Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Erotic patriotism

Bernard Knox (in J de Romilly's Sophocle: Sept Exposés Suivis de Discussions, 1982) has this to say about the polis: 'The city demanded more than obedience and conformity. In the great panegyric of Athenian imperial democracy which Thucydides attributes to Pericles it demands a fanatical, irrational devotion, the devotion of a lover: the Athenians are to "fix their gaze daily upon the power of the polis and become its lovers" (erastas gignomenous autees). This is an extraordinary phrase and its significance has been generally undervalued: it is not to be compared, as most translations suggest, with such bland phrases as "love of country". The word erastas suggests an overwhelming romantic passion, an emotion usually associated in Athenian society of this period with homosexual love, one which takes exclusive possession of the soul of its victim, driving him to extreme demonstrations of devotion. Such love is characterised in Plato's Symposium, the locus classicus for the subject, as 'voluntary slavery' (ethelodouleia); the lover is "willing to serve in slavish ways no real slave would put up with." Pericles' phrase calls for a total dedication to the polis ... That the call was answered is plain from the extraordinary record of Athenian activity in the years between 490 and 404 and the recognition on the part of Athens' enemies that they were facing no ordinary adversary. "They use their bodies in the city's service", say the Corinthians, "as if they were not their own and their minds as very much their own, for action in the city's interest." [5-6]

It's a strange fate that has befallen modern life, that contemporary patriotism is so often correlative of a mindset hostile to the very idea of homosexual love. Evidently, and despite the identification of 'the city' with a female deity, Athens as a polis was male (comprising only freeborn adult Athenian males; no women, slaves or foreigners), and the love for the polis was a homosexual erotic dedication. Which makes a good deal of psychological sense. In the longer perspective, indeed, it may come to be regarded as a peculiar aberration of recent Western civilisation to seek to separate out homosexual military erotics and ideological patriotism in the way we tend to; they more usefully go together. Homoerotic patriotism, or perhaps a more generally conceived erotic patriotism, would reinvigorate this diluted concept.

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