'Lovers and Philosophers at Once': Aesthetic Platonism in the Victorian Fin De Siecle

Article excerpt

This article considers the reception of Plato by writers close to the aesthetic movement in the Victorian fin de siecle. In Plato, and especially in the Phaedrus, authors such as John Addington Symonds, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde find a myth that links male homosexuality to artistic and literary eminence. Pater in 'Winckelmann' and Wilde in 'The Story of Mr W.H.' trace, through Plato, the influence of homoeroticism on the formation and transmission of the literary canon. Plato's mythic ideal of eros becomes the shared element of a millennial tradition of homoerotic reading and writing.

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In the seventh circle of Hell Dante encounters the souls of the sodomites, condemned to run around for eternity in a storm of fire. One of them recognizes Dante and asks him to stop, pulling the hem of his cloak. It is Brunetto Latini, a fellow Florentine and a respected scholar. The two have little time to talk--those souls who stop even for a moment will have to stand still for a hundred years with no means of sheltering their faces from the burning rain. But their exchange is intimate and emotional: Brunetto repeatedly addresses Dante as 'my son' and Dante fondly remembers Brunetto's 'paternal image' and the influence of his teaching. Brunetto prophesies Dante's future fame and finally, before departing, speaks of the other souls who, like himself, are punished for having committed violence against nature. There is no time to name them all. What Dante should know, though, is that all of them were once famous men of letters:

 
   In brief I tell thee, that all these were clerks, 
   Men of great learning and no less renown, 
   By one same sin polluted in the world. (1) 

It would seem that artists and scholars are particularly prone to sodomy.

Brunetto's words were quoted in 1897 by the sexologist Havelock Ellis in his influential study Sexual Inversion. Ellis uses Dante's evidence to confirm his hypothesis that 'homosexuality is especially common among men of exceptional intellect'. (2) Starting with Dante, Ellis notes that the special connection between male homosexuality and the arts became particularly strong during the Renaissance. He cites the examples of Michelangelo, Sodoma, Marlowe, and, with some reservations, Shakespeare. Ellis's list of eminent literary inverts of the more recent past includes Johann Winckelmann, 'who was the initiator of a new Greek renaissance and of the modern appreciation of ancient art' (p. 17), Walt Whitman, and Paul Verlaine.

The transition from Dante to Ellis brings to mind Michel Foucault's influential thesis on the invention of male homosexuality in the late nineteenth century, captured in the linguistic and cultural shift from the figure of the 'sodomite' to that of the 'homosexual'. (3) Following Foucault, we can argue that Dante sees Brunetto and those who share his lot as being guilty of a series of 'forbidden acts' that result in their damnation but in no other way make them similar people: there is no common 'type' to which the sodomites can be reduced. Ellis, on the other hand, is interested in isolating the 'singular nature' that is shared by inverts of all periods. In other words, and still arguing with Foucault, it is possible to see in Ellis the birth of a modern culture that sees sexuality as a site of knowledge: knowing about Michelangelo's or Winckelmann's 'inversion', we are able to grasp at a hidden truth about them, not only as people but, crucially, as artists. Learning about Brunetto's sexual preferences does not affect Dante's understanding of him as a scholar. Ellis, on the other hand, connects perverse sexuality to aesthetic factors such as the 'intellectual independence' of Renaissance culture and the interest in classical learning (p. 15), and argues that Michelangelo's homosexuality can be seen as a 'profound influence' or even as 'the key [...] to the mystery of his art' (p. …