The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society.
Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
In a text whose ambitions belie its overstated modesty, Andrews and Kalpaklı have chosen to argue for a closer integration of Ottoman and European history through the long sixteenth century. Its title contains a clever and useful conceit: namely, that the period in question constitutes an age, and that throughout it “there were significant characteristics of life common to certain classes of people inhabiting a broad area… from the central Ottoman lands to the British Isles.” (304) To illustrate this commonality, they examine love poetry from across the continent, placing this within the context of a sexuality not yet rendered unrecognizable by Victorian social mores, and within which the Classical influences remain clearly visible. Whilst they do not expect fully to answer questions about the basic thesis with these sources, their intervention is designed to stimulate future research. Their hope is that, given translations of this material, theorists should be able to “broaden the scope of their investigations to include the Ottomans”, and cultural historians of the early modern Middle East and Europe might be encouraged to “ignore the particularities and exclusivities” of their respective fields and “contemplate comparative and cooperative studies”. (14, 28)
In a move certain to make the less sexually-secure reader squirm, Andrews and Kalpaklı try to demonstrate that catamite affections were a common feature of Ottoman and late-Renaissance European culture. (18) One underlying reason, they argue, is an inherent gender bias: the so-called “phallocratic” nature of both Christian and Islamic societies (the term is borrowed from Eva Keuls). (12-3) Through the notion of “gendered space” (51) women were marginalized, and men fashioned for themselves approaches to sexuality that were divorced from the act of reproduction. Western women may have lacked the formal protections offered by Islamic law, and were in some ways more overtly oppressed; they were, however, present in the public sphere, with prostitution even reaching the level of high culture in the courtesans of Venice. Although the authors document the extent of homosexual conduct and imagery in the West (119+), we see that women remained the principal images of desire. There is, however, a noteworthy ambiguity, which Andrews and Kalpaklı illustrate with a clever Shakespearean reference: “When all the world’s a stage and women are not allowed on it, then the beloved is always a boy, however dressed.” (22) Yet even this illusion of public femininity would have been unacceptable in Istanbul; in Ottoman lands, “where the norm was for upper-class women… to be kept from the prying eyes of non-family members, it was no compliment… to be singled out as the object of erotic interest.” (43) The virtual absence of women from public spaces was thus one factor driving romantic interest in younger males.
Perhaps just as important was the context within which sexual liasons developed, for the authors stress the desirability of romantic companionship amongst perceived equals. Unlike in the modern West (and modern Turkey, for that matter), where men and women are educated to similar levels and can pursue nearly identical career trajectories, men in the late Renaissance could not expect to find in a woman the fuller intellectual reciprocity of a partnership. Andrews and Kalpaklı observe that “[ultimately] the Ottomans and our Greco-Roman ancestors were in substantial agreement that what was most special about same-sex… attractions and loving relationships lay, not in the mechanics of sexual satisfaction, but in the possibility of a relationship based on mutual understanding and something closer to a balance of power.” (20) And it is here that the difference in sexual culture between the Ottoman and European lands becomes more pronounced, as consensual relations in the West did not enjoy the veil of privacy reflexively granted the Islamic home (17), and Christian anti-sodomy laws grew increasingly harsh from the seventeenth century. (80)
Although the text is primarily concerned to provide carefully annotated poetry and prose excerpts, references to the changing social circumstances are folded seamlessly into the narrative. Most of these, such as the discussion of “comparable economic and political dislocations” in Europe and the Ottoman empire stemming from the tide of precious metals out of the New World, help to reinforce the commonalities Andrews and Kalpaklı see in the cultures of both. (304, 310) But their presentation of Ottoman poetry is the book’s main course, and the reader is treated to a sophisticated exegesis and ample cultural referrents. The authors also manage to evoke an aura of theoretical sophistication, as with passing—but significant—references to Foucault (11-12) and Derrida (24), though thankfully without larding the book with technical jargon.
One cannot at times shake the slight feeling that they have taken onboard some of the basic assumptions from an older historiography, for example in the way that the ancient Greeks become “our ancestors”, but given the general thrust of their argument this is likely only a rhetorical quibble. Their approach to sexuality is actually to be commended, in particular their skilful navigation of the treacherous waters of gender identity. Avoiding any sweeping pronouncements, Andrews and Kalpaklı admit only to a “weak nominalism”, which they define as “the belief that such things as heterosexuality and homosexuality… are discursive constructs. That is, they depend on the words and categories we use rather than on essential or natural characteristics.” (14) Given the authors’ oft-repeated reticence to make especially bold claims about the respective histories of Europe and the Ottoman East, it is perhaps unfair to claim for this book greater responsibility than it is willing (or able) to shoulder. Nevertheless, their suggestion that in the later Renaissance these two regions “appear to walk much the same path” (353) certainly deserves the debate and discussion that they hope to stimulate, and Europeanists are well advised to take note.