The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

Lanser2My interview with Professor Susan S. Lanser just came out on DailyXtra. It’s a much condensed and edited version of the director’s cut below, which is way more fun and twice the length. Do dive in, let me know what you think.

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When was the last time an academic book made you tremble with excitement? Made you talk to it out loud, interrupt your reading to run and tweet about it feverishly? You can’t recall? Pick up Susan S. Lanser’s The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (University of Chicago Press) the soonest, then.

The 2014 book by the Brandeis University Prof will likely become a game-changer in the fields of literary history and queer studies. The research focuses on the huge increase in textual representation of the female same-sex relations—be that fiction, proto-anthropology, poetry, drama, travelogues, political theory, court trial records, medical treatises–and the fuss that some of the most developed Atlantic economies were beginning to kick up about the girl-on-girl and girl-with-girl from about 1600s on. She argues that modernity itself spoke through the phenomenon of the sapphic—that the female homosociality and homosexuality and their cultural representations were crucial for the emergence of human rights, equality before law, social experimentation, and even the novel as an art form.

There is a whole lot of good news and bold erudite hypothesizing in this book. We managed to cover some of the ground in our recent Skype chat with Prof. Lanser.

This term that you use, ‘sapphic’, is a gift that keeps giving. A lot of the queer history are investigations into whether A and B ‘really did it’ and whether a piece of writing really is about sexual practices, but you offer a way out of that impasse. The sapphic is a sort of a continuum.

Sapphic is a wide umbrella for female intimacies, as I use the word. I also agree with Martha Vicinus and other theorists who argue that same-sex relations should not be held to a higher evidentiary standard (i.e. proof that someone engaged in certain practices or even acknowledged certain forms of desire) than that to which we hold heterosexual relationships. And we have to put historical pressure—and cross-cultural pressure—on words such as “chaste” and “innocent.”

What’s also interesting is your thesis about how the sapphic worked in conjunction with modernity. Let’s see if I got it correctly: the sapphic in culture was a way for the modernity to voice itself. It was a “prospect of political levelling” much more radical than man + man.

Yes, engaging the sapphic was a way in which the culture grappled with some of the most radical challenges of modernity-in-the-making. When I say that the prospect of levelling embodied in the sapphic is more radical than “man + man”, I do not mean to suggest some kind of sanction for male-male relations; men were far more likely than women to be prosecuted for sodomy—but that the idea of relations between women radically challenged a set of assumptions about the hierarchical social order on which traditional societies were built. In a sense, the sapphic exposes the centrality of women’s subordination in the construction of social and cultural systems.

If a woman had a passionate friendship with another woman, her attention would be taken away from the marriage and the household, her primary duties.

Absolutely. And any kind of primary relationship between women stood as an implicit claim that a woman did not need to be under the legal and social rule of a man, whether husband, father, or brother.

Some of those early narratives that you analyze, I think just around the 1600, involve bonding across class too–there are maids and noblewomen pairings. And some of the utopias of 1700s go across classes.

Yes. Cross-class relations are threatening, of course, whether they involve men, women or male-female couples. But it’s significant that the sapphic becomes a site where the dangers (and sometimes the benefits) of relations across class are so frequently explored. Scholars have sometimes argued that gender and class can function interchangeably in the early modern imagination. I also think that the loosening of hierarchy implied by female-female relationships raises the spectre that relations between women will undo all social hierarchies. One the other hand, there is certainly elitism in many of the representations I study.

There were periods, as you show, when the sapphic was a tale of how things are done in some other places–whatever the other of the day was, for whatever national culture. It’s something done in France, or in Spain, or very frequently in Ottoman Empire.

This recognition that the sapphic is tied up with other social phenomena is really at the heart of the book. The language that pervades sapphic representations in the early modern period is language shared by other discourses— whether about governance, difference, status, the place of the individual in a community, etc. That pulls the sapphic into the mainstream of history and indeed explains the reversal of terms that shaped my title and indeed shaped the book as a whole. When I started working on this project, I was looking for representations of the sapphic but I hadn’t yet recognized the potential to turn the history of sexuality into what I call the sexuality of history—i.e., not just to uncover a history of sapphic texts but to see that those sapphic texts were serving larger purposes not necessarily tied to the sexual in an obvious way.  It was an exciting moment indeed when the project made this flip of the coin.

Moreover, the colonial project seems to me of specific importance to representations of the sapphic in a somewhat more oblique way: the rise of colonialism and the rise of the sapphic share cultural space. It’s also illuminating to see the repeated association of the sapphic with Turkey and other near-East societies as a sign not simply of orientalist connections with the “harem” but as a site of anxiety about competing empires and especially about Ottoman power.

And sometimes the sapphic is indeed tied to the sexual directly. Nicholas Rowe’s ‘Song’ for example. That poem is ahead of our time, let alone its. The female intimacy in which the ruler and the ruled change roles freely–where everybody is both the top and the bottom, to put it in contemporary parlance–as a vision of a non-hierarchical society.

You’re right about that one! Each one is “fierce Youth and yielding Maid,” and since both are women, we’re definitely in a gender-queer space. And without suggesting that early modernity is some kind of golden age for queerness—we know better!—Rowe’s “Song” is by far not the only text that plays with gender in this way.

Lanser Book CoverI have to bring in the sapphic apostrophe. You describe those poems as ‘incredibly intense’ but I’ll be the brat and say that they are incredibly hot. Though you do show later in that chapter that if the apostrophe was between two ladies, chastity was presumed.

Yes, and as you see from that chapter (though this idea may get me intro trouble), I don’t think the intensity is entirely due to personal desire: I think there’s a feminist project here in which same-sex desire is helping to produce female subjectivity. As for hot: that chastity is presumed doesn’t mean it existed, and in any case what do we mean by chastity?  There is erotic intensity in these poems whatever the acts or even desires of their authors. (And we should not forget poems by men—for example, John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” which you might also consider “hot”. Do you?).

OMG yes. But where was I? As we approach the French Revolution, the sapphic begins to acquire some sinister traits—a presumed secrecy, an aristocratic pedigree, anti-maleness, an anti-republican spirit.

The sapphic has both positive and negative valance for much of the early modern period.  But yes, at a certain point, for a certain period, it is so tightly associated (especially but not only in France) with negative figures, forces, and values that it is not available for some of its more positive purposes. Yet in a somewhat transmuted and domesticated form, female intimacy later becomes a Romantic embodiment of the utopian.

Perhaps because the republican clubs are largely masculine, and the Enlightenment philosophes are for the most part anti-feminist? What was it that expelled women from the public life and moreover relegated them to the reactionary corner?

That’s a large and controversial question. Scholars disagree about whether the French Revolution opened or foreclosed opportunities for women. The answer depends to some extent on where one looks—that is, on where one locates public power. Certainly there was a backlash against women influencing the political order and little interest among the revolutionaries (with a few exceptions such as Condorcet, and that was early in the Revolution) in giving women formal political power. On the other hand, French women were better able, in the wake of the Revolution, to bring legal suits, and the historian Carla Hesse has argued that more works by women were published during and after the Revolution than before. In England, patriotism, as Linda Colley has argued in Britons, became a way for women to exercise increased public-sphere power in the Revolutionary period. But we can heed the lesson of the French Revolution that women’s rights is in no way a linear struggle and that advocating for rights for other groups does not necessarily entail advocating for women’s rights. And that, again, is evidence of how critical the subordination or domestication of women has been to the social order.

By the end of the eighteenth, you write, the “explicitly sexual representation are more or less foreclosed from polite discourse.” Would you say the nineteenth century in Europe and in North America turned out to be more puritan, private, with gender roles more ossified, nuclear family-centered time than the two centuries preceding?

If we follow an argument like that of Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex there emerges by the end of the eighteenth century a biological legitimation for sexual difference that does ossify gender roles as a way of preserving them. What I mean (and he means) is that the old hierarchies of male-over-female are reimagined as putatively equal-but-different–and of course we know that equal but different is never equal. So instead of arguments that women aren’t, say, intelligent enough to vote, we get the argument that the corrupt world of politics will taint women and make them unfit for motherhood. Or the theory that nourishment drawn to the brain by intense study will deprive the uterus of necessary nourishment for a fetus. But I think there is something of a split in culture in the nineteenth century—we see it in the Romantic period and later in the avant-garde movements of the fin-de-siècle—in which the rigidified gender roles of the bourgeois social imaginary find their antithesis in radical challenges including challenges to the status quo of both gender and sexuality.

Did the long nineteenth century ever end? It often feels like we’re still in it.

I’m not sure at any century ever ends: we are heirs to our past and that past also keeps revising itself as we revisit it. In at least that sense, we always live in queer times. We might also recall the first words of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: it was 1775, and yet so far like the present period: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

At the same time, things change, and I would not have been able to write this book (or to be legally married, for that matter) if modernity had not been in some important sense sapphic.

6 thoughts on “The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

  1. Sapphic modernism is something Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney were totally committed to and helping to define during the interwar period. Both expatriates and lesbian feminists they supported and patronized modernism. My new book Romaine Brooks: A Life goes into their formulation of Sapphic modernism and its impact on modernism and new women.

      1. Cool! Even because of your interview I’ve been able to find more stuff – just got my hands on “Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past”. I’m really interested in the ways we can identify and talk about queer pasts despite the lack of documentation/established categories of identity. There were totally queer people, and we need to talk about them (and therefore the ways in which heteronormativity is naturalized by the predominant historical lens). I’m a little obsessed right now.

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