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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #78 Haley 2002 “Lucian’s ‘Leaena and Clonarium’: Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?”

Full citation: 

Haley, Shelley P. “Lucian’s ‘Leaena and Clonarium’: Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Haley, Shelley P. “Lucian’s ‘Leaena and Clonarium’: Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?”

For those modern readers who search for "useable" history, the historic contexts in which (mostly male) writers viewed sexuality through a relentlessly phallocentric lens provide an interpretive challenge. The challenge can be particularly difficult when one is concerned with the erasure of both lesbian history and transgender history. In an era when it was assumed that only men could desire women, and therefore to desire a woman was to declare oneself masculine, how are we to understand individuals such as Megilla/Megillus? The words put in the fictional(?) Megillus's mouth are about as unambiguous a statement of transgender identity as one can find. But they exist in a literary context where Sappho herself has been transformed into a masculinized figure. If a writer like Lucian could not conceive of a woman loving a woman as a woman, how much confidence can we have in his portrayal here? The question is even more difficult when the signifiers are more ambiguous even than words (clothing, professions, sexual techniques).

As I repeatedly note, I have dodged this question entirely for the purposes of the LHMP. I look at it this way: one can use tomatoes to make salad or to make marinara sauce. Some tomatoes are better suited to each purpose, but any tomato can be used for either purpose. (Or for other purposes entirely, such as throwing at people.) I have staked out a booth in the marketplace with a sign reading "salad tomatoes". I make selection of my wares based on what I perceive to make a good salad. But the tomatoes have no inherent purpose with regard to meal planning, they're just tomatoes. And I would never presume to dictate what use people might put my tomatoes to after they've changed hands. Just, please: don't throw them at me.

* * *

Haley looks at Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans, including his portrayal of women who sexually desired other women, from the context of queer theory and a consideration of male gaze versus representation. Given the more classically-oriented audience for this collection, she helpfully starts with an explanation of queer theory and the examination of sexual identity as a social and political construct. [I think this may be the first time I've encountered the use of "Pomosexual" in a non-ironic way.]

Lucian dates to the mid 2nd century CE and, in himself, represents the multiculturalism of the Roman Empire, being a Syrian who wrote primarily in Greek, taught in Greece, Italy, and Gaul, and briefly held a civil service job in Egypt. He belonged to a rhetorical movement that focused on the declamation of set-pieces and is credited with having developed the dialogue as a humorous art form. His works tended to straddle both satire and humor. Scholars are divided as to whether his use of mimesis--the imitation of conventional forms and themes--was a sign at his traditionalism (implying that their topics were unreflective of his own opinions) or was part of his satirical manipulation, used to reframe unexpected topics.

These two understandings are significant in the case of the Dialogues of the Courtesans, and particularly dialogue 5 between the courtesans Leana and Clonarium. Was female homoeroticism a "traditional" topic, being evoked here as part of a rote exercise? Or was Lucian disrupting the expectations of his audience by introducing it? Modern scholars who focus on the context of mimesis and its role in Roman pedagogy tend to discount or ignore the specific subject matter of the dialogues.

Writing in Greek, Lucian identified the women in the dialogues as "hetairai", usually translated "courtesan", but indicating a woman who was not a wife who provided intellectual as well as physical companionship (as contrasted with women who provided only sexual services). A hetaira might technically "sell" her services, but it was framed in the symbolism of courtship and gifts, rather than purchase, and she would typically have only one male client at a time, or perhaps a couple of close friends would share her company.

Dialogue 5 takes place between Clonarium, the interviewer, and Leana concerning Leana's relationship with Megilla, "the rich woman of Lesbos [who] is in love with you just like a man." It is clear that Lesbos is understood here to signify sexually transgressive women. Clonarium notes that "there are such masculine-looking women in Lesbos, and unwilling to be with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men." Leana was hired to perform music for a drinking party for Megilla and her partner Demonassa, a woman of Corinth. Corinth was also stereotyped as a home to women with adventurous sexual tastes. After the party, Leana is invited to go to bed with the two of them where they both kiss and fondle her. Megilla then informs Leana that [s]he identifies as male, claims the name Megillus, and is married to Demonassa, calling her wife. Leana works through several possible understandings of this statement.

From a modern point of view, Megillus' explanation is a rather straightforward FTM identity: "I was born a woman...but I have the mind and desires and everything else of a man." Although Leana turns coy at discussions of sexual techniques, there are hints that Megillus may use a strap-on ("I have a substitute of my own"). The framing of the encounter thus shifts from a homosocial event (two women hire a heteira to entertain them, just as two men might have done), to homoerotic (the female hosts interact sexually with the heteira), to something more complex (a male/female couple both interact sexually with a woman).

The question remains whether Lucian was accurately (if satirically) portraying a known social reality of his world (and perhaps poking fun at Clonarium for her naiveté) or doing the same but holding up Megilla/us to ridicule, or portraying an entirely fictional male fantasy about women's sexual encounters and unable to imagine them without the presence at a male-acting figure. It is clear from other Roman writers, when discussing Sappho and other figures, that there was an assumption that a male role was required for sexual activity and that a woman who desired women must actually be masculine. (And yet Demonassa is not portrayed as masculine, and if she were it would undermine the portrayal of Megillus and Demonassa as a male-female couple,) In short, Lucian's dialogue presages the entire butch/transgender interface of the modern era, with its complexities and ambiguities of identity and presentation.

Time period: 

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