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From Phyllida's Desk

Pride and Prejudice and Myrmidons

My second novel, Pride/Prejudice, as the / in the title indicates, is a kind of "slash" fiction, a version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with same-sex relationships between the characters. Of course, by describing the story this way, I seem to be implying that the original novel is "heterosexual," and that by "slashing" it I've changed the characters or the story--that I've "homosexualized" it. Even the publishing contract describes the book as one in which Austen's characters are "turned" bisexual.

And for many readers, this is how the story has been received and its characters perceived--as something very different from Austen's. Especially for readers who dislike it, the feeling is that my novel bears little or no resemblance to Austen's other than in the characters' names and the basic outlines of the plot. Apart from the question of whether I've done a poor job of imitating Austen or retelling her story without distorting it, what irks me is the idea that portraying Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley as bisexual "changes" them.

Because what brought me to the story in the first place, the reason I wanted to write P/P, was that I thought it was a bisexual story to begin with. It just didn't have explicit sexuality in it.

So, in honor of LGBT Pride that we celebrated on Sunday, I thought I'd talk about another example of homosexualization, perhaps the most famous one of all: the story of Achilles and Patroclus and the Iliad.

The scholar Kenneth J. Dover talked about the concept of the homosexualization of Greek myths and legends in his authoritative 1978 work, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press). As any disappointed devotee of same-sex male love stories probably knows, there's no explicit sex between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. It's a war story, and much like today's PG-rated TV and movies, it's heavy on graphic violence and light on erotica.

It is also, however, a love story. The Greeks of the period when the story was being developed as a sung or spoken work, after the Trojan War itself, in the 12th century BC, probably didn't see any reason to include sex scenes in an epic of this kind. (Or at least, not human ones; the gods have a few randy moments of comic relief.) But their successors of the seventh century, by which time the glorification of same-sex male love had spread throughout Greek culture, certainly did. To them, the lack of explicit sex in Homer's version of the story was simply "a sign of cultivated sensitivity" (Dover, p. 197).

In other words, like me with P&P, to the Greeks of classical times, much of their literature was same-sex love stories already. All they did was "improve" or "clarify" many of their myths and legends by giving them a same-sex emphasis or back story. For example, the original telling of the Ganymede myth says that "the gods" carried him up to Mount Olympus to be their cup bearer. But in later versions, it is Zeus himself who "ravishes" Ganymede because of his great beauty. (There's a wonderful sculpture from ca. 470 BC showing Zeus, Ganymede tucked securely under one arm, striding off with a satisfied smile on his face, like a shopper who has scooped up the last, best bargain at a sale.)

For Achilles and Patroclus, it was the playwright Aeschylus who did much of the work of making their love explicitly homoerotic. In a trilogy of plays which survive only in fragments, the first, Myrmidons, gives us phrases in which Achilles mourns his dead beloved, referring to his "reverence of your thighs" and saying "what an ill return you have made for so many kisses."

And yet, to any honest reader of the Iliad, it's obvious that this homosexualization has changed the characters and the story. By the time of Aeschylus, the approved dynamic of same-sex love was the erastes and the eromenos, the older lover and his young beloved. Perhaps the most beautiful depiction of this famous couple is a vase painting showing Achilles binding Patroclus's wounds. Faithful to the conventions, Patroclus has a beard and Achilles does not. It's not a fashion statement; Achilles has not shaved. He is too young to have a beard.

Let's get real here, just for a moment. Achilles is the Greeks' best fighter, and the Trojan War has been going on for almost ten years at the time of the Iliad. Yes, his mother was a sea nymph who dipped him in the River Styx to make him immortal, but there's no way the greatest warrior is a sixteen-year-old. For the Greeks of this later period, whatever went on in real life, the only socially acceptable form of same-sex love required that the desired object be a youth. And they all desired Achilles, the swift runner, the great warrior, not Patroclus who was noted for being a favorite with the women (probably not meant as a compliment in Homer's time or later). So they took a story about two adult men who loved each other and changed it to fit their artistic standards.

Of course, it wasn't the homosexualization that changed the story; it was the culture's very specific concept of same-sex love that dictated these editorial reworkings.

What about me and my guys, my bisexual Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley? How is this similar to the Iliad? Like the Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries who read or heard the Iliad and appreciated it as a tragedy of same-sex lovers, I read Pride and Prejudice and saw two men, the hero and his (boy)friend, who nearly lose each other in the process of finding the women who will become their wives. Since P&P is a comedy, the tragedy is averted; the story ends with weddings, not funeral games.

What's different is the respective cultures. In classical Greece, the audience wanted homosexual love stories with overt sexuality. Today, many people still do not (go figure!) In a series of gay-themed short films I watched recently, a young man who goes home with the protagonist turns on the TV, asking if he has any porn. "I like to see men fucking," he says, apparently demonstrating his shallow, twink mentality. But my reaction was more along the lines of, "Who doesn't?"

Ultimately, I think what's happening here is another example of bisexual invisibility. I didn't make my guys gay; and in the ancient world of the Iliad, even in the highly homoerotic world of classical Greece, most men lived what we would call a bisexual life, eventually marrying women. But we still live in a world where hetero is the norm and gay or lesbian is accepted by many as an alternative--a minority, but understandable. Whereas bi? What is that?

A recent article in The New York Times talked about how when celebrities come out as gay or lesbian, it makes little impact. Yawn, publicity, so what? It's when friends, neighbors and coworkers come out that attitudes change. No longer can the most insulated homophobe claim not to know any gay people. But bisexual people are far more difficult to recognize, and coming out is not always logical or practical for them. If they're in a monogamous relationship, how is anyone to know they're bi unless they make a big awkward announcement? They will simply appear to be a straight or gay couple.

It's showing my guys as bisexual that really rattles readers, I think. Achilles started the action of the Iliad over his stolen captive--a woman--but how many of us love-struck homosexualizers remember that? I know, being a piece of war booty isn't most women's idea of a great romance, certainly not mine, but in the story, Achilles wants to marry her, and that's a huge deal for him or any of those proud leaders of Bronze Age military culture. It's as close to love as a man like him could have for a woman, and to dismiss it, to say it doesn't count, is the same sort of thing bisexuals hear from the gay and lesbian world all the time.

Achilles' "girl" is stolen by Agamemnon, the one man who outranks him, and Achilles, unable to get her back, refuses to fight, famously sulking in his tent--until the person he loves most in all the world, Patroclus, is killed. It's a moving, affecting story for me, not least because Achilles recognizes it's his own fault. He's a deeply flawed hero, not really a hero at all by today's high standards--full of rage, boastful and self-centered. But he's a hero of his time, and it's the kind of thing I can imagine doing myself, and have done, losing someone or something I love through my own idiocy, if not on such a scale as death and war. It's this death that makes Achilles choose the short life with glory, avenging Patroclus's death, knowing that he will die before Troy is taken, rather than choosing the long, comfortable life at home.

I sigh every time I think of it. That is love, true love, even if expressed through a bloody, sexist ancient epic poem. As in so many bisexual love stories, the love is unbalanced, uneven. It's quite probable that for the ancient Greeks one of the morals of the story is "Imagine making all that fuss over a woman! See the tragedy it led to."

In my P/P I consider that Austen's two original love stories, the men with their wives, are the main ones. Here the imbalance is in the m/f direction. But I don't think that means the same-sex love is any less moving or deeply felt. In life, few things are exactly fifty-fifty or symmetrical. A bisexual person may love his or her same-sex partner more than the opposite-sex one, or vice versa, or may have only one partner at a time. But the love is no less real.

It was the "upright moralist" and lawgiver Solon (638–558 BC) who wrote "when in the delicious flower of youth he falls in love with a boy, yearning for thighs and sweet mouth" (Dover, p. 194-195). This was the period when the first scenes of same-sex courtship appear on black-figure Attic vases. By using the strict conventions of youth and boy, the men of ancient Greece allowed themselves to enjoy stories and explicit images, in plays and poetry, in sculpture and vase paintings, of masculine same-sex love.

And what I've done in P/P is taken a "hidden" same-sex masculine love story and made it overt, explicit. As Harvey Fierstein famously asked in his Torch Song Trilogy, "Is that so wrong?"
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