Andrew Calimach, Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths. New Rochelle: Haiduk Press, 2002. Pp. 178, incl. an afterword, notes, sources of the myths and illustrations, bibliography, glossary and map. ISBN 0-9714686-0-5. US$25.00.[]
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg
Drawing on a wide variety of sources from Homer to Stobaeus, Calimach has attempted to restore and retell a selection of male same-sex love stories, which he reclaims, from the sanitized, heterosexist pages of many popular versions of the myths, for the 'gay tradition'. Thus we have the hot passions of Poseidon and Pelops, Laius and Chrysippus (or rather, 'Goldenhorse'), Zeus and Ganymede, Hercules and Hylas, Apollo and Orpheus, Apollo and Hyacinthus, and Achilles and Patroclus, fleshed out (as it were) by lavish illustrations of appropriate sculptures and vase paintings.
Generally, the 're-tellings' are lively and imaginative, adhering quite closely to the original sources, which have been carefully trawled. Irritatingly, the myths are interrupted by excerpts from Lucian's (or perhaps, more accurately, Ps.-Lucian's) famous dialogue on the respective virtues of love for women and love for boys. It is obvious which side of the debate Calimach supports: as he clearly does not endorse the misogyny and the derogatory remarks about lesbians made in the dialogue, I wonder about the wisdom of using these excerpts as a linking device, especially as no arguments are offered for the inclusion of this text.
Irritatingly too, the style of the stories occasionally lurches from the heroic to the banal, to (unintentional) comic effect: Demeter, in the style of the Homeric Hymn, is 'indigo-robed' and reaches out, at Tantalus' awful banquet, to 'allay' her hunger (p. 15). The next sentence begins 'but before the other gods could tuck into their portions'. In the Hercules and Hylas tale, the warriors of Thiodamas (Hylas' father) proceed 'to dispatch the bum right off' (p. 54). Narcissus 'bushwhacks' through the woods, kneels down by the spring, and 'staring open-eyed from the limpid pool was the most gorgeous guy he had ever seen' (p. 96). Narcissus' eyes rove over the boy's every trait . . .'and what a dish he was!' (ibid.). Even some of the notes are stylistically wayward: in a comment on artistic conventions for seductions scenes in vase paintings, we are informed that 'youths were shown putting up various degrees of resistance, as it was not cool to give in without a fight' (n. 4; p. 123). Similarly, 'there are indications that Phaeton, the foolhardy son of the sun, and Cycnus may have been an item' (n. 21, p. 126).
This intriguing combination of the scholarly and the chatty confidences of a gay gossip raises the question of this book's purpose and its putative audience. From the dedication to Allen Ginsberg ('dharma brother and heart father'), the full citation of his poem ('Old Love Story'), which concludes with the cry 'I want people to understand! They can! They can! They can! / So open your ears and hear the voice of the classical Band', and the introductory essay ('Beloved Charioteers'), it is obvious that Calimach's work has a sharp political edge: in reclaiming these myths for the gay canon, Calimach intends to contribute towards undermining homophobia and thus encouraging tolerance for male same-sex love, through the powerful medium of classical mythology, so often 'highjacked' by the conservative patriarchs who uphold 'the tradition'. To demonstrate that this tradition was never 'straight' is important, and clearly needs repetition in our intolerant world.
But at whom was this book aimed? From Calimach's postscript, it seems that he had young adults in mind, who have been cheated 'by being handed a pantheon of emasculated gods and heroes' (p. 120). He clearly believes fervently in the educative power of myth which, in exposing 'our children' to the full spectrum of desire, may result in more tolerance, self-esteem and self- acceptance. However, Calimach has the parents in mind as well, who may 'have grown up with the conventional view of myth and history' and may well find these stories 'mind-altering, forcing a re-evaluation of our ancestors, lovingly outed in these pages' (p. 120). Whilst the claim that the passionate heroes of Greek mythology are 'our ancestors' reveals a deeply romanticised and narrowly Eurocentric view of ancient Greek culture, I wonder what Calimach really means by 'lovingly outed': do Zeus and Ganymede really need 'outing'? The Homeric Achilles and Patroclus may well need the eroticism of the later tradition restored to the heroic friendship depicted in the epics: so does 'outing' here mean 'adding the sex to the relationship'? This then involves not the restoration of myths censored and sanitized in translation, but the creation of Ur-myths from the sources themselves.
This search for the 'archetypal territory of Greek male love' (p. 4) reveals the profoundly Jungian approach of the author to mythology, confirmed in the afterword by Heather Peterson, who extols the close link between sexuality and spirituality in the myths, a link not yet severed 'by Plato's over enthusiastic followers' (p. 117). Precisely how the abduction and rape of beautiful young men by rampant deities qualifies as 'spirituality' is never adequately explained; one suspects that this search for archetypes or 'grand narratives' is naively decontextualised. The myths of male same-sex love (with their endless variations) clearly reflect the different societies in which they were shaped and re-shaped (from archaic Greece to imperial Rome): to attempt to construct Ur-myths which exist in some spirit- filled vacuum is a dangerous procedure indeed. In attempting to 'restore' these myths and reclaim them for the gay canon, Calimach ironically reveals just how much he is a child of the twenty- first century.
[] There is also an abridged, coffee-table version of this work. Andrew Calimach and Agnes Lev, Lovers' Legends Unbound New Rochelle: Haiduk Press, 2003. Pp. 87, incl. afterword, sources for the illustrations, notes, indexed glossary and CD (51 min.), with music composed and performed by Steve Gorn and narration by Timothy Carter. ISBN 0-9714686- 1-3. US$25.00. Some of the stylistic infelicities have been removed, and the attached CD could be an interesting teaching device. In the preface, the authors comment that these 'stories reflect a nuanced morality that integrated same-sex love with spiritual teachings' (p. 1). It is a great pity that 'nuanced morality' and 'spiritual teachings' (divine desire conquers all?) are again left unexplained.