Cures for Impotence

James Davidson

  • Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality by Simon Goldhill
    Cambridge, 194 pp, £30.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 521 47372 1

An unusual feature of the topography of ancient Athens was the strange half-statues, which the Athenians called Hermeses and we call herms: a representation of the god of travel, trickery and luck, abbreviated to a pillar, a head and a penis. They were to be seen all over the city, on street-corners, at cross-roads, by doors and gates, and midway on roads from the country into town, providing points of reference in a city with few street-names and little interest in town-planning. On the eve of ventures or on receipt of gains, Hermes attracted ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ in the form of cakes and flowers, his penis conveniently erect for hanging gifts on. In 415, however, during preparations for a great voyage of conquest into the western Mediterranean, the Athenians woke up to discover their lucky herms vandalised: disfigured and (perhaps) unmembered. Panicked and outraged, they set up an inquisition to find the culprits. Informers were forthcoming and a list of ‘Hermokopidai’ was drawn up, the majority of whom did not hang around long enough to test the equity of Athenian justice but abandoned their property to the public auctioneers, who catalogued it carefully and inscribed it on stone for the benefit of posterity. The expedition itself went ahead as planned. It was a disaster.

What possessed the ‘herm-bashers’ that night remains obscure. Traditional opinion divides between jinx and high-jinks, between an oligarchic conspiracy to scupper the fortunes of the democracy and a drunken prank at a spectacularly ill-judged moment in Athenian imperial history. In 1985, however, Eva Keuls published a book which opened up a new line of inquiry. The Hermokopidai were innocent, she suggested. The real culprits were the women of Athens, striking a blow against phallocracy by hitting Athenian men where it hurt.

The penis was everywhere in the ancient world. Apart from the herms, there were giant ceremonial dildoes carried in procession for Dionysus, satyriassic satyrs on vases and in plays, priapic actors in comedy and naked men in gymnasia or in stone. Priapus himself arrived rather later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods: a fertility god of orchards and gardens, he sometimes doubled as a guardian, threatening scrumpers with impalement on his elephantine organ. This array of virilia bore many symbolic associations. Big ones seem most often to have indicated obscenity and buffoonery, lust, luck and fertility; others were used to mark senility (when pendulous), otherness (when circumcised) and self-control. They were a symbol as much for women as for men and figured in a number of women-only festivals in the form of phallic costumes and phallic cakes. Some care was taken to distinguish different kinds of penis in art, and a strong contrast seems always to have been drawn between the gross members of satyrs and comic actors in Dionysus’ entourage and the very modest manhood of heroic and civic ideal. Sometimes the phallus seems even to have a life of its own. It appears as a bird, with eyes and wings, or with four legs and a tail as a phallus-centaur. Disembodied and re-embodied in this way, it had little to do with what most Greek men found between their legs.

Phallic symbolism in Greece seems, therefore, to have been particularly rich and complex, but in recent years there has been a strong tendency to reduce all these penises, big ones, small ones, wooden ones, leather ones, the attached and the unattached, the flightless and the fully fledged, to one function only: masculine power. According to David Halperin, one of the most sophisticated members of this school of thought, ‘the symbolic language of democracy proclaimed on behalf of each citizen, “I, too, have a phallus.” ’ The herms are Hermes no longer, but a symbol of the patriarch, not well-wishers on the way, but grim and threatening guardians of the door, like Priapus, but without his sense of humour. The ideogram of an oppressive, dystopian system, the ubiquitous penis is seen to represent the ubiquity of male power: an attack on this sign, such as the vandalism of 415, looks very much like a revolt of phallocracy’s oppressed.

When it was first published, Keuls’s suggestion seemed to belong to the fringes of ancient studies; recently reissued, her book now nestles comfortably in the mainstream, a graphic indication of the direction the current has taken over the past ten years. Her title, The Reign of the Phallus, might stand as a summary of new thinking on ancient gender. Blended with Beauvoir’s Other, Freud and Foucault, the phallus has come to be seen as the key to a whole society, lying at the centre of a nexus of sex and power. ‘Sex was phallic action,’ claims Halperin, ‘it revolved around who had the phallus, was defined by what was done with the phallus, and was polarised by the distribution of phallic pleasure.’ Sex was a chronic, traumatic, political event. Far from bringing people together it kept them apart, dividing those penetrating from those penetrated, while at the same time erasing distinctions on either side of the phallic equation. Penetration, moreover, meant power. Those who had the phallus and used it were the dominant citizen males. Those who had been born without one or who had lost theirs somewhere along the way were the disenfranchised Other: women, slaves, foreigners and men who enjoyed getting shafted. Sex made everyone either active or passive, a plus or a minus; it was a zero-sum game.

It has been claimed that phallicism was not merely characteristic of sex in the ancient world (as it has been thought characteristic of sex today) but actually constituted a sexuality. In fact, there was no such thing as sexuality in antiquity, only ‘a more generalised ethos of penetration and domination’. Phallicism thus presented historians with a real-life example to support Foucault’s theory of radical discontinuity in the history of desire. The ‘problem’ of Greek homosexuality was a problem no more. So long as they were on the positive end of the penetrating penis, the Greeks did not care about the gender of the person on the other.

This view of ancient sexuality has been enormously influential over the past decade, especially among non-classicists, who seem prepared to accept uncritically claims about the ancient world that would, if made about more proximate cultures, attract much closer scrutiny. The theory’s ready acceptance is perhaps one of the main grounds for scepticism, since it convinces not by means of an avalanche of indisputable ancient material, but by fitting in neatly with contemporary concerns. Penetration is a peculiarly modern obsession, and non-penetrative intercourse our peculiar holy grail. This makes the ancient phallocracy look suspiciously like a genealogical exercise, an archaeology of the truth of Western patriarchy in a time before it had gone under cover. Future historians will have little difficulty in demonstrating a connection in the 20th century between sex, aggression and power. The more adventurous among them might adduce the homosexual rape scene in Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain, or the addition to military slang of the verb ‘to scud’, glossed by one reporter during the Gulf War as ‘to make love unfeelingly’, but these are only the more exotic reaches of a quotidian discourse constituted in a whole range of expletives from ‘up yours’ to ‘get screwed.’

Such language is conspicuous in ancient Greece by its absence, forcing the historians of phallocracy to turn to images instead. But these images are silent and it is by no means straightforward to make them speak without ventriloquising. Anything which strays from the missionary position, for instance, is looked at with suspicion as being close to S&M: ‘the rear-entry stance allows the painter to show women being used impersonally, as mere sexual tools whose response and emotional reaction is of no concern to their male lovers.’ The foundations of the theory of ancient phallocracy, as well as the impressionable, fly-by-wire approach to sexual imagery, have their origins not, surprisingly, in some post-Foucauldian constructionist treatise, but in a ten-page section on ‘Dominant and Subordinate Roles’ in Kenneth Dover’s normally sober work on Greek homosexuality. Here, at the point where it was perhaps most needed, Dover abandons his painstaking philology, turning instead to pornographic vase-paintings elucidated with the help of anthropology and zoology. He notes that Italians refer to a defeated football team as inculato and observes that it is an insult in Norse sagas to describe someone as ‘used like a wife’. Most of his evidence, however, comes from analogies in the animal kingdom, although the animals generally seem more sophisticated than Homo sapiens about sexual symbolism: ‘Karlen observes that humans, unlike many animal species which have ritualised homosexual “submission”, can complete a genital act “in expressing a power relationship”. John Boorman’s film Deliverance makes striking use of this theme in depicting the maltreatment of urban “trespassers” by rustic hunters.’

It is this modern view of penetration, universalised by human-zoo logic, that makes the ancient phallocracy convincing. The idea that the ithyphallic herm is an aggressive proprietorial marker is cogent not because of any compelling ancient evidence, but because of an implicit or explicit analogy with the territorial displays of apes (‘I have myself seen this reaction,’ says Dover). Even Foucault, who would not normally allow a monkey within a hundred miles of his philosophy, is quite happy to refer to Dover’s bestiary as evidence for ancient attitudes to penetration. His followers have tended to follow suit, producing a curious blend of primatology and psychoanalysis, treating the penis as a transcendental signifier and reading the meanings of making love without reference to cultural conventions. A theory which claims to challenge universalising notions of sexuality depends on universalising interpretations of sex.

As Simon Goldhill shows in his subtle and complex new book, Foucault’s Virginity, antiquity was not immune to the argument from nature, although there it turns up in strange and unexpected guises that might not be familiar to modern sociobiologists. In a neglected work of Plutarch, for instance, we find Gryllus the pig, a victim of Circe’s magic, refusing to be turned back into a man and reasoning against Odysseus for the moral superiority of unreasoning beasts. In a novel of Achilles Tatius, the hero Cleitophon demonstrates the power of love by citing the viper who lays aside his poison to mate with the eel, the male palm tree which wilts if planted too far from the female and the love of the magnet for iron – not so much sociobiology perhaps as sociobotany or sociophysics.

Ancient romances, like Cleitophon and Leucippe, form the main focus of Goldhill’s work, taking precedence over the philosophical rulebooks and homilies favoured by Foucault and Peter Brown in their researches on sexuality. This deliberate prioritising of the erotic genre over the philosophical is celebrated by a striking image on the cover: Aristotle, on all fours, ridden by the hetaera Phyllis brandishing a whip. Considered morally dubious in the last century and literarily deficient in our own, the Erotikoi Logoi have not until recently received the attention due to the first European novels. They are set in a world of happy and unhappy accidents that makes Serendip look like Eastbourne on a dull afternoon, telling tales of star-crossed lovers, their sexual experimentations, their separations, violations, last-minute salvations, abductions, seductions and deaths ... apparently. These ludicrous novels provide an appropriate site for Goldhill to make his revolutionary claim that sex in the ancient world, penetration even, may well have been bound up with power and a whole host of other things, but it belonged first and foremost to the realm of play. Here, sexual rules are not simply obeyed or broken, but teased and negotiated; nature and her norms are refracted through layers of irony and humour.

After more than ten years of binary oppositions, overbroad generalisations and rigid schemas, Goldhill’s close readings are a relief. He brings to the study of ancient sexuality a sensitivity to nuance, an appreciation of complexity and, above all, a respect for contexts, both textual and historical. While some treat the ancient phallocracy as an unchanging system throughout antiquity and even beyond, Goldhill is aware that the novels come from a period which both Foucault and Peter Brown have identified as a crucial one in the history of sexuality, a transitional period in the first centuries of our era which culminated in the primacy of Christian ethics. In three chapters he examines how the ancient novels reflect the period’s changing attitudes to homosexuality, the symmetry of the sexes and virginity, thus giving historical specificity to the idea of penetration and bodily integrity. But he is anxious that the novels be seen as more than simply windows on a sexual world, or litmus tests of sexual attitudes. They are themselves artefacts of the history of desire, intertwining text and sex to draw out the narrativity of desire, or the eroticism of fictions. Cleitophon’s eels and palm-trees, for instance, form part of a rhetorical set-piece expounded within earshot of Leucippe, the target of his affections. By demonstrating the power of love in this rather stiff and artificial speech, he can expect to make her feel its force more passionately. Similarly, in the most famous of the novels, Chloe only begins to fall in love with Daphnis when she describes him. Merely seeing him was not enough: it was necessary for her to rehearse his beauty in words. The novels are full of these powerful, love-activating texts within texts, producing a kind of reflection en abîme which is now a familiar trope of literary criticism but which seems also to be a genuine characteristic of Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic literature, smudging the boundary between reader and read and providing a kind of self-advertisement for the sexual power of literature. We know of at least one ancient doctor who prescribed erotic novels as a cure for impotence.

One sometimes suspects that Goldhill, like other subtle critics, is so sensitive to irony that he has begun to perfect imperfect texts, using his ingenuity to uncover coherence where there is none. Ancient books, scrolled fore and aft and almost always read aloud, were like fairy-tale bridges that materialise underfoot and disappear in the reader’s wake, moving on forgetfully from what has gone before and and not altogether certain of what is coming next. All narratives may be linear, but ancient novels are more linear than others and less accountable to standards of consistency and control based on the attentive reading allowed by the more manageable three-dimensional leafed codex. The occasional critical overshoot, however, is a price worth paying for Goldhill’s detailed demonstration of the novels’ narrative intricacy, and for his making available to the historian of sexuality such rich seams of new and fascinating material.