A Flame That's Always Burned; Richard Edmonds Examines the Cultural History of Homosexuality from the Romans to the Modern Day

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Gay Life and Culture a World History. Edited by Robert Aldrich (Thames and Hudson: pounds 16.95) It was Oscar Wilde who spoke once of, "the love that dare not speak its name".

But times have certainly changed and things of a gay nature are now screened nightly from television to an audience of millions, where Graham Norton or Dale Winton, if you wish (not to mention prominent politicians) have little reticence as far as revealing sexual preferences. Obviously, these days, you could take a degree in gay and lesbian studies if the subject concerns you personally.

But in Gay Life and Culture, Robert Aldrich and 14 leading historians in the field from ten different countries, reveal the intriguing nature of their subject from across the millennia, presenting every kind of angle and investigating the commodity of love and lust through the way in such desires have been pursued across time using memoirs, letters, works of art and great literature to present their historical time span.

Clearly, with such a subject, the canvas is enormous, ranging from the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his young male lover, Antinous (who drowned mysteriously in the Nile) to the frenzied nightclubs of 1930s Berlin (check out the movie Cabaret for a sharp picture) where male prostitutes attracted English writers such as Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden. Probably many of the young men were not homosexual but sold themselves to offset the poverty of the 1930s which was in depression.

As far as Hadrian and boy lovers were concerned, it is generally accepted by now that it was normal for upper-class Romans to have acceptable sexual relationships with both males and females. The point is picked up in Mary Renault's fine novel, The Last of the Wine. Renault suggests that same sex love between males went much deeper than mere desire since the ruling class of senators looked to the older man to teach his young lover a moral modus vivendi. This it was assumed would guide him through adulthood into marriage.

The bonds between men were exemplified by the Spartan young warriors who went into battle fighting for the love of a comrade. These intensities between men were found equally in the trenches between the soldiers of the First World War, the result, as we know, was much fine poetry.

From homoerotic Persian poetry (not forgetting the imaginary poet Omar Khayam - who was really a fantasy figure) to the butch American cowboys of the late 19th century, who danced - all boys together - on their leisure evenings in the Rockies, when no females were available for hundreds of miles (a theme developed in the Oscar-winning movie Brokeback Mountain).

Then there were the brilliant novels of Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf's crossdressing Orlando or the homoerotic writings in North Africa of Andre Gide and (later, of course) of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs of the Beat generation.

For those bent on escaping the scrutiny of puritanical critics, restricted urban geographies could be exchanged for those of a more exotic nature, and changing locations could offer the attractions of a temporary escape away from prying eyes. Lord Byron went to Greece, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, (the infamous Bosie) took their film of the heady sexual delights of Greece - in Byron's case, or North Africa for Wilde and Douglas who rolled around with joy amongst the Walad Nail - the rent boys - who danced for the amusement of the client before offering other intimacies. …