Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Mystic Fraternity

A review of The Other Face of Love by Raymond de Becker (1969)

Something of a classic in the ethnographic-studies-of-homosexuality genre, Raymond de Becker’s work is of immense value as a resource, sometimes provocative, invariably interesting, written with the urbane style of a French intellectual. He does not hesitate to wax metaphysical, and views homosexuality as the major paradigm of the twilight of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and the evolution towards a society free from patriarchal authority and the concept of sin. Beyond this, he in fact shares Plato’s view (in Phaedrus) that gay love leads to the abyss of ecstasy: “This kind of love can plunge into unimaginable depths, by reason of its proximity to those most primitive sources of emotion which are also the sources of the sacred.”

De Becker’s survey is gargantuan and his argument ambitious; I cannot help but feel that he fails. For one thing, he focuses too narrowly upon the purely sexual (and meta-erotic) aspects of homosexuality, largely overlooking the primarily social patterns of gay lives: patterns which I think indicate, for example, that gay businessmen and bus conductors and lesbian librarians share very much the same habits and attitudes as their workmates. The other flaw – a major drawback of this study – is that he repeatedly justifies homosexuality by pointing to the cultural contributions of gay geniuses: in fact he strongly implies that homosexuality and imaginative creativity are inherently linked. This notion is outdated.

His less debatable argument is that Western Civilization has its own provincial bias rather than universal values. That is, the homophobia of the Judaeo-Christian West becomes quite laughable when compared with the generally tolerant attitudes in primitive and non-European cultures – in fact even amongst animals. I was particularly struck by his wry conclusion after listing all the animals who naturally engage in homosexual intercourse: “If homosexuality is perverse, then we are forced to find Nature itself perverse, and the designs of providence obscure.”

The book of course suffers from the ethnographic style: we come upon whole pages filled with sentences beginning “In Africa ...”, “In the Congo ...”, “In Polynesia ...”, “Among the Nembikwara Indians of Brazil ...”, “Among the Patagonians and the Araucans ...”, and so on. But de Becker handles such necessary repetitiousness as ably as possible, and indeed comes to the conclusion that, at one time or another, well-night every society has had its gay people.

A major advantage of this study is that, unlike most other surveys, de Becker gives a parallel treatment to both male and female homosexuality. The historical information about lesbianism is admittedly sparse, but at least it is neither ignored nor tucked away in a chapter all to itself; thus we can see gay men and women in context with one another as well as in relation to their culture. The abundant historical detail is visually supplemented by 28 glossy pages of illustrations, very well selected, a number of which I have seen reproduced nowhere else (e.g. a man sucking his own penis, from an Egyptian papyrus). (The hardback edition has three more illustrations than the paperback edition.)

Unfortunately there is no single consistent body of theory underlying de Becker’s vie3wpoint. Most of the time he points out the homosexual archetypes discovered by Jung and his followers, particularly Mircea Eliade, but he’s never entirely free from traditional Freudian interpretations. Thus in the Epic of Gilgamesh he finds evidence of the source of homosexuality in both the Double (Umbra) archetype and the Oedipus Complex: without realizing the Jungian and Freudian analyses just don’t mix! Like most commentators on this subject, he wrongly assumes that “homosexuality” is a monolith, a single unified phenomenon with a single source and a few essential characteristics. So he searches for the common denominator between such varied things as Indian shamanism, Near Eastern sacred prostitution, Greek pederasty, the Amazons, adolescent initiation rituals, Renaissance friendship, and so on. It’s like trying to find a single “gay sensibility” held in common by Gide, Cocteau and Genet – certainly they all adore the archetypal Beautiful Boy, but their styles and homo-metaphysics are distinctly different from one another – and the varieties increase as we expand the list of authors. Five thousand years of recorded history is simply too big a bed even for Procustes.

Throughout this sometimes bewildering avalanche of anecdote I seldom encountered the ordinary kind of homosexual I’m familiar with. De Becker rarely draws convincing correlates between ancient rituals and modern daily life, thereby leaving us with the impression that homosexual is more archaic than modern, more mythical than mundane, more of an aesthetic vision than a human experience – not so much an “inclination” as a “predisposition towards the sacred”.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.).)

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