not-so-sentimental education

In his thoughts on the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So a few months back, my friend Lin made a comment about the infamous Anita Byrant pie-in-the-face incident that forced me to confront my ignorance of gay history—I had no idea who she was! It subsequently became one of my New Years resolutions was to educate myself on the subject, if only because it has long been my vague impression that the lamentation from some quarters that the homosexual community is no longer politically engaged can be primarily attributed to (and I’m pointing a finger squarely at myself) here) not possessing even a passing awareness of our history. And as one not content with indulging in such willful ignorance, I started off by reading:

Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilizations is an illuminating survey from the farthest reaches of human civilization through the Enlightenment, and while obviously an impossibility, while reading it Crompton’s book it certainly seems to be an exhaustive analysis of the subject. As such, there is so much that could be expounded on in great length, but instead I’ll stick to a few sadly scattered thoughts:

—I went into the book with a few general tidbits gleaned from elsewhere about the general acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Greece as well as their penchant for pederastic relationships, but what I wasn’t expecting was the sheer wealth of information that has survived from ancient times regarding male/male relationships (unfortunately, except for Sappho, information on lesbians is almost nil). As almost all of it comes through the surviving art, in a lot of ways the book comes off as a general survey of the era’s literature as most of the major players (and many, many more minor ones) of the period are in some way included. I used that I used it as an excuse to justify not reading something specifically GRE-approved in my preparation of said test.

—Not that I thought the Middle Ages was a garden party for anyone involved, but I honestly wasn’t expecting the overwhelming intensity of the rising Christian church’s demonization of homosexuals over the course of several hundred years. Any natural disaster was the cause of rounding up homosexuals for public burning in an attempt to convince God that said area was not the modern equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah (whose development as a potent, effective symbol of decadent, shameful homosexuality is analyzed in length in the chapter Crompton devotes to ancient Hebraic culture), and the degree and widespread intensity of torture is head-spinning (gruesome public castration—which you weren’t expected to survive—was the most common prelude to burning, to the delight of thousands). But even more disheartening than the gleeful hate of the masses is the downright loathing espoused in book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet, sermon after sermon by the philosophers, theologians, preachers and priests of the time. I know it’s become commonplace in academic circles to move away from the term “Dark Ages” in describing this particular time in history—but for homosexuals, it’s still the most apt label imaginable.

—One of the most valuable elements of Homosexuality and Civilization is the chapters on ancient Asia—and not just because it provided a much-needed break from the atrocities of Medieval Europe. Spending time with ancient China and Japan we encounter literally a completely different world occurring simultaneously with the Middle Ages in Europe, for with the exception of cycles of particularly fervent following of Confucian philosophy, homosexuality was generally an issue that was at least tolerated, and at some times and places, actively embraced. And for those of us whose major source of information on samurai life is through the films of Kurosawa, how surprising it is to find that a pederastic system startlingly similar to that of ancient Greece was a rather basic element of samurai culture! In the rich history of both the Chinese royal and education systems as well as Japanese theater Crompton discovers much to explore—and what’s all the more amazing is that Crompton admits he’s only touched the tip of the iceberg as much still remains untranslated (and therefore unavailable) to Western scholarship.

—The chapters on the European royal courts and its many sexually dubious monarchs are great fun to read as the “enlightened” noble classes viewed homosexuality (of both sexes) to be almost commonplace among the elite of the population, and therefore discussed it frankly in their private with a great deal of wit (I laughed out loud during several passages). And the book ends with the inspiring writings of British reformer Jeremy Bentham whose progressive ideas on equality remain stunningly progressive even for a so-called “enlightened” society as modern day America.

I can’t remember the last time I got so quickly through a 500 page book. And aside from the sheer amount of information he provides, what makes the book so endlessly fascinating is the nuance Crompton allows in his approach—he rarely can be accused of resorting to generalizations (and in the cases he can it’s very clearly the result of space constraints) and he has a very keen sense of the variation caused by such factors as location, socio-economic status and gender. There’s also an admirable fairness in Crompton’s approach—even while dealing with worst atrocities at the hands of so-called Christians he also makes clear in his conclusion that the religion cannot be completely condemned out of hand. And, of course, it helps that he’s an engaging wordsmith and a remarkably fluid writer, something that’s not always a given when approaching academic texts. A book of tremendous value—and as should be obvious, one the deserves to be widely read.

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2 thoughts on “not-so-sentimental education

  1. Thanks for this review, and I’ll be picking this up shortly. I don’t know if I’ll have time to read it anytime soon (this is the semester from hell), but maybe it will be a nice post-exam(s) treat.

    Was there a chapter on the Middle East, or on South Asia? I’m especially interested in learning more about the former, since it is my understanding that the lines between the homosocial and homosexual relations is also complexly fluid, more than we would believe. Of course, the rise of Islam has resulted in continual attempts to fix and police these behaviors, and probably had a role in erasing many narratives that would be so worthwhile to consider.

    But who knows, I’m talking off the top of my head here, and I really should get on reading more history and queer theory. I had a chance to take a course in this area, but this was back when I was worried that even registering in such a class would “out” me. The joys of the closet.

  2. Hey Ali,

    It’s good to hear from you! But what is keeping you so busy… I didn’t realize you were still in school…

    The biggest oversights with the book, as far as I can tell, is the lack of chapters devoted to the ancient Arab world, and maybe India as well. Perhaps the exclusion is lack of scholarship available… to be fair, the chapter devoted to ancient Hebrew culture is mostly concerned with the origins of the Sodom and Gommorah mythology…

    But what I did fail to mention in my thoughts was a large section devoted to Islamic culture in Spain just before the rise of the Spanish Inquisition. Really fascinating, especially since it serves as such a marked difference to the rest of Europe which was quickly descending into the worst throes of Medieval Christianity.

    Well, if it’s any consolation, I opted to go to a school that would ever even dream of offering such a course… hence the need to educate myself now. :)

    -jesse

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