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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dante and Homophobia

A conservative friend of mine protested my recent post that used the term “homophobia” to refer to persons who disapprove of same-sex sexual relationships. He noted that such disapproval is not necessarily “phobic”: It could simply be based on some perfectly rational theory of sexual morality. As a theoretical matter, I tend to think that my friend is correct: Disapproval of homosexuality is not necessarily phobic, as a matter of logical necessity. But much – probably most -- modern disapproval is, in my view, probably phobic as a matter of fact. In any case, my friend’s comment gives me a pretext to share my enthusiasm for the Hollanders’ new translation of Dante’s Commedia, about which I’ll say more after the jump.

By “homophobic” disapproval, I mean disapproval of others’ desires motivated by fear that one shares in those desires. The disapproval of others serves as what Freud would call a “counter-attitude,” a way of repressing one’s consciousness of what one shares with the object of disapproval. Such disapproval, therefore, can serve its phobic function only if the disapproving persons want to believe that they lack the desires that they condemn in others.

With this account of homophobia in mind, turn to the Hollanders’ translation of Dante’s Commedia for an example of non-phobic disapproval. (Indeed, that’s the real point of this post -- to introduce the Hollanders’ extraordinary Princeton Dante Project website, to those who have not already discovered it. The website contains in searchable form the entire parallel Italian text and Hollanders’ recently published English translation of the Commedia, complete with Robert Hollander’s line-by-line commentary).

In Canto XXVI:31-35 of the Purgatorio, Dante and Virgil enter the terrace where the lustful burn off their sins by walking through fire in concentric circles, with the sinners in different circles giving each other a chaste kiss as they pass each other. Homosexuals and heterosexuals are all lumped together: “There I can see that every shade of either group/ makes haste to kiss another, without stopping, / and is content with such brief salutation….” As Robert Hollander notes, “[t]his remarkable simile, a rare medieval manifestation of a moment of fraternal affection between heterosexuals and homosexuals, is striking.” Dante the Pilgrim plunges right into the fire with the rest of the lustful, homosexual and heterosexual alike, acknowledging the essential similarity of his desire with theirs.

To the Medieval mind, in short, lust is lust, whether same-sex or opposite-sex. (To be sure, Hollander disputes modern glosses that “sodomy” does not get a special punishment in Canto XV of the Inferno as “violence against nature.” But I am not sure why Hollander treats “sodomy” – anal sex -- as a sin peculiar to same-sex intercourse in his commentary on Inferno XV:104-114. Latini Brunetto is guilty of violence against nature because he copulated in a sterile way – anally – and, therefore, is punished by running on a burning, sterile desert for eternity. Anyway, for amateur Dante fans like myself, the debate is nicely summarized by Deborah Contrada, "Brunetto's Sin: Ten Years of Criticism (1977-1986)" in Dante: Summa Medievalis 192-207 (Charles Franco & Leslie Morgan eds. 1995)).

To approximate Dante’s attitude towards sex, modern critics of homosexuality would have to condemn all “barren” non-procreative sex – which means rejecting all contraception, heterosexual oral and anal sex, masturbation, etc., as violence against nature. But this broad rejection of recreational sex is virtually non-existent in today’s America. One does not often hear anyone who condemns homosexuality declaring, “I struggle with homosexual and other non-procreative sexual desires just like everyone else – but I suppress those desires because I know that they are immoral.” The critics of homosexual desire are, therefore, fundamentally different from critics of adultery or extra-marital sex, because the former never concede, like Dante, that they share in the sinful desire that they condemn.

It is this sense that modern condemnations of homosexuality really do seem phobic to me. One could imagine someone’s impartially condemning all non-procreative sexual intercourse. Such a person would not be guilty of phobic beliefs. They would merely be regarded as deeply eccentric by most voters.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 12, 2008 at 11:17 AM in Rick Hills | Permalink

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Comments

I think the obvious Thomist response is that there are degrees of violation against nature. Heterosexual sex + contraception is in large part natural, while homosexual intercourse isn't at all. Similarly, one could argue that heterosexual desires are God-given, while homosexual ones aren't. A consistent, non-phobic position only has to attach some amount of stigma to heterosexual non-procreative sex; it doesn't have to condemn homosexuality and non-procreative heterosexuality equally.

Posted by: Asher | Aug 14, 2008 5:53:30 PM

I share Professor Hill’s enthusiasm for Dante, for the translation and commentary by the Hollanders and for the Princeton Dante Project Website. However, I believe that if one explores the commentary available on that website (and in the published volume) for Purgatorio XXVI, 40 one finds that Robert Hollander argues against the view expressed by Professor Hill that “Dante the Pilgrim plunges right into the fire with the rest of the lustful, homosexual and heterosexual alike, acknowledging the essential similarity of his desire with theirs.”

In his commentary on these verses Hollander takes issue with Harvard’s Lino Pertile (expressing a view similar to that of Professor Hill): the belief that for Dante “the impulse to love is the same in hetero- and homosexuals and that, since in purgatory only the impulse (or predisposition) toward sin is purged, there is no longer any need to distinguish between them is interesting but difficult to accept. In Inferno homosexuality is treated as a sin of hardened will, and one would be hard pressed to show that this does not make the 'impulse' that drives it different from that behind the sins of Incontinence.”

On the other hand, it’s interesting that the cover of the Hollander version of Purgatorio shows the same-sex and opposite-sex lovers kissing one another in the flames of the seventh cornice, a rather bold image for Dante and the 14th century illustrator as well.

Etienne Gilson, the Catholic medievalist, gave credence to the view that Dante acknowledged (and was later ashamed of) a same-sex relationship with the poet Forese Donati (mentioned in Purgatorio XXIV).

I like Dorothy Sayers’ comment on Purgatorio XXVI: “The swift exchange of kisses, reflected in the speed of the verse, contrasts with the exchanged kiss of Paolo and Francesca...Between these two kisses, damnation and salvation swing balanced.”

Apart from Dante interpretation, I find the the charge that opposition to homosexuality is based almost exclusively upon widespread phobia to be one more of those needlessly provocative and unprovable claims that discourage rational discussion.

Posted by: Patrick Molloy | Aug 12, 2008 5:37:43 PM

Brunetto Latini, not Latini Brunetto.

Posted by: Guido Cavalcanti | Aug 12, 2008 3:14:39 PM

Its kinda interesting how many prominent anti-gay activists seem to come by their aversion to homosexuality honestly. Just the most recent one, of course.

Posted by: Bart | Aug 12, 2008 2:35:36 PM

"To approximate Dante’s attitude towards sex, modern critics of homosexuality would have to condemn all “barren” non-procreative sex – which means rejecting all contraception, heterosexual oral and anal sex, masturbation, etc., as violence against nature."

Prof. Hills, I think you're stretching it here. Our modern society is fundamentally emotive, and thus, graphic illustration of "crimes against nature" in homosexual sex triggers a strong emotive response, if only from the pure foreignness of the occurrence.

To explore the logical reasons why such a response occurs requires depth of thought and consideration, which may not be present in those who do not (at least in your consideration) equally decry other sins. I do not think it unreasonable to think that those who condemn homosexual sex equally condemn extramarital sex, but not contracepted sex within marriage. It has little to do with the procreation question, and everything to do with the heterosexuality question. The failure is in the imagination.

"One does not often hear anyone who condemns homosexuality declaring, “I struggle with homosexual and other non-procreative sexual desires just like everyone else – but I suppress those desires because I know that they are immoral.” The critics of homosexual desire are, therefore, fundamentally different from critics of adultery or extra-marital sex, because the former never concede, like Dante, that they share in the sinful desire that they condemn."

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis when discussing literary critics. If one denies that one is a certain orientation, then one must be of that orientation. Curiously, if one admits it, then one must also be of that orientation.

Prof. Hills, you've lumped homosexuality, contracepted heterosexuality, etc., into the sin of lust in your analysis. However, you've also combined that with Freudian displacement theory to argue (or suggest) that all those who experience the sin of lust have homoerotic tendencies as well, and would do well to admit it. You conclude that this is why homophobia is the root cause of most of those arguing against gay marriage.

Curiously, however, you haven't given a reason as to WHY displacement occurs for some lusts (namely homoerotic) and does not occur for others (contracepted heterosexual sex, for instance). To claim that people displace homoerotic desire because they are afraid of it, and that they are afraid of the desire because is it homoerotic is to get into a nasty circle. What enables people to separate the different types of lustful desire and displace certain types, and why do they do so in the first place?

Posted by: Jonathan | Aug 12, 2008 1:10:02 PM

I'm not sure I follow this line of argument. It seems that opponents of SSM could be accused of employing a double standard, or of being hypocritical, but why does their failure to be consistent mean that their opposition to SSM is motivated by a fear that they share in same-sex desires? Isn't it equally possible that they see same-sex couples as "other" because they do not relate to those desires, and that it's easier to overlook adultery, fornication, masturbation, non-procreative sex, etc. because they relate so closely to those desires?

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Aug 12, 2008 1:02:41 PM

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