- The Trouble with Icons: Recent Ideological Appropriations of Plato’s Symposium
The Symposium is among other things a criticism of pederasty.(Strauss 2001)
Plato was himself homosexual.(Harvey 1997)
I am interested in the queer iconic afterlife of Aristophanes’ “Encomium to Eros” (Symp. 189d–93d), and in this article I will address its recent appropriations into discourses that seek either to advance or to retard the quest for gay rights. Plato’s Symposium readily lends itself to gay identification,1 yet its status as a queer text is neither uncontested nor unproblematic. “There are as many ways to read the Symposium as there are editors and critics to comment on it,” Barbara K. Gold (1980, 1353) notes, and for every interpretation advanced, “an opposite claim is made.” My discussion will focus on two strikingly opposite appropriations. The first is Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a queer, camp, cult rock ‘n’ roll musical, staged in 1994 and released as a movie in 2001. The second is Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities, an anthology first released in 2003 by George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics. Every literary critic knows that the Symposium looms large over Western arts and letters. However, Hedwig and Being Human cause trouble for the ways they use the same piece of text against one another in order to prove ideologically contrary points.
I would like to begin with an anecdote about Socrates and fellatio jokes. At Symposium 215b5, Alcibiades turns to Socrates and asks, “You’re a flute-player, right?” At this point in the dialogue, Alcibiades has just begun his famously inebriated, maudlin and prurient catalogue of his repeated failures to seduce Socrates, whom he claims resembles in looks and deeds the satyr Marysas, who challenged Apollo to a music contest, and lost: [End Page 197]
You are like in him other ways too. Listen up! You’re outrageous, right? If you don’t agree with me, I’ll supply witnesses. You’re a flute player, right? One more fabulous than he. He bewitched men with instruments and the power of his mouth, but you do it with words alone, without instruments.(Symp. 215b-c)
To compare Socrates to a satyr invariably brings to mind the overwhelming sexuality of those beasts, signified in paintings and statuary by their super-sized, Priapic erections. To claim that Socrates’ flute playing outstripped Marsyas’s suggests that Socrates might be the one to outplay Apollo. Alcibiades implies that while Marsyas was good with his mouth, Socrates is great.
James Hankins, in his exhaustive study Plato and the Italian Renaissance (1990), relates that Alcibiades’ flute joke presented difficulty for one of Plato’s earliest European translators, Leonardo Bruni. Decades before Marsilio Ficino’s still famous De amore hit the streets of Florence in the late 1400s, Bruni translated Plato’s Symposium, and in his version, he translates every instance of the Greek aulētēs (flute-player) with the Latin term cantator (chanter) (Hankins 1990, 400). Thus Alcibiades’ question, “You’re a flute-player, right?,” changes into something along the lines of “You’re a Gregorian chanter, are you not?” Hankins (ibid., 400) argues that Bruni altered the text “because of the horror of pagan symposia expressed frequently by the Church Fathers.” Socrates, then, was transmogrified into a monk because of pagan-phobia. I suggest, however, that the “horror” of the church fathers also bears the frisson of gay panic and homophobia. To this moment of willful mistranslation, I ascribe the beginning of the contestation of Plato’s queerness, and the greater project of unqueering Plato. As I will show, recent strategies of straightening him out are similar in function and effect.
The renown and notoriety of queer content in his dialogues has made Plato an iconic figure in the history of homosexuality. Some readers struggle against this, like Bruni, and censor Plato—explicitly or implicitly—while others apologize for him. Others, ignoring cultural differences in the nature and function of Athenian homoerotisicm, use Plato in reclamation projects, happily proclaiming that the civilization that gave us democracy and theater also fostered a golden age of homosexuality. As Amy...