Monday, October 28, 2013

The Way It Really Went Down, Sort Of

[I'm posting this to try to whittle away at the backlog in my Drafts folder.  I'm going to post it more or less as I left it; maybe sometime I'll go back to the Amazon reviewer I mention and review his reviews, as I meant to do.  Meanwhile, this is my take on prurient British schoolboy novels and their Greek forebears.]

One of my more reliable time-gobblers is reading reviews at Amazon.  I'll notice a reviewer who's especially sensible or deranged -- usually the latter, I confess -- and read their other reviews.  Most of the depressing ones have hundreds posted, and it's interesting to try to get a handle on their worldview by seeing the range of things they share their opinions about.

Today [actually back in July, but it was "today" when I started this] Band of Thebes has a post about a new English novel of precocious pederasty at Eton, but from the point of view of an eromenos.  In classical Greek pederasty, you got your erastes or lover, and you got your eromenos or beloved.  To simplify slightly, the former is supposed to be the older partner, the latter is the younger.  Officially the eromenoi were supposed to be pursued by the erastai, and in a curiously Victorian manner, all the desire was supposed to be on the side of the lovers.  This produced a genre of "love" poetry in which men complained about heartless boys who wouldn't respond to their gifts and groping, taking delight in their suffering.  I stopped regarding Hellas as a utopia of manly love when I read some of these poems; clearly, the Greeks were as stupid about love and sex as we moderns.  The idea that if I'm attracted to you, it's because you are sending out sex rays that draw me to you like a tractor beam, is as ancient as it is modern.  If I stalk you, it's all your fault: why don't you turn off your tractor beam and let me go?  (This thing, it gets hold of us ... I wish I knew how to quit you.)

Maybe it's just because I'm old, but I don't see the appeal of British schoolboy fiction; I don't think I ever did.  (I also don't get the appeal of one of BoT's other fave genres, hustler fiction, almost always from the viewpoint of older men's trials and tribulations trying to make it work with much younger trade.  But that's another post, I think.)  Though the book BoT is boosting today, Alexander's Choice "by the pseudonymous Edmund Marlowe," is being taken as a roman a clef, with Old Etonians "trying [to] identify who the people in the book might be in real life", I'm skeptical.  The premise, a "brazen" thirteen-year-old aristocrat who pursues older boys and one of his teachers, sounds like someone's wish-fulfillment fantasy.  As BoT describes one episode:
The randy Eton student sneaks into his favorite male teacher's sitting room, strips naked, and rolls himself up in a rug, leaving beside it a note saying 'This birthday gift is for you to enjoy in any way you can think of.' He's thirteen.
You see?  They want it.  They all want it.  It's not the ephebephiles' fault, it's all these randy pubescents who throw themselves at you.  They may pretend they don't want it, but they're only playing coy to drive you crazy.  They know what they're doing to you.  The drool in the reviews BoT quotes is practically audible.  (This reminds me of the episode from the controversial Secret Gospel from Mark, where the rich youth comes to Jesus at midnight, wrapped in a linen shroud.  Many readers, both openly gay and homophobic, get very excited just imagining that scene.)  It's reminiscent of Nabokov's Lolita, which is commonly misread as the story of a brazen overdeveloped twelve-year-old hussy who forces herself on a hapless European in his thirties, though the novel makes it quite clear that Humbert is the aggressor, that Lolita herself doesn't want him, and tries to get away from him.  What does it say about sophisticated literati that they got it so blatantly wrong?  (Susan Bordo has a good discussion of this in The Male Body [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999]; see the chapter "Humbert and Lolita.")

Anyway, BoT concluded his post with a recommendation: "for a factual account of how it really went down with the ancients, get the Lammy winner The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson."  I clicked through, looked at the book description and the customer reviews.  Publishers Weekly liked it.  One customer reviewer savaged it, referring to a review by another academic classicist who raises some serious objections to Davidson's work, including misrepresentation of other scholars and mistranslations of the Greek primary sources.  But even if this weren't so, I'd be skeptical of any claim to provide a "factual account of how it really went down with the ancients" in just about any arena -- the more so because for BoT, "it" refers to "teacher-student relations," which are only a small part of ancient Greek pederasty.  "The ancients" refers to many different cultures spread out over two continents over a thousand years and more.  Those cultures changed, and we have only limited evidence about "how it really went down" for any one culture at any time.

But back to the customer review, which complained of "the author referring to Greek love in terms which came straight from Hillary Clinton."  I have no idea what Hillary Clinton has to do with it, so I'm not even sure what the writer meant.  The opening pages of the book, available on Amazon preview, don't clarify the Clinton allusion for me.  Someone has an axe to grind that has nothing to do with James Davidson.  In the comments under the review, as in Hubbard's review, there's a lot of ranting about "pc" and "political correctness," always a sign of stupidity and, in this context, misogyny.  I thought I recognized the reviewer's name from other Amazon reviews, so I clicked through to see all his work. Oh myyyy, as George Takei would say.

[To be continued ... maybe.]