Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford:
With this realization [that the “nonphysical eroticism of the Platonic doctrine of eros” was, basically, insufficient], Symonds comes to a bitter new assessment of his old teacher Jowett, as though Jowett’s Socratic “corruption” had somehow consisted in tempting suggestible young men down the delusive path to spiritual procreancy rather than fleshly excess. Writing from Davos in 1889, Symonds confronts his old tutor across a crevass of ancient and mutual misunderstanding into which the bitter sufferings of thirty years now pour. When young men in whom the homoerotic passion is innate come into contact with the writings of Plato, as Symonds now tells Jowett, “they discover that what they had been blindly groping after was once an admitted possibility—not in a mean hole or corner—but that the race whose literature forms the basis of their higher culture, lived in that way, aspired in that way…. derived courage, drew intellectual illumination, took their first step in the path which led to great achievements and the arduous pursuit of truth” (Letters 3:346). Symonds is making explicit here his sense of the cruel pedagogical contradiction within Oxford Hellenism which had harried him for so many years—his instruction in Platonic thought by the same teachers of Hellenism who denounced erotic relations between men as “unnatural”: “those very men who condemn him, have placed the most electrical literature of the world in his hands, pregnant with the stuff that damns him” (3:347).
And I mean, dude. Can you imagine being Symonds and discovering this? Well, maybe you can—maybe you, dear reader, have had realizations which are not dissimilar. But I am so, so very interested in this keen desire to, and profound experience of, discovering oneself in the classics—and then the notion that discovering oneself in the classics legitimates oneself. It could also work the other way around, though, as it did when Symonds and Edward Carpenter, among others, were just so eager to get Whitman to confess his own homosexuality (or whatever they would have called it)—knowing something about themselves, they were desperate to get some legitimation from respected authorities, regardless of whether the authorities themselves were likely to actually give it.
But, in the end, what I am most interested by is what an entirely different cultural moment we live in, because it is no longer a shock that idealized Platonic paiderastia should have a conceptual link to sexual practices, as it was (or so I understand) to some of those 19th-century intellectuals. In fact, in our time, it seems nearly impossible to unwind the two strands, and the only people who seem interested in doing so are those for whom the thought of “posing as a somdomite” is so terrifying that they work as desperately as they can to remove somdomy [sic for deliberate comic effect and the sake of allusion, obvs] from the picture. In our time, putting somdomy away in a proverbial closet such that it becomes mentally safe to conform to the Platonic ideal is something that comes from surely just as much a place of fear as that with which the young Symonds confronted his own sense of self reflected back at him from the pages of the “Greats”—only now the fear is called “homophobia,” and it’s a hard fear to pity when it acts to make some of our lives that much more difficult.
These are, of course, only absent thoughts, an entry in the 21st-century incarnation of a commonplace book, which is a segue into mentioning that I was glancing through Oscar Wilde’s own university commonplace book today, struck by how much more he knew and had read when he was just about my age. Never has the need to make room in my course schedule for Greek, for instance, seemed more pressing. At the end of an evening’s intentionally oxymoronic frenetic meander through the world of Victorian cultural history, and just a week before my twentieth birthday, what I am truly struck by is how young university-educated adults generation after generation, alumni class after alumni class, go through so many of the same thought processes, discoveries, adoptions and rejections of ideals, on the road to intellectual maturity. Some of us braid intellectual-cultural threads together, some of us undo the strands, and some of us step back and watch what happens. And all of us, I think, like the naïve young adults we are, are always surprised by the patterns that occur.