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The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

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Cicero was the first to admit it. His ambition in drawing from sources transcended translation, and he would do so “in such measure and in such manner as shall suit my purpose.” (De Officiis, I.6).


While this quote, rather surprisingly, does not appear in this book by Dr. Todd Reeser, it neatly expresses the subject matter of his work.


Reeser is a professor of French, and the director of the gender, sexuality, and women's studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. What he has set out to do here is take the writings of Plato that deal with homosexuality, and examine in very fine detail how they were translated in the Renaissance. In this he has accomplished such a superlative job that it will become a foundational text for the academic study of gay history.


As he says in the introduction, “Translations and commentaries have effects beyond themselves, as they send ripple waves into other cultural domains.”


Reeser notes that Plato includes many “direct and indirect references to homoerotic desire throughout the Symposium and the Phaedrus, and at the beginning of the Lysis.” The speech of Aristophanes at the banquet in the Symposium was a particular problem for Renaissance translators, as it “describes in idealized terms boys who grow up to be pederasts. Terms that refer to man/boy love are ubiquitous.” The other prime text Reeser studies is Alcibiades's speech, where he tries to seduce Socrates.


The author identifies in chapter one what he describes as the “textual moment” that is at the heart of his study. Men who love women are adulterers according to Plato. Boys grow up to be boy-lovers, men who, in the words of Plato, “are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days.” Men who have “the most manly nature,” says Plato, have “no interest in wiving and getting children.”


What was a Renaissance translator to do with all this gayness which was against Catholic Church teaching? Very simple: replace it all with an asterisk. That, at least, is what Mathurin Heret did in his 1556 French translation of the Symposium! Aristophanes' entire speech about males finding their other halves is indicated with an asterisk, which Reeser identifies as a major event.


“This punctuation mark replaces a particularly problematic textual moment, of course, but it also signals a climax in the larger context of the translation or a point at which the translator's back is to the wall and he can no longer pretend that pederasty was something else than what it was and that these boys love men.”


Another translator Reeser devotes a lot of attention to is Marcilio Ficino. If he had held up a banner, it would have read “Platonism has to be dequeered.” The “cultural tensions around Plato” that Reeser identifies means that homoetoricism may not even have been possible, “even if a Renaissance writer wants to compose what we might now call a gay text.”


Thus we see that another major translator, Leonardo Bruni, had “an intense fear of Platonic sexuality...Instead of presenting the entire conclusion of the Symposium, Bruni cuts out the scene in which Agathon and Alcibiades both try to gain Socrates' affection.” The heavenly love of one male for another described by Plato becomes, the hands of these Renaissance translators, either a “vague form of love” or no love at all. With all this literary vandalism, it is no wonder generations of people grew up repressed (my view, not propounded by Reeser, to be clear).


Reeser uses medical analogies and metaphors to fine effect in explaining all this. “Ficino repeatedly refers to aspects of Socrates in ways that allow the reader in the know not to see the translation as entirely unfaithful and the reader not in the know not to be infected with the wicked.”


The 1503 book by Symphorien Champier is a classic example of this. Reeser studies in depth the work of this translator who was also a physician. He went even further than Ficino as well. “Whereas Ficino had rejected male-male sexual acts, Champier groups all sexual acts into a single, vague category that must be avoided.” In the hands of Champier, “the chaste Socrates sets sexuality straight even without naming the problem in the first place.”


As an examination of what Reeser terms “the obsession in the Renaissance with rewriting male-male eros,” this book is a landmark study that will reward a careful study. Another review of this book has described it as “deeply sophisticated” and in that I fully concur. Despite is academic nature, Setting Plato Straight should be read by social policy makers of today, and of course any student of the Renaissance. But most of all it should read by anyone who thinks they know what love is. Hint: Plato knew.


Setting Plato Straight: Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance (390 pages) is $45 from University of Chicago Press.

Note on future story: I recently attended the 45th anniversary celebration of the University of Waterloo's Glow Center, Canada's oldest gay student organisation. My report on this will appear soon.



Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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