Andrew Elfenbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
This is my book of the month. It puts forward an exciting argument, is very well researched and gets extra points for being readable. I’m reading it because I’m interested in tracing the different narratives which have gone into the making of modern homosexual identity as a category of knowledge. According to Elfenbein, genius is one of those narratives and he sets out to explore the origins of this association:
‘The cult surrounding genius has created an analogy between the situation of the alienated, marginalized artist who rebels against social norms by shattering conventional gender categories and that of the homosexual man or woman in a homophobic world’ (7).
The first chapter looks at the way male geniuses became associated with excessive “feminine” characteristics (sensibility, imagination, passion) in the eighteenth century, an association which placed them in uncomfortably close representational relation to the contemporary construction of the sodomite: ‘There was always the lurking suspicion that the sublime excessiveness of genius might lead to less conventional sexual possibilities’ (32). The second chapter is about the very queer eighteenth-century ‘genius,’ William Beckford, and the third is about William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet who despite (or perhaps because of) his apparent queerness became popular as a model for domestic life in the Victorian period. Elfenbein doesn’t leave female geniuses out of the picture and the next two chapters are on Anne Damer and Anne Bannerman, but I haven’t got to them yet.
Randolph Trumbach, ‘The Heterosexual Male in Eighteenth-Century London and his Queer Interactions,’ in Katherine O’ Donnell and Michael O’ Rourke (eds) Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship Between Men, 1550 – 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
This is a radically anti-essentialist account of sexual history. Trumbach seems to have no truck with any notion of inherent sexual orientation – however that might have been conceived in the past – and puts across a view of sexual desire as entirely socially determined. He argues that until 1700 in most of Europe (but especially the Mediterranean) it was perfectly normal for men to have sexual relations with both men and women. According to Trumbach, sexual relations were not determined by gender, but rather by hierarchies of age and were structured in terms of active and passive roles. It was acceptable for an adult man to have consensual sexual relations with an adolescent boy until the boy became an adult and took on an active role himself. A small minority of men took on passive roles throughout their lives and they were held in profound contempt often working as male prostitutes. This is all interesting, but the essay inadvertently draws attention to the way trans history has been appropriated and rendered invisible by lesbian and gay history, a trend which is very problematic in that it creates an impression that trans identities and subjectivities suddenly appeared in the twentieth century and have no real history before medical technologies became available. Trumbach mentions male-bodied people who, in the early modern period, dressed constantly as women, took women’s names and in some cases even constructed artificial vaginas. He appropriates this evidence to his argument about the development of sexuality, but what he’s talking about here sounds much closer to what we now consider transgendered identity to me. Part of the essay also goes too far for me in terms of the kind of material it appropriates to the history of homosexuality. Trumbach describes a case in which an adult male raped a boy of twelve. The man behaved in a way very similar to what we associate with modern paedophiles, luring the boy to his rooms, abusing him, giving him money and trying to persuade him keep it a secret. As far as I’m concerned this is a form of behaviour now known as paedophilia and needs to be considered as part of a different history. Still, I found the essay stimulating.
I also carried on with my Bray and Haggerty from last week and re-read a chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.