly disregarded, that one cannot simply put in a thumb, like Little Jack Horner, and pull out single plums of explicit and isolated quotation; find one or two statements which support one’s thesis and declare that they reveal “the ancient attitude” to a given question. The relation of the sexes is a subject on which it is perhaps impossible to tell the truth, even if one tried, and on which almost nobody has ever wanted to tell the truth. Most generalizations about the way men behave, or what women do, are not so much reliable statements of sociological fact as the expression of hopes, or the venting of criticisms, or the attempt at propaganda. His grasp of that central fact and its ramifications gives his discussions a welcome distinction.
There is, however, a difficulty here. Winkler, like Halperin, generally talks, following Foucault, of what was said about sexual relations, rather than what was actually experienced by individuals. The ideology of mastery and power as the center of sexual relations is, Halperin admits, an account which
does not capture, of course, what the sensation of being in love was like…. Hence, my discussion of the male citizen’s social and sexual precedence is not intended either to convey what an erotic relation felt like to him or to obscure the extent to which he may have experienced being in love as a loss of mastery—as “enslavement.”
But in another context he writes that Foucault’s “greater attentiveness to what people say than to what they do [is] cause for justifiable alarm.” So too Winkler says on the one hand that “we err in a more general way when we reconstruct cultural history simply or primarily in terms of ideas…rather than in terms of the competing variety of social practices,” but in another place defends his use of a theoretical source (an ancient treatise on the interpretation of dreams) by saying that this source, while it “does not take us very far into the domestic sphere, in which husbands and wives and lovers negotiated their relationships,” nevertheless “is an excellent description of the public meanings attached to sexual relationships.” One does not entirely evade the suspicion that these writers, like others, slip sometimes from dealing with the particular to discussing the theoretical, and back again, to suit the needs of their argument.
Winkler is insistent that the Greeks classed no sexual actions as being “against nature,” “unnatural.” They did, of course, at various times say that some of them were “against physis,” a word normally translated as “nature”: of these passages Winkler says, ” ‘Nature’ in that usage, though it can be made to sound impressively absolute, refers precisely to convention.” But this interpretation of Winkler’s is puzzling. The Greeks regarded physis, “nature,” and nomos, “law” or “convention,” as archetypal opposites: clever men used that opposition to trip up opponents in argument, and their pupils went home and infuriated their fathers and uncles by using it to make fools of them, too. The device became such a stock one that Aristotle, in his Refutations of Sophists, sets out exactly how to defeat it. It is a bizarre consequence of Winkler’s argument that the two words both have to mean the same thing: both mean “convention” (see his index, under the word “Natural”: “means conventional, pp. 8, 17, 22, 40”). That was a solution to the puzzle which did not occur to Aristotle. This insistence that neither nature nor law can be invoked is extended to implausible lengths. For example, when Plato talks of dreams in which the subject,
as if freed from every restraint of shame and reason, attempts to have intercourse with his mother or with any other creature, human or divine or animal, and to slaughter any creature, and to indulge in eating any food, and in a word go to any length in madness and shamelessness. (Republic 571b)
Plato calls these desires paranomoi, “against nomos.” Winkler translates paranomoi as “shockingly unconventional desires.” We can be quite confident that Plato meant “against the law”: he certainly did not think that incest and the like were forbidden only by convention. Similarly, when Winkler says of discussions in the dream books, that dreams of beating one’s mother, or of sexually penetrating one’s son, are called “offenses against convention,” that too is a grave undertranslation. Again, Herodotus tells us that the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus got into trouble when, having grown-up sons, he married for political reasons the daughter of Megacles, a powerful aristocrat.
Wishing to have no children by his new wife he had intercourse with her in a way which was not in accordance with nomos. (Herodotus i.61)
The girl told her mother, who told her husband; “and he was enraged to find himself dishonored by Pisistratus.” So Megacles set to work and had Pisistratus driven out of Athens. Again, according to Winkler, this is to be translated “intercourse not in the conventional way.” Such an undertranslation makes the violent response of the father clearly excessive, as if Pisistratus had merely wanted to perform the act in a tree or with his hat on.
The Greeks, like other peoples, did not have a simple or unambiguous set of views on such subjects as this. As is observed in Plato’s Symposium, different Greek cities had quite different laws on the subject: some forbade homosexual love, some permitted it, some made distinctions. There was a myth that the practice was unknown before Laius, the father of Oedipus, fell in love with a boy and carried him off. The boy killed himself for shame, and his father cursed the abductor; he should either have no son, or die at his son’s hand. It appears that the anger of Hera, goddess of marriage—concerned for her province—saw to it that Laius’ city suffered for his action; she sent the Sphinx to ravage Thebes. All this ethical background lies behind the passage of Plato’s dialogue The Laws, which Winkler must try to dispose of:
Were one [sc. as legislator] to follow the guidance of nature and adopt the law of the old days before Laius—I mean, to pronounce it wrong to have to do carnally with youthful male as with female, and to fetch his evidence from the life of animals, pointing out that male does not touch male in this way because the action is unnatural [not by physis], his contention would surely be a telling one, yet it would be quite at variance with the practice of your societies.4
Faced with a passage which could hardly put more explicitly the idea that homosexual love is unnatural—the argument from the behavior of animals can hardly be called an appeal to convention—Winkler argues that this is a mere pipe dream of Plato’s, confessed by him to be impossible of fulfillment, because “it went utterly against the grain of the values, practices, and debates of Plato’s society.” It therefore does not count as an example. But the societies to which Plato refers (“your societies”) are explicitly named: “among other places, the whole of Crete and Sparta.” That is, the reactionary Dorian states, undemocratic and almost illiterate, to which Plato turned for models in his despair of the mercurial democracy of Athens. The myth of Laius and his punishment, like the Platonic argument from the habits of animals, is evidence for the existence in classical Greece of another tradition than the one singled out and celebrated here, in which homosexuality is seen as one widely accepted convention, morally unexceptionable, among others.
Winkler’s book contains some sparkling treatments of particular texts. Particularly rewarding is a chapter on the comparatively unfamiliar subject of the Greek magical spells that claimed to induce a woman to fall helplessly in love with a man—for while in literature it is usually the passionate woman who appeals to love magic, the magical recipes that survive are usually for use by men. They aim to make the beloved woman helpless, the prey to a violent and overwhelming onslaught of attraction, unable to sleep, hungry and thirsty, dizzy and frantic, and on fire with desire. These spells were intended for people who meant business; apart from erotic charms, the next most frequent type are spells to bewitch runners in the horse races. They make sinister reading. Winkler points out that between the lover, tormented in the grip of his compulsion, and the woman, asleep in her bed (for spells belong naturally to the night), there has been a kind of transference: the magician thinks of himself as calm and masterful, of his victim as passionate and distracted. The attempt to break into her seclusion and fill it with thoughts of the lover recalls, perhaps, the psychology of the maker of intrusive telephone calls—a parallel not drawn in the book. But Winkler is right to say that the existence of such a technique, which at least gave an outlet for activity and a promise of power, probably served as a therapy for the lover.
Another essay deals with the Greek novel Daphnis and Chloe, probably written in the late second century or early third century AD. This pretty work, describing the awakening to maturity and love of two handsome young people brought up in the country as shepherd and shepherdess, has some mildly spicy episodes and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was often published in fine bindings, with rococo illustrations, as a naughty classic. Winkler offers a different reading, centered on the grimness of Chloe’s initiation into “a male-prominent phallocratic society” which subdues her to vulnerability and passivity, to the reader’s wonder and regret.
Winkler himself, as we have seen, expresses some uncertainty about the truth of this reading to Longus’ intentions, and it cannot be denied that at times he departs completely from any feeling of sympathy for what is possible in a romance of this kind. Chloe is menaced by violent lovers but escapes their clutches intact; Daphnis is initiated into the ways of love by an experienced woman. “If one of them has to be taught by an outsider before the other,” remonstrates Winkler, “why should Chloe not have been taught by Dorkon how to make love to Daphnis?” Dorkon is Chloe’s other would-be lover.
To pose the question is like asking why Sophia Western, not Tom Jones, should not have had the picaresque adventures in Fielding’s novel. In both novels the stylistic appropriateness of the narrative, which is so overpowering that the sympathetic reader sees that such questions simply cannot be asked, is of course intimately connected with the fact that girls get pregnant, boys do not—a fact which remains virtually unmentioned in both these books on sexuality. Halperin, indeed, criticizes the ancient writers because they “persistently conflate sexual and reproductive functions” when they talk of women; rather than speaking of an autonomous domain of desire, they insist on running together “the otherwise isolated impulses to sexual pleasure and to reproduction.”
There speaks the second half of the twentieth century, secure in its armory of reliable contraceptives; a woman who tried to behave in that way in earlier times was heading for trouble. Of course, there is a category of women in whom ancient poets do describe desire dissociated from any question of reproduction: the elderly and unappetizing females whose lustful presence animates, but not with any cheerful radiance, no less than five lyric poems of Horace.
Two further essays deal with the Odyssey and with the lyric poems of Sappho. In each case the aim is to show that women have a more active and more dominant role than they have been allowed by ancient or modern scholarship. In the Odyssey, Penelope has been given “a rather stronger and more cunning role in the plot” than is usually recognized. It is right to emphasize that the poet of the Odyssey has promoted Penelope from being like a parcel, checked in at the left-luggage desk twenty years ago, and waiting to be claimed by the man who presents the right ticket (kills the suitors). She is clever and resourceful, and in the penultimate book of the poem she unexpectedly plays a splendid trick on Odysseus, getting from that master of deception a bigger rise than anybody else succeeds in getting throughout the poem: that makes her an active person, not just a plaintive passivity, and it establishes her as Odysseus’ worthy and appropriate wife. This, and more, is very well brought out by Winkler here, and the chapter is an illuminating one. But it is marred by overemphasis and exaggeration. Penelope must be “in control,” with “real control of events,” strong and cunning, a “very active author and contriver.” The poet, in reality, was less concerned with saying “in the cultural language of that highly stratified society, that men and women are in any sense equal,” than with the depiction of loyalty and disloyalty, and of family affection—not only husband and wife, but mother and son, too, and father and son. To say that “the real center of the Odyssey’s plot…is the way in which Penelope… exerts some real control over events” is to forget, in the desire to magnify her role, that she appears memorably in Book One, then not until the end of Book Four, and not at all in the Books from Five to Sixteen. She is not there in the Cyclops’ cave, or by the Sirens’ rock, or among the Phaeacians. The center of the plot, I fear, is the adventures of Odysseus.
Something of the same distortion, for the same reason, marks the discussion of Sappho. Winkler is a sympathetic interpreter of her lyrics: at moments too sympathetic. To say, in connection with a lyric poem of twenty-eight lines, that “Sappho’s consciousness is a larger circle enclosing the smaller one of Homer” is like saying that a lyric of Herrick encloses a play of Shakespeare, or that an impromptu by Schubert exceeds and encompasses the Ninth Symphony.
The insistence on powerfulness as the essential feminine characteristic appears here, too. Sappho begins a poem by saying that “some say an array of cavalry is the fairest sight on earth, some say infantry, some say a flotilla of ships, but I say it is whatever you love.” She goes on to say that she can prove it: Helen, the most beautiful of women, abandoned husband, child, and parents, to follow the man of her choice. It seems perverse to insist, as Winkler does, that what Sappho means is that “it is right to desire one thing above all others”; what the poet means is to show what actually happens. And to go on to say, with admiration, “the real Helen was powerful enough to leave a husband, parents and child whom she valued less than the one she fell in love with,” is to say something which is both alien to Sappho’s thought and shocking in itself. To abandon one’s child for a passionate affair can be described in various ways, but it is not, in ordinary thought or language, a sign of power. Helen’s action was a disaster, for many other people beside herself, and what she illustrates for Sappho is rather human helplessness in the grip of passionate love.
Finally Winkler has some very bold speculations about sexual language and implications in Sappho’s verse. She was famous in antiquity for her love of girls, and a number of fragments survive of tender and amorous verse addressed to young women. These poems are not characterized, as far as we can see, by explicit sexual language, and Winkler himself admits that “I have been able to find no simple sexual imagery in Sappho’s poems.” Undeterred, he insists that her work is in a tradition which “includes pervasive allusions to physical eros,” and he finds such allusions throughout her work where nobody has seen them before. To take one startling example:
Like a sweet-apple glistening red on the highest bough,
High on the highest bough, and the apple-pickers missed it;
No, they did not miss it, but they could not reach so high.
That famous fragment comes, we are told, from an epithalamium, a wedding song. Sappho was celebrated for her wedding songs in antiquity: “Sappho likes to compare the bride to a fruit,” in this case one which hitherto has been inaccessible to greedy hands, now to be plucked by the lucky bridegroom.
Winkler has a new approach:
Mêlon, conventionally translated “apple,” is really a general word for fleshy fruit—apricots, peaches, apples, citron, quinces, pomegranates…. Mêlon signifies various “clitoral” objects;
and the reference of the image here is to the hidden female genitals, “an area of meaning for which there have not been faithful words in the phallocentric tradition.” Not only that:
The amazing feature of these lines is that the apple is not “ripe for plucking” but unattainable, as if even after marriage the numphê would remain secure from the husband’s appropriation.
But the list of “fleshy fruit” is a misleading one. Neither apricots nor peaches, the soft fruits in the catalog, were known in Greece at this date, when they had not yet been imported from the East. The word mêlon is common in erotic contexts, but refers always to the breasts—firm, like apples and pomegranates. So an ancient audience would not easily reach such a meaning here. And if they had—if the company at the wedding had heard Sappho, in her wedding song, celebrate the sexual remoteness and inviolability of the bride, despite her bridegroom’s efforts: would the inopportune poet have been invited to compose songs for other weddings and been celebrated for her epithalamia?
Another essay, no less original and controversial, discusses women’s festivals. Greek men, excluded from these occasions, generally imagined them to be occasions of lewd talk and unbridled gestures, as the restraints of women’s everyday life were abruptly relaxed and normal rigor was worked off in an explosion of indecency. That is, as Winkler is right to say, the fantasy of the excluded and apprehensive male. He aims to redress the balance, and his fantasy is different: “One imagines knowing smiles, bright eyes, and perhaps a blush or two.” A charming picture, but a little sentimental, perhaps. This collection contains some remarkable insights, and it presents many things in Greek life and literature in a way which is unfamiliar. It must be recognized that it pursues a high-risk strategy, and that some of what it has to offer sheds more light on the attitudes and concerns of the present than it does on the past.
March 29, 1990
Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, 3 vols. (Pantheon, 1978, 1985, 1986). ↩
Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, 1978). ↩
Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, translated and revised by James Strachey (Basic Books, 1962), p. 11. ↩
Plato’s Laws, translated by A.E. Taylor (The Everyman Series, Dutton, 1934), p. 223. ↩