“Whitman did also love men.”
“You mean he was bi?” someone said. […]
“Bisexual wasn’t a term widely used in Whitman’s day, so we shouldn’t ascribe language that isn’t historically accurate,” Charlie said. “But he did love both men and women.”
I quote this passage, but could equally have quoted many others: it’s a common idea, after all. And it’s true that conceptual categories change over time and cannot be unproblematically mapped from one age to another. We might reasonably state that there were no heterosexuals in the 16th century, for example, because neither the term nor the urge to categorize people on that sort of basis yet existed; nor would they exist until science (and pseudoscience) had developed further and been applied to human subjects. To state that Henry VIII was a heterosexual man is thus, in one sense, quite misleading.
So yes, I see where people are coming from when they warn against anachronism. But there are real problems with the alternative approaches, too. I’ve talked about one – the problem of erasure – elsewhere. But there’s another obvious question, namely: if we don’t use modern terminology, what terminology can we use? The passage I’ve quoted offers one alternative – “He did love both men and women”. But this is only a semi-solution, because these words, even though they are older and more fundamental to the English language than words like “heterosexual” and “bisexual” – are no less liable to changes in meaning and connotation. Tennyson loved Arthur Hallam and also his wife Emily: does that make him like Walt Whitman, in the sense being enquired about here? Probably not. Such vagueness is less than helpful.
If the aim is to avoid anachronism, then the obvious solution might be to use the terminology of the time in question. But much of that terminology is now seen as offensive (are we really calling for articles asking “Was Shakespeare a sodomite?”), and the conceptual and moral categories that give rise to them are in many cases ones that we now reject as invalid and of little utility.
So, if modern terms are inadmissible because anachronistic, and period terms are inadmissible because offensive and/or wrong, what is the best way of discussing these subjects historically?
We might of course claim that to ask “Was Whitman bisexual?” is simply to be incoherent. But (questions of erasure apart) how far would we wish to push this approach to language? What about disease, for example? Is it incoherent to say that John Keats died of tuberculosis because the word postdates him? That seems OTT.
All thoughts welcome, as ever.