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literature

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Italian Literature  
 
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What is interesting about the accusation is not its accuracy as an index to actual behavior but its acknowledgment of the threat that homosexuality poses to communities of men bound by common interest. The heresy lies in the betrayal of the homoerotic possibilities of men's relations with each other.

Conversely, dissident groups call into question the moral rectitude of the ecclesiastical court by drawing attention to its wanton dedication to . Again, these accusations should not necessarily be read as evidence of historical fact (although they may also be read as such) but rather as indicators of the metaphorical power of homosexual behavior to destabilize the social body. It is the uncertain relativism of sexual behavior that contributes to the social meaning of homosexuality.

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The Function of Homosexuality in Society

The main reason for looking initially at Il nome della rosa as in some senses exemplary in the representation of homosexuality in Italian literature is the emphasis it gives to the function of homosexuality in society as opposed to viewing homosexual behavior as the expression of an individual identity.

Until recently, Italian literature has produced few attempts at homosexual self-inscription, and the bulk of literature on the topic has come from men and women not themselves homosexual. Although this is limiting in that it denies us insight into the lived and felt experiences of homosexuals, it does provide an interesting perspective on the meanings that homosexuality had at given historical moments.

Il nome della rosa is also typical in that it omits almost totally the experience of women in history. The only female character in the book is an unnamed peasant girl with whom Adso has his allegedly only sexual encounter, an encounter that takes place in silence since neither speaks the other's language. The girl had entered the abbey in order to trade her flesh for some left-over offal. The expendability of her only currency is demonstrated as she is later burned as a heretic, a sacrifice to the homosocial order.

The Patriarchal Nature of Italian Society

Nowhere is the patriarchal nature of Italian society more clearly revealed than in the realm of literature. In the past, few women wrote, and the manner in which women were represented in literature by men tended to reinforce masculinist stereotypes. The relative absence of a thriving novel tradition in Italy exacerbated this lack. In addition, lesbians are poorly represented even in contemporary literature.

It is pointless to speculate too much on the reasons for this and more fruitful to interrogate how this lack functions. Judith Brown in her introduction to Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance History demonstrates that in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the sexual desire of women for each other, though recognized, was only rarely taken seriously and was viewed as a much less grave aberration than male homosexuality.

Brown suggests that this might be on account of the fact that it posed little challenge to the homosocial order and that the possibilities for women actually to set up home together, for example, would have been slight indeed. The fantasy of lesbian nuns, Brown points out, belongs to a later era, for convents in the earlier period were judged more as centers of heterosexually oriented license.

The desire to write women who desire other women out of existence is aptly shown by the Enlightenment writer Alessandro Verri who, in his novel of 1789 Le avventure di Saffo (The Adventures of Sappho), takes pains to deny that the great female poet was anything other than a lover of men.

More regularly, lesbian experience is simply not represented, or, if it is, it is--like much of the writing on male homosexuality--invoked in order to stand metaphorically for something else.

In recent years, the only novel by a woman to have been called "lesbian" is Silvia Castelli's Pitonessa (1978). However, this work does not recount the desire of women for each other but attacks discourse through the use of asyntactical, unpunctuated language.

Otherwise woman-centered experience finds expression in the work of novelists such as Matilde Serao (1856-1927) and Anna Banti (1895-1985), although neither explore the erotic possibilities of such experience. Neither Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960), who had a relationship with Lina Poletti, nor the leading contemporary writer, Dacia Maraini, who has openly declared her bisexuality, inscribe this experience in writing.

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