Thursday, May 27, 2010

Greeks

I don't mind being superficial, but I like to think my superficiality sometimes has depth.

In these pages I examine the crinkles, loops, and quirks of my erotic fantasies, seriously, as if they mattered.  I hope I'm not overly earnest about them, but at the same time I do look at the trivial and the frivolous with a degree of respect.

It's important to me to seek Truth no less in the details of what turns me on than in the contemplation of the origins of the cosmos or the natures of good and evil.  Of the three, what turns me on seems the more testable subject, the more easily observed in action, and the more likely to produce results.

Most of the research has been firsthand or speculative, for obvious reasons.  But occasionally I draw upon secondary sources, which is what I want to do now.  I won't try to integrate the following three quotes into a coherent argument or insight of my own.  I have chosen the passages because they seem to bear on the issues and claims I usually address in this blog.

All references are to The Greeks and Greek Love (2007) by James Davidson, the 644-page (excluding notes) tome I have just finished.  The page numbers refer to the American hardcover edition.

Eros is, with only a few exceptions, utterly one-sided.  You can be longed for, loved (philein), desired "in return" (anti-) with no problem, but for the Greeks there can be no mutual eros, not concurrently.  Eros doesn't work lke that.  He is a vector, a one-way ticket from A to B. ... In fact Anteros more often means not "love in return" but a "contrary Eros"; it implies a contest or conflict ....  Themistius told a story about this pair.  Aphrodite was worried about her son Eros:  he seemed stunted.  She was advised that he needed a brother and so she gave birth to Anteros.  Eros soon started to grow, now that he had a rival on the scene, and each competed with the other to see who could grow the most.  The same pair was shown wrestling in the palaestra (the training ground in a gymnasium) of Elis, home of the Olympic Games.  If Eros was the son of the archetypal happy couple, Hermes and Aphrodite, Anteros should be the son of Ares, god of war.  He is Eros Thwarted (19).

If the power-penetration metaphor is ubiquitous in modern society, we have to be careful, when we look at other periods and places and species, to make sure that we aren't simply projecting our own dismal images onto them.  In fact so far as I can tell from the Oxford English Dictionary, the ubiquitous everyday use of the language of sex to indicate aggression or humiliation is a recent phenomenon, going as far back as 1700, perhaps, in one or two cases, but above all a phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century.  People did not go around telling each other to fuck off in the Middle Ages. ...  The Greeks commonly referred to sex in lots of ways--as taking pleasure, wrestling, blending, a "mixing" (mixis), "associating" (homilia), "being close" (plesiazo), "being with" (sunousia), "marrying" (gamo), "agitating" (kineo)--and, like people in many other cultures, including not so long ago our own, they worried about an exchange of vital fluids that might involve a dangerous drying out or loss of substance for the man, but never as "fucking someone" in the modern sense with its modern connotations (143).

Here [in the illustrations on an ancient Greek drinking cup by Peithinos, but not the one pictured above] the gymnasium looks more like an occasion for a teen orgy. ... Boys will be boys, and this is more or less what you would expect, isn't it, in a culture of homosexual eros, despite all the law's good intentions?  Look what happened in the upper-class English public schools, despite all the school uniforms and Leviticus and St. Paul.  Just imagine what would happen if you had a group of randy pagan teenagers spending all day in the hot sun, oiled up, wrestling and naked (530).

2 comments:

  1. I've not read Davidson's book, though I have just about everything else on the subject, enough that I could possibly have written his book myself. The one essential thing left out of your discussion (and Davidson?) that desexualizes homosexuality in ancient Greek culture is element of power in a social hierarchy. It is quite clear that the acceptability of homosexuality to the Greeks hinged always on social hierarchy: it was acceptable only so long as the penetrator held superior social rank to the penetrated. Such made the sexual act itself more a manifestation of the power of social rank and privilege than any kind of social approval. We must not give the Greeks more credit than they are due.

    MAwrestler

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  2. MAwrestler: The subject has particular interest to me as well, and when I teach world literature courses, my students usually get an earful on sexual attitudes in the ancient world. Davidson raises some interesting points about and a reassessment of previous historians' interpretation of the age-class customs pertaining to Greek love. The point of my excerpts, however, was the Greeks' placement of wrestling in the context of sex, apropos the blog. I'd recommend the book to you and anybody interested in the subject--though long, it is accessible, a relatively breezy read, sometimes even funny.

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