Entertaining Eros

Can the ancient Greek gods, high-maintenance lovers themselves, give us some insight into dating.

BY: Ellen Leventry

 

It's a mistake to judge Brad Gooch's "Dating the Greek Gods" by its cover. A how-to about picking up frat brothers? Is it Gooch's memoir of dinners with chiseled gym rats? An archeology text on fixing the age of ancient statuary?



"Dating the Greek Gods" is none of these. It's not even a dating book-certainly not in the sense of the mercenary "The Rules." Gooch, an English professor, journalist and sometime fashion model has been preaching the spirituality of dating since 1999, when he broached the subject with "Finding the Boyfriend Within," written during a period of spiritual searching. That book related Gooch's own dissatisfaction with what he termed "the dating cha-cha" and devised a path to healing: learning how seek your higher self and treat yourself right before trying to do the same for others. The book was a huge success among gay men like Gooch. He soon found himself conducting workshops on the subject of looking into oneself to "find comfort and purpose in life."

In "Dating the Greek Gods," Gooch flips the emphasis, from spiritually (or at least, self-help) enlightened dating to dating-enlightened spirituality. Again he has written a personal memoir of his search for a fulfillment, but here "dating" is the method of spiritual exploration. "What does dating mean," asks a minister friend in the book, "if not making ourselves vulnerable with at least the possibility of being transformed?"

For the purposes of this book, dating also means going it alone, at least at first. When we first meet Gooch he's stopped dating altogether, and none of the dates with the Greek gods are with other people. Instead, he takes himself on dates to spend quality time in the presence of the gods' attributes. Once armed with godly virtues, the implication seems to be, actual relationships will be a snap.

Gooch struck upon the idea of dating as a spiritual conduit when a student approached him after class one evening to talk about coming out as an "epiphany" similar to those found in Greek epic poetry. The appearance of a god to a mortal either in disguise or divine form -- an epiphany -- is a common occurrence in epic Greek poetry.

The Greek gods, Gooch wants us to know, offer wisdom in this search, especially to the gay community, which, he points out, has largely been rejected by modern religion. But for all readers, the book argues this surprising thought--that the gods we encounter in frozen marble in museums can still be relevant and useful. In fact it's to a museum that Gooch goes on his "Apollonian" date. Looking for an activity that would make him feel more like Apollo--"sunny, absored in the beauties of art, music or poetry"--he heads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to enjoy a Gaugin exhibit. Each successive "date" focuses on the "domain" of the individual gods: Dionysus -- Sensuality, Eros -- Love, etc.

This book is dense, full of references from Homer's "Odyssey" to Plato's "Symposium" and Tennessee Williams's "A Street Car Named Desire." At times the abutting anachronisms work, other times they don't. Gooch's discussion of the importance of the gymanasium as a place of communication-a.k.a., a great "meat market" in the ancient world and ours--is a valuable insight, and he draws interesting parallels between classical antiquity and contemporary culture elsewhere. However, sometimes the imposition of modern thinking, as when Gooch describes the bed Hephaestus crafts to catch his wife Aphrodite in the arms of Ares as "an S&M bondage device" is just a little too coy.

Gooch generally keeps his gods straight, too, not always an easy task for a layman, if his characterizations are sometimes overwrought. It's debatable whether Hephaestus, the hideous and crippled god of the forge, is properly a "suffering artist" or merely a craftsman who fulfills orders for the other gods. Characterizing Zeus as an Olympic sugardaddy is not as close to the mark as Gooch's description of Zeus as a CEO.

As a straight woman with classically bad taste in men (when it comes to relationships, I've been hanging out with the goddess Strife), I had my doubts about Gooch's approach. Read your "Bulfinch's Mythology" and you'll see the gods were high-maintenance lovers, constantly demanding sacrifice and flattery, excessively cruel, and fond of dropping lovers in favor of a younger, leaner models. Many humans even refused to date the gods, risking (and often feeling) the wrath of rejection. I knew that territory cold.

But Gooch sees these godly foibles as opportunities to "confront some of the bigger questions of sexuality, community, creativity, and love" the gods personify. Along the way, we get to hear a lot about Gooch's own issues-and his encounters with men. In places it begins to feel more like an episode of "Sex in the Polis" than a self-help book. As Gooch recounts his Dionysian indulgence at a leather bar watching acupunture performance art, readers may find themselves wondering what this has to do with their own spiritual growth. At other points, though, his accounts of his more painful relationships had me reaching for the Kleenex and screaming, "Amen to that!" Heartbreak, it seems, is universal.

Unfortunately, like many of my past relationships, this book ends abruptly. There's not much in the way of a conclusion, no "here's how this worked for me." Gooch does say he began dating again while writing this book, but it would have been nice to have a chapter on the nature of his epiphanies, if only to give the rest of us hope.

But, then again, in classical Greek literature, hope can be an evil, evil thing.

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