Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Androgyny

Ken Burns’ new film explores the man beneath the myth, reopening questions about the macho writer’s sexuality

By Mary Katharine Tramontana 05/04/2021 (

ernest hemingway

Ernest Hemingway and his three sons with blue marlin on the docks of Bimini, in The Bahamas. 20 July 20, 1935ERNEST HEMINGWAY COLLECTION. JOHN F KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON

Bullfight-lover. Big game hunter. Deep sea fisher. Brawler. Boxer. Drinker. War hero. Ladies’ man. Even for his time, Ernest Hemingway was masculinity in hyperbole. The outsized writer of stripped-back prose was also, a new documentary argues, an explorer of gender fluidity in the bedroom – both in his literature and his life. At a cultural moment which favours simplistic interpretations of iconic figures as villains or heroes, American filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick muddy the waters of the fallen literary celebrity in Hemingway, their non-hagiographic, six-hour examination of the contradiction between the myth and the man.

“For us it’s about making things more complex,” Burns tells me, on a call from his home in Walpole, New Hampshire. “Hemingway is monstrous at times and there’s never a moment in the film where we let him off the hook.” The writer’s epic and, ultimately, tragic life allowed him to create literature – considered to be among the most influential in the English language – that Burns says belies the imprisoning masculinity that he’s known for. “He shows how incredibly difficult it is to have an on-off switch. That black-white, good-bad labelling may be the de rigueur activity, but there’s nothing binary about the world.”

This quest for nuance is key in understanding Hemingway’s marital bed. In the film, biographer Mary Dearborn calls him “brave” for his “sexual preferences” and admission to an “intense desire” for role play. “He really had a thing about androgyny and he liked to switch sex roles in bed, and he tells Mary [Walsh Hemingway, his fourth wife], ‘Let’s play around, I’m gonna call you Pete, you call me Catherine.’”

Was Hemingway gay or straight? He was a fetishist

In her journal, Mary wrote that he was the best man she’d been with in bed. He “wanted his wife to be both completely obedient and sexually loose.” She “enjoyed the sexual part, cut her hair short and bleached it platinum, because it excited him, and sometimes pretended that she was a boy and he was a girl,” the narrator (longtime Burns collaborator Peter Coyote) tells us. “He dyed his hair too.”

The film voices a condensed excerpt from Hemingway’s entry in Mary’s diary while the two were on safari in East Africa in 1953:

She has always wanted to be a boy and thinks as a boy without losing any of her femininity. If you should become confused on this, you should retire. She loves me to be her girls, which I love to be, not being absolutely stupid… In return she makes me awards, and at night we do every sort of thing which pleases her and which pleases me. […] I loved feeling the embrace of Mary, which came to me as something quite new and outside all tribal law.

Was the gender swapping simply code for Hemingway’s enjoyment of every sort of thing outside all tribal law – like anal penetration? Does “being the girl” just mean being the one penetrated? Was Hemingway an early, literary proponent of pegging?

“I don’t know,” Burns told me. “This is a really important question, something’s clearly happening in that diary entry and in Garden of Eden. It certainly opens a door to that consideration.”

The Garden of Eden is a posthumously published novel that overlaps, in many ways, with Hemingway’s life – including the matching hair and sex play. In the film, the writer Michael Katakis says the novel exposes things that “some people would find shocking” about Hemingway. “He’s not hiding himself.”

“He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”


“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

― Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden

The book focuses on a couple honeymooning in the French Riviera in 1927 (the spot of Hemingway’s honeymoon with his second wife, Vogue editor Pauline Pfeiffer). David, an author and war veteran, and Catherine spend their days eating, tanning, drinking, and having sex. One day Catherine returns to the hotel with a surprise for David. She cut her hair “cropped as short as a boy’s.” Later in bed, when David calls her “girl” Catherine tells him, “Don’t call me girl.” Then she asks, “Will you change and be my girl and let me take you? [….] I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine.” The two meet and fall in love with Marita, who becomes a proto-polyamorous lover to both.This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

Hemingway said the book was “too sexually adventurous” to be published in his lifetime, and he was right. It wasn’t released until 1986, 25 years after he shot himself in his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Rounds of electroshock therapy prescribed for depression had caused a loss in Hemingway’s short-term memory, rendering him unable to write. Numerous concussions, self-medication with prescription drugs, and decades of alcoholism didn’t help, but depression and suicide ran in the family. His father, sister, brother, and granddaughter also killed themselves. There’s a painful scene in the film where Hemingway gives a rare interview, after winning his Nobel Prize in 1954, with his speech impaired.

After the book came out, Joan Didion – who, like Ralph Ellison, would retype Hemingway’s stories to learn his style – lamented its publication in The New Yorker. How ethical is it to publish an unfinished book against an author’s wishes – an author who cared about every period, comma, and article?

And yet, he didn’t destroy it either.

Pegging Papa

Ethics aside, the book does offer essential insight. For one, the anal penetration in The Garden of Eden is “pretty well accepted” by critics familiar with the original manuscript, according to Debra Moddelmog, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Nevada, Reno. In Reading Desire, Moddelmog points out a revealing phrase Hemingway had crossed out, which contains more explicit detail: David felt “something that yielded and entered.” In the published novel,

[David] lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then laid back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

What entered?

“I think this is digital anal penetration,” Moddelmog tells me (a 2010 film adaptation agrees), “but there’s room for interpretation.” Of course, the “something” and the “weight” could easily be an implement heavier than fingers. The game is repeated many times. And absinthe helped to cure David’s “remorse” when, one day, while visiting Spain, the penetration occurred when he and Catherine were both “boys.”

The late Richard Fantina’s “Pegging Ernest Hemingway”, from his book Straight Writ Queer, offers another take. “In Hemingway’s work the male heroes seldom penetrate women but rather are sometimes penetrated themselves,” he writes. Male submission is part of the back door sex for Fantina: “The ideal Hemingway woman”, like sexually liberated Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises (1926), “demonstrates power and a will to dominate.” In The Garden of Eden, Hemingway “celebrates a woman who controls the sexual relationship with her husband and who initiates female-on-male sodomy.” Sodomy, Fantina argues, is a “polymorphous practise that transcends categories of gender and sexual preference.”

In her diary, during that previously mentioned 1953 African sex safari, Mary Hemingway wrote: “Papa’s definition of buggery: ‘Sodomy when practised by those who are not gentlemen.’” A few lines away from that is an account of their afternoon nap: a “love-feast, love-fest, love fiesta,” and another entry later that night noted “a bigger, happier, lovelier, love-fest-feast.” There’s also her account of Hemingway’s mock interview:

REPORTER: ‘Mr. Hemingway, is it true that your wife is a lesbian?’
PAPA: ‘Of course not. Mrs Hemingway is a boy.’
REPORTER: ‘What are your favorite sports, sir?’
PAPA: ‘Shooting, fishing, reading and sodomy.’
REPORTER: ‘Does Mrs Hemingway participate in these sports?’
PAPA: ‘She participates in all of them.’
REPORTER: ‘Sir, can you compare fishing, shooting and cricket, perhaps, with the other sports you practise?’
PAPA: ‘Young man, you must distinguish between the diurnal and the nocturnal sports. In this later category sodomy is definitely superior to fishing.’

Icebergs and Enemas

In 1918, Hemingway was in hospital in Milan after being wounded while volunteering as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I. In preparation for an operation, he was likely given an enema by nurse Agnes von Kurowsky – his first great love. This enema was replicated in A Farewell to Arms, when Catherine administers one to Frederic, a lieutenant of the ambulance core, before his operation.

The word ‘enema’ is never used. The reader must infer from his lover-nurse making him “clean inside and out.”

In Hemingway’s pared-down ‘iceberg’ technique of layered writing, it’s what’s unsaid, left beneath the surface, that matters. That omission entailed excising chunks of text and giving the reader the generous credit to intuit the absence. In his 1927 short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” a man pressures a woman to get an abortion, and the word abortion is never mentioned. “The Sea Change” (1931) features a woman talking to a man in a bar about how she’s going to leave him for another woman, yet her bisexuality is never stated directly. Elision and subtext are Hemingway’s signature style. And this certainly applied to sex.

The quiet enema in A Farewell to Arms is sexualised, subtly, as is the moment directly after:

‘What would you like me to do now that you’re all ready?’
‘Come to the bed again.’
‘All right. I’ll come.’
‘Oh, darling, darling, darling,’ I said.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘I do anything you want.’
‘You’re so lovely.’
‘I’m afraid I’m not very good at it yet,’
‘You’re lovely.’
‘I want what you want. There isn’t any me any more. Just what you want.’

Hemingway’s enema intimacy was possibly his foray into adulthood anal pleasures.

A Moveable Fetish

Years earlier, a young Ernest wore a flouncy summer dress. His mother, Grace, captioned a snapshot of him: “summer girl.” He and his sister Marcelline, who was a year-and-a-half older, were always dressed alike – with identical haircuts. In that time, it was common for young boys to wear dresses. However, at the Hemingway’s, his mother also referred to him as a girl, and this went on long enough for Ernest to worry aloud that Santa Claus would not know he was a boy.

Being raised as the pseudo-twin of his sister is what many critics attribute to his fascination with matching haircuts, which is repeated in his adult eroticism, letters, and fiction, and the gender swapping – which often alludes to brother/sisters.

“You’ll almost never see an erotic scene in Hemingway without a good deal of attention to hair,” Carl Eby, the president of The Hemingway Foundation and author of Hemingway’s Fetishism tells me by phone from Boone, North Carolina. “People always ask me, ‘Was Hemingway gay or straight?’

“He was a fetishist.”

ernest hemingway


Fetishes, which are typically linked to experiences in childhood, are “an obligatory prop – for instance, shoes, underwear, or in Hemingway’s case, hair—that makes sexual gratification possible,” said Eby. “The fetishist will use it as a tool to disavow sexual difference in a partner, so the person wearing the fetish can become a girl-boy. As Robert Stoller beautifully puts it, ‘a fetish is a story masquerading as an object.’”

In Hemingway’s fiction, the “heterosexual sodomising” of men is connected to a set of patterns, according to Eby, like fetishised haircuts, gender transformation, and the male protagonist entering a state of “not thinking.”

(Though, isn’t a state of not thinking an aim of all sex?)

“For Hemingway, sodomy carried a homosexual undertone,” Eby said. “Like David in The Garden of Eden, he’d imagine himself in a female role while getting penetrated by a female partner playing a male role. A sort of gender-swapping heterosexuality. But he could never free himself from a sneaking suspicion that there was something ‘homosexual’ about it.” His characters often seem to be trying to fend that off.

Secret Pleasures

Was the macho posturing a front to cover Papa’s secret pleasures?

That’s the pop psychology take. But Hemingway was likely aware of his kinks. He was an avid fan of the pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis, who wrote extensively on all things sexually deviant – including hair fetishes – and even recommended his books to his first wife, Hadley, and friends. Alfred Kinsey, another non-judgmental taxonomer of sexual behaviour, was also on his bookshelves. After Hemingway found his trans son in his mother’s nylons he said, “Gigi [a nickname for Gregory, who transitioned to Gloria after Hemingway’s death], we come from a strange tribe, you and I.”

Papa, who helped launch this magazine, really did love those “manly” hobbies. The manliness was definitely hyperbolic, thanks to the press and Hemingway’s mastery of branding (back when self-promotion was still a social embarrassment). He knew the public wanted the he-man, and it was the taboo of its opposite that excited him.

Like a feminist who gets off on being subservient to men in bed, the erotic lies in the verboten. For Hemingway, born in 1899, being bad meant “being the girl” and getting penetrated.

The complexity of human nature and desire is, ultimately, unknowable, even in ourselves

The hair stuff was a cheeky public prelude to all of that. Transgressing cultural taboos is often an element of fetishism. Like his writing, you could see the haircuts on the surface, and the “devil things” they got up to privately (as they call it in Garden) were the bottom part of that hair iceberg.

In the safari entry Hemingway calls Mary “prince of devils.” In “Secret Pleasures,” a chapter cut from A Moveable Feast – his glossed-up autobiographical account of living in Paris in the Twenties with Hadley – he gushes over their matching hair (his grown out, hers cut) and “how much fun it was to be damned… [We] kept our own tribal rules and had our own customs and our own standards, secrets, taboos and delights.”

None of this is new. That sodomy interview was printed in The New York Times in 1977, in a feature called “A Farewell to Machismo.” What’s baffling is that after Garden was published in 1986, reviewers focused on the hair stuff and ignored the sodomy. With the mystery of his understatement and truncation, surely many critics just missed it. After all, the pleasures of prostate stimulation aren’t part of the standard hetero sex script (vaginal penetration + phallus) – Hemingway’s depiction is remarkable for its rareness in literature. Bottoming doesn’t exactly fit the (homophobic) archetypal epitome of masculinity either. Then, too, there’s no doubt that some critics who were clued-in about the anality were too self-conscious to write about it. What might that awareness suggest about their own lives?

The Garden of Eden

I’m still not convinced that too much fuss isn’t being made about Papa’s gender trouble. After all the posturing and the bravado, knowing more about Hemingway’s private life and writing reminds us that “we have very little understanding of the intimate lives of other people,” co-filmmaker Lynn Novick tells me, on a call from her apartment in New York City. “With a famous person who’s left a lot of breadcrumbs, we’re so curious and we want to explain everything, but maybe that’s oversimplifying the complexity of human nature and desire, which is, ultimately, unknowable – even in ourselves.”

It’s worthwhile to keep in mind how much overblown analysing we do with the art and lives of legendary figures. We project our desires as part of our existential craving for meaning in our own lives, and in doing so, we often place meaning where none may be. Hemingway was a pleasure-seeker, and his writing is undeniably sensual, that much is clear in his erotic descriptions of food and drink alone (tasting “the cold bottle of white wine wrapped in a newspaper” at the beach; the “flow of the butter” melting on eggs at breakfast).

An appreciation of blonde hair and prostate sensation are not exactly unique pleasures either. Before researching this story, I told a male friend, who sleeps exclusively with women, that after mulling over the film’s vagueness about his sexual ambiguity, I wondered if the big androgyny mystery of “being the girl” wasn’t much of a mystery at all. “I think Hemingway just liked stuff in his ass,” I said. His response: “Who doesn’t?”

Hemingway’ airs on PBS from 5-7 April, and on the BBC later this year

Mary Katharine Tramontana is a writer covering sexual politics and culture for The New York Times, Playboy, and other outlets. You can follow her on Twitter at @MKTramontana or on Instagram at @marykatharinetramontana. She lives in Berlin.

Red herring

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question.[1] It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion. A red herring may be used intentionally, as in mystery fiction or as part of rhetorical strategies (e.g., in politics), or may be used in argumentation inadvertently.

The term was popularized in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, who told a story of having used a strong-smelling smoked fish to divert and distract hounds from chasing a rabbit.

In the mystery story “A Study in Scarlet“, detective Sherlock Holmes examines a clue which is later revealed to be intentionally misleading (i.e., a red herring).

More at:,hounds%20from%20chasing%20a%20rabbit.

On Being Useless: A Daoist Reflection

Our obsession with productivity works against us.

old tree

27th February 2019 (

Edward McDougall 

| Philosophy Tutor at Durham University, UK1,474 wordsRead time: approx. 7 mins

Utility, or usefulness, is an invisible thread that runs through and organises every aspect of our society. It is a basic, universal and inescapable measure of all worth in modern lives. 

This is obvious in our attitudes to work and education. Economics treats utility as a measurable quantity which serves, and even dictates, decision-making. Many academics, particularly in the sciences, now need to justify their research in terms of “impact”, a quantifiable indicator of economic or social contribution. The governments of the US and the UK have cut down on their funding for liberal arts subjects, for lacking an obvious and measurable use. The assumption is that education should be a means to produce future workers.

But even beyond work, leisure is presented as the means to recharge our body and mind so we can keep on working, and is turned into a commodity, to be bought or sold, in the tourism industry.

This has repercussions on our moral discourse too, implying that being useful equals to being good. Anything without use value will be treated as luxury and indulgence, or dismissed as laziness or a moral complacency.

Indeed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber argued that utility, as an approach to life, may have its historical foundations in the Protestant work ethic.

The use driven approach to life fundamentally denies anything that is not a means to an end. If we really take utility as the only meaningful value, our lives would be merely parts of a never-ending production line – we function as long as we last and then can be replaced. This has been presented as progress, but the endpoint is uncertain: we may arrive at the utopia of economic or technological advancements, or we may come to understand that this is actually a myth of modernity, a distant and never realised promise.

Perhaps going back to the lessons of ancient Chinese Daoism might help us see the limits of our modern and contemporary fixation with usefulness.

The Story of a Useless Tree

In his work The Inner Chapters, the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi tells the story of a tree which enjoys being useless. This tree has grown to a vast size and is worshiped in the village. Its branches are “too twisted and gnarled to be used for beams or pillars”, while its trunk is “too splotched and split to be used for a coffin” (translated by Brook Ziporyn in his Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings). So one day when a carpenter encounters the tree, he believes the tree to be “worthless lumber”. Yet, the tree responds to the carpenter’s criticism by appearing to him in a dream and asking him:

“What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult…Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That’s why they die young…They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world.” (Ziporyn’s translation)

Gender as Identity vs Gender as NormsRead moreIn this story, the carpenter’s view is in modern western terms utilitarian. Regardless of the size of the tree or its being worshipped, to the carpenter the tree is nothing more than a waste of space. The existence of the tree serves no purpose. However, the tree feels blessed by its uselessness: it survives, while other “useful” trees are cut down, to be used as wood, or damaged by such violence.

In a quirky and humorous manner, Zhuangzi conveys the basic point that the tree’s very life is saved by its being useless, while its fellow trees that produce things of use are destroyed. In other words, in viewing something simply in terms of its usefulness, we have denied its right to be.


“The principle of utility has fundamentally undermined the individual, who is supposedly at the heart of our society.”


Zhuangzi sees uselessness as something the tree has to cultivate. As the tree states, “I have been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it.” (Ziporyn’s translation) Before being cut down, a tree is already only judged for its use value. This is the “insult” Zhuangzi’s tree speaks of. It is unable to remain as it is. The tree has to go out of its way to avoid being caught up in this, in order to just be a tree.

This is how Zhuangzi carries out a project of resistance to utility, which he clearly sees as praise-worthy. Ziporyn continues to translate: “This is the worthlessness [uselessness] that the Spirit Man relies on.” Zhuangzi refers to the Spirit Man as both an exceptional figure and exemplar who we can all aspire to be like. He means that the way of the tree, like the way of the Spirit Man, is something we should follow. Although the useless tree appears to only be taking care of itself, Zhuangzi develops the cultivation of uselessness with two key notions, i.e. wu wei and ziran, in Daoist philosophy:

Wu wei is generally translated as action-less action. It was expressed by the Daoist philosopher Laozi as a principle for government by the sage, who “conducts affairs on the principle of take-no-action [wu wei].” (Keping Wang’s translation of Dao De Jing in his Reading the Dao: A Thematic Inquiry) On the surface, this principle might appear as an excuse for laziness, passivity or inaction. Zhuangzi further develops it to be more accurately understood as a call to let beings be. As an ethical principle, action-less action requires us not to force our will or impose utility onto others.

Ziran, as a Daoist principle, is often understood as naturalness, or more specifically, as spontaneity. An entity is said to be ziran if it is allowed to be itself. This thus calls on us to allow both ourselves and other beings to be. Zhuangzi’s understanding of uselessness, which refuses judgement or manipulation of any entity based on its utility, contextualises the meaning of ziran. Thus, he challenges other schools of thought in his time, such as the Confucians and the Mohists, who held that the aim of education should be to produce scholars who could be of use to the state.

Zhuangzi also frequently presents the figure of the Spirit Man or Daoist sage, who is associated with the approach to life of the useless tree, as an eccentric figure. An example is “the madman Jieyu”. Zhuangzi is not asking people to copy these eccentrics in every conceivable way. Precisely because their eccentricities are thought of by many as useless, they do not fit in the conventions of the society nor are they demanded to conform. Thus, these eccentrics show different ways of being.

Are We Free?

Can we make anything out of this story? Is it a paradox to, as Zhuangzi does, consider that uselessness may have a part to play in life? Zhuangzi’s useless tree may seem distant to us. His eccentric sages, on the contrary, may be more understandable because they somehow echo with the individualist values of western society. Yet, the Daoist approach is still in many ways quite different.

The idea that as a liberal society, we value the individual, is indeed nominal. This individuality, in contemporary western society, is always treated as commodity. Hence, today it is frequently said that “one has to market oneself”. The marketing of oneself above all else has become a cultural and practical obsession. We might have overtly done it, for example, on CVs and social media, or in other subtler ways throughout our life. One’s individuality is viewed effectively as a means to present oneself. And presenting oneself in such a way often implies that one is of use. Sometimes, this is even done to the extent that one’s whole identity is being defined through one’s usefulness.

The basic cruelty and alienation of life based around marketing one’s usefulness can be seen in the use of language. For example, incongruous terms like “human resources” are omnipresent in casual thinking. Such language callously lumps humans together with other resources, such as coal, steal, timber, etc.

This condition is at odds with the humanism underlying western thought since the enlightenment. It reflects the strange double-think of modern life and alleged individualism. The principle of utility has fundamentally undermined the individual, who is supposedly at the heart of our society.

There may be no hope for ever changing the way we think about utility. Zhuangzi’s story of a useless tree at the very least helps to rediscover a place for uselessness. It presents an alternative way to think of freedom – we must stop feeling that we have to be useful all the time, or seeing that there is no more to life than utility. We need to challenge the destructive aspects of the tyranny of utility in contemporary culture. In this way, perhaps we can just be ourselves again.

Edward McDougall
27th February 2019

On Great Literary Loves and the Joyous, Complicated Brilliance of Walt Whitman

“The first experience of literary love tends, like the first experience of erotic love, to come in youth.”


April 9, 2021 (

What does it mean to love a book? In particular, what does it mean to love a work of literature—a novel, poem, or play? Does literary love differ markedly from love for an object in the world, a commodity, as Marx taught us to call them? And what, if anything, does it have in common with love for another person? If you set out as a teacher of literature to teach what you love, and I do, then surely you should know something about what literary love means.

The first experience of literary love tends, like the first experience of erotic love, to come in youth. The impulse behind it is usually a sudden feeling of connection. I’m not alone in the world! You realize that others have had thoughts akin to yours, and feelings that mirror much that you’ve felt. How many young people have opened up a book like Catcher in the Rye and after a few pages, half believed that they had in some uncanny sense written it themselves?

Yes—that’s me. I’ve had just those thoughts, but never had the words to express them. The ancient critic Longinus talks about the feeling of having created what you have merely heard, and taking joy in it. That’s the first form of literary love, I think: literary infatuation with an image of self, a self that is perhaps bolder, more subtle, and more articulate than you currently are. The self may be a character in a book, or the author, or perhaps both.

Some of us are delighted to hear our own inchoate thoughts put into words. We feel gratitude to the writer and want to do what Holden Caulfield longs to do when he reads a book he admires: call the author up on the phone and hear more and more. The writer, or this fantasy version of the writer, would be creating your own mind. He’d be giving you words, and maybe as important as words, intonations, level of irony, to fit the facts of your life.

There are others readers who are not so happy with this sort of experience, not at all. They do not say, I’ve found myself, and thank you—and how can I get a few more of your books? No, this second sort of reader feels admiration, but of a grudging, even a resentful sort. It’s not, Thank you for saying so. Rather it’s, Why didn’t I say so? I knew it all the time. This is the experience that Emerson describes at the beginning of “Self-Reliance,” where he refers to some verses by a painter (a painter!) that are “original and not conventional.”

The heart, Emerson says, always feels an admonition in such experiences. One is admonished to get to business and begin writing oneself, or else time after time one will be forced to take one’s own truth from another. “In every work of genius,” Emerson says, “we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” To the person who aspires to be a writer, this is a painful state. To the devoted reader, whose ambitions end at the border of reading and does not aspire to write, this is the sheerest intellectual pleasure.

I was for a long time just such a reader. My feeling of gratitude to the wonderful writers I encountered when I was 17 years old had no boundaries. I loved Hunter Thompson and Ken Kesey and Malcolm X and Susan Sontag and many more. All I wanted to do was to read. I recall skipping school and sitting at a desk in the Medford Public Library with two books open in front of me so as to get all I could right now, right now. I do not recommend this practice. You end up reading not two books, but no book, and get up with a headache to boot. In time, I settled down and began to read books one at a time. What worlds opened up to me.The first experience of literary love tends, like the first experience of erotic love, to come in youth.

The idea of my writing a book, or writing anything of consequence wasn’t really available to me. I looked at authors with awe. How could they manage it? How could they string their thoughts together? They had the right words in the right order as Coleridge says. My chances for doing that were surely close to nil. I didn’t bother my head much about it. My reading was never combative, never resistant. I was assimilative and grateful, wildly grateful.

“What we have loved others will love and we will teach them how”: that’s Wordsworth addressing Coleridge on their program for poetry and for conducting literary life. A teacher now, I do all I can to follow it.

It would probably be fair to call my love for Catcher in the Rye a case of puppy love. I looked into the mirror of that book and saw an image of myself as Holden, a person who was to me more sensitive, observant, and articulate (yes, articulate, even with all the goddams and verbal placeholders) than I could imagine being. The book got me going. Let the young person read whatever he likes, says Doctor Johnson: he’ll get better books in time. Nothing against Holden Caulfield or Salinger, but my immersion in that book was too easy, too smooth. There were no rough edges. I found nothing to argue with, resist, protest. When I learned that there were criticisms of the book out there in the world, I was appalled. This was sacrilege. I made it a point never to read them.

Psychologists might have described what I was doing as finding a narcissistic self-image. It set a certain kind of standard—for candor, for independence, for self-acceptance—that I wanted to embrace, and wholly. Anything that divagated from the standard was suspect. Did I go around talking like Holden? No, the neighborhood would have risen up against me and smacked me down. (It was that kind of neighborhood—working class, aggressively, sometimes anxiously realistic). But I thought in the Caulfield idiom, or tried. What Would Holden Do: What Would He Say? Never mind that his way of thinking and doing did not lead him to any kind of promised land, I was drawn to the journey.

Was there too much sugar in the brew? Sure there was. I think my students find something similar in the Harry Potter books, where the adults stand back (mere Muggles), and the young, magic powers achieved, set out to save the world.

Puppy love can be a wonderful state. But one must grow to maturity, finding in books, as in mature love in life, what Robert Frost called “counter love, original response.” We can’t afford to have the people or the books we love simply echo us, the way the environment does Frost’s speaker in his wonderful poem, “The Most of It.” Frost’s speaker “would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech / But counter-love, original response.”

From mature love, we need more than slavish echoes, copy speech. Frost’s speaker knows that echoes, even ideal echoes are not enough. We want some resistance—a being that doesn’t automatically corroborate or foreshadow all our perceptions, one capable of telling us that it simply isn’t that way. All honor to the books that reflect an ideal self—all honor to you, Randall Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—but to grow by reading, we want the going to be tougher.

As a teacher, I’m happy to see students reading books that flatter them a bit. But the books that I love, and that I want them in time to love, offer challenges. Love at its best, we learn later in life, is not serene and resolved. It is complex, joyously difficult, occasionally ambivalent. I love Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but I am conscious of the fact that it makes demands on me and my students that are hard to fulfill.

Maybe they are impossible, even for the poet himself. Particularly on matters of race, Whitman the man did not always live up to the standard of equality set by Whitman the inspired poet. But the deeper you move into Song of Myself, the more radical you see that it is. Whitman simply will not abide inequality. Everyone must be on the same level—we’re all leaves of grass. And he spends the length of the great poem showing us how to shrug off dominating, alluring figures like the sun, and embrace the common and the everyday—epitomized by the grass.

Is there room for greatness in Walt’s vision? Yes, there is, including the greatness that Whitman on some level knew he had achieved with the poem. But greatness in a democracy requires great humility, like the humility that Whitman saw in Lincoln. Whitman embodied this radical egalitarianism when, after having published what Emerson called the “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” he went off to the Civil War hospitals in Washington, DC. There for two arduous years, he was a willing servant to the wounded and dying troops. He read to them, wrote letters home for them, brought them food, tobacco, books—and held their hands and stroked their brows while they were dying.

Could I, or much of anyone else, ever reach this standard of democratic humility? Walt wrote the greatest American poem, and then, probably in part to temper his pride, he went off and became one of the most humble of the humble. He and Lincoln passed each other in the streets some days, and Whitman took special note of the president’s calm, modest demeanor, for Lincoln had apparently read Leaves of Grass(Reportedly he had to rescue it from Mary Todd who was going to cast it in the flames for its purported indecency.) To love Whitman, as I do, is to ask whether anyone could possibly follow in his path, or if ultimately that path is worth following. The great poem is a constant source of delight to me, but also a perpetual goad and questioning.

Could I, or much of anyone else, ever reach this standard of democratic humility?

Is this so different from having a spouse whom you adore for a dozen reasons, but who challenges you in ways that you may never be equal to? Why be married to someone who agrees with you all the time? It matters far more to be lovingly challenged than it does to be flattered and reflexively concurred with. Long-term lovers call each other out. They keep each other honest. The dialogue I’m compelled to have with Walt about aspirations and actualities is a dialogue based in affection and respect. Will I ever resolve it? Probably not, but it is surely worth continuing on. This is, I hope, a sort of grown-up commitment to a work of imagination. The relationship is based on what the critic Angus Fletcher refers to as “difficult pleasure.” It will, I hope, last a long time.

It’s the sort of engagement with literature that I encourage in students. I want them to pass beyond that first phase of reading—valuable as it may be—and move to the point where the books they read affirm their powers and give them pleasure, but also challenge them, the way a beloved friend does. Such books won’t let you readily off the hook, but they will bring you joy and warmth nonetheless. Such books read you just as much, and maybe more than you read them.

When I was a boy, I used to claim that I liked medicine. I took a lot of it then, for a variety of ailments. In order to crank myself up for a spoonful of brown goo, I would proclaim my love for the substance to all and sundry, charge toward the tablespoon and snap my mouth over it with gusto.

Of course I hated that medicine—I was lying. Maybe it was necessary, maybe not. (I suspect the latter.) But I was talking myself into a taste. Too many of us, I fear, want to administer medicine to our students. We want them to chug down draughts of the right kind of salutary stuff. And we see it as our duty sometimes to hold our own noses as we dispense it. For in truth, we often do not love it any more than the students do. When I hear a teacher say “I want to make my students see that… ” (fill in the blank with the bromide of the day), I know that I’m hearing a voice from the infirmary. Dispensing medicine is a little like dispensing sugary concoctions after our students have passed the point of needing them. No more sugar, when they grow up; but no wormwood and bile, either.

Perhaps there is another stage of reading, a late stage, beyond the narcissistic and beyond the passionately engaged, or dialogical one. I had dinner once with a well-known and prolific critic who lived for the reading of poetry. I asked her how she felt about Robert Frost, about whom she had never written—having written and written well about nearly every other modern poet. I like Frost, she said, I really do. But I’m never inclined to recite his poetry to myself during the dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul: she said this without irony, and I was moved by it.

What kind of poetry do you recite to yourself in that dark night? I would say that it is the kind of poetry you have earned. You have known it for a long time, you have measured it and you have measured yourself against it. You have found out where and how, for you, it illuminates the world and where it does not. You have achieved peace with it—and though it is still a difficult pleasure you have made it almost fully yours. You have made of the poet a brother or a sister and a friend. You are on the same side, fighting the same fight. And though the terms and values may differ, you are allies to the end. You are compatriots now, equals in the fight to go on living and go on working.

Harold Bloom, close to the end of his life, used commonly to chant to himself some famous lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Bloom surely doubted a good deal of what Tennyson’s poetry affirmed overall. But here he found an ally in the struggle to keep going, to continue the work of teaching and learning that is never done.


Song of Ourselves

Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy is available from Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Mark Edmundson
Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. He teaches courses in Romantic and Modern Poetry, Shakespeare, and Nineteenth Century Philosophy. He has published eight books, including TeacherLiterature against Philosophy, Plato to DerridaThe Death of Sigmund Freud and The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll. His essays have appeared in many publications including The New York TimesThe New RepublicThe NationRaritanThe Yale ReviewNew Literary HistoryAmerican Literary History and The London Review of Books. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change. He has been awarded the Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professorship at the University of Virginia, for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

The case of Norman Douglas

He was a literary lion and an infamous pederast: what might we learn from his life about monstrosity and humanity?

Norman Douglas (right), lounging in Capri in 1949. Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Rachel Hope Cleves is a historian and professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She is the author of The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (2009), Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014) and Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020). Her current project is titled ‘A Historian’s Guide to Food and Sex’. 

Published in association with
The University of Chicago Press
an Aeon Strategic Partner

Edited by Sam Haselby

Aeon for Friends

9 April 2021 (

The British writer Norman Douglas was so famous during his lifetime (1868-1952) that he frequently turned up as a character in fiction. D H Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Richard Aldington all put him in their novels, while Douglas’s own bestselling novel South Wind (1917) appeared on the shelves of characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) and Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). Bombarded by fans who sought him out in Florence, his home base during the 1920s and ’30s, Douglas had his mail sent to the local Thomas Cook travel bureau to keep his address secret.

In May 1937, Douglas fled Florence, fearing that he was about to be arrested for raping a 10-year-old girl. He took a train to Monte Carlo, to seek refuge with his friend Oscar Levy, a wealthy German Jewish intellectual who had funded the first English translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s collected works. Levy wasn’t bothered by the allegations against Douglas. He told him: ‘The Italians ought to have sent you yearly 12 boys and 12 girls as did the Athenians to the Minotaurus of Crete. On account of your literary merits. And because you are not a minotaurus, but a nice gentleman, who does the children good.’ Levy didn’t share Douglas’s sexual tastes, but he didn’t condemn them either. Douglas’s enthusiasm for young virgins of both sexes, in Levy’s view, was part of his appeal. Levy praised Douglas as the ‘last of the pagans!’

Norman Douglas with his own bust as a child, 1949. Unknown photographer. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London

It wasn’t just Nietzscheans who defended Douglas. Many within British literary circles blithely tolerated his pederasty, which he did little to hide. Renowned as a witty and ribald conversationalist, Douglas was given to bon mots such as ‘I’ve always loved a very large possession attached to a very small boy.’ The writer and actress Faith Compton Mackenzie said that ‘the tang of his salty conversation delighted me’. When Douglas was charged in November 1916 with indecent assault on two male cousins, ages 10 and 12, she volunteered an alibi in court. She included this anecdote in the first volume of her memoirs, saying that she considered her testimony to be her ‘war work’. Mackenzie’s alibi helped to get Douglas released on bail, enabling him to flee Britain and resettle in Italy.

Douglas’s 1916 arrest was widely reported in the British press. His notoriety helped make South Wind a bestseller. Twenty years later, Douglas’s flight from Italy in 1937 was also reported in the British papers, which again didn’t fatally damage his popularity. When Douglas was forced by the Second World War to return to London in 1942, he was welcomed by a new circle of literary friends, including Viva King, Constantine FitzGibbon and Brian Howard. After the war, Douglas returned to Italy, where he was befriended by Graham Greene, one of the era’s most popular writers. And after his death, in 1952, when critics attacked him for abusing children, Greene staunchly defended Douglas’s posthumous reputation.

Today it’s impossible to imagine how such a notorious paedophile could be admired by so many people despite his sexual behaviour. What explains this change? And does this historical episode help us understand anything about present-day willingness to turn a blind eye to blatant sexual abusers, such as the American financier Jeffrey Epstein and the French writer Gabriel Matzneff?

It might feel natural to presume that the moral injunction against sex between adults and children is timeless. But today’s extreme antipathy to paedophilia dates only to the 1980s, when contests over masculinity and homosexuality inspired an outburst of panic about child abuse. ‘Not until the 1980s did the signifier of paedophilia accrue the kind of abhorrence and horror that it connotes today,’ argued the historian Steven Angelides in 2005. Before the 1980s, attitudes towards sexual encounters between adults and children or youths – boys and girls – were far more ambiguous.

The gulf in power between adults and children didn’t trouble past sexual norms, which defined appropriate sex as that which took place between husband and wife, unequals whose different roles the Bible prescribed. European law before the past 200 years codified no ages of sexual consent except in England, Wales and Saxony, where the age of consent for girls was set between 10 and 12 years old. If sex between men and girls took place in marriage, it was sanctioned; if it took place outside of marriage, it was unsanctioned. Boys had no age of consent. They were regarded as potential perpetrators but seldom as victims. If they were physically capable of engaging in sexual relations, the law held them criminally responsible for their actions, and hence subject to punishment for their role in same-sex pederastic encounters with adult men.

‘Homosexuality’ emerged to differentiate male same-sex relations involving adults from this pederastic legacy

States enacted new legal ages of consent, first for girls and later for boys, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a significant gap remained between prescription and practice. In much of the Western world, courts remained concerned only with the potential victimisation of girls, and saw boys who had sex with men as predatory potential blackmailers. Concern for girls depended on their status relative to the man who abused them, and focused on their marriageability. The age of consent for marriage remained low throughout the 20th century, and marriage itself eliminated any restrictions on the sexual age of consent. In Britain, for example, before 1929, even if they couldn’t consent to sex outside marriage until age 16, girls could consent to marriage (and sex within marriage) at age 12.

Social and legal concern about boys and sex during this time had less to do with age than gender. Moral and legal authorities didn’t worry about the welfare of boys who had sex with girls or women. They were concerned only about the immorality of boys who had sex with adult men. Before the early 20th century, age-differentiated sex was the paradigmatic form of male same-sex practice in the West. In English, French and Italian, the language reflected that understanding, as the terms ‘pederast’, pédéraste and pederasta described men who had sex with other males. Often, these sexual encounters took the form of prostitution, in which boys and youths sold sex to older men. The historians Jana Funke and Kate Fisher have recently shown that the concept of ‘homosexuality’ emerged as a means to differentiate male same-sex relations involving adults from this pederastic legacy, and thereby to give affective adult same-sex behaviour more legitimacy.

Pederasty had its defenders. In the mid-19th century, a neo-Hellenist intellectual movement swept German and British universities. Scholars such as Karl Otfried Müller, Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds embraced ancient Greek history and philosophy as models for modern liberal politics and society. These neo-Hellenists placed pederasty at the centre of the Greek model, defining the pederastic relation as one ‘by which an older man, moved to love by the visible beauty of a younger man, and desirous of winning immortality through that love, undertakes the younger man’s education in virtue and wisdom.’ In this lofty vision, pederasty didn’t entail a sexual relationship, but took place on a higher spiritual plane. In point of fact, both Pater and Symonds were sexually attracted to male youths. Their writings influenced Douglas and other pederasts who came of age in the late 19th century. When concerns about the sexual trafficking of girls began to heat up in the 1880s, catalysing the passage of new age-of-consent laws, Symonds rejected age-differentiated pederasty. He became a homosexual-rights advocate, defending age-consistent reciprocal relations between adult men. Many early activists joined Symonds on this path. Others, like Douglas, remained enamoured of pederasty.

Pederasty served as a positive framework that men used to defend their sexual relations with boys and youths during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Douglas presented his own sexual encounters in this light. (Most of his encounters were with boys; his encounters with girls were the exception to the rule.) His writings often celebrated the Hellenic past. Douglas’s travel books about Italy delved into the history of the country’s ancient Greek colonies. In Old Calabria (1915), one of his most beloved books, he wrote about the Achaean colony of Magna Graecia that had preceded modern Calabria. In the book he noted: ‘Calabria is not a land to traverse alone.’

As that suggests, Douglas didn’t make the trip by himself but with a companion, a cockney boy named Eric Wolton whom he’d first picked up at a Guy Fawkes celebration in Crystal Palace, when Wolton was 12. On their travels together in Italy, Douglas tutored Wolton in reading and writing. Wolton kept diaries, practised writing correspondence, and worked on spelling words assigned by Douglas, all in keeping with the pederastic model. Following the ancient Greeks, Douglas also had sexual encounters with Wolton. He took a naked picture of him on the beach in Calabria, which he likely showed to select friends. Many of Douglas’s London friends met Wolton, since the boy was often in his company during the early part of that decade.

Many of the children who had sexual encounters with Douglas later expressed nostalgia for their times together

The framework of pederasty enabled all parties – Wolton and his parents, Douglas, and Douglas’s friends – to accept the relationship between the man and the boy. It enabled men like Levy to say that Douglas did the children good, a common sentiment. The writer Reggie Turner, a member of Oscar Wilde’s circle who’d moved to Florence after Wilde’s arrest, thought that Douglas was so good with children he should have been a schoolmaster. Harold Acton, the Florence aesthete, went even further than Turner, remarking wistfully that ‘such a schoolmaster would have been ideal, and I regret that I met him too late, when I was more or less crystallised.’ Acton, who witnessed many of Douglas’s intergenerational affairs in Florence, including the final episode that led to his flight from the city, was under no illusion about the nature of Douglas’s relationships with children. He simply didn’t condemn Douglas for his sexual behaviour. Rather, he romanticised it. Likewise, Douglas’s close friend Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Orioli, a rare-bookseller and publisher, who remarked in his diary in 1934 that it was a pity he hadn’t met Douglas when he was a child: ‘I am sure he would have handled me beautifully.’ Orioli frequently recorded the details of Douglas’s sexual encounters with children in his diaries, so there can be no question what he meant by the word ‘handled’.

Most shocking to today’s mores, perhaps, is that many of the children who had sexual encounters with Douglas later expressed nostalgia for their times together, and appreciation for Douglas’s role as an educator and mentor. After serving in the First World War, Wolton took a job as assistant inspector of police in what was then the British colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In the autumn of 1921, he caught typhoid and was hospitalised in Dar es Salaam. During his convalescence, Wolton wrote letters to Douglas. ‘Doug, I have wanted Italy and you as bad as anything last week,’ he said. ‘They were happy times too Doug wer’nt [sic] they, I have no evil thoughts about them.’

In fact, his appreciation for Douglas only intensified the older that he got. ‘You are more to me than ever you were,’ he wrote in another letter, ‘the difference is now that I am old enough to realise it.’ Decades later he told a friend that, if it hadn’t been for Douglas, ‘I would have been doomed for all times.’ When he’d met Douglas at Crystal Palace, Wolton had been a delinquent, as he put it. He said that Douglas had taken him away from a life of dishonesty and violence, educated and mentored him, and set him on the path to professional and personal success. In the early 1950s, Wolton brought his children to see Douglas in Italy before the old man died. His loyalty and affection for the writer were fairly typical of Douglas’s past connections.

Many of Douglas’s boys remained on friendly terms with him throughout their adult lives, inviting the writer into their homes and introducing him to their wives and children. He was not the only pederast to find warmth and welcome among his former boys. Social scientists have found that many men hold positive feelings about ‘willing’ childhood sexual experiences they had with adults. Some explain these positive memories as expressions of child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome (CSAAS), akin to Stockholm syndrome, while other social scientists have challenged CSAAS as junk science. From a historical perspective, the underlying psychological structures that might or might not explain children’s positive attitudes to sexual encounters with adults are less significant than the observation that, during the 20th century, such attitudes were surprisingly common.

Sex between men and girls could be made licit through marriage. But sex between men and boys was always stigmatised during the 19th and 20th centuries. Social and legal proscriptions on pederastic sex varied by time and place, with some regimes far more punitive than others. Italy, for example, decriminalised sex between males in the 19th century, and many communities tacitly accepted sex between boys, or between boys and men, as a release valve that would shore up the sexual restrictions on girls and women. But Italian civic and religious authorities looked on such sex between boys and men more as a necessary evil than as a positive good. A broad moral consensus remained staunchly antagonistic to pederasty.

Popular toleration of pederasty, in Italy and elsewhere, took the form of wilful ignorance. As the American literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), ignorance is not a singular ‘maw of darkness’ but a multiple phenomenon. Ignorance can entail intentional not-knowing, making the closet a performance of silence as a speech act. The Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig called communal expressions of wilful ignorance ‘public secrets’ that rested on ‘active not-knowing’. The experiences of the German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden demonstrates how such a public secret, or active not-knowing, operated. Gloeden lived in Taormina, in Sicily, from 1878 to his death in 1931. During his decades of residence, he photographed generations of boys, frequently posing them naked in Hellenic ruins, adorned with laurel crowns and other symbols of ancient Greece. Gloeden’s photographs were popular with many early gay activists, including Symonds. The people of Taormina, who benefitted from the tourist trade that Gloeden’s photography brought to their town, also liked him. Gloeden and other foreign men often paid local youths for sexual encounters, an open secret in the community. Locals silenced any journalists, priests and politicians who attempted to criticise Gloeden, since they felt that these criticisms dishonoured the community and threatened their economic wellbeing. As Mario Bolognari, a historian of Taormina, concluded in 2017: ‘having chosen not to see does not imply being blind. It only means having decided that it was preferable not to notice certain things.’

They maintained a deliberate ignorance about what happened between Douglas and the boys and girls

Active not-knowing happens at the intimate level as well as the communal level. Families engage in active not-knowing about sexual wrongdoing in the home. This applies not only to child sexual abuse, but to all sorts of misbehaviours, including adultery, sibling incest and domestic violence. The motivations for active not-knowing are various, ranging from love and loyalty for the offender, to fear of retribution, to a desire to shield the family from public shame. Active not-knowing applies to more than sexual misbehaviour, and extends beyond the family. Friends exercise active not-knowing on behalf of friends, not wanting to risk meaningful relationships. Fans of artists engage in active not-knowing about their idols, motivated by awe and admiration, or by a desire to protect a favourite artwork from scrutiny and rejection. And disempowered people engage in active not-knowing about the powerful, from fear of the consequences that might result from confronting the truth, or from appreciation for the benefits that accrue from maintaining ignorance. Lastly, everyone benefits from silence by avoiding being implicated themselves in the bad thing that they know about.

Many of these ways of not-knowing helped Douglas escape condemnation. Some members of his extended family disowned him because of the abusive way he treated his wife, who was his first cousin and thus their relation as well. But his sons, who witnessed firsthand his sexual encounters with children (and might even, in the case of his older son, have experienced abuse) maintained loyalty to their father and defended him from posthumous accusations. Some writer friends wrote off Douglas after his arrests, but many loved his books and maintained a deliberate ignorance about what actually happened between Douglas and the boys and girls he recounted meeting in the pages of his travel books. The children themselves knew the most about Douglas’s sexual predations, but they had the most to gain financially – and often emotionally – from keeping close to him. There’s almost no evidence of children speaking out against Douglas either during their connections or afterwards, as adults. One exception is a 16-year-old whose complaint led to Douglas’s initial arrest in London in 1916.

The lack of panic about paedophilia during Douglas’s lifetime made it easier for all these people to look the other way, even when he flaunted his predilections. Douglas went so far as to write about how he’d purchased children for sex in his memoir, Looking Back (1933). Very few reviewers took issue with the material, at least until after Douglas’s death, when, freed from the fear of a libel suit, they pointed out how unseemly it was for Douglas to have admitted to such behaviour. The author and former politician Harold Nicolson complained that he was ‘shocked by people who, when past the age of 70, openly avow indulgences which they ought to conceal’. In the eyes of reviewers who wanted to maintain the pretence of active not-knowing, Douglas’s admission might have been a worse crime than the acts themselves, since they implicated the readers by forcing them into a state of knowing.

If Douglas escaped condemnation during his lifetime, he couldn’t escape the assault on his reputation following the intensification of anti-paedophilic sentiment after his death. The shift in public mores during the 1980s towards viewing paedophiles as monsters made it impossible to defend Douglas. He disappeared from literary memory, except as an example of historical villainy – the role he plays in two novels published after the 1980s, Francis King’s The Ant Colony (1991) and Alex Preston’s In Love and War (2014). Most readers would consider that a salutary change and welcome the expulsion of paedophiles from acceptable society. However, the rise of the ‘monster’ discourse doesn’t seem to have made people much more willing to speak out against child sexual abuse in the present.

Looking at the example of Epstein, one can see the same old dynamics of active not-knowing operating among the leadership of the MIT Media Lab (who accepted donations from Epstein) and the scholars who turned a blind eye to his abuse, even after his conviction. The Media Lab didn’t want to lose Epstein’s financial patronage or be shamed by association. Individual scholars might have enjoyed his company (and the company of the girls and young women Epstein surrounded himself with), or they might have wanted funding from him, or feared the consequences to their careers if they spoke out against him. In an even more striking parallel to Douglas, Matzneff wrote and spoke openly about his paedophilia without censure, protected by fellow writers’ and publishers’ unwillingness to disturb the dense network of literary connections in which they all played a role, until one of his victims of abuse, the French publisher Vanessa Springora, broke the silence in 2019.

Is it possible that elevating the paedophile to the status of a monster has in fact, rather than making it easier to speak out against child abuse, made it more imperative for friends, family members and fans to engage in active not-knowing? Who wants to expose someone they love as a monster? More than that, people are inclined to disbelieve tales of extraordinary monstrosity. Who wants to disturb their own situation by making such explosive allegations? The stakes are too high to risk getting it wrong. Maybe it would be easier to counter the problem of child sexual abuse if we were able to acknowledge it as both bad and ordinary. In Douglas’s day, such sex was seen as questionable but mundane. Today, it’s seen as terrible but exceptional. If we could create a world where people agreed that sex between adults and children was not healthy for children, and that many ordinary adults engaged in such behaviour nonetheless, maybe more people would feel empowered to witness and speak out against everyday abuse.

Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020) by Rachel Hope Cleves is published via The University of Chicago Press.

After losing his sight, a skateboarder takes an unexpected path to realising his dreams

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You and the thing that you love

Nick Mullins fell in love with skateboarding as a teenager and, rather quickly, became quite skilled. As one of the best young skateboarders in the Detroit area, he was putting together a video to catch the attention of sponsors, when, after taking a rough but mostly innocuous fall, he scraped the side of his body and contracted a staph infection. He would barely escape with his life, and after waking up from a medically induced coma, realised he had gone blind. Believing he had no prospects – in skating or in life – he fell into a deep depression. The short documentary You and the Thing That You Love retells how Mullins would eventually realise his dreams, albeit by taking a very much unanticipated path. Capturing Mullins’s story with kinetic style, the US filmmaker Nicholas Maher avoids cliché to create a standout portrait of perseverance and love of craft – and one that can be savoured even if you don’t know your ‘blunts’ from your ‘fakies’.

Director: Nicholas Maher

CDC: You Can Stop With the ‘Deep Cleaning’ and Hygiene Theater


The Centers for Disease Control confirmed today what epidemiologists have been saying for at least eight months, which is you don’t need to keep disinfecting surfaces and decontaminating your groceries because the coronavirus doesn’t spread by surface contact.

This is not to say that it is never possible for a person to get COVID-19 from a contaminated surface, but experts have said there has not yet been a confirmed case of this, and most agree that the chances of such an infection are very, very slim. Hand-washing is still encouraged, sure — and other diseases spread this way so why not? But, as of Thursday, the CDC may finally be putting an end to the need for the sort of hygiene theater that many, many businesses are still performing.

“People can be [infected] with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky during a White House briefing earlier this week. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”

The agency also updated its official cleaning protocols for workplaces and schools, which still discus surface contamination as a possible hazard. But they now say that full disinfection of a space — beyond standard daily cleaning — isn’t necessary unless COVID infection is high in a particular area, there is a “low number of people wearing masks,” or if an infected person has been in a space in the last 24 hours.

As the New York Times reports, multiple experts in the field praised the updates, but they go further to say things in more absolute terms.

“There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface,” says Linsey Marr, an airborne virus expert at Virginia Tech. She adds that the appearance of surfaces being cleaned simply “makes people feel safer.”

And Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, says, “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”

Early in the pandemic, there was widespread misinformation about the primary sources of infection — with health officials and experts initially insisting that the virus was only spread through large respiratory droplets. Here in the Bay Area, that led to one county health officer in Solano County insisting that offices could stay open as long people had their own cubicles. Solano County initially did not follow the rest of the region in enacting a stay-at-home order, but within about a week they did, and then Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas jumped the gun on reopening indoor restaurants in May as well.

Within a month or two, it became clear that face masks were necessary to reduce transmission risk, and that outbreaks were occurring in indoor spaces regardless of how well people washed or sanitized their hands.

But over a year since pandemic lockdowns began in the U.S., people are still obsessed with Clorox wipes and the Chase Center is still talking about spraying down seats with electrostatic disinfecting sprayers.

Dr. Walensky said in her Monday briefing, “In most cases, fogging, fumigation and wide-area or electrostatic spraying is not recommended as a primary method of disinfection and has several safety risks to consider.”

Dr. Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, expressed relief at the CDC’s new stance, and tells the Times, “This should be the end of deep cleaning,” and “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better” that they were spending on all this “hygiene theater.”

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