By Garrett Jones, part ten
As I sit down to try to answer this question, the twentieth century has just drawn to its close. It has been an amazing century, changing the planet in more ways and with greater rapidity than all the preceding centuries put together.
It has also been a terrible century. The first half of it was scarred by two cataclysmic European wars. Between them, they changed for ever the nature and scale of war itself. The second half of the century began in a state of Cold War which, by an ominous stockpiling of nuclear warheads, kept Europe from a hot war, but not the rest of the world. There was Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, the Gulf, innumerable lesser wars, savage attempts at genocide in Campuchia, many part of Africa, Bosnia, Chechenya, formidable ethnic conflicts in Northern Ireland and around Israel and so on; a complete catalogue would be impossible and dreadfully depressing.
Apart from all this military mayhem, this century has seen some alarming signs of looming ecological tragedies, if not downright disasters, caused by deforestation on a massive scale, depletion of the ozone layer, heavy pollution of urban areas and rural waterways, and so on.
The most hopeful thing one can say at the turn of the millennium is that half a century of European peace, allied to a gigantic leap in technological capability, has given us the opportunity and, increasingly, the will, to confront the problems we have created and, so far as possible, to solve them.
All of this might seem irrelevant to a book about bisexuality, but it isn’t. It is high time we realised sex is not only what landed us on the planet in the first place, but is also the central driving force throughout our life span on the planet. Unless we can get our thought and practice about sex right, there is little chance of getting anything else right.
This is well illustrated in the life and writing of Georges Duhamel. Born in Paris in 1884, Duhamel followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor, but also a writer. He served in the medical corps in World War I, at the end of which he wrote a book of short stories entitled Civilization, 1914-1918 [<>available on-line, translated by W.D. Thevenin] which drew on his front line experiences.
The fourth story in the collection, Lieutenant Dauche, is narrated by an officer who has been wounded in the shoulder and been sent to the Chateau de S. to convalesce. He shares a room with Dauche, who has an apparently trivial wound in the forehead. Reticent at first, the narrator gradually gets into conversation with this companion. He is married with two children and was born in Lille, as was the narrator, who is not named but whom we shall call N.
The more he gets to know Dauche, the more N. grows to like him:
So it was with a trembling joy that I recognised in Dauche those qualities which my nature… requires in order to feel affection. I believe there is a deep predestination in this: the men of today who can become my friends are, all over the world, stamped, marked with the same mysterious sign; but I shall not know them all and fate will never perhaps take the trouble to let me meet my best friend.
As the friendship develops, the doctor in charge of these officers confides to N. that Dauche’s wound, which he himself thinks a mere scratch, is in fact a death warrant because a shell fragment lodged in his head has proved immovable. He instructs N. not to allow Dauche to do anything too strenuous when they go off walking together.
N., in despair, tries to tell himself the doctor is mistaken, but deep down knows his friendship with Dauche, which has transformed his life, is doomed:
I realized this perfectly when Dauche asked me one day why I stayed so long in the army zone. I made up a reply in which I dwelt on our genuine friendship… The affection I felt for Dauche had not ceased to grow…and the certainty that a near death awaited him had helped to exalt it not a little.
A month or so later, the two of them go for a walk in the pine woods near Rheims and sit on a tree stump to rest and chat:
…suddenly I knew that something was going on behind me. Then my heart began to beat madly, for it could be nothing but that terrifying and expected event.
And that it was.
…Dauche had slipped down from the tree-trunk. I hardly recognised him: his whole body shook with a hideous, inhuman trembling, such as one sees in animals that have been struck down with the mallet at the slaughter-house. His hands and feet were twitching as if in a convulsive struggle. His purple face was twisted toward his right shoulder. His mouth dribbled and his eyes showed only their whites.
When I recall that sight I feel a sort of shame. I had often seen death, and the war had made me live in a horrible intimacy with it, but I had never seen anything so ugly or so bestial… I escaped from my trance, and set about carrying what had once been my friend away from that spot.
With great difficulty N. manages to carry his friend, still technically alive although in such a pitiable state, back to the Chateau:
I laid the body on the ground, knelt beside it, my face streaming with sweat, and said: “There he is”. Then I began to weep.
Dauche dies a day or two later and is buried in the local cemetery:
I could not make up my mind to go and visit him there. I bore within myself a tomb that was deeper and more actual.
I left the Chateau de S. toward the middle of December. I had grown weak and thin, full of lassitude at the thought that I must still pursue my own life, still struggle for my life and my death.
The final story in the collection, itself titled Civilization, tells of the disgust and revulsion of a young industrial lab assistant who is now a sergeant in charge of a pathetic group of stretcher-bearers who wear themselves out struggling to salvage as many wounded soldiers as they can from a huge and growing pile of mutilated manhood. Here is his verdict on it all:
I hate the twentieth century, as I hate rotten Europe and the whole world on which this wretched Europe is spread out like a great spot of axle-grease.. I shall go to the mountains and arrange it so that I shall be as much alone as possible.
He goes on to despair of the culture which has spawned all this carnage:
Civilization! the true Civilization – I often think of it. It is like a choir of harmonious voices chanting a hymn in my heart… it is a man saying, “love one another!” and “Return good for evil!” But for nearly two thousand years people have done nothing but repeat these things over and over, and the princes and the priests have far too many interests in the age as it is to conceive other things like them. ……. I tell you truly, civilization is not in that object any more than it is in the shining pincers that the surgeons use. Civilization is not in all that terrible pack of trumpery wares; and if it is not in the heart of man, well! it’s nowhere.
Particularly in these two stories, Duhamel speaks for the whole century. It seems scarcely credible in this supposed age of enlightenment, concern for human rights, animal welfare, the handicapped, and so on, Europe got itself and much of the rest of the world embroiled in such an insane orgy of death and destruction, not once only, but twice – and, the second time, in a way which involved the civilian population in the slaughter almost as much as the fighting forces.
Even now, we again and again have to watch soul-destroying news coverage of women and children being blasted by shells and bombs, endless convoys of skeletal old folk and children who have been made refugees after most of the menfolk have been slaughtered, the ghastly sight of people who are so near to death their fleshless limbs can scarcely move and their swollen eyes register nothing but a listless terror.
In 1916, in the middle of the first World War, E.F.Benson published a school story entitled David Blaize [available on-line]. Benson’s father had been Archbishop of Canterbury and his big brother, A.C. Benson had written ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, part of his Coronation Ode, set to Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance march, for Edward VII in 1902.
When we first meet David, he is at prep school, looking forward to going on to Marchester where his great friend, Hughes, has gone a year ahead of him. When he gets to the public school, along with Bags, his other great friend, he is disappointed to find Hughes seems to have gone into a sharp decline. He tells Bags:
Hughes used to be a ripper, but he’s different somehow now. He asked me the other day if Maddox had become a saint, and if I’d converted him. What the devil was he talking about? I don’t like Hughes as much as I used. He told some filthy tale in the dormitory the other night…
Maddox, although Hughes has hinted otherwise, is another matter altogether. Three years older than David, he is worshipped by the younger boy, who has become his fag. Maddox casts his spell because of his prowess as school cricket captain and his qualities of leadership generally; he is also extremely handsome. Then something happens which breaks the spell.
David has forgotten to fill Maddox’s kettle as he usually does and is enjoying a bath. As he dries himself, whistling cheerily, Maddox, whose study is next door to the bathroom, decides to creep in and sit close beside his unsuspecting fag:
In a minute David’s head was sufficiently dry to satisfy him, and it emerged from its towel. He looked round astonished to find anyone there, for Bags had gone.
“Hullo, Maddox!” he said.
“Yes: got to fill my kettle myself,” he said.
David jumped up.
“I say, I’m awfully sorry,” he said. “I bang forgot. Give it me!”
But Maddox still held it, looking at him.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just having a bath, were you?”
David paused. There was Maddox only looking at him, only smiling. But instantly he had some sense of choking discomfort. He looked back at him, frowning and puzzled, and his sense of discomfort hugely increased. He merely wanted to get away.
“Oh then, I think I’ll go and dress,” he said hurriedly, and, picking up his sponge, left the room and ran away down the dark passage to his dormitory.
Maddox quickly regrets having made this pass. He did not actually say anything but David clearly got the message. He returns to his room and sits brooding. David is not just his fag; he is also his friend and he has been delighted at the way the friendship has been progressing. He has done everything he can to protect David from what he regards as undesirable influences, like the time he caught Hughes sitting on David’s bed and shooed him off. Now he has himself thrown all that to the wind and he is overcome with self-hatred.
For a time David steers clear of Maddox unless there is somebody else around. He arranges to become another senior boy’s fag. When they do next meet in private, Maddox apologises for the bathroom incident. David mumbles something about its being all right, then beats a hasty retreat. But he decides to retrace his steps and go back to Maddox’s study because he too wants to repair the breach in their friendship:
“I don’t know why I went away,” he said, “or why I was frightened when you said I needn’t be. So — so I came back. Sorry.”
Then he had the instant reward of his confidence. He saw Maddox look up at him with unashamed eyes of affection. He came and stood close to him.
The friendship grows apace from this point onwards. David is soon calling Maddox by his first name, Frank, and the two boys see a great deal of each other, even during the holidays. David is overjoyed things have turned out so well:
It was quite sufficient then that Maddox, the handsomest fellow in the world, the best bat probably that Marchester had ever produced, and altogether the most glorious of created beings, should have noticed him at all…
That Maddox should not merely have noticed him but have become Frank, the best friend, albeit three years his senior, in whose company he now feels so totally at ease and in which he so much delights, seems scarcely credible.
On one of their holiday meet-ups, the two boys go for a swim and chat as they undress, a decidedly erotic note at last being allowed to creep into their relationship. Frank is now 18, about to go to Cambridge, and David 15. David slowly strips as he laughs and talks, finally standing completely nude for a few moments before plunging in.
Meanwhile, the downward-spiralling Hughes has finally come to grief. Frank gets a letter from the Housemaster to say that Hughes will not be allowed back the following September because a ‘beastly’ letter, intended for a friend, has been intercepted. “What an ass Hughes is!” exclaims David, when Frank breaks the news. “He was such a nice chap, too, at my other school.”
Frank then says, but for David’s influence, he could well have met Hughes’s fate. They recall the bathroom incident, Frank repeating how bitterly he had regretted it almost immediately afterwards, David striving to get him to see it is all in the past: he tells Frank how grateful he is for the way in which he has protected him and acted almost as a guardian angel. Frank says, on the contrary, it is David’s inherent and impregnable decency which has saved him. Instead of corrupting David, David has made him uncorrupt himself.
Back at school Violet, daughter of one of the Masters, comes like a flash of lightning into David’s life and everything seems to change. He falls head over heels in love with her. It begins to look as if he is now heading for the conventional transition into heterosexual maturity:
All his other friends, Frank and his own sister, and Bags and Plugs, were on a different plane. He loved Margery [his sister], he loved Frank, he esteemed and relied on Bags, but none gave him any tremor, any sense of excitement. But for Violet, his boyish heart was full of a sweet tumult and confusion, whenever the enchantress came within eyeshot.
The enchantment ends cruelly with the news Violet has become engaged to a cousin. David is desolated, but receives a lot of comfort from his friends.
Shortly afterwards, when David has gone into the town one afternoon, a driverless horse and cart come pounding down the street, completely out of control. He rushes out impetuously to grab the horse’s reins but is run over by the cart. He sustains very serious injuries and for the next few days his life hangs in the balance. Frank begs the Head to be allowed to see him, saying:
“He’s the best chap in the world, sir,.. He saved me you know. Just saved me.”
The Head pressed his arm,
“Ah, that’s between you and David,” he said. “It’s not for me to hear. But I know you love him, which is the only point. Please God, you’ll have him with you many years yet….”
Frank sits beside David’s bed and waits for him to wake. When he does, he is terribly restless; the doctor says it is crucial he go on sleeping. Frank tells David to imagine they are back in the dormitory, helping each other to doze off, as they sometimes did. David says it might help if Frank would hold his hand, if he wouldn’t mind. Frank is delighted and stays there, losing all feeling in his arm, still holding David’s hand, helping him to slowly drift off to sleep. He goes on sleeping for hours together.
Frank’s reward is, when David awakes, before he is really awake in fact, it is his name that is on his lips. When he learns Frank has been by his bedside, holding his hand for around twelve hours, David exclaims:
“Oh, I say! And just because you thought I might want you.”
David’s eyes were bright and untired again: there was life shining behind them…
Frank leaned over him.
“Yes, I thought you might want me,” he said; “but also I couldn’t go away. I wanted you.”
Benson was 48 when this book was published. If we allow for all the ‘rippings’ which date the book so markedly, this is still a remarkable novel. It is as if Benson, appalled by what is going on in the trenches across the channel, is anticipating Duhamel’s verdict on our civilization: it is either in our hearts or it is nowhere.
As if to reinforce the point, Benson published another novel in 1916 called Mike (Michael in America and in the Internet version). Whilst David Blaize has not mentioned the war which is tearing Europe apart, Mike has the war at its centre.
Michael, who is heir to Lord Ashbridge, has, much to his father’s disgust, resigned his commission in the Guards in order to devote his life to music. This is in 1913, when he is a young man of 25.
Whilst in Germany, the Mecca of music at this period, he grows so friendly with Hermann and Sylvia Falbe he becomes almost one of the family, spending much of his time with them when they all return to London. Sylvia is giving recitals and becoming a celebrated vocalist whilst Hermann is her fine accompanist. Hermann agrees to take Michael on as his pupil, transforming an average pianist into an accomplished artist. Sylvia begins to capture Michael’s heart and the two eventually become engaged to marry at the end of 1914.
But war is declared in July of that year. Hermann rushes back to Germany in order to join the army and Michael rejoins his regiment. Sylvia is torn between her love for her half-German brother (their mother is English) and her British lover.
Dimly she had foreseen this contingency when, a few days ago, she had asked Michael what he would do if England went to war, and now that contingency was realised, and Hermann was even now perhaps on his way to violate the neutrality of the country for the sake of which England had gone to war. On the other side was Michael, into whose keeping she had given herself and her love, and on which side was she? It was then that the nightmare came close to her; she could not tell, she was utterly unable to decide. Her heart was Michael’s; her heart was her brother’s also. The one personified Germany for her, the other England. It was as if she saw Hermann and Michael with bayonet and rifle stalking each other across some land of sand- dunes and hollows, creeping closer to each other, always closer. She felt as if she would have gladly given herself over to an eternity of torment, if only they could have had one hour more, all three of them, together here, as on that night of stars and peace when first there came the news ………………
When, in the early days of the war, there are reports of German atrocities to Belgian civilians, Sylvia cannot believe they are true. Michael gently begs to differ,
There seems to have been sworn testimony. War is a cruel thing; I hate it as much as you. When men are maddened with war, you can’t tell what they would do. They are not the Germans you know, nor the Germans I know, who did such things–not the people I saw when I was with Hermann in Baireuth and Munich a year ago. They are no more the same than a drunken man is the same as that man when he is sober. They are two different people; drink has made them different. And war has done the same for Germany.
When news reaches Michael his beloved cousin Francis has been killed in the early stages of the fighting, he is at first seized with a mad desire to go off and kill as many Germans as he can.
Soon he raised himself again, not ashamed of his sorrow, but somehow ashamed of the black hate that before had filled him. That was gone for the present, anyhow, and Michael was glad to find it vanished. Instead there was an aching pity, not for Francis alone nor for himself, but for all those concerned in this hideous business. A hundred and a thousand homes, thrown suddenly to-day into mourning, were there: no doubt there were houses in that Bavarian village in the pine woods above which he and Hermann had spent the day when there was no opera at Baireuth where a son or a brother or a father were mourned, and in the kinship of sorrow he found himself at peace with all who had suffered loss, with all who were living through days of deadly suspense.
Sylvia also knows of Francis’s death and understands why Michael wants to be alone. Nevertheless she goes to him in order to tell him how her heart goes out to him in his grief. Michael says to her,
I loved Francis, as you know, and I love Hermann, but there is our love, the greatest thing of all. We’ve got it–it’s here. Oh, Sylvia, we must be wise and simple, we must separate things, sort them out, not let them get mixed with one another. We can do it; I know we can. There’s nothing outside us; nothing matters–nothing matters.
As soon as he has said this, Michael realises there is no escape from their entrapment.
Even as he asserted the inviolability of the sanctuary in which they stood, he knew it to be an impossible Utopia–that he should find with her the peace that should secure them from the raging storm, the cold shadow–and the loosening of her arms about his neck but endorsed the message of his own heart. For such heavenly security cannot come except to those who have been through the ultimate bitterness that the world can bring; it is not arrived at but through complete surrender to the trial of fire, and as yet, in spite of their opposed patriotism, in spite of her sincerest sympathy with Michael’s loss, the assault on the most intimate lines of the fortress had not yet been delivered.
When Michael is himself in the front line he is afflicted at times by the insane waste and insanity of it all and at times by the horrors which might beset him personally.
……..the feeling was one of some mental and spiritual shrinking from the whole of this vast business of murder, where hundreds and thousands of men along the battle front that stretched half-way across Europe, were employed, day and night, without having any quarrel with each other, in the unsleeping vigilant work of killing. ……………What if there happened to him what had happened to another junior officer who was close to him at the moment, when a fragment of shell turned him from a big gay boy into a writhing bundle at the bottom of the trench! He had lived for a couple of hours like that, moaning and crying out, “For God’s sake kill me!” What if, more mercifully, he was killed outright, so that he would lie there in peace till next night they removed his body, or perhaps had to bury him in the trench itself, with a dozen handfuls of soil cast over him! At that he suddenly realised how passionately he wanted to live, to escape from this infernal butchery, to be safe again, gloriously or ingloriously, it mattered not which, to be with Sylvia once more.
Shortly after this, Michael shoots the soldier who is leading a surprise assault on their trenches. He manages to pull him into their trench, getting shot in the arm in the process, and is desolated to discover it is Hermann he has shot.
After two weeks in a field hospital in France, Michael returns to London for a brief spell of sick leave. He knows he must tell Sylvia the truth about what has happened:
“He fell across the parapet close to me,” he said. . . . “I lifted him somehow into our trench. . . . I was wounded, then. . . . He lay at the bottom of the trench, Sylvia. . . . And I would to God it had been I who lay there. . . . Because I loved him. . . . Just at the end he opened his eyes, and saw me, and knew me. And he said–oh, Sylvia, Sylvia!–he said ‘Lieber Gott, Michael. Good morning, old boy.’ And then he died. . . . I have told you.”
Michael then breaks down, sobbing helplessly at the hopelessness of it all. He himself will never be able to play again and he has lost his two best friends, one by his own hand. His only consolation is Sylvia bears him no ill-will but is entirely at one with him in his grief and distraction.
Hugh Walpole, when he was 43, also wrote a school story, Jeremy at Crale, which has a good deal in common with David Blaize. [<>Jeremy at Crale is also available on the Net.] This was published in 1927, just about mid-way between the two World Wars.
Again the hero has one or two close friends, one of whom, Llewelyn, is a bit too fond of Jeremy for his comfort. He tends to repulse his advances because, although he likes him, he feels there is something a bit “queer” about him. But Jeremy has seen another boy, senior to him, with whom he falls instantly in love although he has only seen him at a distance. He has never met him or spoken to him, but he learns most boys in his year regard him as somewhat reclusive and inaccessible. Yet Jeremy knows intuitively “he can tell him things.” He is the one person he has seen at school with whom he feels real intimacy is possible.
At long last, Jeremy does happen to meet this other boy, Ridley. They exchange just a few sentences and Ridley agrees to embark on the friendship which Jeremy has long felt is predestined for them. Jeremy returns to his study “happier than he had ever been in all his life before.” – and there the novel ends.
What all these writers are saying in their own distinctive way is all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will avail us nothing unless we can allow mutual love to overwhelm all that is so ruthlessly anarchic and destructive in our nature. Freud would shortly be telling us that the critical human battleground is dominated by our two basic instincts, eros (broadly speaking, sex and love) versus thanatos (death, an atavistic pull back to the primal chaos). It is largely up to us to decide which will win the day.
In his last major work, Freud wrote:
After long doubts and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct …the aim of the first of these basic instincts is to establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thus – in short, to bind together; the aim of the second, on the contrary, is to undo connections and so destroy things [<>Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Hogarth/Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1949, pp5f].
Duhamel and Benson, each in their own way and in their very different contexts, have seen all this very clearly.
The problem for Duhamel is men are so busy killing and wounding each other they have no opportunity to allow their love to grow and blossom; everything is drowned in a muddy mixture of blood and decaying flesh. Thanatos seems invincible.
The problem for Benson is, whilst Frank’s love for David, and David’s for him, can turn the scales against thanatos in favour of eros, there is a big question mark about how far this love can go or how strong it will prove. Violet can bring to David’s ‘boyish heart’ a tremor, an excitement, an enchantment, which none of his male friends, not even Frank, can bring. But this is surely because David and Frank have outlawed the ‘filth’ which has been the downfall of Hughes and his cronies and nearly was of Frank.
David and Frank eventually come to a full and joyous acceptance of their mutual love, a love which even their Headmaster has approved, but they are at a loss to know what to do about the ‘filthy’ side of themselves, except try to smother it, thereby forfeiting the tremor and the enchantment which goes with sexual love, which they seem to assume has to be reserved for the fair sex. Sex between boys, one suspects even a kiss between boys, can only be revolting and squalid and degrading.
It may be they will get over this, learn to get it all together, become so all-sufficient to each other they settle into an exclusively gay (albeit, at this time, criminal) relationship.
It may even be they will not only learn all this but also learn how to overcome the exclusive boundaries around their relationship, each of them eventually also loving a woman and having children, though never being in danger of losing each other.
We have moved a little way since the days of World War I but one suspects there are still far too many males who have yet to confront the real contestants in our human battle to achieve a brighter future.