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Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece

Andrew Stewart

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‘If you saw him naked, you would forget about his face,’ Chaerephon mutters in Socrates’ ear. His cousin Charmides had entered the gymnasium, his beauty causing turmoil and consternation. Socrates astonished even himself: he was used to finding young men attractive, but Charmides was something else. Even the youngest boys in the room turned to stare, gazing at him ‘as if he were a statue’.

By now, perhaps, too many page-three captions in the Sun and too many lectures from Andrea Dworkin have taken the impact out of the epithet ‘stunner’ and taught us to think of beauties as passive victims rather than masters of the gaze, but to the Greeks the idea that someone could knock your socks off through sheer force of physical impressiveness, producing shock, panic, terror even, was axiomatic. Xenophon recalls Socrates advising him to take to his heels at the sight of a beautiful man: ‘Don’t you realise that this beast they call “young and handsome” is more terrible than a scorpion?’ If such texts are to be believed the streets of Athens must have been a dangerous place to be – people fleeing in panic, chariots riding onto kerbs – when the tall and tanned and young and lovely boy from Alopeke went walking.

Women, too, participated in this spectacular economy, as both viewers and view. People came from miles around to see the supermodel Phryne, supplier of feminine curves to sculptors and painters, take off her cloak and go paddling during the festival of Poseidon. At some point she was charged with impiety for introducing new gods but, in a scene well-loved by 19th-century painters, her defence concluded with the advocate ripping off her tunic and exposing her breast, filling the jurors with religious trepidation, and leaving them quite unable to condemn to death ‘Aphrodite’s spokeswoman and the keeper of her shrine’. The feminine gaze does not seem to have been any less superficial than its masculine counterpart. Unlike modern women who claim to be more impressed by personality than anything else, Greek women were won over by what appealed to their eyes. The most famous courtesans showed a distinct preference for sporty types, especially Olympic athletes, and Aristotle claimed that to accuse an ugly man of adultery was like charging an invalid with assault.

All this led the French classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant to conclude that the Greek body was best seen, not as a lump of meat, temporarily animated by the soul, but as a source of energy and light, a corps éclatant. When the body was at its best, powerful attributes played over its surface like a kind of aurora corporealis. This peak, acme, or bloom, hebe, arrived at the onset of maturity, between the ages of 18 and 21. During this period boys were known as ephebes, ‘bloomers’ in Gregory Vlastos’s translation, and they could expect to attract astonished glances from all who saw them. Luckily for their breathless admirers, but unfortunately for them, this dazzling effloresence did not last long: as the body aged, its powers faded, until it became a shadow of its former self, halfway towards the half-life it would enjoy thereafter in the kingdom of the shades.

The power of the body, however, was far more than the power to attract. A Greek man or woman would not think they were being superficial if they assessed someone according to physical appearance. The luminous body was a moral body, a civic body, a political body, ‘the essence of personhood’. The normal word for ‘beautiful’, kalos, also means ‘noble and good’ – think of all those cards at Kensington Palace describing Diana as ‘a beautiful person’ and you are getting close to the confusion of categories. The normal word for ‘ugly’, aischros, also means ‘shameful and mean’ – think of all those psychopaths, embittered and disfigured, who lurk in horror movies. You only had to look at someone to see what kind of life they had been living: ‘only recently he threw off his cloak in the People’s Assembly and his body was in such an appalling and shameful condition, thanks to his drunkenness and his vices, that decent men had to look away.’ Many cities had ‘beauty contests’ in which male competitors were judged according to canons of ‘fine manliness’ or ‘bearing’ and even old men had to reach a certain level of attractiveness in order to participate in sacrificial processions for fear they put the gods off their lunch. All over the Greek world, men and boys competed in teams of pyrrhic war-dancers showing off their precision as well as their physiques. Since, it seems, they were clothed with nothing more than a shield, it must have been something like a fan-dance, judged according to the same criteria as synchronised swimming.

Predictably, the worst examples of body fascism are attested to in Sparta, where, it was said, soldiers had to strip for an examination every ten days. Someone with a pot belly might find himself summoned before the assembly and threatened with banishment. The body could also be used as an arena for displays of cultural superiority. Campaigning against decadent Asiatics in Turkey, the Spartan king got his prisoners of war to remove their luxurious clothes, revealing underneath the pale, abundant flesh that luxury had produced. He then put them on exhibition to show his soldiers both how much wealth was available and how little their effeminate victims would be able to resist its plundering. According to the same logic, the sight of hordes of naked Celts marching on their city ‘panicked’ the Romans (the historian uses the same word Plato used to describe the impact of Charmides) in 225 BCE. They were an impressive sight, magnificent bodies, at the peak of condition. But when the Roman javelins began to fall, the Celts began to wish they had kept their trousers on. Their shields were too small and the Romans soon learnt that the more their bodies were pumped up in size, the easier they were to hit.

Historians of ancient art used to be content to tell the story of artistic development, tracing influences, identifying genres, schools and artists, and awarding marks out of ten. Now that they have discovered the gaze and the body, the subject has been transformed. On some writers the effect has been disastrous: ancient artefacts are slotted almost as an afterthought into a framework prepared from fossilised distillations of Lacanian psychoanalysis; the conclusions can be predicted as soon as you have flicked through the plates and read the chapter headings. The best of them, however, like Vernant’s follower, François Lissarrague, carry their theory lightly, producing readings of great subtlety and getting more our of silent images than one would ever have thought possible, by re-creating the act of looking step by step.

Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece falls into the latter group. A number of monographs and collections published over the last few years cover approximately the same territory, but Stewart’s book is at once readable and rich in new ideas, the most important contribution to the study of both sexuality and art in the ancient world for some time. Unusually for a classical scholar, Stewart begins by celebrating the fact that the subject is in decline. He hopes this will make the art seem less familiar and that viewers will now be more inclined to understand these alien objects by situating them in their own peculiar cultural environment. There is plenty of theory, too, with lots of citations from Lacan, Berger, Bourdieu, Terry Eagleton and David Halperin. His exposition of these writers is exceptionally clear, but sometimes the theory, which tends to be modern and universalising, sits uncomfortably with the emphasis on cultural specificity. Immediately after an attack on unmediated readings of images, Stewart proves Greek phallocentrism with an unmediated illustration of an orgy scene, as if the reader will look across at the image and know exactly what he means. Questions at once begin to go begging. What would a phallofugal orgy look like? Or should the Greeks not have painted the act of intercourse at all? Does Lacan’s theory of gaze and glance apply to Vernant’s ‘brilliant bodies’? Is woman equally Other in the 20th century and in a society where gender can be strangely relative, where men feared they might become womanish simply by spending too much time indoors?

The final element in this curious methodological mixture is a slightly over-enthusiastic positivism. This is most conspicuous in Stewart’s investigation of the origins of Greek nakedness. He has collected a great deal of evidence going back to the Mycenaean period and his work on the subject must provide the starting-point for any future discussion, but he is far too confident that he can distinguish between ‘realistic’ and symbolic nakedness in these very early images, claiming even to see evidence for initiation rites and the ‘one flesh’ theory of gender way back in the Dark Age. Moreover, he seems strangely indifferent to the fact that there is no word for ‘naked’ in Greek. Gymnos sometimes refers to people who still have some layers left to remove, and is best translated as ‘a state of undress’. This might be a piece of pedantry which nevertheless complicates discussion of the literary evidence for nakedness, but just possibly it might represent a significant ambiguity which could, if properly understood, throw much light on the whole problem, the strange continuum between more luminous bodies and the more obscure.

There is more than one problem here. The fact that Greek men didn’t even wear loin-cloths when exercising or running races is strange enough, but that they showed gods, kings and emperors in the altogether is more bizarre still. It wasn’t as if the Greeks were innocent children playing on the beaches of ancient history with an underdeveloped sense of embarrassment. Actual nakedness was a highly self-conscious practice, confined to certain areas of the city, and the genitals were considered a source of shame: aidoia, pudenda, ‘shameful parts’, ‘rude bits’. And what of sexual desire? Those naked statues and reliefs, with their chiselled pecs and six-pack abs, painted in the colours of the flesh, seem like a straightforward refutation of any Platonic claims that Greek men’s interest in ‘bloomers’ was spiritual, educational and pure. And what about naked gods? Were you allowed to lust after that statue of Hermes when you were training in the gymnasium at Olympia? Were you supposed to find the Belvedere Apollo attractive, to be turned on by the Parthenon frieze?

There are several ways of answering these questions, or perhaps dodging them. One is to follow Winckelmann and other early critics, and emphasise the sublimity of statuesque perfection. The beauty of the sculptures rises far beyond sexual stimulation as it moves beyond the particular and connects with the realm of ideals, the sculptural complement to the idealism of Platonic philosophy. Physical perfection represents a challenge to the viewer to move beyond animal responses and set his or her mind on higher things. It demands the appraising gaze of a connoisseur. The viewer can taste these images, assess them and marvel at them from a cool distance, but he must not swallow or get too close. The ideal body is not at all earthly or earthy: it provides an accurate material reflection of the heavenly, the insubstantial and the divine.

If we return to Charmides in the gym, however, another possibility becomes apparent. These statues are not designed for cool reflection. They are meant to produce an immediate impact, bypassing considered appraisal. Charmides is not objectified or rendered aloof by being compared to a (naked?) statue: it is precisely his shocking impact, the consternation as he approaches, that makes him statuesque.

Gods, too, have a body, what Vernant calls a superbody, massive, super-strong and super-brilliant. The myths are full of tales of their epiphanies. Semele was intrigued by the lover who visited her bed in darkness. In a moment of foolish passion he promised her any request. She asked him to reveal his identity and was burnt alive in a blaze of lightning, realising too late it was Zeus. Metaneira shrieks when she catches the nurse roasting her son on a fire. Furious at being interrupted in the processes of immortalisation, Demeter sheds the skin of the old woman and reveals her true immortal self. Tall and beautiful and reeking of a lovely perfume, she illuminates the whole palace with white lightning. Aeneas’ father, Anchises, had his suspicions about the beautiful woman who seduced him, but when he woke up, he was terrified to find his suspicions confirmed; her head reached the ceiling, her cheeks were radiant with immortal beauty: Aphrodite herself no less. In a flash, lust turned to terror and he hid under his cloak, begging for mercy. The power of the gods and the impact of their revelation is understood in terms of the brilliance that streams from their bodies, forcing mortals to look away. And not only are gods’ bodies much more luminous than the mortal version, but, crucially, their light never fades. The goddess Hebe, personification of youthful bloom, is in constant attendance, serving immortal nectar during Olympian meals.

Worshippers could rehearse these moments of divine revelation every time they entered the temple, coming face to face with the god’s image hidden inside – often massive, oil-covered and sometimes shimmering in ivory and gold. Perhaps the point of naked images is the same: to immortalise the light of epiphany, to recapitulate the sudden manifestation of the body’s peak, to freeze the momentary bloom of the corps éclatant, in the body revealed, the shock of the nude.

Here we come up against the problem of the Cnidian Aphrodite, the first proper statue of a naked female form. While male statues seem curiously unconcerned about their state of undress, staring beyond the spectator and into space as if it were the most natural thing in the world, women and goddesses were almost always shown fully clothed. Whereas Eve is born in her birthday suit, Pandora, the first lady of the Greeks, comes with a full kit. Dress seems part and parcel of women’s identity. Athena springs out in full regalia and Aphrodite’s girdle seems to contain all her erotic power. To see a goddess naked therefore is an epiphany too far. The very thought of Athena without her aegis is hard to contemplate. Naked goddesses seem much more exposed than their nude brothers, as if their powers and attributes have been left with their draperies on the bathroom floor.

The sight of Aphrodite is shocking enough when Anchises catches a glimpse of her true self, but at least she had put her clothes back on; others were not so lucky. The sight of Athena in the bath blinded the seer Tiresias, and Actaeon could not get away fast or far enough from Artemis, even in the form of a deer. This makes the Aphrodite of Cnidus an intriguing case. Unlike Apollo or Hermes, she takes steps to cover herself with her hands. This attempt to hide from the spectator indicates that something is wrong, making her appear both more vulnerable to the intruding worshippers and more terrifying. Have they seen something they really shouldn’t have seen?

A funny thing happened to my mother on her wedding-night. She thought she had some idea of what men looked like underneath. She was a librarian, she had seen pictures. But she was in for a shock when she saw my father. What had he done with that peculiar leaf-shaped flap of skin that was supposed to hang there? Had he had it removed, or had autumn come early to these parts?

Far from finding Greek statues unfamiliar it is quite possible they are incorporated in the bodies we have today. The circumstantial evidence, at any rate, is compelling. There have been many modern revolutions, but one of the most extraordinary has been the sudden epiphany of the body after all these years. When the Christians came along with their peculiar notions of sin and memories of the Fall, they called the bluff of pagan nudity, by restoring to ‘the shameful parts’ a proper sense of shame. For centuries thereafter, European flesh was covered in layers of fabric, producing enough acres of white flesh to make a Spartan spit. Personhood was discovered in the immortal soul or worn, temporarily, on the sleeve. The sealed carapace of the classical age was eclipsed by Bakhtin’s grotesque body, not so much a form or an emblem as a machine which made itself known through its activities and openings onto the world: eating, drinking, defecating, falling ill. Images of nudity conjured up intimations, not of power and vitality, but of death or the Day of Judgment, when all of humanity in all its many shapes and sizes was exposed to divine appraisal unprotected by the worldly semaphore of hats and coats.

Apart from anything else, the Christian sense of decency created discontinuity in the history of the body which ceded a near-monopoly on the nude to people who had lived thousands of years before. From Signorelli to the Edwardian Academy, it was the antique body which provided the paradigm in art. There must have been a little seepage into the present as soon as real models started posing, but for some reason, at the end of the 19th century, the drips turned into a flood. Caught cavorting naked with Bosie on a lawn in Goring and challenged by a passing vicar, Oscar Wilde stuck out his hip and announced: ‘What you see is pure Greek.’ One obvious channel between art and life was provided by the popular statues humaines, the professional models – ‘La Milo’, ‘The Seldoms’ – who stripped down in public and assumed the poses of antique sculpture, heightening the effect and assuaging the anxieties of the puritans by caking themselves in marmoreal powder. But by far the most important factor was photography. An amphora or a column or a line of Theocritus provided a (false?) alibi for Willem von Gloeden’s studies of Sicilian boys as if the Mediterranean had never properly acclimatised itself to the chilly Christian sense of shame. Meanwhile in Paris Edmond Desbonnet was already using Before and After photographs to advertise his body-building technique at the turn of the century – a crucial moment, this, in the history of the body, the realisation that this Hercules, with the animal-skin tied around his neck and the fake club, could be YOU. The medium itself, black and white photography, helped splice modern flesh and ancient stone together, a fusion pursued most enthusiastically perhaps by Herbert List in the Thirties. Even in the Fifties, a bronze medallist at the Muscle Beach competition in Venice, California might elevate his vanity onto a higher plain by drawing one foot back and staring into space, thus conjuring up the image of Polyclitus’ spear-bearer in a pair of woollen trunks.

Am I making too much of this influence? One doesn’t imagine that Oscar Wilde ever remotely resembled an ephebe, even with his hip stuck out, and many of the photographs of the 19th-century poseurs look exactly like photographs of 19th-century poseurs – the moustaches don’t help. Today’s gymnasia, meanwhile, have replaced their classical columns with televisions and mirrors, and antique allusions are more likely to be found in saunas – one has recently opened in London called Chariots that threatens to make pillars and statues appear more sleazy than sublime. On the other hand, while the props and postures have vanished, real bodies are getting much closer to their ancient aspiration. In the Nineties, there is enough body fascism to make a Spartan start to feel at home. To be out of condition or to let yourself go, has taken on class and moral overtones, revealing low aspirations or low self-esteem. In the hard hot centre of American gym culture the epithet ‘fat’ can be applied to those who have any fat at all intruding between skin and tendon, obscuring the muscle’s view. Such an intense discourse has consequences. Tanned, ‘cut’ and closely shaved, and preferably photographed in monochrome by Bruce Weber or Herb Ritts, the ancient body begins to stir once more, too self-preoccupied to acknowledge the ancient mould that made it, more free, as a result, to do its own thing. But there again, perhaps it is the same body we have always had simply showing through the skin.

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