Sleeping histories of public figures

Historians in the News

The founder of the Soviet Union, the most charismatic American President of the 20th century, the architect of communist China, the man behind the holocaust, and India’s Father of the Nation. They changed the world. But did they change their partners too? A controversial new book on Mahatma Gandhi b
y a Pulitzer Prize winning author, which some reviewers interpret as suggesting that he was bisexual, has triggered an uproar in India. But the book by Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times and the response it has generated has raised questions on why the sexual habits of historic figures continue to matter decades after their death. Is it just voyeurism?

Experts say the answer may lie in a complex cocktail of sociological and psychological reasons that determine our response to embarrassing details of the private lives of history’s most influential men. Dominant mainstream views — such as homophobia or the emphasis on fidelity — make sexual adventures seem deviant, causing the perception of a weakness in an otherwise powerful person, argues Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth in the capital. “Call it envy, or just the desire to know that the most powerful or influential people had normal human shortcomings too,” says Srivastava....

Gandhi isn’t alone. Books published decades after the deaths of Vladimir Lenin, John F Kennedy, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler that dissected their sex lives, also triggered outrage. These leaders, by appearing to breach moral and ethical guidelines that each society defines for the expression of sexuality, may be giving expression to broader desires, says psychologist Anand Prakash. “Real or imagined violations of these guidelines on the part of icons seen as infallible gives expression to collectively suppressed desires,” adds the head of the psychology department at Delhi University. “Our unlived part-lives can now be collectively expressed vicariously. It gives psychological empowerment and gratification to the common folk, thus explaining the strong appeal of such claims about national leaders.”...

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