SEX: ANTIQUITY AND ITS LEGACY

By Daniel Orrells

I.B. Tauris (2015) p/b 246pp £12.99 (ISBN 978184885520)

This wide-ranging work seeks to illuminate the centrality of classical reception to the development of sexology and psychoanalysis. However, what we see is that the emergence of these disciplines was not only affected by intellectuals’ engagement with the ancient world but that it occurred alongside the emergence of classics itself as a discipline. Simultaneous to the construction of sex and sexuality as objects of knowledge was the development of the study of classical antiquity within intellectual (and mostly male circles).

This work is intended partly for ‘beginning students and their teachers in a variety of disciplines’. Therefore, the ‘Introduction’ is particularly welcome. Here is given a brief but accessible overview of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault’s work is everywhere in the humanities and it can be easy to take familiarity with it for granted.

We start in the fifteenth century, with a discussion of humanist Antonio Becadelli’s explicit poetry in The Hermaphrodite. Against the backdrop of a society in which ancient works were scarce, sought-after, and often corrupted, O. argues for the presence of a relationship between desire for the text (specifically Catullus and Martial in this case) and the desire for sex. The polyvalent possibilities of the Latin texts are both a stimulus to writing and desire and a threat to epistemological stability. The knowingness of the poet will be a topic familiar to readers of classical Latin love poetry and it is enjoyable to read about it within this context.

The theme of pedagogy is brought to fore in Chapter II, where O. presents two issues that were contentious for the homosocial world of Renaissance humanists: the problem of pederasty in Platonic texts and the question of whether women could or should be educated in the classics. One particular item of interest is the section on Tullia D’Aragona, a courtesan and author. Tullia subsequently reappears as a character in the love guide Satyra Sotadica by Nicolas Chorier. Both issues point towards the continued theme of control over knowledge of classics and sexuality.

Chapter III considers writers in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here, O. draws parallels between interest in collecting artefacts (including phalluses) and the German scientific approach to classics, on the one hand, and the increasingly academic treatment of sexology on the other. He identifies a drive to catalogue and to rationalise, as the same Latin vocabulary that had been used as obscenity by poets was used for taxonomical purposes by the likes of Krafft-Ebing.

An account of the key role of nineteenth-century Hellenism as part of the drive to define and legitimise homosexual identities for men and women is the theme of the following two chapters. The problems of pedagogy and interpretation reappear as key elements for O.’s discussions of same-sex relationships in Plato and the entry of women into universities.

Even towards the end of the book, O. demonstrates that scientific responses to classics and sex may also be aesthetic responses. This is made clear in Chapter VI’s contextualising of Freud’s theories within the increased interest in archaeology and the work of Winckelmann. The figure of the hermaphrodite occurs again, in O.’s reckoning, as the phallic mother. The search for origins permeates both psychoanalysis and Classical studies.

This volume remains accessible to the end, with a lengthy and useful section offering advice on further reading, organised by chapter. Overall, O. provides a provocative with an interesting array of material. In the broad sweep of his study, some of the comparisons he draws (signalled by the formulation ‘just as’) occasionally pose more questions than they offer answers. ‘Freud had produced a human subject within whom a sexuality was lodged which served as the inner core of subjectivity, just as classical antiquity provided the modern West with its true sense of identity’ was among the most challenging (p. 181). The extent to which there is a relationship of causality between comparanda may be occluded at times and there are, perhaps, wider questions about contemporary conceptions of knowledge and authority to be asked. (Chapter III’s reference to the eighteenth-century interest of government in population monitoring hints at this but the theme is not developed.)

While this reviewer wonders how subsequent psychoanalysts and sexologists fit into O.’s schema, the question of what happens more generally after Freud and then Foucault is, in some senses, answered by the presence of the book itself. In an informative and engaging read, which confidently claims that certain authors ‘appropriated and misused Latin and Greek for their own erotic ends’, the struggle for authority over the domains of Classics and sexuality continues (p. 126).

Rhiannon Easterbrook—Bristol University

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s