Gay Life And Culture, Edited by Robert Aldrich

Memorable images on this impressionistic tour through gay history

Richard Canning
Thursday 02 November 2006 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is hard to know who, or what, this handsome book is for. Gay Life and Culture: A World History boasts of drawing on the "extraordinary outpouring of research" of recent years. Yet such developments make the volume a contemporary curiosity, if not an anachronism. Its coffee-table size and 250 or so illustrations allow for very little text. Historians are allotted a few thousand words each on particular periods or geographical regions.

Consequently, there is little space to mention anything, and none to consider contentious or ambivalent episodes in "gay history". The overview inevitably tends toward a reductive sort of essentialism. Jesus garners a couple of mentions, but the biblical period, or the Bible itself, do not feature. Shakespeare's Sonnets crop up once, in the 19th-century context of Renaissance "borrowings". The cult American film-maker James Bidgood secures two index entries to the Bard's one.

There are oddities of tone and stress. Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller may find "a certain black humour" in the story of an Italian youth castrated and burnt at the stake; I did not. Other remarks need clarification, such as Charles Huppert's on Greek homosexual mores: "It was at the very least conspicuous when lovers were younger than their partners." Where and when? Who found it conspicuous?

Some omissions are manifest. A chapter on "Male Homosexuality in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution, 1680-1850" is followed by Florence Tamagne's conscientious essay, "The Homosexual Age, 1870-1940". So 20 rather critical years vanish.

Even with the enforced brevity, Aldrich's historians work at very different levels. Laura Gowing and Leila Rupp offer creditable surveys of lesbian social organisation. Other pieces - notably on the Middle and Far East - rarely transcend the impressionistic. In such areas, the text poses a challenge to the seductive illustrative material. The scholar may wring hands at Orientalists' presumptions and abuses; picture editors love them. Vicenzo Patane documents Western bias in readings of the Maghreb by sex-fixated writers and artists; the lament is accompanied by Kees van Dongen's handsome Arab boy and Gerome's naked snakecharmer.

Yet it is the illustrations I enjoyed most: all credit to Wendy Gay, the researcher. I particularly appreciated a 13th-century manuscript illumination showing the libidinous Cathars kissing the behind of a tomcat.

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