Tuesday, January 7, 2014


STRANGERS by Graham Robb is a wonderful, scholarly exploration of 'Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century' by an acclaimed author of biographies of Hugo, Balzac, Rimbaud, and other works. The author deserves immense praise for bringing to light so much that has been hidden. The need for this book is quite apparent because of the nature of the subject itself -- so much of homosexual life and love was kept deliberately hidden by the men and women themselves, out of fear of persecution and misunderstanding. Indeed, much evidence is already lost to us because of gay men and women's self-censorship and the misguided censorship of publishers, editors, and heirs (burning of incriminating correspondence, etc). Even more daunting is trying to get at the life of gay men and women in ordinary, day-to-day life, as opposed to those who publicly expressed themselves through literature, art, music, or public speaking. Robb is exhaustive in his researches and yet packages his findings like a proper curator, peppering it with insight, opinion, wit, and the occasional provocation. He upends many assumptions not only of the heterosexual dictatorship under which we all live, but also of many gay historians, scholars, and theorists. For example, Robb deftly deflates Foucault's assertion that the 'homosexual' as a self-aware entity did not exist before 1870. Common sense might tell us that Foucault is obviously wrong, but Robb supports this with ample evidence and extraordinary examples from as many Western cultures as he can. And he admittedly doesn't even touch on Eastern cultures, which could provide even more evidence. It would be interesting to read a similar survey of homosexual love in the 19th and earlier centuries taking a specific look at Eastern societies. (Perhaps that book exists and I just haven't bothered to find it yet.)