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.
Jacques Lacan, Transference, 1960