Friday, December 11, 2020

Rachel Hope Cleves's "Unspeakable"

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

Cleves applied the “Page 99 Test” to Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality and reported the following:
“Douglas often said that each of his books was inspired by falling in love.” What an appealing way to describe a personal history that most people would find repellent, which makes this sentence from the top of page 99 a perfect entry point into the ugly paradoxes at the center of Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality. The page continues by describing one of Douglas’s “love” affairs, with a young boy named Pasqualino Amitrano.

Almost entirely forgotten today, Norman Douglas was a beloved literary celebrity during the 1920s and 1930s. His 1917 novel South Wind, set in the sybaritic atmosphere of the cosmopolitan expatriate community of Capri, was a favorite of writers like E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, and Graham Greene, who said his generation was “brought up on South Wind.” The book carried the whiff of sexual scandal with its themes of bigamy, homosexuality, and nudism. The sexual disreputability of its author only added to the frisson of forbidden pleasure in reading the book.

In November 1916, Douglas had been arrested in London for making an “indecent assault” on a sixteen-year old boy. News of his arrest, and additional subsequent charges for purportedly assaulting two boys, ages ten and twelve, at the Natural History Museum earlier that summer, circulated in local and national papers. When Douglas was bailed out in early January he fled to the continent. This sexual scandal, however, didn’t end Douglas’s literary career, it made him a celebrity. During the 1920s and 1930s, Douglas became notorious for his unrepentant enthusiasm for pederasty, which he hinted at in his books and boasted about in person. His reputation as a diavolo incarnato enamored his fans.

Unlike biographies of artists like Tolstoy or Picasso, which dwell on how such unappealing men could create such appealing art, the central paradox of Unspeakable is how such an unappealing man could once have been so appealing. Some of Douglas’s works have held up better than others, but his sexual reputation has not held up at all. What was merely disreputable in the 1920s and 1930s has become monstrous today. During Douglas’s lifetime he could talk about his pederastic relationships with children as “love affairs” and many readers and friends took him at his word. Today we define any sexual encounters between adults and children as rapes or assaults, the very opposite of love. Unspeakable is about that gap in meaning between past and present. It uses the very well documented life of one man, Norman Douglas, to recreate the social history of sex between adults and children during the first half of the twentieth century. In so doing, it reveals a widely practiced sexual culture in our recent past that may shock readers.
Visit Rachel Hope Cleves's website.

--Marshal Zeirngue