Alcibiades the Schoolboy

Alcibiades the Schoolboy
Antonio Rocco
Difficulty: Medium
Full Text, American Translation (cannot vouch for accuracy)

Published in the year 1652, Alcibiades the Schoolboy is a defense of pederasty, or love between men and pubescent boys, presented in the style of a Platonic dialogue and attributed to the Italian priest Antonio Rocco. The setting is ancient Athens, and the schoolmaster Philotimes, clearly intended to be Socrates, is desperately trying to convince his angelic and well spoken pupil Alcibiades to sleep with him by offering arguments defending the practices of pederasty and sodomy. His major points are that laws are arbitrary and often unjust, that nature gave men urges so they could act on them, and that women are icky and want things from you (putting it nicely). Bookending his argument are long poetic passages extolling the virtues of boys in startlingly explicit detail, even by today’s standards. In fact, the most striking attribute of the whole text is its incredibly frank discussion of sex, both its pleasures and mechanics. Such explicit writing leads me to believe it was also intended to double as pornography. As you might imagine, such a book was not particularly popular with the church, and it was promptly destroyed, with the few surviving copies hidden away for the next 200 years. It wasn’t until 1862 that it would finally be reprinted in the original Italian, before being translated into French in 1866. The novel wouldn’t appear in English until the year 2000, translated by Oxford Professor J. C. Rawnsley, now out of print.

The preface to the 1891 French translation calls it the first homosexual novel, and as far as I know they’re right. How is it that such a historically significant piece of writing has flown almost completely under the radar, not receiving an English translation for almost 350 years? The obvious answer is subject matter, I suppose, Rawnsley didn’t even want his translation published until after his death. But we willingly engage with other pederastic dialogues like Phaedrus and Corydon, though they’re nowhere near as explicit (Phaedrus gets a little steamy though, stop loosening your robe Socrates). It seems like an arbitrary line in the sand to me, but there it is. Erotica and pederasty are only okay as long as they aren’t both present in the same text.

As an argument, Alcibiades the Schoolboy comes off so-so. His points about arbitrary laws and natural urges are reasonable but hardly convincing, certainly not to the early modern church. After all, resisting our urges is pretty much the cornerstone of Christianity. It’s very jarring to hear Christian arguments delivered by Greek characters, especially the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the setting and subject just don’t mix. The allusion to Socrates’ pursuit of Alcibiades is similarly confusing, as Socrates famously eschewed physical love in favor of the spiritual kind (as told by Plato). But for me, what really detracts from the argument is Philotimes’ descent into masturbatory rapture as he goes on and on about the beauty of a boy’s buttocks. Seriously, there are paragraphs upon paragraphs about it. It’s a little difficult to be enthusiastic about his argument when his motivation is so obviously base.

One more strange thing: at one point in the argument, Philotimes claims that it’s good to love young boys because dolphins, yes, dolphins, also love young boys. And he offers no less than three examples. I thought this was a very strange thing to say, and with so much evidence, so I did a little research. It turns out, according to “When A Dolphin Loves A Boy: Some Greco-Roman and Native American Love Stories” by Craig A. Williams, there are at least TEN separate stories in Greek history and myth of dolphins falling in love with boys. And they’re not ambiguous in the slightest. In several of the stories, the dolphin and boy are buried together. In another, a dolphin beaches himself to commit suicide after his boy dies. Apparently dolphins are associated with Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy (among other things), so perhaps Philotimes claim is that these sacred creatures love boys, so it clearly must be a good thing? I have no idea what to do with knowledge of this tradition of interspecies dolphin-boy love so I’m telling everyone. The world needs to know.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. In fact, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. Divine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and, most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.

The Thief’s Journal

414fwqr-snl._sx321_bo1204203200_

The Thief’s Journal
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

When people hear the name of Jean Genet, they often think of his famous first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, which he wrote during one of his numerous stints in prison. But I’ve always found The Thief’s Journal to be much more interesting. While both works are semi-autobiographical, The Thief’s Journal delves much deeper into Genet’s philosophical, perhaps even religious drive to debase himself in the eyes of society. This book follows a portion of Genet’s life dedicated to theft, prostitution, and other such immoralities as he travels throughout Europe and evades the authorities. It is loosely chronological, and written in the same dramatic, poetic language his other works are.

What caught the attention of so many critics, including French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, was Genet’s inversion of traditional morality. Society’s greatest vices became Genet’s greatest virtues in an overtly Christian sense. To be homosexual is to be one of the ‘anointed,’ and theft becomes a ritual comparable to prayer. To Genet, nothing was more beautiful than an act of betrayal, his counterpart to the Christian virtue of sacrifice. This perspective fascinated philosophers and intellectuals because such a conception of morality raised countless questions about why society values what it does, and what it might mean of those values are arbitrarily constructed.

So what does The Thief’s Journal have to offer a contemporary reader? Well, it’s a window into the mind of a social outcast, one which demonstrates why a criminal or deviant might behave the way they do. There is a scene in the book where the narrator (as a young boy) is asked why he stole, and he answers that he did so because the other boys thought he was a thief. The stories we tell about certain types of people or behaviours can cause them to become a reality. If we treat a boy as though he were a thief, or a homosexual as though he were a sinner, why should they not become one in fact as well as name? And if they are doomed to this role, why should they not glory in it, as Genet did? But The Thief’s Journal is definitely not for everyone. The subject matter is dark and the prose is dense and often difficult. There is also little in the way of coherent plot, as much of the text is autobiographical. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in LGBT history, the history of gay fiction, or existential philosophy, but be prepared to work at it a bit.

Phaedrus

51gpvpv8xgl

Phaedrus
by Plato
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Whenever I think of Plato’s Phaedrus I am reminded of this scene from chapter seven of E. M. Forster’s Maurice:

“They attended the Dean’s translation class, and when one of the men was forging quietly ahead Mr Cornwallis observed in a flat toneless voice: ‘Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.’ Durham observed afterwards that he ought to lose his fellowship for such hypocrisy.”

Such was and often still is the attitude directed toward many classical Greek texts, the Phaedrus prominent among them. But to attempt to divorce this dialogue from its homosexual and pederastic themes is almost comical. Socrates and Phaedrus flirt outrageously throughout their conversation, and Socrates’ speeches on love, which make up the bulk of the dialogue, are explicitly about love between an older man and younger boy. Historically, some translations have attempted to suppress this dimension of the text. This is nothing less than an act of erasure, one which stems complaints like those found in Forster’s Maurice and Gide’s Corydon.

As mentioned above, the Phaedrus consists of several speeches on love, followed by a discussion of rhetoric and its proper use. While on a walk, Plato encounters Phaedrus, who has just returned after hearing a speech on love given by Lysias, a famous Greek orator. Socrates asks him to repeat the speech and observes that Phaedrus is carrying a copy of it. Phaedrus reluctantly agrees, and the two find shade under a tree to discuss it. Their conversation is wide ranging, touching on sexual and non-sexual love, madness, the soul, art, and the ethics of rhetoric.

This is one of Plato’s more accessible texts as everything is communicated through a simple and direct conversation between the characters without the convoluted framing devices found in his other dialogues. You do not need a background in philosophy to read, think about, and appreciate the Phaedrus. Even older translations are fairly easy to approach, and the text contains something for everyone. But besides that, The Phaedrus is simply a classic, a foundational work of western philosophy and one which was hugely influential to many gay writers. Also, it’s really short!

Fun fact: Mary Renault’s The Charioteer takes its name from this text, and the Phaedrus itself is featured quite prominently in it.