Monday, March 15, 2010

John Addington Symonds: a life spent in dreams

Mr. Symonds (1840-1893) falls a little outside of my general purview. He never identified as transgendered, or as a member of the "third sex," which was the equivalent phrase used during his lifetime to describe gender-nonconforming or homosexual people. But he was such an unusual person that I want to write about him anyway.

The Person

I just read his memoirs, which were edited by Phyllis Grosskurth. Primarily they describe his "secret life" - his lifelong obsession with homosexuality, which he was afraid to act on until the age of thirty, and seemingly never stopped feeling ashamed of. At one point in the book, he claims that he never allowed himself to consciously fantasize about homoerotic encounters, but his dreams were always full of them, ever since he was a child.

When he was about twelve years old, and studying Greek, he came across two quotations which shaped his personality. One was from the Illiad:  "Like a young prince with the first down upon his lip, the time when youth is most charming."  This exemplified his desire.  The other line was from Euripides:  "My tongue it was that swore, my heart remained unpledged."  This governed his interactions with other people - from then on, almost every word he spoke would be a lie.  The secrets of his heart would remain unspoken, even to himself.  Or as he put it:
I now dissembled my deepest feelings, and only revealed those sentiments which I knew would pass muster.  Without meaning to do so, I came to act a part, and no one knew what was going on inside of me. . . . I was ready enough in writing to communicate such portions of my experience as I chose to exhibit - impenetrably reserved in the depth of myself, rhetorically candid on the surface. . . . I allowed an outer self of commonplace cheerfulness and easy-going pliability to settle like a crust upon my inner and real character.
The memoir was his attempt to reveal "the truth," but it seems that, having lost the knack of honesty, he could never really get it back.  He remained devious.

For example, the young man who possibly was his first sexual partner was named Norman.  Symonds writes, "I will call him Norman, though that was not his real name."  His editor is completely baffled, almost outraged, by the fact that Norman was his real name.  She describes Symonds' subterfuge as "naive," which I personally think shows a certain lack of understanding of the nature of hypocrisy.  It doesn't matter how implausible your story is, as long as you stick to it. (Indeed, she might have found modern examples of this by following the careers of certain American politicians.)

Symonds insists that "Nothing occurred between [him and Norman] which the censorious could rightly consider unworthy of two gentlemen."  Then he goes on to describe them exchanging kisses and sleeping together in the nude.  (Was this really acceptable conduct for gentlemen? If so, Symonds was in a sense lucky that he got to indulge himself to such an extent.  Later eras figured out that all such intimate contact between men is wrong, wrong, wrong.)  It's only at the very end of the book that he says his first sexual experience occurred when he was thirty.  You have to backtrack and figure out that when he was that age, Norman was his love interest.

Of course, Symonds had to conceal the facts in order to protect his beloved and himself, because sodomy was then punishable by imprisonment.  He was afraid to tell the whole truth, and his fears were justified.  However, he was also constantly wracked with guilt and shame.  Or was he?

The last two pages of the memoir are an overview of Symonds' life, told in the third person.  He describes the conflict he felt between his sexual desires and his desire to conform to society's rules.
 By the light of his clear brain he condemns the natural action of his appetite; and what in moments of self-abandonment to impulse appeared a beauteous angel, stands revealed before him as a devil abhorred by the society he clings to.  The agony of this struggle between self-yielding to desire and love, and self-scourging by a trained discipline of analytic reflection, breaks his nerve.  The only exit for a soul thus plagued is suicide.
The first appendix of this book is Symonds' case history, which appeared in Havelock Ellis' book Sexual Inversion.  It is much franker about his sexual experiences (in the memoir Symonds describes himself as knowing absolutely nothing about sex for the first 25 years of his life, but the case history gives a slightly different impression), and ends with the statement:
A believes firmly that his homosexual appetite was inborn and developed in exactly the same way and by the same exciting causes as the heterosexual appetite in normal persons. . . . He has no moral sense of doing wrong, . . . feels the intolerable injustice of his social position, and considers the criminal codes of modern nations, insofar as they touch his case, to be iniquitous.
There's a certain contradiction there.  Was he exaggerating his feelings of shame, in the memoir, as part of a plea for sympathy?  (Personally, I find all his whining and agonizing to be overly histrionic.)  I do think that, in addition to worrying about what people would think if they knew he was gay, he was terrified of sex itself.  After all, everyone around him had also been taught that homosexuality was wrong, but many men acted on it anyway.  Some of these men were his friends, so he knew it could be done, but for  many years he was still reluctant to do it himself.

The Book

I have to say that in my opinion, Phyllis Grosskurth was not entirely sympathetic to her subject:  neither the person, John Addington Symonds, nor the topic of homosexuality.  She makes the revealing comment that "we may not be much more 'educated' about the causes and nature of homosexuality than the public was in Symonds' day."  This appears to be her way of saying that she doesn't believe people are born homosexual. Instead she clings to a Freudian interpretation, and searches desperately for some traumatic event in Symonds' childhood that would have turned him gay.  He had only one memory of his mother, who died when he was four, and although there was nothing sexual about this memory, it must have been IT because it's about his mother.  (Ironically, Grosskurth overlooks certain childhood incidents described in the case history, which were probably more relevant.)  I also believe that she exaggerates his neglect of his wife.

However, it appears that Grosskurth did not censor the memoirs, and we owe her a debt for that.  She says that she only omitted his "execrable poetry and  . . . self-conscious nature descriptions."  Symonds actually published rather a lot of poetry (and won the Newdigate Prize for one of his poems while at Oxford), so I don't think it could have been all bad.  On the other hand, many people have let their feelings overwhelm whatever talent they may have, when writing poems that mean a lot to them.  The nature descriptions that she left in reveal that, like many Victorians, he felt very strongly about beautiful landscapes.  It's interesting to note that he describes some of the most significant events in his life in terms of what he saw around him - i.e., his first kiss is inextricably intertwined with the riverbank on which they lay, trees, flowers, and the afternoon sunlight falling on them.

Rather like my post on Edward Carpenter, I haven't told the whole story of John Addington Symonds here.  (Incidentally, he and Carpenter were acquainted, and were working together on a book about homosexuality when Symonds died.)  The memoir is definitely worth reading, and here is a website devoted to John Addington Symonds.

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