A conjunction of social and aesthetic concerns may account for the rarity of female nudes in the earlier periods of Greek art, as well as the particular form they took when they eventually appeared in the fourth century. Few civilized societies have been so completely male-dominated as that of ancient Greece. Laws make this abundantly clear: adultery, for example, was defined one-sidedly as intercourse between a married woman and a man who was not her husband, rape as an offence against a woman’s husband, father or guardian, not herself. Regarded and guarded as possessions, upper-class wives were kept at home and confined to childrearing and household maintenance, while their husbands sought emotional, physical and intellectual stimulus elsewhere, either with members of their own sex or among the hetairai or porne (common prostitutes). The latter were depicted naked, in a variety of seductive poses, on sixth and fifth-century vases, usually in brothel scenes, which are pornographic in the strictest meaning of the word. To have included a nude female among the statues of male athletes which crowded the sanctuaries would therefore have seemed extremely odd.
Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History, 2002
Greek love, you have to get used to this idea, is the love of beautiful boys. And then, hyphen, nothing else. It is quite clear that when one speaks about love one is not speaking about something else. All the efforts that we make to put this in its place are destined to fail in advance. I mean that in order to see exactly what it is we are obliged to move the furniture around in a certain way, to reestablish certain perspectives, to put ourselves in a certain more or less oblique position, to say that this was not necessarily all there was… obviously… of course…
It nevertheless remains that on the plane of love there was nothing but that. But then on the other hand, if one says that, you are going to tell me that love for boys is something which was universally accepted. Well no! Even when one says that it nevertheless remains that in a whole part of Greece a very poor view was taken of it, that in a whole other part of Greece—Pausanias underlines it for us in the Symposium—it was very well regarded, and since it was the totalitarian part of Greece, the Boeotians, the Spartans who belonged to the totalitarians (everything that is not forbidden is obligatory) not only was it very well regarded, it was what was commanded. One could not stand apart from it. And Pausanias says: there are people who are much better. Among us, Athenians, it is well regarded but it is prohibited all the same, and naturally that reinforces the value of the thing. This is more or less what Pausanias tells us.
All of this, of course, fundamentally, does not teach us very much, except that it was more credible on a single condition, that we should understand more or less what it corresponds to. To have an idea of it, you must refer to what I said last year about courtly love. It is not of course the same thing, but it occupies an analogous function. I mean that it is quite obviously of the order and of the function of sublimation, in the sense that I tried last year to contribute to this subject a slight rectification in your minds about what is really involved in the function of sublimation.
Let us say that there is nothing involved here which we [cannot] put under the register of a kind of regression on a collective scale. I mean that this something which analytic doctrine indicates to us as being the support of the social bond as such, of fraternity among men, homosexuality, attaches it to the neutralisation of the bond. It is not a question of dissolving this social bond, of returning to the innate form, it is quite obviously something else. It is a cultural happening and it is also clear that it is in the milieu of the masters of Greece, amongst people of a certain class, at the level at which there reigns and at which there is elaborated culture, that this love is put into practice. It is obviously the major centre for the elaboration of interhuman relationships.
I recall in a different form, the thing that I already indicated at the end of the last seminar, the schema of the relationship of perversion with culture in so far as it is distinguished from society. If society brings with it by its censoring effect a form of disintegration which is called neurosis, it is in a contrary sense of development, of construction, of sublimation—let us say the word—that perversion can be conceived when it is produced by culture. And if you wish, the circle closes in on itself: perversion contributing elements which torment society, neurosis favouring the creation of new elements of culture. However much a sublimation it may be, this does not prevent Greek love from being a perversion. No culturalist point of view should predominate here. We cannot tell ourselves on the pretext that it was an accepted, approved, even celebrated perversion… homosexuality remains nevertheless what it was: a perversion. That to want to tell us in order to arrange things that if, we, for our part, treat homosexuality, it is because in our day homosexuality is something quite different, it is no longer the fashion, and that in the time of the Greeks on the contrary it played its cultural function and as such is worthy of all our respect, this really is to evade what is properly speaking the problem. The only thing which differentiates the contemporary homosexuality with which we have to deal and the Greek perversion, God knows, I believe that one can scarcely find it elsewhere than in the quality of objects. Here, schoolboys are acneed and cretinised by the education they receive and these conditions are not really favourable for them to become the object of our homage; it seems that one has to go searching for objects in out of the way places, the gutter, that is the whole difference. But there is no difference in the structure itself.
Naturally this causes scandal, given the outstanding dignity with which we have invested the Greek message. And then there are the fine sentiments with which one surrounds oneself for this purpose, namely that we are told: all the same you must not believe that for all that women did not receive appropriate homage. Thus Socrates, do not forget, precisely in the Symposium, where, as I told you, he says very little in his own name – but what he speaks is extraordinary – only he makes a woman speak in his place: Diotima. Do you not see that the testimony, that the supreme homage comes back, even in the mouth of Socrates, to the woman? Here at any rate is what right thinking people never fail at this point to highlight for us; and in addition, you know that from time to time he would go to visit Lais, Aspasia – historians collect all sorts of gossip – Theodota who was Alcibiades’ mistress. And as regards the famous Xanthippes, about whom I spoke to you the other day, she was there the day he died as you know, and she even gave out the most deafening cries. There is only one problem… this is attested for us in the Phaedo, in any case, Socrates suggests that she should be put to bed immediately, that she should be got out at quickly as possible so that they can talk calmly, there are only a few hours left.
Except for this, the function of the dignity of women will be preserved. I have no doubt in fact about the importance of women in antique Greek society, I would say even more, it is something very serious whose import you will subsequently see. It is that they had what I would call their true place. Not alone did they have their true place, but this means that they had a quite outstanding weight in love relationships and we have all sorts of testimonies of this. It appears in fact, provided always that one knows how to read—one must not read the antique authors with wire netting on one’s glasses—that they had this role which is veiled for us but nevertheless is very outstandingly their own in love: simply the active role, namely that the differences between the antique woman and the modern woman is that she demanded her due, that she attacked the man. This is something that you can, I believe, put your finger on in many cases. In any case when you have woken up to this point of view on the question you will notice many things which otherwise, in ancient history, seem strange. In any case Aristophanes who was a very good music-hall producer, did not dissimulate from us how the women of his time behaved. There has never been anything more characteristic and more crude concerning the enterprises – as I might say – of women. And it is precisely for that reason that learned love—as I might call it—took refuge elsewhere.
I would like you to take into account what Alcibiades is. In any case, for the usual version, you should read in the Nine Greek Lives what Plutarch wrote about him, this to help you to take into account the stature of the personage.
I know well that this again is going to demand an effort from you. This life is described for us by Plutarch in what I would call the Alexandrian atmosphere, namely at a funny moment in history, in which all the personages seem to pass to the state of a sort of shadow. I am speaking about the moral accent of what comes to us from this epoch which involves a sort of emergence of shadows, a sort of nekuia as it is called in the Odyssey.
Plutarch’s construction, with what they contain moreover as a model, as a paradigm, for a whole moralistic tradition which followed, have this something or other which makes us think of the being of zombies: it is difficult to see blood flowing through their veins. But try to imagine from this singular career that Plutarch outlines for us, what this man must have been; this man coming here before Socrates, Socrates who elsewhere declares that he was protos erastes, the first to have loved him, Alcibiades, this Alcibiades who on the other hand is a sort of pre-Alexander, a personage no doubt whose political adventures are all marked with the sign of defiance, of extraordinary exploits, of an incapacity to situate himself or to come to a halt anywhere, and wherever he passes upsetting the situation and making victory pass from one camp to the other wherever he goes, everywhere hunted, exiled and, it must be said, because of his misdeeds.
It seems that if Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, it is in so far as it felt the need to recall Alcibiades right in the middle of hostilities to make him account for an obscure story, the one described as the mutilation of Hermes, which appears to us to be as inexplicable as it is ridiculous as we look back on it, but which surely involved fundamentally a character of profanation, of properly speaking insulting the gods.
Nor are we at all able to consider the memory of Alcibiades and his companions as settled. I mean that it is surely not without reason that the people of Athens brought him to book for it. In this sort of practice which evokes, by analogy, some sort of black Mass or other, we cannot fail to see against what kind of background of insurrection, of subversion with respect to the laws of the city, that there emerges a personage like Alcibiades. A background of rupture, of contempt for forms and for traditions, for laws, no doubt for religion itself… This is the disturbing thing that this personage carries with him. But he carries with him just as much a very singular seduction wherever he goes. And after this suit by the people of Athens, he does neither more nor less than pass over to the enemy, to Sparta, to this Sparta moreover that he Alcibiades has some responsibility in making the enemy of Athens, because, previously, he did all in his power in short, to make the peace negotiations fail.
So he goes over to Sparta and he immediately finds nothing better, nor more worthy of his memory, than to make the queen pregnant, something which everybody saw and knew about. It happens to be very well known that the king Agis has not slept with his wife for ten months for reasons which I will pass over. She has a child, and right away Alcibiades will say: in any case, it was not for the pleasure of it that I did this, it is because it seemed appropriate to my dignity to ensure that my descendants would have a throne, and in that way to honour the throne of Sparta with one of my own race. This sort of thing, as you can well imagine, may be captivating for a certain time, but it is not forgiven. And naturally as you know Alcibiades, having contributed this present and some ingenious ideas about the manner of conducting hostilities, is going to change quarters again. He can hardly fail to go to the third camp, to the Persian camp, to the one represented by the power of the king of Persia in Asia Minor, namely Tissaphernes who, Plutarch tells us, was a bitter enemy of Greece. To be frank he hates them, but he is seduced by Alcibiades.
It is from there that Alcibiades is going to set about reestablishing the fortunes of Athens. He does it in conditions whose story of course is also extremely surprising because it seems that it is really in the midst of a sort of network of double agents, of permanent betrayal, all the warnings he gives to the Athenians are immediately reported through a circuit to Sparta and to the Persians themselves who make it known to the specific person of the Athenian fleet who passed on the information; so that at the same time he in his turn comes to know, to be informed, that it is perfectly well known in the highest places that he is a traitor.
Each of these personages sorts himself out as best he can. It is certain that in the midst of all this Alcibiades redresses the fortunes of Athens. After all that, without our being able to be absolutely sure of the details, in the way that the ancient historians reported them, we must not be astonished if Alcibiades comes back to Athens with what we could call a really outstanding triumph which, despite the joy of the Athenian people, is going to be the beginning of a change of opinion.
We find ourselves in the presence of someone who cannot fail at every instant to provoke what can be called public opinion. His death is also quite a strange business. There are many obscurities about who is responsible for it; what is certain, is that it seems, that after a succession of reversals of fortune, of reversions each more astonishing than the other, (but it seems that in any case, whatever difficulties he find himself in, he is never disheartened), a sort of enormous confluence of hatreds is going to culminate in the destruction of Alcibiades by means of procedures which are those, which legend, myth say must be used against the scorpion: he is surrounded by a circle of fire from which he escapes and it is from a distance with javelins and arrows that he must be brought down.
Such is the singular career of Alcibiades. If I have shown you the level of a power, of a penetration of a very active, exceptional mind, I would say that the most outstanding trait is still the reflection which is added to it by what is described not alone as the precocious beauty of Alcibiades as a child (which we know is closely linked to the story of the type of love then reigning in Greece namely, the love of children) but this beauty preserved for a long time which meant that at a rather advanced age it makes of him someone who seduces as much by his form as by his exceptional intelligence.
Such is the personage. And we see him in a gathering which reunites in short learned, serious men (although, in this context of Greek love on which we are going to put the accent later on which already contributes a background of permanent erotism from which these discourses on love are going to emerge) we see him therefore coming to recount to everybody something which we can summarise more or less in the following terms: namely the vain efforts that he made when he was a young man, at the time Socrates loved him, to get Socrates to have sex with him.
This is developed at length with details, and in short with a considerable crudity of language. There is no doubt that he made Socrates lose control, show how disturbed he was, yield to these direct corporal invitations, to a physical approach. And this which is publicly [reported] by a drunken man no doubt, but by a drunken man the whole extent of whose remarks Plato thinks it worthwhile reporting to us—I do not know if I am making myself fully understood.
Imagine a book which might appear, I am not saying in our day, because this appears about fifty years after the scene which is reported, Plato produces it at that distance, suppose that after a certain time, to soften things a little, a personage like for example Mr. Kennedy, in a book composed for the elite, a Kennedy who would have been at the same time James Dean, comes to tell how he did his best while he was at the university to be made love to by … (let us say some kind of professor), you can choose the personage yourself. It is not absolutely necessary that he should belong to the teaching profession, because Socrates was not quite a professor. But he was all the same a rather special one. Imagine that it is somebody like Mr. Massignon and who at the same time is Henry Miller. That would produce a certain effect. It would lead to some difficulties for Jean-Jacques Pauvert who would have published this work. Let us recall this at the moment when it is a question of noting that this astonishing work has been transmitted to us throughout the centuries by the hands of what we should call in different ways different kinds of benighted friars, which means that we have without any doubt the complete text.
Glaucus, while still a child, was playing ball one day in the palace at Cnossus or, perhaps, chasing a mouse, when he suddenly disappeared. Minos and Pasiphaë searched high and low but, being unable to find him, had recourse to the Delphic Oracle. They were informed that whoever could give the best simile for a recent portentous birth in Crete would find what was lost. Minos made enquiries and learned that a heifer-calf had been born among his herds which changed its colour thrice a day – from white to red, and from red to black. He summoned his soothsayers to the palace, but none could think of a simile until Polyeidus the Argive, a descendant of Melampus, said: ‘This calf resembles nothing so much as a ripening blackberry [or mulberry].’ Minos at once commanded him to go in search of Glaucus.
Polyeidus wandered through the labyrinthine palace, until he came upon an owl sitting at the entrance to a cellar, frightening away a swarm of bees, and took this for an omen. Below in the cellar he found a great jar used for the storing of honey, and Glaucus drowned in it, head downwards. Minos, when this discovery was reported to him, consulted with the Curetes, and followed their advice by telling Polyeidus: ‘Now that you have found my son’s body, you must restore him to life!’ Polyeidus protested that, not being Asclepius, he was incapable of raising the dead. ‘Ah, I know better, replied Minos. ‘You will be locked in a tomb with Glaucus’s body and a sword, and there you will remain until my orders have been obeyed!’
When Polyeidus grew accustomed to the darkness of the tomb he saw a serpent approaching the boy’s corpse and, seizing his sword, killed it. Presently another serpent, gliding up, and finding that its mate was dead, retired, but came back shortly with a magic herb in its mouth, which it laid on the dead body. Slowly the serpent came to life again.
Polyeidus was astounded, but had the presence of mind to apply the same herb to the body of Glaucus, and with the same happy result. He and Glaucus then shouted loudly for help, until a passer-by heard them and ran to summon Minos, who was overjoyed when he opened the tomb and found his son alive. He loaded Polyeidus with gifts, but would not let him return to Argos until he had taught Glaucus the art of divination. Polyeidus unwillingly obeyed, and when he was about to sail home, told Glaucus: ‘Boy, spit into my open mouth!’ Glaucus did so, and immediately forgot all that he had learned.