The end of the closet, the end of the classics?

For centuries, classical scholarship was fueled by homoerotic desire. The Greeks, as every school boy who paid attention knows, didn’t have the Jewish, Christian and Islamic prohibition against same-sex desire. Because the church respected the ancients despite their vices, Latin continued to be taught into the monotheistic centuries and ancient Greek enjoyed a rebirth. Hard-won languages that could only be understood by an elite (which until very late in the game was also an exclusively male club), these dead tongues existed as a kind of code. You could say things in them that were otherwise unspeakable, things that could get you killed if voiced in the vernacular. The sanction of the church created, in effect, a closet space in the Western tradition, a place to hide but also a place of comfort.

Allan Bloom, himself a closeted gay, loved to emphasize the covert nature of the Western tradition, the concealed ideas wrapped up in esoteric texts that were passed down from generation to generation in whispers. Bloom, of course, learned esoteric reading from Leo Strauss and if you look at the Straussian movement closely you’ll see that if it’s not homoerotic it certainly is homo-social. Did Strauss ever have a female graduate student? Occasionally you hear Straussians suggest that women, with their icky biological urge to procreate, are incapable of philosophy. Certainly this boy’s club is conducive towards the forging of tight male friendships.

Everywhere you look in the history of classical scholarship, especially as it overlapped with literature, you see evidence of what we would now call gayness. There were the Uranian poets who flourished at Oxford and Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th century who celebrated boyish bodies with Virgilian ardor (Oscar Wilde was the great popularizer of this coterie and its sensibility). For these poets, Hellenism and homosexuality went hand in hand. The Uranians were also the precursors to A.E. Housman, the star Latin scholar of his age and a great poet of unspoken and thwarted desire.

Lesbians are part of this story as well. Is it any accident that Edith Hamilton, best-selling author of The Greek Way (1930), lived for many years with the investment banker Doris Fielding Reid? Or that Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault, both of whom had female lovers, wrote historical novels about the ancient world?

Michel Foucault represents the culmination of this tradition in more ways than one. He was not closeted at all (at least not in his last years). This allowed him to tackle the subject of Greek sexuality with a frankness hitherto impossible. But it also meant that he wasn’t interested in the Greeks as imaginary ancestors. The upshot of his work is to emphasize how different ancient Greek sexuality was from that of the modern world, including same sex desire. For the Greeks, the relevant categories were active and passive, not male or female. This meant they experience sex in a way we moderns don’t.

The question is, after Foucault and the end of the closet, what will happen to the classics? One of the main emotional wellsprings for classical scholarship has been lost. Repressed sexual energy was a great motivator for the hard work of mastering very difficult texts. It’s difficult to imagine young men and women looking to the Greeks with the same yearning the animated Housman and Hamilton.

This might explain why Allan Bloom was so adamently opposed to the gay rights movement, to the open proclamation of a gay identity. Somewhere deep in his bones he must have felt that the end of the closet could also mean the end of the classics.

4 thoughts on “The end of the closet, the end of the classics?

  1. Interesting thesis! I wonder the same thing as Tom, though—if for the Greeks there were no “prohibition against same-sex desire” (i.e. no closet), than how is it possible that they were able to produce their works at all? Perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too when it comes to gay rights and the classics?

    Perhaps something to keep in mind is that for the Greeks at least, I think the idea was to refine one’s eros upward to the Good, the Beautiful, and the True—and for Plato this would have eventually entailed abandoning the flesh and embracing the spirit (i.e. the Forms, or the One).

    Regardless though, I remember how much more fascinating I found Bloom’s essay, The Ladder of Love after I found out about his orientation. ;)

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