- Framing a View of the Unviewable:Architecture, Aphrodite, and Erotic Looking in the Lucianic Erôtes1
Although quarantined from the Lucianic corpus and assigned variable dates from the second to the fourth centuries CE,2 in recent years the Erôtes has garnered attention for its generic complexity, its (late) engagement with the philosophical debate over pederasty, and its value as a significant witness for the viewing context of a lost sculptural masterwork, Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidus.3 Part of what makes this wayward text so attractive is its ironic and heady mix of sex, philosophy, and art, all set within a dizzying mise-en-abîme of narrative frames (Goldhill 1995, 104). An external dialogue between the pansexual Theomnestus and asexual Lycinus, set at a festival of Heracles, frames a travel story about a trip taken to Cnidus by Lycinus and two friends, Charicles (a woman-mad Corinthian) and Callicratidas (a boy-crazy Athenian). An extended ekphrasis of the Cnidian Aphrodite’s sanctuary and its cult statue further embeds an etiological tale that accounts for a stain on the statue’s thigh, and this tale, in turn, precipitates a philosophical agôn between the exclusive heterosexual and the exclusive pederast. The entire piece closes with an unabashedly erotic recasting of the agôn by Theomnestus, patient listener to the entire tale.
This dialogue on desiring subjects and desired objects situates its eroticism very squarely within a revelatory story about viewing sculpture (Erot. 11–7).4 The statue of the goddess embodies a doubled erotic stimulus. Viewed from the front she is the most desirable woman, but from the rear, the most perfect boy. Proof of her irresistible erotic charm is the stain on her thigh. Lycinus and his traveling companions learn that this incontrovertible fact of her being used “like a boy” () remains from a night of passion performed on the statue by a besotted local youth. It is the confounding evidence of intercrural or anal sex5 with this seemingly most female of statues that engenders the debate on what is the correct focus for male erotic attention: the avenues () to erotic satisfaction offered by the bodies of boys or of women. The initial terms of the central philosophical debate (inscribed in semen) are read off Aphrodite’s ambiguous body.6
This erotic perspective on the goddess, front and back equated with female and male, is a function of the position taken up by the viewer. That position, moreover, is determined by the points of visual access provided by the temple structure itself. Aphrodite is framed by the very architecture she inhabits. In the dialogue, the [End Page 71] temple is depicted as a naos with two doors, front and back, communicating into an interior sacred space. There is no ‘viewing in the round,’ but rather looking is cathected along a very particular directional axis. It is precisely this specific closed temple structure with carefully designed openings onto that space that is a significant feature of Lycinus’s description:7
When we had taken enough pleasure in the gardens, we entered the shrine [naos]. The goddess is situated in the center—a most beautiful statue of Parian marble—splendid and smiling a little with a laughing grin. Her entire beauty is unhidden, draped by no clothes, and left naked, except insofar as she inconspicuously hides her private parts with one of her hands…. The shrine has a door on both sides for those wishing to get a clear look at the goddess from behind in order that no part of her is unadmired. It is easy to enter through the other door and to examine closely her beauty from the back. Therefore, it was decided to view the goddess in all her glory, and we went around to the back of the sacred enclosure. Then, after the door was opened by the woman responsible for keeping the keys, a sudden amazement at the beauty seized us.
In the other, far briefer, references to the Aphrodite statue in literary texts from antiquity, her situation within her shrine is stressed as open and affording easy panoptic visual access. Lucian’s description of the sacred interior space...