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Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (review)
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American Journal of Philology 117.1 (1996) 165-167

David Konstan. Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xiii + 270 pp. Cloth, $35.

"Thus there begins to develop an erotics different from the one that had taken its starting point in the love of boys. . . . This new erotics organizes itself around the symmetrical and reciprocal relationship of a man and a woman, around the high value attributed to virginity, and around the complete union in which it finds perfection." So Michel Foucault asserts in a concluding chapter of his three-volume History of Sexuality (III, The Care of the Self [1984, trans. 1986] 232), a history that began as an effort to describe the emergence of sexuality as the subject of a distinct science in the late nineteenth century (I, An Introduction [1976, trans. 1978]) and that later broadened into "a genealogy of desiring man, from classical antiquity through the first centuries of Christianity" (II, The Use of Pleasure [1984, trans. 1985] 12). Here Foucault is commenting on the transition from pederasty to heterosexual love as the subjects of philosophical reflection on the nature of desire and its proper management. It is to this "new erotics" of heterosexual reciprocity that David Konstan's title Sexual Symmetry refers: the notion that a new construction of sexuality emerged in the Common Era, a sexuality structured, not hierarchically as in the relationship between the erasts and the ermenos (with its predatory dynamic of subject and object, active and passive partners), but symmetrically, with an emphasis on the subjectivity of both partners who, although of opposite sex, are alike in age, social standing, and measure of amatory attachment, culminating in the Christian ideal of conjugal love and heterosexual fidelity. Konstan's subtitle, Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres, provides an index to the book's focus on literary genres and to Konstan's generic approach to his subject matter, first locating the ideal of erotic reciprocity in the five Greek romances that survive (chaps. 1 and 2) and then showing how this type of relationship differs markedly from the representation of desire in the (roughly contemporaneous) Latin novels of Petronius and Apuleius (chap. 3), as well as in a wide variety of related literary genres that antedate the novel and contributed to its emergence as a literary form (chap. 4). In none of these, Konstan argues, do we find the type of erotic reciprocity enjoyed by the hero and heroine of the standard Greek romance. In later chapters, Konstan contrasts further still this idea of erotic reciprocity, as represented in the ancient texts, with the representation of desire in modern fiction (from Sidney's Arcadia and Richardson's Pamela to the contemporary Harlequin Romance, chap. 5), and he attempts (however briefly) to identify those aspects of the social milieu that might account for the emergence and appeal of "sexual symmetry" in Greek fiction (chap. 6).

Konstan's argument is summarized in his introduction, and the progression of each chapter is aided by subheadings which are listed in the table of contents. All Greek is transliterated, and all foreign-language texts, including modern scholarship, are translated to make the work accessible for the nonspecialist. A single index collects words, themes, topics, and authors -- both ancient and modern -- discussed. The list of works cited runs for nearly thirty pages and contains more than seven hundred items. The book is suitable for comparativists curious about the antecedents of modern romance, and especially useful for classicists who desire a synoptic view of gender studies in the context of classical literature and culture. Few scholars, I suspect, will complete this book without encountering something new in the way of ancient text or modern scholarship -- a fact which in itself is testimony to the impressive breadth of Konstan's own reading and depth of his erudition.

This is not to say that the work is without problems of its own, both of a technical nature and of a theoretical sort. For one thing, Konstan's argument by its very nature demands a large measure of plot summary of the detailed novels themselves, which can make for tiresome reading...

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