James Davidson reviews Alan Bray’s The Friend in the LRB.
For a very long period, formal amatory unions, conjugal, elective and indissoluble, between two members of the same sex were made in Europe, publicly recognised and consecrated in churches through Christian ritual.
They were never identical to heterosexual marriages – in societies in which gender differences were so significant, how could they have been? – but were often implicitly or explicitly compared to and contrasted with heterosexual marriages, and were by no means considered to come off the worse for the comparison. Indeed, as partnerships entered into by individuals acting as autonomous agents out of love for each other, same-sex weddings are much closer to modern companionate marriages than the heir-centred, family-allying and often family-arranged marriages of former times. In historical perspective, a love for someone greater than love for life itself, a love that obliterates the mundane world, wife, property, nation, children, is most typically a feature of the discourse of a same-sex lover. Which is why ‘would that all the Trojans died and all the Greeks as well, and you and I, Patroclus, alone survived to demolish Troy’s holy crenellations’ were considered by ancient commentators just about the gayest lines in the Iliad.
Bray was concerned that his book be seen not merely or not at all as an argument in favour of (the antiquity of) ‘gay marriage’, but The Friend is not merely about friendship either, and by the end of it I found my thoughts turning to some topics I had not anticipated: the traditionalism of the English, the British social security system, the origins of the state, and the manicure of an Egyptian pharaoh of the middle of the third millennium bce.