Monday, April 06, 2009

"Male love": a dissent

Using the rubric of The Androphile Project, an Internet site seeks to delineate the “world history of male love.” ( While I have not studied this site thoroughly, it seems that its creators understand “male love” as a straightforward synonym for male homosexuality. The term does have the advantage of handling the thorny problem of deciding whether strong male attachments--as those of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, or Orestes and Pylades--achieved genital expression. By the same token, however, the concept may foster the coopting of pair-bonding situations that are not homosexual. A good example is the “brother-making” (adelphopoesis) rituals of the Byzantine Empire that have been misleadingly acclaimed by John Boswell and others as forerunners of gay marriage.

Over the years, however, the most sustained inquirer into the concept of male love has been the distinguished gay scholar John Lauritsen, who is also my friend. Surely the best compliment one can pay to a thinker is to examine his ideas critically. At all events, I will used Lauritsens' concepts as my central focus here, though without relying on them exclusively because, as I have indicated, a few others have adopted the expression.

Here is Lauritsen’s succinct definition: “ [M]ale love . . . as I use it, comprises sex, love, and friendship: different aspects of one and the same phenomenon. The term goes back to Classical Antiquity.” (“The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein,” Dorchester, MA, 2007, p. 81; I refer to the review copy, which its author kindly sent me).

I have been thinking about this matter for some time. I have concluded that I cannot endorse this unified-field approach because it conflates three distinct elements--sex, love, and friendship--in a way that, with all due respect, is not conducive to clear thinking, though it may be emotionally satisfying.

This assessment may seem harsh, so let me unpack my arguments.

First, let us address the linguistic aspect. Was this term, “male love,” or its equivalent, common in Greek and Roman antiquity? It does not seem so.

It is best to begin the story begins with an early modern Francophone attempt to cope with a passage in Plutarch’s "Erotikos" (“On Love”). In this piece, Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) offers an extended comparison of heterosexual and (male) homosexual love. His use of the expression “love of males” is a rarity--in fact it may be unique (a hapax)--as the Greeks normally thought of homosexual love as the love of boys (paiderasteia). Contextually, Plutarch used “male” for the object of the love because of the gender contrast he was seeking to explore.

At all events, the passage might have passed with little notice were it not for Jacques Amyot’s influential translation of Plutarch. In his rendering of the “Erotikos” (1572), Amyot has the Greek author speaking of “l’amour des mâles.” As Claude Courouve has shown, an anonymous author of the early seventeenth century coined the more compact expression “amour masculin.” This innovation has lately enjoyed some popularity in France, as seen in the Michel Larivière’s anthology “Les amours masculines” (Paris, 1984), and in Courouve’s own “Tableau synoptique de references à l'amour masculin: auteurs grecs et latins” (Paris, 1986). However, the term does not have any real currency in other modern languages, including English.

At all events the antiquity of an expression, its linguistic pedigree, offers no guarantee of its cogency (cf. geocentrism, phlogiston).

Now I turn from the diachronic, or historical aspect of the expression, to the synchronic perspective, as exemplified by its semantic workings. The molecular expression “male love” combines an adjective with a noun. Let us look first at the way the adjective functions.

1) As an adjective “male” can signify some particular defining property of the male sex (male genitals, male plumage in birds), or something that is supposed to be found fairly generally among that sex (male aggression, male privilege).

2) However, when “male” modifies “love” something more is involved, as love always implies directionality: we love someone or something, and don’t just love per se. So one must ask: does the word male have a nominative or an accusative function? That is to say, is it males who love (agency) or males who are loved (recipient status)? It seems that for Lauritsen both the nominative and accusative functions are present, and are indeed inseparable.

Yet a moment’s reflection will show that most men direct their love (in the nominative) to the opposite sex. Most “male love” is in fact “male-female love.” This truism, part of common sense, has been affirmed through a boundless store of cross-cultural studies. (I ignore fanciful efforts by some homophile apologists to show that most men “really” love other men.)

If the term male acts as an accusative, so that the male is the recipient of the love, then most lovers of men have been women. Here we are dealing with “female-male” love.

Strictly speaking, then, most male love--contrary to the innovative use of the expression under discussion--has been heterosexual.

It would not be hard to avoid this ambiguity. For example, one might adopt a version of the German expression mannmännliche Liebe, which is characteristically accurate. In English, that would be “male-male love.” Why, then, don’t the “male love” advocates employ that dual-adjective expression, which would be unequivocal? The answer seems to be that they think that there is something quintessentially m a l e about homosexual love.

So much for the tendentious use of the adjective “male.” Now we must turn to the larger issue: the purported inextricable union of the triad: sex, love, friendship.

Taking the last first, we must ask what is friendship? It is a little like Augustine’s concept of time: when no one asks me, I am sure that I know, but when they ask I am in a quandary.

We are all familiar with people who claim to have thousands of intimate friends. However, most would agree that true friendship can only involve a relatively few people who are bonded by disinterestedness and genuine concern for the other. True friendship is long-lasting, and is subject to testing by adversity.

At all events there are some classic works on friendship. Ancient studies of the theme, as by Aristotle and Cicero, exclude a sexual element. Why so? Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII and IX) emphasizes that true friendship can exist only between two equals. It must be reciprocal. As D. S. Hutchinson remarks, “It is possible for there to be affection between people who are on different social levels, but in this case they are not really friends in the sense that interests Aristotle.” (J. Barnes, ed., “Cambridge Companion to Aristotle,” Cambridge, 1995, p. 228). From a modern standpoint, the consequences of this view are stark. A free man cannot be friends with a slave, with a child, even with his own wife. While this may strike us as going too far, there is a core of common sense in the view. Skepticism is appropriate when one hears that someone is close friends with his or her doorman or maid. At all events, in ancient Greece, where homosexual relations were typically age-asymmetrical, true friendship would have been excluded, as one party was clearly more powerful than the other. Paiderasteia was not “male love” tout court, a single citation from Plutarch notwithstanding.

In two learned works, John Boswell (“Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” New York, 1994) and Alan Bray (“The Friend,” Chicago, 2004) have investigated medieval and early-modern rituals of male bonding. While these may occasionally have had a sexual element, it is clear from the evidence adduced that they usually did not. After all, there are many situations, such as being a sailor or a working on an oil rig, that may on occasion facilitate some incidental involvement in male-male sex. Few, though, would maintain that it is central to these institutions to encourage same-sex conduct. (A possible exception is Winston Churchill, who is reputed to have quipped that the only traditions of the Royal Navy were rum, sodomy, and the lash.)

We turn now to the matter of love. From Ovid to Ficino, from Stendhal to Andrew Sullivan many authorities have sought to define the nature of love. Without attempting to survey this vast literature here, it is safe to hazard the following conclusion. Unless the word love is preceded by some limiting adjective--as in “divine love” or “Platonic love”--it is generally thought that its goal or telos is corporeal union. We long for the consummation of being joined with the beloved in the most intimate way. In this respect love stands over and against friendship which has no such goal. This contrast transpires in the expression “they were more than just friends,” which characteristically places sexual relations beyond the bounds of friendship as the term is usually understood. In short, male bonding is not equivalent to homosexuality,

In conclusion, I do not find it useful to adopt a unified-field theory of the triad of love, sex, and friendship. What then is the appeal of this amalgam? Hubert Kennedy is on the right track when he says that it “strike(s) a chord in the hearts of gay men.”

Through conversations with countless other gay men I have found that their sexual careers (for the most part--there is a significant cadre of exceptions) involve a series of one-night stands and brief encounters. Many revel in this pluralism. A considerable number of others, however, cherish the hope that eventually they will find “Mr. Right” (instead of “Mr. Right Now”). And a few lucky ones do. But most of these aspirants are left in a state of perpetual longing.

It is this sense of unfulfilled longing that creates the appetite for a psychic utopia, in the form of a harmonious combination of love, sex, and friendship. Alas, I find that cross-cultural and historical data--not to speak of the psycho-sociological norms of our own age--offer little reason to believe that such a synthesis has ever prevailed. Accordingly, proffering the term “male love” is more a matter of conjuration rather than consolidation.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Love" is an overused word, especially if the word applies to stillettos as it applies to lovers and husbands. The Greeks, by contrast, as you have explained, considered "eros" as both general desire and sexual desire, but also as "romantic desire."

The major "loves" were filial, parental, universal benevolence, allegiances, and romantic -- the context and language distinguishing which is which.

I am thoroughly convinced that two men can be "romantically in love" with the fullness of meaning that Robert Solomon's explanations have provided. In his numerous texts on the subject, he tries to distill the "dialectic of two-gather-nest" between erotic (sexual) individuals, who come to "see" through the other's eyes, and together, use their alliance to forge new experiences together, to witness the beloved's delight for ourselves, as our beloved delights in our delight, reciprocally, indefinitely.

And you are absolutely correct to insist such lovers must be regarded as co-equals and the best of friends -- not at Facebook and MySpace use it -- but as Aristotle and the Ancients describe it.

I cannot explain why gay men -- in general -- have a difficult time achieving this kind of bond, but whatever the reason(s), most of them can be described as "selfish" which precludes the empathy needed for general benevolence, not to ignore its foundation in homoerotic romantic love.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Connaissance ouverte said...

Quite useful distinction. I have this remark about male love ("amour masculin") made by a heterosexual friend in 1985 in Paris. "Male love" can however subsist as a contraction of "male to male love".

Many words are improperly used, "gay" to begin with.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Connaissance ouverte said...

I had ...

12:25 AM  

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