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7ABA0016 Queer Connections: Male-Male Desire and the Classical Past

Credit value: 20
Module convenor: Dr Sebastian Matzner
Assessment: 1 x 4,500 word essay (100%); 1 x seminar presentation (non-assessed)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: One two hour seminar weekly
Pre-requisites: None

Module aims

This module aims at enabling students to appreciate and critically comment on the complex interactions between modern writers and thinkers and the classical past that have shaped modern notions of sexuality and sexual identity in general and the conceptualisation of male-male desire as 'homosexuality' in particular. Students will examine in detail a wide range of texts and images which provide us with evidence about homoerotic practices and ideologies in the ancient world as well as for their interpretation and reception in later eras. The module explores how the interpretation of this ancient 'evidence' has continued to change over the past three hundred years, as it is shaped by the evolving beliefs, desires, prejudices, anxieties and fantasies of the modern world. Students will be encouraged to analyse and reflect on the ways in which new historical developments (in areas such as medicine, law, psychology, politics and the arts) as well as existing broader cultural frameworks (notably European philhellenism) variously shape individual writers' representations of male same-sex desire, both past and present. Students will consider modern debates about and theoretical approaches to sexuality and gender, and how these relate to the ancient material, while also reflecting on the historical development of their own (modern) categories of sexuality and sexual identity. In addition to an in-depth understanding of 'the birth of "homosexuality" out of the spirit of classical reception', students will acquire a solid footing in methods, theoretical approaches and key issues in the history of sexualities and the study of LGBTIQ literature.

Module description

For centuries, ‘Greek Love’ has been short-hand for male-male desire in the Western world. The literature, art and philosophy of classical Greece has served generations of men attracted to men as a source of inspiration and a common point of reference to articulate, come to terms with and seek to understand their erotic attraction to the same sex. In fact, modern medico-psychological notions of sexuality and contemporary categories of distinct sexual identities emerge directly out of a close engagement with ancient Greek literature and thought.

This module examines the queer connections that are forged, reconfigured and problematised in the sustained dialogue between homophile male writers and the classical past. It introduces students first to key sources and texts from antiquity in their own context­ (and to the politically charged scholarly debates that continue to surround them) and then charts influential landmarks in the development of modern Western notions of ‘homosexuality’ that cluster around the nexus of philhellenism and homophile desire. The module’s second half then explores how four works by modern writers – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Edward Morgan Forster’s Maurice and André Gide’s Corydon – variously position themselves towards (a) classical Greece, (b) the cultural discourse of philhellenism, (c) the emerging medical and psychological conceptualisations of sexual identity, and (d) their own respective socio-historical contexts and circumstances.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will be able to demonstrate intellectual, transferable and practical skills appropriate to a Level 7 module and in particular will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate awareness of the extent to which interpretations of ancient material relating to themes of sex, gender and same-sex desire are shaped by changing modern concerns and have, in turn, played a formative role in the emergence of modern understandings of sexual behaviour, identity and erotic desire
  2. Identify, appreciate and engage with different theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of ancient and modern representations of desire, sexual behaviour and erotic attraction
  3. Compare and contrast texts from across a broad historical spectrum, sensitive to the changing frameworks within which these texts operate, the points of reference they share, the shifts in emphasis or conceptual allegiance they perform, and their literary or non-literary nature
  4. Demonstrate advanced skills in independent research, critical analysis and presentation of findings
  5. Develop independent analyses and arguments that reflect a deep
    and systematic understanding of key issues within the study of the history of sexuality (both hermeneutic and political) as well as a nuanced appreciation of the interrelationships between this field of study and other disciplines (notably literary studies, medicine, psychology, law, cultural studies, history of ideas, history of science, classical reception studies). 

Core reading & Additional course costs

All texts studied can be read in English translation but students are encouraged to read in the original wherever their language skills allow them to do so.

The (inexpensive) Penguin edition of Plato’s Symposium, trans. C. Gill (1999)a key text that informs all other texts studied in this module – is recommended for purchase. Students may wish to consider purchasing second hand copies of the literary texts studied in this module which are readily available at reasonably low cost (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Edward Morgan Forster’s Maurice, André Gide’s Corydon; any edition will be acceptable). All other set texts and readings can be downloaded from the digital course reader on the module’s KEATS page. Good starting points for introductory reading in preparation for this module are R. Aldrich The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homosexual Fantasy (London: Routledge, 1993) and D. Orrells Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

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