Friday 16 September 2011

An Infinite Capacity for Love and Joy: Queer History, S/M and T.H. White


Posted by Anonymous Poster

Sometimes we find bits of our history in the most surprising places.

Have you ever heard of T.H. White? I won't be offended if you say no! On the other hand, it's quite likely that you've come across some of his work at some point, and just haven't registered his name. Anyone who is, like me, a fantasy nerd or obsessed with all things King-Arthur-related has probably come across his Arthurian series, The Once and Future King. You may also, if you misspent as much of your youth watching Disney films as most of Lashings did, have seen The Sword in the Stone, an animated version of the first and most-child-friendly of the books in the series.

[Description of image: A still from Disney's The Sword in the Stone. A very young King Arthur is shown about to draw a sword out of an anvil and stone]

Broadway and West End geeks may also have come across the 1960 musical Camelot, which is based on the more adult portion of White's work:

This clip is from a modern (2006) production, which seems to pick up on a lot of the themes I'm about to expand upon below. Also... hiiiii, Bobby Steggert :)

[Description of video: Mordred, King Arthur's illegitimate son, sings about how he enjoys being immoral while dancing around in a bondage outfit and a pair of high-heeled boots. Lyrics here.]

White wrote his four/five-novel cycle (there's a fifth volume which was never published during his lifetime) immediately before and during World War II. It tells the story of King Arthur, from his origins as an ignored and overshadowed orphan boy to the night before his death.

(What does all this have to do with kink? Don't worry, we'll get there eventually!)

The books are fairly well-known for their pacifism -- one of the tasks that the wizard Merlin faces in bringing up the young Arthur is to teach him that 'might' does not always equal 'right', that it is important for strength and justice to be tempered with mercy. White was a conscientious objector in World War II, and believed that it was necessarily for humanity to overcome its own impetus to violence before social progress could be made. The novel series stretches right up until the end of Arthur's reign, and depicts the ultimate failure of Arthur's ideals, the painful destruction of his kingdom, and the loss of the two people he loves most in the world: his best friend Lancelot and his wife Guenevere.

So, that's T.H. White, 'Tim' to his friends and neighbours, writer of middlebrow children's books about peace and duty and doing the right thing and the creative mind behind both a cuddly Disney film and a splashy 1960s musical. So far, so straightforward.

Clumsy segue time:

Do you know what's even harder than pulling a sword out of a stone sometimes?
Doing queer history, that's what!

The closet can be an incredibly important and necessary space. There are times and places when closets save lives, literally, and I can't fault my ancestors (or my brothers and sisters around the world today) for doing what they needed to survive. However, the closet can also make things intensely difficult for queer historians. (That's before even getting into the fact that people in the past may not have categorised themselves in the same way that we do!). Queer history so often becomes as case of asking oneself, over and over, 'What do we know?'. Sometimes, more often than we'd like, the answer is 'Not very much'.

It's not only the fact that in the past, people who were having same-sex/non-vanilla/poly/other types of sex weren't necessarily documenting themselves in the same way that straight people were. It's the fact that people's conforming to social norms blocks our picture of what people's true desires may have been, and sometimes invisibilises people's het activities as much as their queer ones. We know that Oscar Wilde slept with men (thanks, Queen Victoria), but we also know that he also had a wife and two children (who were, incidentally, rather adorable). Virginia Woolf had a girlfriend, but she also had a husband whom she wrote about with adoration. What authority have we to say which of their sexual activites were 'authentic', which of their relationships were 'real'?

(And how much do I enjoy the mental image of Mr Wilde with a folded Bi Pride flag as a pocket handkerchief?)

In White's case, we don't have a noisy public trial to go on. In fact, we have relatively little -- we have his letters, published after his death in 1964, and we have his diaries. In 1967, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote a biography of White. She drew on evidence from these and from his friends, one of whom claimed that '[White's] own amorous feelings were, I think, all for boys, and he was very very careful about them' (Warner p.97). Early in her book, Warner also quotes from notes written by the young White in an early draft of the novel which he eventually published as Of Whom the World. In these notes, White asks himself 'What makes the homosexual's life inevitably more tragic that other people's?', and goes on to list factors such as 'loss of environment from choosing to fly in the face of the majority, social prejudice and a legal code compelling homosexuals either to go disguised into the world or to live as in a ghetto [and] the narrowed field of choice'. White writes [TW for homophobic language]:
'There must be something unsatisfactory about relationships between homos. this is deep and I can't quite get it. The actual sexual relationships must be equally satisfactory sexually in the case of both norms and abnorms; but sexual relations in themselves are not particularly satisfying. For love in its wider sense I postulate more than lust. A marriage between norms in which it was perfectly secure that interruption would always [take place] seems to correspond to the contract between pederasts'. (Warner, pp.42-3).

From this, Warner concludes that 'he would scarcely have catalogued all the factors which make the homosexual's life inevitably more tragic if he had not felt drawn to homosexuality; but he wanted it on his own terms: monogamous, secure and exclusive' (Warner, p.43). She also quotes extensively from later diary entries about a young boy identified only as 'Zed':
'I can't write about the important part of this summer, because I have fallen in love with Zed.... It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of this impractical, unsuitable love... In any case, on every score of his happiness, not my safety, the whole situation is an impossible one. All I can do is to is to behave like a gentleman'. (Warner, p.277).
We do know that there is no evidence that White ever engaged in any kind of sexual behaviour with a child. He had several relationships with women, but all were short-lived and did not result in marriage. His closest relationships were with his dogs and his hunting birds, and he spent most of his life alone, either writing or practicing hunting, fishing and amateur aviation. Warner also quotes from the diaries of David Garnett, another friend of White's:
'I had a most intimate talk with Tim on Sunday... about our views on women and sexual morals. This had been in his mind, I believe, for several years. Tim explained to me that he was a sadist and that his imagination was frequently occupied with sadistic fantasies. He explained that this had been disastrous whenever he was passionately in love.' (Warner, p.310).
What do I think about T.H. White's sexuality? I don't think we'll ever truly know. I'm not at all sure that it was clear to him, so I think it's a bit presumptuous to expect it to be clear to me. And yet. And yet. I keep coming back to a single line, from the diaries:

'It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them.'

That may very well be the saddest thing I've ever read.

Since reading Warner's biography, I've been rereading White's books with this information in mind. Biographical readings can be a dangerous business at the best of times, but this extract (about the young Lancelot and his feelings for Guenevere) really leapt out at me:

'But the curious thing was that... he had a contradictory nature which was far from holy. His Word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them. For one thing, he liked to hurt people. It was for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented. One reason why he fell in love with Guenever was because the first thing he had done was to hurt her. He might never have noticed her as a person, if he had not seen the pain in her eyes.'
T.H. White, The Once and Future King: Complete Edition (London: HarperCollins, 1996) p. 365

It is a better articulation of the internal tensions experienced by someone who has both sadistic tendencies and a strong sense of ethics than most political essays I've read on the subject. The really tragic thing that comes out of this extract is that White appears to have no language for speaking about the enjoyment of inflicting physical pain on others outside of 'he was bad', 'he was cruel', 'he liked to hurt people'. When read together with other aspects of White's portrait of Lancelot (his physical ugliness; the way in which he feels isolated from other people, his adoration of Arthur), I strongly suspect that it is a thinly-veiled self-portrait, and it just makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry. How many more people like him, who simply never had the ability or the opportunity to put their desires into any words other than the language of self-loathing? In a world where White did not perceive himself as 'cruel', his sexuality 'disastrous', would he have been able to form successful relationships with adults? Would he have been able to fulfil his capacity for love and joy?

And to some extent, this is still going on today. Even nowadays in the happy daylight world of IC play-dates and Ann Summers parties and kink swapmeets on Saturday afternoons. You think kinky people aren't oppressed? The House of Lords disagrees with you, boys and girls and everyone else -- sure, police intervention in the style of that case hasn't happened since 1987, but the judgement in R. v. Brown still stands: a person cannot consent to an assault, the law perceives consensual acts of wounding between adults as assault, and if an outside body (such as H.M. Constabulary) decides to take an interest and press charges against you, no amount of your partner arguing that they wanted you to put that hot wax there will get you off*.

* Erm, so to speak. Hey, I'm trying to deal with the fact that my sexuality is still technically illegal**, the least you can do is allow me some terrible puns!

** To be fair, the decision in R. v. Brown hasn't been enforced since 1993, and legal scholars are divided on how a similar case would be decided if/when it comes up today. See links below for more information.

Not only that, there still seems to be a huge impetus in popular culture to automatically link S/M inclinations with being evil, untrustworthy, or a bad person. As pretty as Bobby Steggert is in the clip above, there's a reason that the director and costume designer chose to dress Mordred, the villain of the piece, in bondage gear rather than the actor playing good-guy Lancelot... even though it is Lancelot who is the character with kink leanings in the original source text. Sexy!evil is still evil, and being linked with it for long enough will wear you the fuck down.

One-half of the education that young emerging kinksters badly need is a course on the physical side of things: basic anatomy, safewords, disease and injury prevention, the practicalities of things like knot-tying and harness-rigging (and maybe, just maybe, a brief history lesson on the Hanky Code with optional colouring-in exam!). But the other half of the education we need is no less important: You are not bad. You are not evil. (Coda: Nor are you ridiculous, worthy of mockery or deserving to be laughed at. Unless you've just told a particularly good knock-knock joke.). Your heart and your body want what they want, and if you're lucky enough to have a partner/s who are good with that, there is nothing in the world outside of reasonable and pre-agreed safety concerns that should stop you.

I struggled for quite some time when deciding whether I should put the still from The Sword in the Stone at the top of this post. Not because I don't think it reflects White's work accurately -- FWIW, I actually think it's quite a charming little film, dodgy animation and all -- but because something inside me kept screaming that it was completely inappropriate to put an image from a children's film on top of a post talking about S/M. The thing is, though, that both halves of T.H. White coexisted in one person -- the suffering human man whose life was warped by disgust for his own sexuality, and the creator of a beloved children's story -- and I believe that we do him and ourselves a disservice, and perhaps even a violence, to attempt to seperate them.

When I perform 'You're the Top' or 'Favourite Things' in Lashings, smacking a riding-crop against a chair-leg or flipping a castmate over my knee, I'm trying to put those two halves back together again. I'm arguing directly against the mainstream cultural insistence that my sexuality equals a cheap and lazy shorthand for all that is evil and wrong. And I'm still not there yet: I'm still worried about the consequences of being out as kinky in a whole lot of ways that I don't worry about being out and queer. The fact that I'm posting this anonymously shows that. I hope that one day I can be braver.

What do I know? I know this: when there is consent, when there is open negotiation, when there is adequate understanding of what can be safely and pleasurably done, there is no wrongness and there is no evil.

There is, instead, an infinite capacity for love and joy.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

T.H. White

'England Have My Bones: The T.H. White Website'

Gallix, Francois, ed., Letters to a Friend by T.H. White (Putnam, 1982).

Warner, Sylvia Townsend, T.H. White: A Biography, Oxford University Press 1989 (originally Jonathan Cape, 1967).

White, T.H.,
The Once and Future King: Complete Edition (HarperCollins, 1996).
R. v. Brown ('The Spanner Case')

The Spanner Trust
A group working to change the law set out in R. v. Brown

History of R. v. Brown

Law wiki page
With summaries of the judgements in R. v. Brown

No comments:

Post a Comment