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While right-wingers bellyache about the so-called attack on marriage by matrimonially minded lesbians and gays, within the field of queer studies a quieter assault is under way on a more recent but no less foundational institution: Michel Foucault.
Louis Crompton’s epoch-spanning Homosexuality and Civilization and Graham Robb’s saucy Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century argue forthrightly against a central tenet of Foucauldian historiography, namely the notion that “the homosexual” is a modern, Western invention, a peculiar industrial-capitalist side effect precipitated through late-19th-century shifts in legal and medical worldviews, a product of historically contingent social forces rather than an individually innate identity. Before this creation, much of queer studies has maintained, a mere jumble of unmoored sex acts existed that any individual might potentially engage in. “The sodomite had been a sinner,” Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality in 1976; “the homosexual was now a species.” In other words, Foucault proposed that what countless college students have tried to convince one another during drunken experimentation was literally true in the days of Shakespeare, Cicero, or Avicenna: Just doin’ it don’t make you gay.
Through spirited, richly detailed chronicles of how same-sex love functioned within pre-modern and non-Western cultures, including ancient Greece, medieval Islam, Renaissance Europe, feudal Japan, and finally the Enlightenment, Homosexuality and Civilization aims to refute Foucault’s legacy of social-construction theory, arguing that homosexuals as a distinct group remained a persistent presence throughout these varied eras and cultures. “It is a mistake to presume that earlier ages thought merely of sexual acts and not of persons,” Crompton writes. “Medieval literature speaks not only of sodomy but of ‘sodomites,’ individuals who were a substantial, clear, and ominous presence. The fact that such beings were perceived from a theological rather than a psychological point of view did not make them any less real, or less threatening.”
More a collection of observations on 19th-century twilight life than a sustained thesis, Strangers likewise swipes at the recent-invention hypothesis. Robb notes that this idea erases gay history in an attempt to investigate it, and suspiciously parallels the mythologies of previous eras. “Early Christian theologians, Romantic poets and 20th-century queer theorists all espoused the view that, after a cataclysmic moment in human history—the Fall of Man, the death of God, the modernist ‘fracturing’ of thought and knowledge—a Golden Age of sexual indeterminacy came to an end.” Furthermore, he wryly speculates that queer theorists’ fixation on Victorian medical research indulges in a “fantasy about the power of academic discourse” to control the greater world. “Ironically,” sniffs Robb, “the idea itself has had such a huge effect on modern perceptions of the gay past that it is now its own best proof.”
Perhaps, both authors suggest, Foucault’s ideas provide a conceptual cop-out for academics faced with a lack of historical data; after all, gay and lesbian cultures long existed outside of legal and social acceptance, thus sharply limiting a directly recorded history. Their cant could become rapidly indecipherable, inhibiting the diachronic transmission of self-knowledge. Robb notes that code words such as “lavender aunts, ‘musical’ young men, crooked fingers and green carnations” grew “almost prehistorically obscure” even in the span of one generation. (This quickly-cryptic quality is played up to the Joycean extreme in James McCourt’s recent Queer Street, his stream-of-consciousness fairy-flight memoir through pre-Stonewall New York. McCourt spins a novelistic history seemingly crafted with its own heavily footnoted variorum edition in mind; reading through it creates an experience as immersively alien as swimming through Chaucer or Burroughs.)
For Crompton, such historiographic challenges entail moral duties. If Western laws long classified sodomites as mere perpetrators of criminal acts, Crompton implores, “we must not be complicit in this dehumanization. These ‘sodomites’ were human beings with whom the modern gay man may claim brotherhood and the modern lesbian recognize as sisters. . . . To adopt Michel Foucault’s view that the homosexual did not exist ‘as a person’ until this time is to reject a rich and terrible past.” Part of this past Crompton surveys are the many instances of slaughter under a virulent strain of Judeo-Christian values. The non-Christian cultures in his work—Greece, Islam, ancient China, and Japan—are held up as paragons of tolerance, untainted by the enduring specter of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But in its zeal to argue for a persistent gay identity, Homosexuality and Civilization leaves important questions unanswered. Rather than providing models of tolerance, the societies profiled blend homosexual and heterosexual activities in ways quite alien to modern Western societies. Does the modern gay man or lesbian have that much in common with Hellenic boy-lovers, French libertines, or ancient Chinese scholars who carried on openly bisexual affairs? Ironically, because of their deep complexity, Crompton’s portraits could equally suggest that the only shared factors persisting across millennia are indeed acts and desires, not identities.