Fordham University


Home | Ancient History Sourcebook | Medieval SourcebookModern History Sourcebook | Byzantine Studies Page
Other History Sourcebooks: African | East Asian | Global | Indian | IslamicJewishLesbian and Gay | Science | Women's



Subsidiary SourcebooksAfricanEastern AsianGlobalIndianJewishIslamicLesbian/GayScienceWomen

Special ResourcesByzantiumMedieval WebMedieval NYC
Medieval MusicSaints' Lives
Ancient Law
Medieval Law
Film: Ancient
Film: Medieval
Film: Modern
Film: Saints

About IHSPIJSP Credits

People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Whitney Davis:
Review of Merrick and Ragan, eds., Homosexuality in Modern France

Whitney Davis, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

Review of Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., Homosexuality in Modern France. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. x + 253 pp.

This highly readable collection of lucid and useful essays, a new contribution to Oxford's distinguished series of ‘Studies in the History of Sexuality," arose from a conference on "Homosexuality in Modern France" organized by the editors, Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., and hosted by the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at CUNY Graduate Center in 1994. It contains ten essays by intellectual, social, and cultural historians, six male and four female, covering diverse but interrelated topics in the study of male and female homosexuality in late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century France. (France is conceived largely as the Continental nation-state, since no chapter deals with Francophone colonies.) It gives about equal emphasis to each of the decades from the 1780s to the 1920s, covered in eight chapters, framed by chapters on views of same-sex eroticism in the earlier and mid-1700s, by Ragan, and on Michel Foucault’s sexuality and theory of historical sexualities (in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s), by Robert Nye. The overall title might suggest an interdisciplinary purview, but the volume does not contain work by literary or art historians or by scholars working in French academic institutions. Instead, it reflects the latest research and the preferred methods of professional historians in North America. Reading it through in one sitting leaves one with the strong impression of a subdisciplinary consensus working with considerable assurance and power, despite obvious differences between individual chapters in research topic and specific analytic emphasis. In fact, Homosexuality in Modern France should probably be regarded as the book in which gay and lesbian studies in modern French history "come of age" and confidently display their range, depth, and solidity. This shared sense of important questions to be addressed by a collective program of on-going discussion has been built from and draws upon a substantial dossier of ground-breaking work by several authors represented in the volume and by other scholars. This rich background certainly includes work by Foucault himself, though in practice several essays do not wholly accept his discourse-deterministic notions of historical causality and revise his sense of the emergence of modern "homosexuality" as a discursive construction. But it also draws on succeeding French historians of sodomitical and homosexual "subcultures" and vocabularies, including Michel Rey (whose pioneering 1985 article on eighteenth-century Parisian homosexuals’ "creation of a lifestyle" echoes through several chapters), Claude Courove (whose 1985 Vocabulaire del'homosexualite masculine continues to prove itself), and Maurice Lever (Les Buchers de Sodome: Histoire des infames, also of 1985, offered an initial synthesis); on historians of subversive and pornographic literatures (such as Robert Darnton, Lynn Hunt, and Sara Maza; on historians of medicine and psychiatry, among whom Foucault looms large but including a much-needed return to primary texts of sexual advice, sexual anthropology or criminology, and psychopathology; and the general history of European middle-class nationalisms and their emerging ideologies of sex and gender (represented, for example, in the work of George Mosse and Robert Nye).

The volume successfully supplements the existing emphasis in gay and lesbian studies generally--especially in its literary and cultural-studies variants--on British and American historical sources and problems. It shows the wide range and depth of the French sources and focuses the historical questions to which they give rise, complementing the existing (and somewhat different) scholarship on German-speaking countries in the same period. As an outsider to "French studies" in the American historical profession, however, I was sometimes a little puzzled, though never greatly disturbed, by the limits imposed by accepting the boundaries of the French language and nation-state as the general frame of analysis. Some features of the history under review--such as the increasingly internationalized nature of medical-scientific communication in the nineteenth century or the structural relation between capitalist imperialism and the colonization of "national" subjects--do not always seem completely well served by this; where necessary, in fact, several authors implicitly focus their lens differently and consider European or international materials.

It is difficult, and perhaps a little unfair to individual chapters, to summarize ten different complex studies. But as the volume does have a coherence, at least compared to debates within poststructural or cultural theory or in literary and art history, it is worth attempting to draw out its general perspective, however provisionally. The authors seem to me to have three chief interests. First, they examine the relation between the actual economic, political, and social formation of sodomitical and homosexual "subcultures" in France (documented from the earlier eighteenth century on) and changing conceptions of same-sex eroticism, sexual behavior, and personal and group identity--both inside and outside those subcultures, but always responding to the specific history of subcultural development in its wider national contexts. Second, they examine the role of those changing conceptions--or "representations"—in transforming the very possibilities for subcultural formation, growth, or reorganization and for the (non)integration of the subculture into national society. Third, they examine the influence of a variety of nationally circulated sociocultural ideologies--religious, philosophical, legal, medical--on the discursive or rhetorical structure of the representations themselves, on their terms, points of reference, and imaginative horizons.

Compared to earlier writers, most of the authors do not strongly privilege one or the other of these three kinds of historical relation. For example, compared to an earlier generation of more "Foucauldian" studies they are less likely to assume that discursive development—for example, the structure of the conceptual classification of sexual behavior--wholly drives the realization and transformation of sexual identity, as it were calling it into being. Instead, they stress the interaction between subculture, representation, and ideology in their linked and mutually constitutive social histories. In terms of both historical method and historical theory, there is, however, one key term throughout. It is the concept of "subculture." In modern France, "men with similar sexual interests," as the editors put it (p. 6), came to know how and where to meet one another. The grounding phenomenon, then, would seem to be the need of and desire for same-sex erotic-sexual sociability, even though it is not wholly clear how men knew one another to have ‘similar sexual interests"--that is, interests in one another--prior to or outside of their integration into a subculture. Time and again, the chapters document episodes of sexual contact, some clearly coincidental or spontaneous and sometimes clearly stage-managed, between people of the same sex, but much work remains to be done on the modes of visibility and codes of recognition--the primal "glue" of a subculture increasingly and somewhat paradoxically founded on the invisibility of its defining interest--that partly governed and partly emerged from these erotic situations. In turn, the visibility of the subculture, however achieved, partly provoked social responses, even as such management effectively constituted the subculture. Hence the subculture partly conceived itself under the influence of wider ideologies, even as such ideologies had to take the measure of subcultural realities. Still, transformation in discourse could derive partly the differing sense given by members of the subculture to the terms of reference current in a wider system of representation. And so on: an intricate circuitry can be tracked. Not surprisingly, then, for many of the essays the central task is definitively to establish and richly to characterize the presence and specific history of sodomitical and homosexual subcultures in modern France. They bring to bear a wide range of contemporary sources, especially police and legal documents of various kinds, literary and quasi-literary representations, and medical-scientific treatments of same-sex sexual behavior and relationships. I place preliminary emphasis on this matter because among these ten authors the causally determining role of same-sex sexual-erotic sociability "in the last instance"--as the sociocultural phenomenon sine qua non—seems to have definitively replaced earlier historians' much-criticized (but still covertly attractive) appeals to the existence of a stable, intrinsic ‘homosexual" nature. There, the simple question was how "homosexuals"--always existing as intrinsically homosexual monads born into every human generation--found one another socially and over time produced a variety of erotic, political, and cultural institutions. Now, the more complex question has become how "homosexuality,""in its modern cultural and ideological senses and practices, has emerged from situations or what many essays in this volume call "networks" of same-sex sexual-erotic sociability. Barring tautology, we cannot presume that initially these had a "homosexual’ character--though over time, of course, the circuitry can become to some extent self-fulfilling. If these essays are any guide, one might say that the historian’s problem has become the two-way and continuously developing passage from "networks," relatively open to and traversed by all kinds of actual and possible participants, from the most casual to the most regular, to "subcultures," coding and configuring such sociability in increasingly conventional ways and tending to stabilize established categories of status, class, and other affiliations and certain ritualized interactions between them, and then to ‘identities," understanding these conventions and rituals to direct, to express, and to fulfill one's innermost teleology in erotic-sexual life, imaginatively reconstructed as a psychosexual drive, nature, or essence.

None of the essays schematizes the question exactly as I have phrased it here. In fact, one awaits a full theoretical clarification of the continuities and discontinuities between ‘networks" and "subcultures" (this appears to me to be a pressing desideratum) and between these and ‘identities" (here gay-lesbian studies in its "social-constructionist" variant has concentrated a good deal of attention already)--for the actual ‘glue," the system of recognitions, that inaugurally bound people together in the required erotic sociabilities remains poorly understood. Many of the existing records only start from the observed (but in itself historically constructed) fact that people had had or were in such a elation. But all the essays in the volume provide rich, exciting, and suggestive documentation for and interpretive ideas about the historical processes in question. Yet one cannot help wondering about the way in which the historical record must be managed in order to set up this framework. What do we make of men and women possessed of the requisite interests in sociability who for whatever reason did not traverse--or actively rejected the possibility of participation in--a sodomitical or homosexual "network"? Equally, what do we make of those men and women who participated to some extent in the sociabilities of the "network" but whose conceptions or imaginations of its situations were not organized and conventionalized in the "subculture," let alone stabilized retrospectively (and for future participants) as psychological and social "identity"? What is their status in a history of ‘homosexuality"?

I do not wish to suggest that the essays ignore these questions. To the contrary, they approach them in a variety of interesting ways. For example, they consider such problems as the various social-economic and erotic-fantasmatic roles within male prostitution or enforced all-male societies; the overall condemnation of man-boy eroticism or intergenerational sex (in this period, not to be confused with "pederasty," which often simply signified same-sex sodomy, regardless of the age of participants); and the continuing nostalgic-utopian production of imaginative works (frequently based on classical traditions inflected by modern tempers of belatedness or alienation) projecting social, erotic, or sexual possibilities unavailable within modern life, including the homosexual subcultures. In these and other arenas, we find notable disjunctions between the full assimilation (or what the editors appropriately criticize as the "Whiggish" progress) of "networks" into ""subcultures" into "identities."

What interests many of the essays, in fact, is the continuing social reorganization and conceptual reimagination of possibilities always only partly achieved--strictly speaking, the on-going devolution accompanying the evolution. Still, the "Whiggish" tendency cannot be wholly avoided, and most authors would not wish wholly to avoid it. To the extent that their topic is ‘homosexuality" in modern France, they follow a particular track in the ongoing and openly ramified overlapping of networks, subcultures, and identities, namely, the gradual consolidation of "homosexuality" as a distinct and well-defined psychological, social, and cultural possibility, more or less independent of homosexual acts and whether approved or disapproved. The chronology of this development appears to be roughly comparable with its chronology in English- and in German-speaking countries, although in France the initial push of certain Enlightenment and revolutionary ideas and debates was apparently more substantial than elsewhere. In "The Enlightenment Confronts Homosexuality" (Chapter 1) Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., suggests that certain writings by the philosophes "helped open up discursive space in which the traditional intolerance of same-sex sexuality could be contested, or at least quietly dropped" (p. 25). The role of later eighteenth-century rationalist and relativist reasoning in this "opening" can now, it seems, be assumed. Building on earlier work by Jacob Stockinger, Michel Delon, and others, Ragan summarizes a compellingly wide range of texts.

It is interesting that the parallel role of somewhat later and of nineteenth-century philosophies--for example, Kant's, Hegel's, or Schopenhauer's--remains much less well investigated. For the nineteenth century, comparatively greater attention has been paid to "medical-scientific" than to strictly philosophical writing, despite its prestige and the fact that crucial debates about the person, reason, and the state launched by the philosophes continued to be pursued. (In Britain, for example, John Addington Symonds regarded himself as a Hegelian and formulated many of his ideas about homoeroticist history--from Dorian to Victorian times--as a Hegelian narrative revised to accommodate homoerotic values.) Possibly because critical idealism can hardly be seen as relativistic, its compatibility with certain emergent homosexualisms is less visible (and attractive) to twentieth-century readers than the philosophical anthropology of the Enlightenment. But Ragan’s study suggests that the pay-off in pursuing the story of Aufklärung beyond the1780s and 1790s might be quite great.

Jeffrey Merrick studies "Representations of Male and Female Deviance in Late Eighteenth-Century France" in his essay (Chapter 2) on the Marquis de Villette and Mademoiselle de Raucourt. In contemporary comments on these characters, whom he describes as an "aristocratic sodomite" and a "theatrical tribade," Merrick finds the ""gradual emergence of a conception of unconventional sexual identity" (p. 31). The actual intentions of the two protagonists--the personal significance of their practices—cannot readily be reconstructed from the fictionalized portrayals. But Merrick is more interested in their "public significance" anyway; to some extent, both Villette and Raucourt represented social fears and fantasies. To some extent they or their kind (to the extent that they were seen as emblematic) might even have been understood in structural relation to one another, a possibility at which Merrick hints in a provocative set of "comparisons" (pp. 45-47) without fully committing himself; Villette, he concludes, "put the right thing in the wrong place, so to speak, and [Raucourt] put the wrong thing in the right place" (p. 46). The matter is worth pursuing. At the time, if male and female homosexuality had, in fact, achieved a structured relationship in an overall classification maintained in the public imagination, one must rigorously treat them together as reciprocally defining or constitutive--a requirement that would have many implications for present-day "gay and lesbian studies" and its ambiguous copula. At present, however, it remains unclear when the possibility remarked in the contemporary responses to the lives and affairs of Villette and Raucourt became general and stable, if ever. Merrick’s fascinating juxtaposition of materials, as it is meant to do, will provoke further discussion about its status and implications.

Elizabeth Colwill’s study of "Marie Antoinette as Tribade in the Pornography of the French Revolution" (Chapter 3) examines representations of the queen's supposed desire to "pass as a woman, [but] act like a man"--to indulge a "purported taste for women" (p. 54). A number of historians, including in this country Robert Darnton, Marilyn Gutwirth, Sara Maza, and Merrick, have stressed the role similar representations played in wider political affairs in expressing contemporary fantasies about courtly licentiousness and hypocrisy, about the power of women, and about forms of social disorder, some of which revolutionary ideologies hoped to embrace and some of which they intended to police. Colwill refocuses the question to consider the primary materials as documents of the "shifting meanings of the tribade in the eighteenth century" (p. 55). The (imagined) body and the (imagined) sexual practices of the queen, she concludes, took up but also reorganized earlier and contemporary debates about roles and positions in the sex-gender system. Although the queen was reviled by the pornographers, the very act of representing her "noxious femininity" (p. 69)--for example, her supposed masturbatory and sodomitical lusts--might have contributed to the social realization of previously unimaginable (or at least discursively suppressed) eroticisms; it likely marked off the acceptable from the unacceptable in ways that "circumscribed the boundaries of female sexuality in the modern era" (p. 72). The model of pornography as simultaneously creatively enabling and morally disabling nonstandard eroticism works to especially good effect in Colwill’s study, although one continues to wonder about the actual reception of these ephemeral texts. Their stereotyped visualizations and limited, generic vocabularies admitted particularized sentiments--for example, contemporary hatred of the queen’s Austrian origins--only occasionally, but Colwill suggests how the selection of imagery and structural juxtaposition of epithets structurally positioned the queen’s alleged tribadism in unique ways.

Michael David Sibalis reviews "The Regulation of Male Homosexuality in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France" from 1789 to 1815 (Chapter 4). Here minds us that it was the Constituent Assembly that originally decriminalized sodomy--not the legislation developed by Cambaceres, who merely "incorporated this previous reform" (p. 80); moreover, as Sibalis shows, despite the code Napoleonic officials could strongly repress pederastic and sodomitical activity. Sibalis’ close reading shows that the laws gave individual administrators considerable room for maneuver in prosecuting individual cases of offenses against public decency (eventually systematized and classified in the medical forensics of Ambroise Tardieuand others in the 1850s), whether or not they always acted on this power. In reviewing these situations, Sibalis judges that officials detested "crimes against nature" but made varying practical decisions about the ease, value, and consequences of pursuing them in the criminal-justice system, often preferring quiet repression by the police; based on primary archival materials, he presents an exhaustive discussion (pp. 87-93) of a regional case of male-male sodomy that went all the way to Napoleon himself, who rejected further legal proceedings in the interest of keeping the whole phenomenon quiet. Sibalis concludes that pederasty and sodomy were actually seldom tried as such in Napoleonic courts--only four cases are known (p. 95)--and that despite police surveillance and harassment "the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period was a time of relative freedom," partially anticipating "contemporary legal toleration""(p. 96). Sibalis’ materials should provoke reflection on the supposedly constitutive role of intolerance, harassment, and persecution in the construction of "homosexual" experience (the category itself, of course, derives in part, though not wholly, from a "pathologizing" imperative) in relation to the comparative freedom from actual repressive entanglements that the "vast majority" of male homosexuals probably secured. (Indeed, as Sibalis puts it, paradoxically "the ambient social prejudice against sodomy often worked to some extent to protect men accused of sex crimes that were punishable under law" [p. 96].) Obviously we cannot gainsay the vehemence of long-standing institutional condemnations of homosexual activity. Still, in the light of Sibalis’ and other current research one can admit that the experience of regulation and repression might not have been the only or the chief social-erotic reality of same-sex imagination and sociability in the modern period. Same-sex erotic relations have been "bounded" by regulation and repression, to be sure, but--setting aside deterministic theories in which the result would be achieved simply by definition--does this really mean, as some writers seem to suppose, that it was internally and inherently constituted or determined by it? This is a hard question; it will, I think, be one of the most important ones for the next round of historical debates.

The question of "Creating Boundaries" is pursued by Victoria Thompson (Chapter 5) in her study of "Homosexuality and the Changing Social Order in France" from 1830 to 1870. For the period of the July Monarchy, she considers novelistic representations of gender and sexual variation (specifically, of "hermaphrodites" and of cross-dressing) by Henri de Latouche, HonoreéBalzac, and Théophile Gautier as well as debates about prison reform that acknowledged same-sex relations among inmates. In this period, perhaps consistent with Sibalis’ emphasis on relative tolerance as late as the 1840s, Thompson argues that the "permeability of boundaries" in gender and sexual relations sometimes expressed new visions of social order not wholly rejected by the public--or at least the individual artistic or official--imagination. By contrast, in the Second Empire--here Thompson considers the linking of male homosexuality to crime and certain images of female homosexuality fantasied as challenges to male domination--it would appear that same-sex sexuality signified undesirable forms of social disruption; "Second Empire sources clearly warned that crossing boundaries of gender, class, and sexuality led to disorder" (p. 120).

In general, many of the essays in the volume suggest that in the Second Empire and then in the Third Republic a firm classification of gender and sexuality in hierarchically organized categories, much of it persisting well into this century and today, was articulated by and for the bourgeois nation-state and, to use Thompson’s words, "paved the way for the construction of the ‘homosexual’ as a type outside heterosexuality" (p. 121). At risk of oversimplifying these conclusions, the watershed appears to be the years of revolutionary upheaval at mid-century. After 1848, it would seem virtually certain that a conception of a specific, pathological "homosexuality" would eventually emerge, as it began to do in the 1850s. It remains to be seen what kind of impact revolutionary agitations and national reactions had on the erotic-political consciousness of sodomites themselves--that is, those old enough to remember libertine survivals and young enough to experience burgeoning nationalist and bourgeois moralism. The figure of Balzac’s character Vautrin, who appeared in three works in the 1830s and 40s briefly discussed by Thompson (p. 111), literally seems to figure a number of aspects of this development through the middle decades of the century.

In "Love and Death in Gay Paris" (Chapter 6), William A. Peniston considers "Homosexuality and Criminality in the 1870s." Specifically, he narrates and analyzes a criminal case involving two "common people," ordinary working men and lovers. These men likely would have lived "quietly in the relative obscurity of their neighborhood" (p. 129) had their personal erotic troubles not led to the death of the younger friend and a subsequent police investigation of their liaison, background, and other associations. Whether the young man died by accident, by suicide, or by murder cannot really be determined. But the older friend was convicted of manslaughter; he was, Peniston judges, "probably responsible" for the deed (p. 142). Based on the police records, Peniston shows that a ramified homosexual subculture framed the relation of the two principals. It offered not only casual sex and prostitution but also well-established places of sociability and long-running friendships. Equally important, it was more or less visible to family members, to neighbors, and finally to the police. "Even though their sexual habits were not illegal," in this environment homosexual men self-protectively had to "deny their own emotional or sexual needs" in order to avoid censure on the part of the non-homosexuals among whom they lived, whose "social prejudices" were in turn rationalized in middle-class theories of homosexual pathology (p. 142). Peniston does not quite close the circle by asking whether his two protagonists "internalized" such prejudices and in tragic (but almost inevitable) fashion ultimately enacted, however indirectly, the viciousness commonly attributed to their kind; although obviously homosexual men were not "born" criminals, oppression might have "made" one of them into such. At any rate, the question of "responsibility"--not only for one's individual acts, legal or illegal, but also for one’s ethical orientation and moral identity--lies behind and gives paradigmatic weight to Peniston’s fascinating narrative.

By the early 1870s, Karl-Maria Kertbeny, Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, and other reformers argued that men manifesting "contrary sexual instinct" (or, slightly later, "inversion") could not be held responsible for their ordinary sexual activities (in Prussia, of course, homosexual sodomy was illegal), for their psychosexual character--understood to be an orienting sensation or deep emotional temperament--was innate or inborn. Earlier, certain German psychiatrists had almost reached parallel conclusions in different language. At the same time, however, as noted already, the European nation-states "after 1848" decisively codified the sex-gender system; same-sex sexual attractions were definitively construed as socially unacceptable. Thus a complex and contradictory discourse was set up between and among psychological, medical, legal, and moral theorists, each of whom had an individual intellectual genealogy and cultural attitude. Was inversion congenital or not? If congenital, degenerate and pathological or not? If pathological, treatable or not? If not congenital, how acquired? If acquired, morally or viciously? In his important analysis of "The Pederast's Inversions" (Chapter 7), Vernon A. Rosario II surveys the turns and twists of this discourse in later nineteenth-century France. He puts special emphasis on the early work of Ambroise Tardieu (commonly cited well into this century, his Étude medico-légale sur les attentats aux moeurs first appeared in 1857), on studies of "hysterical" men in the 1870s, and on the medico-scientific conceptualization of homosexual "inversion" in the 1880s. A final section (pp. 161-66) discusses responses issuing from surprisingly courageous writers, especially Marc-Andre Raffalovich (later the enemy of Oscar Wilde) and Eugen Wilhelm ("Numa Praetorius"), one of Freud’s sources for the literature of "bisexuality," who had internal, personal knowledge of urban homosexual subcultures.

Compared to the sub-Foucauldian claim that "homosexuality" appeared as an intellectual construction, and an "epistemic break," rather narrowly datable to the early 1870s, Rosario’s chapter suggests, as he intends, that the conceptualization of "homosexuality" in France, as in English- and German-speaking countries, occurred relatively gradually. Indeed, it reflected as much stable "social prejudices" as any radical conceptual propositions or discoveries of the time: the long-standing image and stereotype of the "pederast" was converted into the new but fundamentally reactionary type of the "invert." This development reflected professional competition (in a marketplace increasingly including well-off middle-class clients seeking the amelioration of sexual dysfunctions) and other ideological struggles as much as the direct contribution of putatively direct or original observations. In all of this, the fundamental intellectual distinction of an "interior [sexual or erotic] being" from its "superficial appearance" (p. 148) remains to be fully clarified in relation to wider conceptions of the self and consciousness, some of which date to the seventeenth century and before and in my view responded to contemporary developments in nineteenth-century philosophy as well. But Rosario’s fine-tuned study of certain specific forensic, psychiatric, and related practices will contribute substantially to this broader analysis.

If male pederasty and inversion attracted, by the 1880s, a whole series of interpretive representations in the legal, medical, psychiatric, and philosophical arenas, each text attempting to stake out its own intellectual position even if it strongly reflected "social prejudices," writers on female homosexuality, as Francesca Canade Sautman notes in "Invisible Women: Lesbian Working-Class Culture in France, 1880-1930" (Chapter 8), "for the most part . . . perpetuated stereotypes that did not reflect changing social conditions" (p. 186). Male audiences "fantasized or even invented" a lesbianism they wanted to see among prostitutes (p. 187), and though Sautman documents the "existence of lesbian relationships among sex workers" (p. 188)--for example, citing letters from sex workers to their female lovers--and recounts their several notable organized attempts to resist exploitation, it is difficult to see beyond the novelistic or journalistic portrayals by the male outsiders who collected these documents. Still, in these narratives Sautman identifies "a cultural message that is truly ‘lesbian’," namely, the struggle for a "lesbian" partner to keep her more "bisexual" friend "from being ‘corrupted’ by the sales hommes" (p. 190). In general, "lower class origins, femaleness, and sexual ambiguity constituted a heavy weight to bear" (p. 197). Sautman’s chapter is a forceful reminder that when historical subjects were constrained to "invisibility" or lacked a "voice," at least in the written or printed record, "every shred of this memory, the very process of gathering it, takes on, for lesbian and gay historians, special meaning" (p. 197). If I take her point, historians must combine the most rigorous approach to fragmentary sources with an almost preternatural empathy for the lives represented there.

No volume on "homosexuality in modern France" would be complete without a consideration of André Gide; both the composition and the reception of his Corydon (begun in 1907 "in defense of pederasty" in the Greek sense and commercially published in final form in 1924) reflected many of the long-term historical processes considered in other chapters. In "Natalism, Homosexuality, and the Controversy over Corydon" (Chapter 9), Martha Hanna considers Gide’s situation within, response to, and reception by a readership and a wider culture that remained "homophobic" despite the existence of a thriving homosexual subculture. Like the turmoils of 1848, the First World War importantly changed the existing equation, in this case by provoking a national desire to reaffirm the "heterosexual ethos" in light of the war’s creation, and even promotion, of erotically significant male friendships (p. 203). In this context, to defend pederasty, Hanna argues, Gide stressed the connections between homosexuality and "martial valor, classical culture, and familial reproduction" (p. 205). She sees this as a "subversive strategy of appropriation and transformation" designed to render inversion palatable within post-war France, though one must acknowledge the rather reactionary tenor of a part of Gide’s reasoning and Hanna rightly emphasizes the anachronism and internal inconsistencies of his neoclassicism. At any rate, Gide’s "defense" was unsuccessful. Shortly after Corydon appeared, several violent repudiations were published affirming, though somewhat recasting, the supposed medical—and demographic--pathology of homosexuality. For these writers, Hanna concludes, non-reproductive sexuality was a "threat to the future of France" (p. 221). It is difficult to pinpoint the causes of Gide’s failure to convince his readers; perhaps no "defense" of pederasty could ever have convinced them. But Hanna’s chapter leads to the suspicion that Gide had not quite accurately anticipated his opponents’ objections and marshaled his historical, cultural, and ethical arguments in relation to them. For example, and probably most important, he failed to find a way fully to engage and displace the emerging stereotype of homosexual men as fundamentally narcissistic or as what Hanna calls "self-indulgent egoists" (p. 221). Here, by the 1920s he would have had systematically to address Freudian psychoanalysis--both assimilating and correcting it--as decisively different from the sexology of the nineteenth century. But he only began to read Freud in 1921 and rather naively saw his own book as potentially buttressed by Freudian thought.

In France, then, it fell to Michel Foucault to reconceive the ethics, the ascetics, and the aesthetics of homosexuality in relation both to its ancient manifestations and to its modern history and subcultures. In the first and introductory volume of the History of Sexuality, Foucault’s approach was simultaneously classical (he stressed the ethical-political constitution of sexuality, that is to say, "erotics"—the interrelation of pleasures and responsibilities in sexual and affective relations--in the broad sense) and anti-psychoanalytic (he stressed the social-discursive, and even the ‘cultural," over the psychic-fantasmatic, and even the "biological," construction of a "sexuality"). Why it was Foucault who produced the most influential single text in and for contemporary gay and lesbian theory--rather than certain British, American, or German gay intellectuals equally steeped in the radical reading of Freud, the history of modern nation-states, and the politics of contemporary emancipation--remains an open question. Indeed, as Foucault’s own work begins to be placed in historical perspective as a symptom of its, or his, times, one can now appreciate the independent originality of several writers on (homo)sexuality before and during his career, such as Rüdiger Lautmann, not to speak of Herbert Marcuse or Gilles Deleuze, some of whom Foucault, of course, explicitly acknowledged.

For Robert A. Nye, in his provocative final chapter (Chapter 10) on "Michel Foucault’s Sexuality and the History of Homosexuality in France," Foucault’s "quest for a hermeneutics of self-constitution . . . arose from his experience as a gay man at the beginning of our era of modern sexual politics" (p. 236), a distinctive history of the continuous "normalization" of sexual relations in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France—its creation and imposition of a specific "sexual self," preferably heterosexual but structurally permitting (perhaps even constituting) a "homosexual" pathology (pp. 232-33), supposedly passive, effeminate, and enervated.

As a collection of historical studies of just this topic, Homosexuality in Modern France goes a long way toward warranting Nye’s judgment. As I have tried to suggest, the volume as a whole documents the trends Foucault is thought to have inherited or encountered and to have historicized, theorized, and criticized in his published work. Still, it is not wholly clear exactly how much of Foucault’s practice or theory Nye wants to attribute to his history and situation as a "French" homosexual or a homosexual "in France": the record of Foucault’s very extensive international experience and multinational relationships, which Nye briefly describes, "beyond the borders of its panoptic gaze" (p. 232). Despite the burgeoning secondary literature on Foucault, further study of his personal and intellectual genealogy is clearly needed--for example, to unravel not just the classical-Christian but also the specifically modern imaginative erotic self-transformation, not at all derived from--though it might now be useful for--late twentieth-century anti-essentialist or "queer" theories of subjectivity, politics, or cultural production. Nye’s chapter helps point a way by taking a more broadly historical or historicist approach to Foucault than has been typical.

In the end, perhaps there is a deep and interesting tension between the historians’ emphasis on the construction of roles and identities in "subcultures" and Foucault’s philosophical insistence on the eroticized ascetics of self-transformation, which might discover the subculture, regulated both from the inside and the outside, to be the very alienation of its desire rather than the fulfillment of its otherwise merely immanent or even nonexistent sociabilities. But Homosexuality in Modern France will help us to refine such questions in ways that Foucault himself could not.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998