Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

John Addington Symonds: Culture and the Demon Desire
Edited by John Pemble
(Macmillan Press)

Late nineteenth-century attitudes towards Renaissance art and history, Mediterranean travel and Classical Antiquity owed more to the art historian John Addington Symonds (1840–93) than to any other writer in English. Equally important, the early twentieth-century gay emancipationist agenda was grounded in Symondsís argument that gay culture was an essential part of Western history and an integral and healthy part of the mainstream of modern life. Most of Symondsís writings – whether on art or philosophy or history, or in his personal letters and his remarkable sexual autobiography (suppressed until 1984) as well as his arguments for legal reform – were organised around the "demon" of his desire for other men. This is the focus of this stimulating collection of ten papers delivered at a symposium held at the University of Bristol in 1998.

Symonds achieved many "firsts", which contributors to this collection rightly praise: he was the first to translate Michelangeloís Sonnets into English, the first English critic to appreciate the painting of Giambattista Tiepolo, the first English art historian to write a cultural history of an entire period (a seven-volume study of the Italian Renaissance), the first scholarly historian of Greek paiderastia, and the first Englishman to advocate gay liberation – albeit in "privately printed" books and by quietly working behind the scenes to educate society about homosexuality. A great lover of life as well as culture, he was also the father of British tobogganing in Switzerland!

These papers reappraise Symonds as a distinctively modern analyst of the psychology of sexuality and the crucial link between the age of Winckelmann and the age of Freud – and beyond – in the study of erotic meaning. Phyllis Grosskurth concludes the collection by looking back at her acclaimed biography of Symonds and admits she was naïvely reliant on Freud when she suggested in 1964 that Symonds became homosexual because of some childhood trauma – "how quaint all that sounds now!" Like the other contributors, she concurs in this welcome celebration of Symondsís triumph in managing to accommodate his demons.


(This review was originally published in Gay Times. 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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