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Just how much is cultural? - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Just how much is cultural? [May. 25th, 2010|08:10 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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I'm reading Team of Rivals, a book about Lincoln's presidency. It isn't Lincoln himself that I'm particularly interested in — rather, learning about America in Lincoln's time has been fascinating.

There is one aspect of the culture that is I find really intriguing: intimacy between men. Apparently, it was normal for men to share a bed, especially when traveling, but often between roommates as well. Weird as that sounds in our time, it isn't too hard to believe that it could have been the norm in a different century when lodgings were a lot more expensive.

But it gets weirder. Men seem to have relationships that we simply don't have a word for in the 21st century. It is stronger than friendship, but it is not sexual. They do profess their "love" for each other all the time, and if they move apart then each writes letters to the other confessing how the separation is killing him. The bond lasts long, often for life, although it may become less fervent as the years pass.

I want to emphasize once again that this seems to have been the norm. Pretty much everyone I've read about so far seems to have had these relationships. They couldn't all have been gay and closeted.

I mentioned this to a friend who had a background in social anthropology and he found it not at all surprising. But as a lay person, I'm sure I'm not the only one whose credulity was stretched here.

Boy, Japan is starting to look a lot less weird now.
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[User Picture]From: paper_crystals
2010-05-26 03:56 am (UTC)
How much Shakepeare have you read? This also happens in Shakespearian literature but without the letter writing. Male characters will often spend awhile talking about their love for each other.

Also, modern women do similar sorts of things and most of them are not closeted lesbian or bisexual women. Except they don't use the term "love" as much as "bff". And there are fewer pillow fights. ;) I actually never felt very comfortable with this aspect of modern American female culture.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2010-05-26 04:24 am (UTC)
Interesting. Unfortunately my school education included little or no Shakespeare. I've read a couple of his works on my own but I'm not familiar with what you describe.

And yes indeed, this behavior is common among women today. There's a lot of pop evolutionary psychology that tries to explain why women do it and men don't and why the difference is fundamental and biological. I guess these people need a dose of history.
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[User Picture]From: paper_crystals
2010-05-26 04:33 am (UTC)
If you are interested I can try to dig up some passages for you. I don't recall a lot of it in his more romantic plays like Romeo and Juliet and a Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest but much more in plays about war. I mostly remember being in a Shakespeare reading group in middle school and having to stop and explain on multiple occasions that that passage didn't mean the character was gay but just affectionate towards another male character.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2010-05-26 04:45 am (UTC)
Oh wow, that's a great find, thank you!
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[User Picture]From: paper_crystals
2010-05-26 04:47 am (UTC)
You're welcome! If you are interested in my Googling I also found this. Which is a great deal denser but if you decide you want to read a very long book on the topic of Elizabethan romantic friendships between men there it is.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2010-05-26 04:56 am (UTC)
Excellent, I will take a look.
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From: ext_235446
2010-05-26 11:16 am (UTC)

Interesting

I didn't know it was common in the past - I seem to relate to the idea though - hostel life does have a lot of it among guys. And yes, somehow lots of girls do have this female-female I-love-yous floating around.
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From: fixious
2010-05-26 05:31 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised you find it weird, given that intimacy between men is freely expressed in many parts of India -- holding hands, affectionate touching, and forming intense lifelong bonds. (Probably not sharing a bed, though.)

I think that part of why it has fallen out of fashion in the west and westernized Asia is that mixed-gender interaction has become less restrained. People need to express affection, and when the cultural norm, for whatever reason, prohibits it with one gender, they do it with the other.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2010-05-27 05:42 pm (UTC)
I guess I'm not very familiar with what you describe. I'm certainly aware that intimacy between men is more permissible in India than in the West, but I'm talking something like putting an arm over the other guy's shoulder. If it is normal for men to form "intense lifelong bonds" then I've been entirely oblivious to it.
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[User Picture]From: patrickwonders
2010-05-27 01:24 pm (UTC)
This reminds me... I'm behind on my letter writing.... Must do that today...
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