Monday, November 18, 2013

On the Whole, One Would Rather Be in Philadelphia

I just love the word "exigencies," don't you?  (There's a singular form, of course, but it's not often used.)  It entered my mind tonight for some reason, and then I realized I'd never seen it defined, just surmised its meaning from context.  So I looked it up, and what do you know, I was right.  I'm not sure it has any bearing on the rest of this post, but I felt a deep need to mention it.

Anyway, I'm still reading Long Before Stonewall, edited by Thomas A. Foster and published by NYU Press, in 2007 and it's worth my time but still frustrating when the writers wander off into orthodox Foucauldianism.  But sometimes the problem is simpler, as in Clare A. Lyons's contribution, "Mapping an Atlantic Sexual Culture: Homoeroticism in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia."  Now, I like a lot of things about this chapter; Lyons has evidence of which books were popular in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, using sales, advertisements, and traffic in lending libraries, and she finds that some of the most popular books had homoerotic elements.  (She recognizes "homoeroticism" as including "sexual practice and desire as well as physical behavior" [164], though come to think of it I'm not sure what is the difference between practice and behavior.)  It's fascinating to see which books had homoerotic elements, and how widely they were read: from Richardson's Pamela, which "places the heroine in the path of the amorous Mrs. Jewkes, whose kisses Pamela must fend off", to "English translations of French erotic texts," which "all began their stories with the sexual initiation of a young woman by a more experienced older woman" (183).  There were also newspaper reports of gender-bending scandals back in England, some of which traveled to the New World, even to Philadelphia itself.

Lyons remarks on "the invention of new homoerotic categories" (166) in this period, and I want to disagree with that here.  I'll agree that some new terminology arose, but it seems to be normal for terminology to change while what it refers to remains largely the same; identifiers may change not because the group concerned has changed, but for other reasons.  Consider terms for people of African descent in the United States in the twentieth century, for example.  Advocates for "African-American" over "Afro-American" may have produced rationalizations why one was superior to the other, for example, but it's not clear that the people had changed.  There was always the need to change the labels because white racism had attached negative connotations to older ones, such as "Negro" and "colored," and "black" was reclaimed consciously from its pejorative use.  I'd say that changing terms for persons engaged in homoeroticism during the same period were driven by the same motive, to keep a step ahead of the bigots.  People rationalized why "gay" was better than "homosexual," or "queer" better than "gay," but it was never certain that the rejected terms really meant what their critics said they did.  "Gay" became a pejorative after 1975, not because "new homoerotic categories" had emerged or been invented, but because bigots had turned "gay" into a bad word.

So, Lyons writes,
Philadelphians imported and read the only known eighteenth-century imprint of love-making between women written by a woman, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several persons of quality of both Sexes, from the New Atlantis by Delariviere Manley.  Manley suggested that there exists a new breed of women who "have all of happiness in themselves."  These women prefer not to marry but satisfy all their needs in the company of women.  They create a "new Cabal," a kind of secret society of women who embrace exclusive homoerotic desire [182].
The fact that some social phenomenon is called "new" doesn't mean it is.  It may be new in the sense of the latest manifestation of something old, but usually whatever is new will try to justify itself by finding antecedents.  According to Lyons, the ancient Roman "Ovid's Art of Love, with its homoerotic scenes" (170) was among the popular books at this time, and the "Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister sought out classical texts for their descriptions of Sappho and used these as a measure for her sense of herself" (182).  The nineteenth-century doctors who described what has come to be known as "the modern homosexual" generally adduced a history of their subject, tracing it to Sappho, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Achilles and Patroclus, the tribades of Lucian, and so on forward through the Renaissance and after.  That their history was often faulty doesn't change the fact that they constructed a history, and they saw their contemporaries as "new" only in the sense of "latest," not "unprecedented."  People like Lyons, however, interpret the nineteenth-century cases as "unprecedented," which they weren't.  What may have changed were the categories used by elites to think about this behavior, and to try to control or suppress it, but that (as Lyons indicates) is not necessarily representative of the whole society, unless you think of the elites as the only true representatives.  The popularity of these homoerotic works, which weren't suppressed in Philadelphia, shows that most of the population didn't regard sodomites and sapphists with the same horror that their rulers and clergy did.

"New" is also used to alarm: these perverts have suddenly come out of the woodwork, and they're trying to take over!  They want your sons and daughters!  This kind of rhetoric often coexists with a genealogy of perversion stretching back to Sodom and Gomorrah, a reminder that consistency in these matters is not considered important.  X is new and alarming, but also ancient, lurking in the background and waiting for its chance to grab and drag us down.  The very term "new Cabal" contains this paradox: a new version (or form) of an old threat.  But think also of the reaction to Brokeback Mountain, which was for many straight men their first gay movie, and then they suddenly began seeing homos everywhere.  As I've written before, I'm always immediately distrustful of books entitled The New anything, and I'm just as distrustful of discoveries of new social phenomena -- especially "new homoerotic categories," which generally turn out to be as old as the hills.