Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


Anachronism is a double-edged sword. Errors in historical interpretation arise not only from projecting modern views and concepts onto the past, but from basing general conclusions solely on modern circumstances without a historical perspective. In earlier sections I have challenged the social constructionist position that it is anachronistic to regard anyone as being ‘homosexual’ before the nineteenth (or eighteenth) century, by demonstrating the existence of premodern conceptualizations of various people and categories that in my view are patently queer. Here I wish to focus more narrowly upon the specific charge of 'anachronism' – admittedly an important issue in all historical analysis – by showing how censorship and suppression have helped to create the false view that modern queer interpretations of premodern lives are anachronistic. I will demonstrate that in a great many cases queer interpretations were expressed by contemporaries of the persons or events in question, but they were suppressed: in other words, queer readings do not have to be projected backwards – they only have to be rediscovered.

Modern queer readings of Renaissance art and literature are usually dismissed as ‘anachronistic’ – but there are no grounds for this misjudgement. Donatello’s statues of David and St George became homoerotic icons of the young boyfriend figure during Donatello’s own lifetime, and there are several contemporary stories about Donatello’s homosexuality in the court of Cosimo de’ Medici. A modern allegedly ‘anachronistic’ reading of Dante holds that because Dante treats Brunetto Latini and the sodomites sympathetically in the Inferno, we can infer that Dante shared their homosexual feelings; but this same conclusion was drawn by an anonymous commentator in the fourteenth century and therefore cannot be called anachronistic.

The classic example is the case of Michelangelo. His male nudes, whether in paintings (the ignudi in the Sistine Chapel) or sculpture (notably David and the Dying Captive) for several centuries past have inspired homoerotic sensibilities (e.g. in one of Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs a young man assumes the pose of the Dying Captive) – something which has been dismissed by queer theorists as anachronistic. But when the queer art historian John Addington Symonds was granted access to the Buonarroti family archives in Florence in 1863 he discovered a note written in the margin of the poems by Michelangelo’s grand-nephew (called Michelangelo the Younger) saying that the poems must not be published in their original form because they expressed ‘amor . . . virile’, literally ‘masculine love’, a Renaissance polite euphemism for paiderastia, better translated as ‘male–male desire’. Symonds thus was able to make public the fact that when Michelangelo the Younger prepared his great-uncle’s poetry for posthumous publication in 1623 he had changed all the masculine pronouns in the love poems to feminine pronouns, thus ensuring that any sentiments in the poems that could not be interpreted as being merely platonic would at least be interpreted as being normal, i.e. heterosexual. Many of Michelangelo’s contemporaries were aware that he was ‘different’, and a queer contemporary, Varchi, recognized his work as being homosexual. Michelangelo’s contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Benvenuto Cellini and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma) were all publicly charged with sodomy (Leonardo was even imprisoned for two months), and Michelangelo, like them, was offered ‘services’ by the ragazzi who worked as apprentices in the art studios. Whether his love-gift to Tommaso Cavalieri of a drawing of the rape of Ganymede is an emblem of neoplatonic sublimation or an invitation to bed, it seems likely that he had homosexual relations with his model Gherardo Perini and his assistant Febo di Poggio. In any case, regardless of all this contextual evidence, Michelangelo the Younger’s censorship provides as much evidence as is needed to prove that Michelangelo’s sonnets were perceived as homosexual during his own era. In other words, a queer reading of Michelangelo is neither anachronistic nor modern, and the charge of 'anachronism' cannot be laid against the inclusion of his sonnets in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

A combination of camp mannerisms and boyish beauty can be found in many seventeenth-century Venetian paintings. Perhaps we are ‘anachronistically reading into’ the male pairs shown in paintings such as Johann Carlloth’s Mercury Piping to Argus or Antonio Zanchi’s Seneca and Nero or Bernardo Strozzi’s The Baptism of Christ, but the full-bottomed ragazzi being carried away by the eagle in Damiano Mazza’s The Rape of Ganymede is unmistakably the object of queer desire. That may equally be true of the paintings of Saint Sebastian by Antonio Belluci and Niccolò Renieri. And the models for many paintings by Caravaggio are patently hustlers and the boyfriends of his queer patrons. Frankly I cannot see how any definition of queer or homosexual that would not include Caravaggio would be complete or useful. Nor do I see how his paintings can be misread or anachronistically ‘appropriated’ by modern queer people.

The ‘friendship tradition’ is a homosexual literary tradition whose key texts were created by men who loved men. The ideology was created for the classical world in the Symposium and Phaedrus by Plato whose boyfriends included Agathon and Aster, and in De Amicitia by Cicero who freed his lover Tiro from slavery. The tradition was revived for medieval Christians by De spirituali amicitia by St Aelred of Rievaulx who admitted that during his adolescence ‘the sweetness of love and the impurity of lust combined to take advantage of the inexperience of my youth’. The tradition was revived again for the Renaissance in De Amore by Marsilio Ficino who loved Giovanni Calvacanti. Many of Ficino’s contemporaries hinted at his homosexual inclinations after his death; his biographers succeeded in refuting them, though some followers, such as Benedetto Varchi, were openly suspected of sodomy, and some were brought to court on charges of sodomy. Two of his followers, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Girolamo Benivieni were buried together, with an inscription acknowledging that ‘their souls were joined by Love while living’.

From the mid-sixteenth century the concept of platonic love was carefully heterosexualized by philosophers because it was recognized that socratic love, amor socraticus, had been a disguise for homosexual love and was now openly identified with sodomy (Dall’Orto 1989). When Edmund Spenser revived the pastoral friendship tradition by imitating Virgil’s description of Corydon’s love for Alexis in The Shepheardes Calender (1579) it was immediately recognized by his contemporary, the learned pedant known only by the initials E. K., that some would interpret it homosexually:

In thys place seemeth to be some sauour of disorderly loue, which the learned call paederastice: but it is gathered beside his meaning. For who that hath red Plato his dialogue called Alcybiades, Xenophon and Maximum Tyrius of Socrates opinions, may easily perceiue, that such loue is much to be alowed and liked of, specially so meant, as Socrates vsed it: who sayth, that in deed he loued Alcybiades extremely, yet not Alcybiades owne selfe. And so is paederastice much to be praeferred before gynerastice, that is the loue which enflameth men with lust toward woman kind. But yet let no man thinke, that herein I stand with Lucian or hys deuelish disciple Vnico Aretino, in defence of execrable and horrible sinnes of forbidden and vnlawful fleshlinesse.

This is not a post-Freudian reading that violates the temper of Spenser’s times: it is a contemporary reading. Sir Philip Sidney in his Defense of Poesy (probably written at almost the same time as Spenser’s Calender) says that Plato in his Phaedrus and Symposium, and Plutarch in his Discourse on Love, both ‘authorize abhominable filthiness’. William Webbe in A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586) says that his circle of literary acquaintances had debated the problem raised by E. K.’s commentary (he notices that the ambiguity exists also in the June eclogue, whereas E. K. had mentioned it only in regard to January), and he concludes that critics have no right to prescribe a poet’s morality. Webbe even speculates upon Spenser’s non-literary behaviour: ‘perhaps he learned it from the Italians’ (Norton 1974). Francis Palgrave in the nineteenth century summed up the mistaken view that Spenser’s allusion to Virgil’s second eclogue was an ‘anachronistic impropriety . . . . Spenser is here, of course, only obeying the literary impulse of the age towards classical reproduction.’ This same defence all’anticha was used by Richard Barnfield in the overtly homoerotic The Affectionate Shepheard (1594), even though his work celebrating the love of Daphnis for Ganymede is filled with such non-Virgillian sentiments such as ‘If thou wilt be my Boy, or els my Bride.’

Any attempt to dismiss the importance of romantic friendship in real life by saying that it is ‘typical’ of certain periods must come up against contemporary views that it comprises a special category that is markedly different from ordinary friendship. For ‘special’ I read ‘queer’ as being the nearest modern equivalent term. When reading passionate expressions of endearment between men, I submit that it is relatively easy for queer readers to recognize the difference between sycophancy and love, between rhetoric and passion, and that most of the writers of what I would call ‘gay love-letters’ themselves knew what side of the division they were on. Lord Hervey reflects upon his letters to Stephen Fox in 1730, ‘I have often thought, if any very idle Body had Curiosity enough to intercept & examine my Letters, they would certainly conclude they came rather from a Mistress than a Friend.’ Queer historians do have that curiosity, and do come to that conclusion – and rightly so (Norton 1997).

Domenico Fusco in his 1953 biography of Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) dismisses the abundant contemporary accusations that Aretino was a sodomite as merely unfounded gossip. A playful letter written by Aretino to Giovanni de’ Medici saying he has decided to give up sodomy temporarily because he has fallen in love with a woman but will return to it soon – ‘and if I escape with my honour from this madness, will bugger as much as much and as much for me as for my friends’ – has been dismissed as a joke. Letters to Aretino from Federico Gonzaga in 1528, who was acting as a pimp to obtain boys for Aretino (‘I would willingly satisfy your wishes regarding this kept boy who you write could remedy your trouble’), have been generally ignored. The accusations need to be reexamined more fully by non-censorious gay-friendly scholars, but whatever our final conclusions may be, a queer reading would certainly not be anachronistic.

It is a commonplace for historians eager to dismiss the taint of homosexuality to point out that the sharing of beds was a very common practice until quite recent times ‘and no one ever thought anything of it’. It is true that it was a very common practice, but it is also the case that people did think about it. Ellen Nussey and Charlotte Brontë always shared a bed at the vicarage at Haworth. Ellen tried to persuade Charlotte not to leave for Brussels to open a school, but to remain at home, and Charlotte replied on 20 January 1842: ‘You tantalise me to death with talking of conversations by the fireside and between the blankets.’ The words ‘and between the blankets’ were omitted from the official biography, by Elizabeth Gaskell who had become Charlotte’s friend only at the very end of her life. Since Mrs Gaskell (and Brontë’s husband) were sensitive to this issue in 1857, two years after Brontë’s death, it is clear that a queer view about sharing a bed was a contemporary possibility – not an anachronism of modern queer historians.

The period of ‘romantic friendship’ between men in the mid-nineteenth-century has also been unfairly dismissed as being in no way homoerotic. Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) – an elegy for his beloved Arthur Hallam who died young – is the high point and archetype of ‘manly love’ in Victorian literature, but Tennyson himself was aware of its problematic homoerotic nature, and homosexuality was not something that was beyond his ken (for example, he had read the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom). Two of Tennyson’s friends, William Butler and Richard Monckton Milnes, certainly had sexual relations with men as well as women. Milnes was notorious as a collector of homosexual pornography. Hallam acknowledged to Milnes that ‘I have been the creature of impulse, . . . the basest passions have roused themselves in the deep caverns of my nature and swept like storm winds over me’ (Spencer 1995). In an essay ‘On Cicero’ Hallam called ‘Greek love’ ‘the noblest kind of love’. His letters show an idealization of ‘manly love’ that modern readers will see as obvious sublimation. The relationship between Tennyson and Hallam probably was not gay, but Tennyson's own awareness of that possibility means that it is not anachronistic for us to discuss it today. In the late 1870s Tennyson began revising his elegy for republication, during which he systematically removed indicators of its homoeroticism, for example by removing masculine pronouns. ‘His living soul was flashed on mine’ became ‘The living soul . . .’; ‘And Mine in his was wound’ became ‘And mind in this . . .’. This is clear evidence that a homoerotic reading of something written in the 1850s is not anachronistic, but was in fact a possibility clearly recognized by the author himself. The inversion of pronouns (and avoidance of gendered reference) is frequent in homosexual poetry, from John Addington Symonds who gave his lover the gondolier Angelo Fusato the name Stella and called him ‘she’ in the 1890s, to May Sarton who ‘bearded the pronouns’ in her 1961 sonnet sequence ‘A Divorce of Lovers’ (Faderman 1994). Few writers had the audacity of Baron Corvo, whose Desire and Pursuit of the Whole concerns a man’s pursuit of the sixteen-year-old girl Zilda who dresses as a boy and takes the name Zildo at the beginning of the novel; ‘she’ never resumes ‘her’ female identity, but respectable readers perhaps never realized the hoax that was being played upon them.

American literature is full of romantic friendship during the Victorian period, of a very passionate nature. Whitman was dismissed from his job as a clerk in the Interior Department’s Office of Indian Affairs when it was discovered he had written an ‘indecent’ book. This seems to me to suggest – contrary to the modern view – that Whitman’s contemporaries did not think that Leaves of Grass illustrated merely romantic friendship. Whitman himself took pains to disguise the intensity and nature of his love for the young bus conductor Peter Doyle, which he would not have done if he and his contemporaries would have classified it as mere camaraderie. Not only did he use a code when writing about Peter in his diary – ‘16.4’, being the sixteenth and fourth letters of the alphabet – but he even erased the word ‘him’ and replaced it with ‘her’, e.g. ‘pursue her no more . . . avoid seeing her, or meeting her’ (15 July 1870). Surely this falsification of sex object indicates a consciousness that his love was homosexual rather than heterosexual. Whitman acknowledged to Carpenter that what lay behind Leaves of Grass was ‘concealed, studiedly concealed; some passages left purposely obscure. . . . I think there are truths which it is necessary to envelop or wrap up.’ These are truths that a gay historian has a right to 'unwrap' without being falsely accused of anachronism.

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(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "The False Charge of 'Anachronism'," 14 August 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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