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Some books are unlucky in the moment they choose to have their moment, even if, more often than not, that moment is chosen for them by marketing directors and accounting department bean counters. Movies with historically unfortunate subjects (like those about 9/11-style Muslim terrorists holding New York City hostage) are temporarily shelved or written off the books; TV miniseries on similarly sensitive subjects, the same. Bearing their deductible losses rather less messily are books. Somehow writing off what may have taken many years to get
written--not to mention researched--seems in all but rare instances unacceptable on its face.
Still, there are subjects and subjects, and occasions when even the sound of the wrong pin dropping can shatter nerves like Steuben glass. The publication of a book about Boy
Love--its scholarly bona fides not in question--that not only commends it as an institution, but places it as a cornerstone of the Western ethos on a par with filial regard would be enough to send eyebrows up even if child pornography and chatroom dating aimed at pre-teens weren't hot issues. But to launch a book celebrating it just as a scandal involving pederast priests tumultuous enough to shake the Roman Catholic Church to its foundations must set some sort of record for bad timing. "Fashions change in morality as well as in poetry. The sort of attachment that inspired these verses was considered perfectly normal and respectable for over a thousand years," reads one of the blurbs on
Puerilities's back cover. Yes, and so were mass auto-da-fé's, children's crusades, and public disembowelments for offenses like
lèse-majesté. But what we're no longer content to shove under the rug is the ugly truth where Boy Love is
concerned--attributing it all to the time is not the same as knowing the
crime--at least not in real terms. Those homosexuals who would extend the sexual franchise to boys as young as twelve receive in today's post-contemporary climate mixed messages from different rooms of the Culture. What is now considered acceptable behavior in the master bedroom continues
ganz verboten in anything resembling a family room. At a time of shuffling, not just shifting, paradigms, fear of the known far outweighs that of the unknown. To keep the twin towers of the American covenant, faith and morals, secure from postmodern assault, inviolability thrusts even infallibility aside. Better to be clean and know it than to host the parasites of filth, even if bearing the American Philological Association's seal of approval.
But come now, you say. This is the Musa Paedika we're talking about, a compendium of epigrams chipped from the ancient block of
The Palatine (also known as The Greek) Anthology, a literary monument more august than which no single remnant of the classical heritage can properly claim to be. Its contents take up five whole volumes of the Loeb Classical Library and juxtapose cheek to jowl works by poets no less legendary than Kallimachos, Plato, Anakreon, and Lucian of Samosata.
Puerilities, the English rendering of some of these poems, is indeed about pederasty, but much of it encases Boy Love in an idiom that is in almost all senses of the phrase, Greek to us. As its titular pun reminds us with elbow and wink, we are to be kept remote from the seamy by having the entire phenomenon largely restricted, through the agency of aesthetic distance, to its "seemy" side, which may court the randy and the horny but whose suggestiveness keeps verisimilitude at arm's length. Not that the obligatory smarts of its Canadian translator, Daryl Hine, are anything less than required. The editor of
Poetry magazine for 10 years (1968-1978), and with numerous classical translations, including the
Homeric Hymns (1972), the Idylls of Theocritus (1982), Ovid's
Heroines (1991), and Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony (2000), under his belt, he is the closest to being North America's answer to Robert Graves as we are likely to see in a time bent on celebrating the White Goddess in the person of Britney Spears.
Which leaves only the original malefactors themselves to answer for the odd tastes figuring prominently in these poems, and as the publishers' gnomes hasten to add on the same back cover, "Some of the very best Greek
poets--including Strato of Sardis, Theocritus, and Meleager of Gadara--are to be found in these pages." And they, we remember from our consciousness-heightening days, are not only dead white males but
long dead white males, which should either reduce markedly their fearsomeness as a bad lot, or remind us, equally jarringly, that whichever pole has sexually magnetized us, some vices remain harder to kill than others. Though in truth whores, like leopards, don't suddenly turn immaculate, regardless of sex, gender, or
habilitas corporis; and awareness of that can be met--in or out of The Greek
Anthology--with sanguinary equanimity, melancholic dourness, or however one's hold on tolerance dictates.
Even so, it's difficult to thumb through a collection like
Puerilities without concluding that if The Palatine Anthology is truly one of the oldest of the Greek fraternities, the original Animal House in all likelihood not only pre-dates the version of it roasted by the
National Lampoon of Harvard University, but also the sexpot Groucho Marx conjured from the mists,
Thought-I Felt-a Thigh. But what are we to make of this sort of erotica as something approaching an art form in itself? For readers for whom anything beyond name recognition of one or two of the ancient contributors to
Puerilities--Dioscorides perhaps, or Alcaeus--would draw a blank, Hine's "Introduction" is surely (no Ganymedic pun intended) a godsend. (This despite the fact that the portion of Book XII of
The Greek Anthology designated The Musa Paedika or Musa Puerilis, though less well known than the remainder of the Palatine manuscript, is sufficiently notorious that, like the
Tales of Miletus, its reputation for smut more than makes up for its going largely unread as a
notus ignotus.) A certain sameness haunts these poems, possibly because, with so little riding on each one, convention outweighs range or even disposition of statement. Then, too, the vast majority of
The Musa Paedika's 258 epigrams are authored by only two poets, Strato (83) and Meleager (56), with Anonymous (36) holding its (or their) own as generous makeweight (and if quality of inclusion be deemed a factor, scourge). The unhappy homogeneity of affect that makes so many of them seem echoes of one another is, to hear Hine tell it, a function less of pathos than of
pothos or unmet yearning. "Their tone," he writes, "varies from the lighthearted and bawdy to the grave and resigned. The overall effect is one of witty wistfulness rather than rampant, reciprocated lust, of longing. . .rather than satisfaction, and also of regret."
Hine also points out that once translated into English some of them, though having come down to us as elegiac couplets, actually lead double lives as limericks. Not, assuredly, of the Edward Lear variety, but rather of the pointedly smutty sort of which Norman Douglas, the boy-fascinated novelist of
South Wind, was reputedly fond. "In a few cases," Hine declares, "I thought the tone and subject matter more suited to limerick form than the staider couplet: as the limerick is the more popular indeed vulgar verse form in contemporary usage, it seemed to fit some of this badinage better." To illustrate, he offers two renderings of an elegiac couplet by Strato and asks the reader "to choose a preference, if he or she can." The contrasting versions are as follows:
Pale skin I like, but honey-colored more,
And blond and brunette boys I both adore.
I never blackball brown eyes, but above
All, eyes of scintillating black I love.
Are pale skins my favorite, or
Honey-hued adolescents? What is more,
Liking blond and brunette,
I love brown
Scintillating black eyes I adore.
The metrics of these Greek epigrams pose something of a problem, which Hine chooses to finesse rather than solve prosodically. "The metrical form of the originals I have rather represented than slavishly imitated," he writes in his Introduction. To stick too closely to the unit most popular in Greek verse, the dactylic hexameter, is to run the risk of turning out elegiac couplets
ad nauseam. The solution Hine arrived at was to abandon the model that would have turned out endless copies of
Nor are some authors the only anonymous blooms in this garland:
Most of the boys might as well be heteronymous too.
--"in favor of a more familiar native meter, the rhymed couplet or quatrain, such as [he] used to represent the elegiac couplets in [his translation of] Ovid's
Heroines (Yale, 1991)."
The results are not always felicitous, though his versions wring as much variety out of the
Musa's Burma Shavers as could be hoped for in rhymed adaptations. On the other hand, Hine's word play, so far as my (to say the least, spotty) Greek can discern, seems far wittier, and more telling in the clinches (with the help of some rhyming
à la Cole Porter), than the scarcely Stratospheric original, though that isn't to shift much to either side of the equation. Does the addition of rhyme, a comparatively rare device in the originals, increase their charm? Here, most authorities on the golden age of the Greek epigram (roughly the 3rd Century B.C.) refuse to go along with the Audenian practice Hine rather glibly endorses in these translations. In shorter poems, it might not seem to matter all that much, as when Hine has Meleager gilding a shopworn
Love, Tyre breeds pretty boys, but as the sun
The stars, Myiscus outshines every one.
---and Dudley Fitts opts for the more periphrastic and chimeless
Fair are the boys of Tyre, by Love I swear it!
Sweeps the bright stars from the sky, that bursting sun.
The unrhymed version shows some energy in driving its clichéd chariot forward, while the rhymed one does not. Warping an epigram's shape through the continual end-stopping of its sense results more often in enervation rather than in innovation. To assure the floating of
sun and one as subject rhymes, Hine is snookered into letting
Love drift unmoored and appositionless at the poem's source so that he can revel in the blather spewing from both sides of its mouth before all finally subsides. Nor does the taking on of bilge decrease as some epigrams swell in size:
If of my soul there's still some tiny piece
Left, Loves, please do let it rest in peace,
Or, not with arrows but with lightning flashes,
Reduce me totally to smoking ashes.
Yes, strike me down, exhausted and distressed:
Grant me, if nothing more, this last request.
In Asclepiades's Greek the words ending the first two lines are
Erotes and aphete, the plural noun "Loves" and the verb "to be let go," hardly rhyme, but in the Hine the superfluous sounds do double duty. The homophone
piece/peace is expected to make amends for the solecism of a soul able to be disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle into pieces, just as the disyllables
flashes and ashes, distressed and request are foregrounded to offset the rhetorical clinker with which the poem signs off. When speaking
in propria persona, as in "Rates of Change" from Postscripts (1990), Hine wields a finesse that almost out-Audens Auden:
Summer's consolation, leaves
Some emblematic, lose their grip;
North to south one soon perceives
A disparate relationship.
Across the border, tropes that burned
Trite, a transformation scene,
Like the currency have turned
A uniform, devalued green.
At times in Puerilities he is able to sight such tightness of form but, blown off course by trade winds driving its matter, a craft that too often tacks as though hugging the shore finds itself adrift in horse latitudes too becalmed to sail out of. What, for example, is to be gained by clothing Meleager in the motley of Michael Drayton and the lesser sonneteers of Great Liz?
For Venus Love arranged a rich bouquet,
Of boys, hand-picked to steal the heart away,
And next to Diodorus' lily set
Asclepiades' sweet, white violet,
Let Heraclitus' thorny rose entwine
Dion like a blossom on the vine,
Sly Uliades' sprig of thyme beside
Resplendent Theron's saffron crocus hide;
And evergreen Myiscus' olive sprout
Aretus' lovely greenery tricks out.
O blessèd Tyre that boasts the perfumed grove
Of Venus where the cult of boy-love throve!
Hine is nearest the bone when the hint of real marrow livens his olfactories:
Long hair, abundant artificial curls
Give me no pleasure: they belong on girls.
No, give me boys all sweaty from the gym,
Glistening with oil on every limb.
I like sex unembellished, scenting in
Glamour a whiff of something feminine.
Still, one can't help, after enduring a handful of these diminutive paeans to peons (many of these boys better known as chased than chaste were slaves), aching for
something--anything, with rhyme or without--that might lift the monotone of plaint from one-size-fits-all
coloratura to a more virile heldentenor's lament. Too often what we
hear--even in Hine's hardly singsong rhythms--are changes wrung on hand-organs rather like this:
can't befriend you, eager though I am:
You ask for nothing, neither will you grant
Me anything I ask for; adamant,
For all my gifts you do not give a damn.
Staring Aristagoras in the face,
The Graces clasped him in a fond embrace,
His beauty blazes now, his talk is sweet,
When mute his smiling eyes are indiscreet.
I wish he'd go away! But what's the use?
He throws his thunderbolts as far as Zeus.
Neither does much change when sugar in the apple turns to acid in the bowl:
Acrastus, if you care for me, you are
Like unmixed Chian wine, but sweeter still.
If you choose someone else, I hope you will
Turn musty as a jar of vinegar.
Still, sometimes, as in this couplet by Meleager, the passion achieves a porn flick's honesty in stripping body worship of the underaged of all unwonted pretense to PG harmlessness:
His eyes flash beauty sweet enough to scorch:
Does love equip young boys with thunderbolts?
Bringing a sexy gleam to mortal dolts,
Myiscus, shine on earth, my darling torch.
But a very little of this, we are bound to feel, goes a long way; though it might be chastening when panning the
Musa Paedika's outréances to recall that the undertext even of such venerable tributes to pedagogy as Plato's
Symposium, or indeed of comparable, if rather more overdetermined, summonings of the same
ethos in recent times, like that revelatory photograph, staring out at us from that splendid
collage-des-hautes-études, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, of one of modern times' most distinguished heirs to Socrates's mantle as a mentor, seated among his seminar students at the
Collège des Hautes Études--is at root (if that isn't an unfortunate metaphor) not far removed from gaudy collects of Jon-Benet Ramsey (or some other sex-marketed child of teen years or younger)
in [three-way] flagrante delicto with parents and media.
What these disparate texts do feature in common is a disorienting-to-the-point-of-disgusting commingling of mature and immature sexualities. And yes, the disgust quotient does rise significantly if the disparity in age of the sex partners is accompanied by the factor of homosexuality. What clearly denies these associations tolerability is that, despite the much touted
mentor-écolier connection, they do not have the quality of genuine relationships at all. What they do
have--and it's written all over them--is use; and, as we know only too well, use slips all too readily into overuse, abuse, and, as terminal jadedness beckons, disuse.
The classical world made acceptable its vampiric fantasies of sex with children by enveloping them in roseate idealizations of puppy love, recycled youth and, among the anti-Platonists, Sophistic pragmatism. The counter-argument most often cited to play down
Musa Paedika's pornographic mien employs a jiu-jitsu strategy to upend its detractors not much different from Bruno Bettelheim's defense of the bloodthirsty
märchen assembled by the Brothers Grimm as good nursery reading. What at first glance appears psychologically outrageous ends up being liberating in its worst-case-scenariopathy. And most vindicating of all is the utter hopelessness with which so much of the gutter humour of the
Musa Paedika is tinged. That alone (along with the explosive brevity of its musings on sexual conquest) would render its comic perversities of little use to those given to finding hidden corners in which to
faire le pompier with X-rated material.
And then, too, it can hardly be denied that more than a few of these epigrams
are funny in a campy sort of way, veering as they do from the contumacious rumblings of the richly scorned to the wimpy, tail-between-their-legs whininess of the cut and left to dry out. Hine is not above making Movietone
schtick out of the snits flown into by these lechers at the drop of a brat:
The role of your lifetime was
My Secret Garden,
You thought, but it is
Gone with the Wind, now, boy.
After Stand by Me, you'll play Flesh Gordon,
And soon you'll be rehearsing
However, the vast majority of the best, while no doubt humourous (also in the medieval sense), restrict their humor to the most mordant kind of wit. More than a few manage (with a little help from their translator) to be cleverly engaging despite a subject matter that, if truth be told, not infrequently nauseates. Decidedly in is ostentatiously hymning the praise of whatever boy is the Him of the Moment; with apologies to none and with eye firmly fixed upon the prize to be won. The object of the game is to protect from poaching, or simply enjoy unbidden, undraped, and in as uninhibited a manner as possible, the boy next door. Check the leer sent winging by Rhianus below, and see if parsimoniousness is to be perceived anywhere amid the spendthrift
Oh, what an ass! So gracefully lubricious
You never even leave old men in peace.
Tell me, what boy do you adorn, delicious
Bottom? The ass replied, "Menecrates."
Even the prosaic Strato can occasionally get it up for a memorable one-on-one with the Muse:
There are no breezy meadows blossoming
So densely with the splendours of spring
As, Dionysus, you'll see acclaimed
Boys here by Venus and the Graces framed.
Milesius, outstanding among those,
Flourishes like a fragrant, lustrous rose,
Oblivious, perhaps, that as a fair
Flower wilts in the heat, his prime hangs by a hair.
Or anticipating a ground for which Chaucer & Co. would someday provide a melodious descant with "Your yën two wol sleye me sodenly," Strato, if only "momentarily," takes leave of chickenhawk and almost rises to analogies with Kitty Hawk:
Your sparkling eyes, Lycinus, what divine
Beauties! Call them rather fiery rays.
I cannot, facing you, sustain with mine
Momentarily your blazing gaze.
It's at junctures such as these, when a grab-ass is willing to trade carpe diem for
Où sont les neiges d'antan that Strato, Meleager and the rest of the
Anthology's gang that can't shoot straight, this Varicosa nostra, rises above its own mawkish hedonics and achieves, if not sublimity, then at least something on the order of exceptionality. Queerly enough, it's Meleager who most credibly strikes a note of wonder over the oddity of Love's power radiating from so paltry a sun as a boy's slim body:
Unhappy, self-deceiving lovers who
Have known the bittersweet of boy-love too,
Pour round my heart cold water, quick, which flows,
My fellow slaves, from freshly melted snows.
At Dionysius I dared to gaze:
Before I am consumed put out the blaze.
Fire fields the shapes of desire, lending protean flammability to changeless flame-banks of beauty:
I tried to fly from Love, who snatched a brand
Out of the coals and found my hiding place.
Bending, not his bow but his small hand,
He flicked a pinch of fire in my face,
Enveloping me in flames. Sweet firebrand,
Now you have made my heart your fireplace.
Not surprisingly for perverts bent on buggering their second childhood, the complaint most repetitiously sounded cries out against the dreaded but inevitable appearance of body hair in the vicinity of the armpits and pubes of the beloved. Should that blessed physique be seen giving rise to beard or bush instead of just the lover's trusty apparatus, fealty to the Divine One is instantly annulled and any hard gem-like flame still acetylene from weldings of
Pater-and-puer extinguished. As that hard-nosed jock-of-all-trades, Anonymous, slams it:
Nicander's finished, there is not a trace
Of bloom or loveliness left in a face
I called divine. So, mortal youths, beware
Immortal thoughts; remember pubic hair.
With similar regret is an uppity playmate of Meleager's dispatched, and joined at the hip to the dismissal is a warning to the Ganymede-in-residence not to grow-and-do-likewise:
A peach was Heraclitus
Still Heraclitus; now he's past his prime
His hairy hide puts all assailants off.
On your cheeks too the curse will come in time.
At worst, the curse leads to a forsaking of the (now increasingly hirsute)
inamoratus; at best, it turns the trick on Time and mates the lover to his loss in a union blessed by
Schadenfreude. Reportage quotes to one side, who would believe that it was not the poet Diocles himself who had administered to him by Damon the unkindest cut of all?
Somebody said when snubbed, "Is Damon so
Beautiful he doesn't say hello?
Time will exact revenge when bye and bye,
Grown hairy, he greets men who won't reply."
Asclepiades of Adramyttium in these lines plies the same street, opposite side, in upbraiding a tad for having played hard to get just a tad too long:
Now you put out, when prickly down appears
Between your legs and underneath your ears.
"That feels so good!" you cry, "Do that again!"
But who prefers dry stubble to whole grain?
Sometimes, albeit rarely, a poet will go the whole hog in the opposite direction and
plump--can you believe it?--for a hair of the dog that eventually bites all pederasts in good standing:
No, Theron's beauty does no longer please
Me, nor Apollodotus' burnt-out charms.
I like cunt. Let bestial goatherds squeeze
Their hairy little bumboys in their arms!
All of which makes one wonder whether the reader of
Puerilities ever need feel guilty at the relief experienced in at last coming
upon--no, strike that: happening upon--this lick of sense, here attributed to Anonymous:
Unhappy paederasts, cease your inane
Exertions! All our hopes are mad. As vain
As dredging up sea-water on dry land
Is a yen for boys, whose indiscreet
Charms are to mortals and immortals sweet.
Just look at me! My efforts heretofore
Have all been emptied on the arid shore.
Topping off this catalogue, Alpheius of Mytilene is perhaps best at summarizing the "Whatever else, go for it" thematic in Boy Love verse, even if the combination plate put before one is, at minimum, a taco short. Love's honings keep the soul's edge gleaming and sharp:
A loveless life is hell, no doubt about
It; one can't say or do a thing without
Longing. If Xenophilus came in sight,
Slow though I am, I'd reach the speed of light.
Far from avoiding what you can't control.
Pursue it. Love's the whetstone of the soul.
Other, more conventional themes now and then grace this songbook's pages, but poems in praise of present boy lovers or those given top billing on a wish list seem to predominate. This, by Meleager, may be considered a template for more than half the epigrams rendered in
Myiscus' name is charming, too, which leaves me
No reason for not falling at his feet.
He's beautiful all over. When he grieves me,
Love interweaves the bitter with the sweet.
Indeed, so front and center is the
Laudatus est mash poem in this collection that attributing two-liners like the following to Anonymous is as much an act of redundancy as a nod to scholarly decorum:
Attractive Heraclitus is my own
Magnet, not drawing iron like a stone,
But my soul by his loveliness alone.
In Greek, the sounds educed lead the ear on, like the little Siren evoked himself:
Magnes Herakleitos, emoi pothos, outi sideron
Petro, pneuma d' emon kallei ephelkomenos.
Ephelkomenos, or loveliness, differs from
to kalon, the beautiful, as the action of drawing does to the inaction of standing in awe of something able to strike the senses with a single wondrous blow. The latter is synonymous with the Good, the former with the desirable; hence, the magnet analogy: the drawing power of Heraclitus's loveliness is sufficient to "unstone" the soul (in the modern sense of bringing abruptly to unpsychedelicized attention) and throw its pneumatic activators into gear. Neat and consummately epigrammatical, which, we are to suppose, is precisely the point of Anonymous's love note set down to be read over his own shoulder.
Moribund as the views of Michel Foucault might have lately become, we may as well face the fact that not even 2000 years of repression--Augustinism and Dark Agery; the sacking of Mont Ségur and suppression of the Manichaean heresy from southern France all the way to Bulgaria; the Holy Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation; the monkey trial of the Marquess of Queensberry in 1895, and the hate that still speaks out in its name (a fiasco witnessed with hauteur mixed with fear of being brought low by one Oscar Wilde); culminating in the Stonewall revolt 70 years
later--not any of those things have succeeded in consigning the Musa Paedika to oblivion. This writing on the wall at least remains starkly legible: the likelihood of the brouhaha now raging over boy love in the Church altering the wank or wonk appeal of this classic washes out to about nil. This despite the battle currently being waged in critical journals about whether moral issues should outweigh aesthetic ones when evaluating works like the Marquis de Sade's
120 Days of Sodom or Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. All issues of canon cleansing become moot when all that is up for grabs are a few off-color epigrams in a Greek dialect no longer spoken. But face-savingly adjunct to the venerability of these poems is the utter quaintness of their sentimentality and Victorian prurience of the language they until recently came wrapped in. (Needless to say, similar apologetics have been lavished on the
Satyricon of Petronius in recent years. It too is a book fixated on a ball-busting hustler to kill
for--indeed, one whose muggings in baby-face make even the protagonist's Neronian degeneracy seem a mode of self-defense.) Filter these through an uncensored contemporary idiom, however, and out of nowhere sugar-plum fairies appear, not as bizarre perhaps as Michael Jackson has taught us to expect, but certainly within ball park range of the scares Pee-Wee Herman and Jeffrey Jones were alleged recently to have raised. Consequently, a Kallimachos like this of Fitts-and-starts--
Hate him O Zeus, if he hates
Theokritos, my Theokritos, deliciously bronzed--
Hate the boy four times as much as he hates me!
Heavenly Zeus, by Ganymede I swear,
You in your time have loved.
I say no more.
--irreparably reeks of the museum, but this Strato, with his
derriére pensées and elegant three-way rhymes, does his cruising only a stone's throw from hard core:
When I had Philostratus last night
He was tight and did everything right,
But I couldn't get hard;
Now my friends will discard
Me for not doing all Sodom might.
Perhaps, though, the least credible vindication of the Musa Paedika is the one advanced in Hine's "Introduction," in which he refers to the utterly adventitious nature of the type of passion celebrated by the poets brought together in his volume and that passion's hardly-questionable-on-moral-grounds object.
That the objects of such passion were masculine and for the
most part at least comparatively juvenile is an historical fact
and, like all facts, an accident. The fact that other later
poets in another though not wholly dissimilar Christian,
heterosexual tradition, such as notably Dante, Petrarch,
Chrétien de Troyes, and Goethe, to mention only a few, found
transcendence in the eternal feminine instead is also of but
incidental interest. Fashions in passion change, like fads in
anything else, and while we are given to thinking our own
modes and norms of conduct both universal and solely
acceptable, the merest glance at history, literature, and
anthropology will show us otherwise, as will a peep behind
the façade of respectable behavior. . . .
By way of introducing his own translations of some of these same poets in his collection
7 Greeks (1995), Guy Davenport avoids Hine's obvious salient into Judith Butler country, settling instead for the more time-honored rationale whereby Greek unconventionality in the realm of sex could be made to seem less base through select adversions to the Peloponnesian superstructure:
The ancient Greeks recognized the ambiguous allegiances of adolescence, and accommodated them in tensely idealistic and erotic affairs all the more poignant for being brief. Barracks life and athletic training had long before created in the military caste tight friendships among men like Sappho's among women. Maximus of Tyre saw in Sappho's comitatus the beginning of the cohering spirit that Socrates refined into philosophical clarity. "They both appear to me to have practised the same sort of friendship, he of males, she of females, both declaring that they loved many, for they were captivated by all who were beautiful. . . ."
Love of beauty, the Greeks' overarching
raison d'être, knows no gender, and if it did, so this argument runs, it wouldn't deign to haggle over the age of the beloved.
True, remarkably few of the epigrams in Puerilities can be construed as saying to the reader
in (be-) sotto (-ed) voce, "Go thou and screw likewise," to give that
figura one final turn. Nor is he or she made a party to the party that appears never to end, whose agenda partitions dirty old men who look but can no longer touch off from dirtier if less old ones who act out their desires but fear signs on bodies they have sexually optioned of dirty work afoot layable to pituitary glands and awakening hormones. But say it as you will, Alfie, we can't
not know what it's all about and that's a downer where so many uppers of a disquieting nature are being celebrated, rhapsodized, and even on occasion mourned. Can the argument not be made that when push of this sort comes to shove we have no right to make light of the practices praised and, for all practical purposes, exonerated in these epigrams? Contributing to a symposium on "Art and Ethics" conducted by
Salmagundi in 1996, Mary Gordon had this to say concerning the deliberate sexualizing of children:
. . . Children are often seductive, and it is the responsibility of the adult not to respond to this seduction. . . . Unless we believe it is permissable [sic] for adults to have sex with children, we must question the ethics of an art which allows the adult who has the most power over these children . . . to place them in a situation where they become the imagined sex partner of adults, adults they don't even know, and might be horrified by . . .
Daryl Hine joins the Foucauldians in viewing all such hobgoblins as relativisms to be parsed with the aid of a healthy scepticism and a delight in customs engagingly distinct from one's own. Yet is it really that unreasonable, not to say obscurantist, to argue that since sexual mores change over time, attitudes toward them must inevitably alter as well, waxing and waning with the
interests--and desires--of outsiders and insiders in the social as well as the sexual realm? Do we have the responsibility to acquaint ourselves with art that quite literally makes us sick? And if so, to whom or to what is that responsibility owed? Is it inherently dishonest for a novelist like Nabokov to expect his readers to identify positively with a character like Humbert Humbert, an inveterate child molester, on the sole basis of his exceptional eloquence, exquisite sensibility, and epicurean catholicity of taste? Finally, I suppose, the question reduces itself to this: What price are we willing to pay in quality of life and descendant treasure for performative cleverness as a transcendent good? Did it ever occur to the author of
Lolita to ask just who it is who gains when an elegant edifice is raised on a toxic dump?
Yet, to put the question from the other side, how consistent are we being when we excoriate the boy-loving poets of the
Greek Anthology while leaving ourselves free to lavish admiration upon modern poets like C. P. Cavafy, whose poems may have been unexceptionable but the range of experiences with which he stocked them rather less so? Is his "In the Tavernas" (reproduced below, in the Keeley and Sherrard translation) really more advanced morally than the epigrams of Meleager, one of his favorite poets?
I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I didn't want to stay
in Alexandria. Tamides left me.
he went off with the Prefect's son to earn himself
a villa on the Nile, a mansion in the city.
It wouldn't have been right for me to stay in Alexandria.
I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery.
The one thing that saves me,
like durable beauty, like perfume
that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides,
most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years,
and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile.
The answer should be at the very least, to quote the inimitable Sam Goldwyn, a definite maybe, because the sight lines of Cavafy's desire extended (so far as we are able to know such things) only to men.
Young men, his poems are at pains make clear, but still men, not boys between the ages of 10 and 12; and that, Fathers and Teachers, is the end of the story.
Time now to review:
Puerilities, from the adjective puerile, containing the root puer, or boy. Hence, boylike, or in the plural,
boylikenesses; but more generally immaturities; mindless (or unmindful) activities associated with young, underdeveloped males; insignificant sorts of play; at the last extremity of playfulness, a night out (or just a night) with the boys.
Morally responsible individuals can distinguish, without recourse to
The O'Reilly Factor, between legitimate mentoring of the young and trolling for jailbait on the Internet. The only issue that matters here is whether Daryl Hine's writerly liberties taken with the
Musa Paedika are equivalent in a readerly way to the ones embraced in the Greek originals. On that score, I come down with those having strong doubts about Hine's whole approach to the sidearm, sideswipe, sidewinder humor of these early Greeks, and conclude that
Puerilities may not be the best venue for the sort of poet who has given us
The Wooden Horse (1965), Postscripts (1990) and numerous other volumes that push the envelope of erotic translation somewhere less time-bound than the dead letter office. While publishers' catalogs are not exactly awash with versions of the
Musa Paedika in PG-13, renderings from the Greek Anthology that shortchange the pederasts but amply reimburse everyone else are certainly not difficult to come by. One
such--and very readable, too--is Willis Barnstone's Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets (1988), while a less orthodox sampling of what the early epigrammatic tradition has to offer (without facing Greek texts), may be found in Guy Davenport's eye-opening
7 Greeks, published by New Directions. (And these unkennelings of Davenport's are handled with enough prevention to keep his Pound of cure on a tight leash.)