22 January 2014

Book Review: Love, Sex and Tragedy

Simon Goldhill is Professor in Greek Literature and Culture and fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at King's College, Cambridge. He is also Director of CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.

After reading this book, I feel like my eleven years and several advanced degrees in graduate school could have been compressed in half had I read this book when it was first published. But I guess the real question would be, would I have understood the implications?

One of the things I find entertaining is discussing the existence of God with people who believe in it with certainty, especially when my interlocutor is highly intelligent. When they are not intelligent, its boring. This book expands the topics with which one may discuss the existence of something believed to be eternal, immutable or universal. He adds love, sex and democracy to the equation.

For example, the ancient Greeks are one of the "great" origin civilizations of modernity. In debating issues involving sexuality, it never fails for both sides of any debate to raise the ancient Greeks. The theory goes that Greeks engaged in homosexuality on a fairly universal scale and thus, it cannot be deemed "evil" but only bad because of recent historical developments regarding cultural norms. The opposing argument is that Greek civilization "fell" because of its shortcomings and permitting and promoting such "rampant" homosexuality was one of those causes.

Goldhill gives us much more context on this issue. For example, the exemplary homosexuality of ancient Greece is not the exemplary homosexuality of late capitalist modernity. The favored homosexuality of today assumes that two partners are equal or near equal in status, social standing, age, etc., and that a long-term committed partnership will develop into a same-sex marriage.

The favored homosexuality of ancient Greece was of older men (free, slave-owning citizen kind) leering at post-pubescent, pre-facial-hair teenage boys/gym bunnies (the sons of free, slave-owning citizens). The older men would engage in a lengthy courtship of these teenage boys and in the end, usually engage in sticking their cocks between the boy's thighs to get off. If the boy was virtuous, he would not be aroused by this activity. When facial hair appeared, he would cease the activities and at some point become the pursuer. The older men were supposed to "mentor" the teenage boys on virtue and being an upstanding citizen. Being what we would call gay, as a free, slave-owning citizen, was disfavored not because of the gender, but because of the focus on desire - which Greeks saw to be mostly dangerous. Having sex with your wife for pleasure was a greater sin. And the greatest Greek sin of the time was to be a bottom. As a highly misogynistic and patriarchal culture, a man receiving man love was the ultimate violation of manhood. Of course, as a slave or other non-citizen, there was no real violation because you weren't an embodiment of symbolic manhood. But for a citizen to bottom, that was the most unvirtuous thing to be done.

Anyhow, Goldhill goes into many topics related to sexuality today. He looks at the origins of romantic love. He also spends about a third of the book going into the origins of Christianity -- as a reaction to Greek and Roman cultures in antiquity. If you don't know anything about early Christian views of the flesh, this would be a great introduction. Then he moves onto politics and democracy -- which was the slowest part of the book for me, surprisingly. Nothing like nineteenth and twentieth century European politics to bring things to a bore.

The version I read was in English at 352 pages in cloth published by the John Murray Publishers Ltd (May 10, 2004) with an ISBN-10 of 978-0719555497. The least expensive version I found online was at amazon.com

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