Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The case of Norman Douglas: When pederasts are accepted and even lionized

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Rachel Hope Cleves, a historian and professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, has an interesting and lengthy extract from her book Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020) in Aeon. Let me quote the conclusion:

. . . 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.’

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.

This sort of wilful ignorance that accompanies acceptance is (as I fairly frequently mention) discussed in Daniel Goleman’s interesting book Vital Lies, Simple Truths.

This is also related to what is happening in France, where the acceptability of sexual harassment and rape, particularly by men in positions of power, is losing ground fairly rapidly. See Norimitsu Onishu’s NY Times article “Powerful Men Fall, One After Another, in France’s Delayed #MeToo.” (And the articles to which that report links are worth reading as well.) From the report:

. . . Since the beginning of the year, a series of powerful men from some of France’s most prominent fields — politics, sports, the news media, academia and the arts — have faced direct and public accusations of sexual abuse in a reversal from mostly years of silence. At the same time, confronted with these high-profile cases and a shift in public opinion, French lawmakers are hurrying to set 15 as the age of sexual consent — only three years after rejecting such a law.

The recent accusations have not only led to official investigations, the loss of positions for some men and outright banishment from public life for others. They have also resulted in a rethinking of French masculinity and of the archetype of Frenchmen as irresistible seducers — as part of a broader questioning of many aspects of French society and amid a conservative backlash against ideas on gender, race and postcolonialism supposedly imported from American universities.

. . . Ms. Haas said that France was going through a delayed reaction to #MeToo after a “maturation” period during which many French began to understand the social dimensions behind sexual violence and the concept of consent.

That was especially so, Ms. Haas said, after the testimony in the past year of Adèle Haenel, the first high-profile actress to speak out over abuse, and of Vanessa Springora, whose memoir, “Consent,” documented her abuse by the pedophile writer Gabriel Matzneff.

“The start of 2021 has been a sort of aftershock,” Ms. Haas said. “What’s very clear is that, today in France, we don’t at all have the same reaction that we did four, five years ago to testimonies of sexual violence against well-known people.”

Last month, Pierre Ménès, one of France’s most famous television sports journalists, was suspended indefinitely by his employer after the release of a documentary that exposed sexism in sports journalism, “I’m Not a Slut, I’m a Journalist.”

Just a few years ago, few criticized him for behavior that they now don’t dare defend in public, including forcibly kissing women on the mouth on television and, in front of a studio audience in 2016, lifting the skirt of a female journalist — Marie Portolano, the producer of the documentary.

“The world’s changed, it’s #MeToo, you can’t do anything anymore, you can’t say anything anymore,” Mr. Ménès said in a television interview after the documentary’s release. He said he didn’t remember the skirt incident, adding that he hadn’t been feeling like himself at the time because of a physical illness. . .

There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 April 2021 at 12:12 pm

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