On Carnal Knowledge; or, A Modest Research Proposal

It’s long been clear to me that I can be a better historian of intellect, education, and ideas in the nineteenth century if I can read the dead languages that were at the base of my research subjects’ body of knowledge. Yet I never had a good working example for why this was the case. Then, a month ago, under a blazing midday sunshine that only the Mediterranean (and similarly-latituded regions) in August can muster, I had occasion—and finally the ability—to do something that someone my age with a similar level of education a hundred fifty years ago could easily have done: spend a couple hours pulling together a scrappy translation from Plato, of a passage that by now will be quite familiar to regular readers. In so doing, I learnt a powerful lesson about my work and about life in general, particularly life as a young adult just starting to come to know the world: translation (from Greek, from Latin, from those barely discernible emotions which it is impossible to express in any language) is very difficult. And bowdlerization (or simplification, or even dehumanization) is very easy, and at times unavoidable.

Phaedrus 251-252, the most soul-stirring speech about love that I know, contains many references to παῖδες, children, or, more accurately here, boys. There is the darling boy (παιδικοῖς) to whom the lover would sacrifice as if to a god if he did not fear a reputation for madness (251a), the beautiful boy (παιδὸς κάλλος) the sight of whom produces a “thrilling feeling” in the soul, ceasing its pain and filling it with joy (251c-d), and everywhere masculine adjectives and participles that give no doubt as to the gender as well as the beauty and youth of the beloved. And when you are faced with the text in front of you, and a blank sheet of notepaper onto which to transcribe it in the vernacular for a general audience, it is awfully difficult to know what to do with all those boys. Your audience can be as well-versed as anyone in Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, as unruffled as can be by the knowledge that they did things differently back then, but how to make Socrates’ account of love’s mania instructive and inspiring to a modern audience without allowing them to be distracted by the suggestion of one of the most unpardonable sexual sins of our time? Reader, you bowdlerize. Benjamin Jowett, feeling himself helplessly caught, changed many of the pronouns, to my man Symonds’ chagrin; Harold Fowler, whose translation appears in the older Loebs, satisfied himself with using “beloved” where “boy” became a problem. Modern translators at times make bolder choices, but I think these texts are as much living guides to our own times as they are historical documents, and I went only as far as I dared—at one point using “beautiful youth” to get the original sense across, but for the most part sticking to “beloved,” preserving an echo of the erastes/eromenos dynamic but trying at the same time to universalize it. I had never before wondered so much as I did then what it really means to teach these texts and to use them as guides. It’s easy, from the 21st century, on the other side of gay liberation, to sympathize with Symonds’ outrage at Jowett’s hypocrisy in covering up the truth of the Platonic eros. When you try to translate παιδὸς κάλλος into the English of your own time, it’s a little more possible to see Jowett’s side of the story too.

I’ve related this anecdote because to me the difficulties of this translation—and the reminder within it of Jowett’s difficulties—tell us a lot about how to start thinking about love for the Victorians, and why to start thinking about it. Contemporary media sensationalize all the time about love in our day, and how broken it is and how misunderstood, how a dehumanizing “hookup culture” has come to take its place, and how we can get love back. But just as we wouldn’t know a παιδὸς κάλλος if it fell on us out of a tree, I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “love” either, or where to find it. I do think, however, that we are living with the legacy of the nineteenth century, and that understanding better the lines that Victorians drew betwixt love and sex and eros and related things, the people who developed such ideas and the places and cultures in which they developed them, might tell us a bit about why it does seem as if the Youth of Today (or at least the ones the magazines write about) lack a really viable, to say nothing of beautiful, discourse of human connection.

I’ve been thinking about how to think about this since the spring, when, a few days after I handed in the labor of love that was my thesis, I ran across Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

The eroticism of our students is lame. It is not the divine madness Socrates praised; or the enticing awareness of incompleteness and the quest to overcome it; or nature’s grace, which permits a partial being to recover his wholeness in the embrace of another, or a temporal being to long for eternity in the perpetuity of his seed; or the hope that all men will remember his deeds; or the contemplation of perfection. Eroticism is a discomfort, but one that in itself promises relief and affirms the goodness of things. It is the proof, subjective but incontrovertible, of man’s relatedness, imperfect though it may be, to others and to the whole of nature. Wonder, the source of both poetry and philosophy, is its characteristic expression. Eros demands daring from its votaries and provides a good reason for it. This longing for completeness is the longing for education, and the study of it is education. Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance is identical with his perfect knowledge of erotics. The longing for his conversations with which he infected his companions, and which was intensified after his death and has endured throughout the centuries, proved him to have been both the neediest and most grasping of lovers, and the richest and most giving of beloveds. The sex lives of our students and their reflection on them disarm such longing and make it incomprehensible to them. Reduction has robbed eros of its divinatory powers. Because they do not trust it, students have no reverence for themselves. There is almost no remaining link visible to them between what they learn in sex education and Plato’s Symposium…. The easy sex of teen-agers snips the golden thread linking eros to education.

In many respects, Bloom comes across as patronizing and oblivious, unaware that what it means to be an American university student has changed in the years since it became possible for more than those who read dead languages to be awarded a bachelor’s degree. Yet he’s right that students want something of eros, though don’t quite know what it is, or how to explain what dissatisfies them about the so-called “hookup culture”—witness a recent piece in the Daily Princetonian, in which an anonymous author writes that going out most weekends to drink and find partners for sex (or something sexual but not-quite-sex) left her feeling lonely and confused. And, at the opposite end of a not-so-wide spectrum, witness the Atlantic‘s seemingly annual article about sex and the college girl, which this time round notes that the so-called “hookup culture” works for women because it’s not too emotionally troubling, since modern women have more important things like their careers to worry about:

The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and intern­ships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success…. Women in the dorm [in a sociological study conducted at Indiana University] complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork.

This, to me, is a problem, and one that our current attempts to figure out what the “hookup culture” is don’t help us to answer. We privileged college-educated Westerners who have nothing more important on our minds than how young people are discovering themselves erotically are very good at, variously, talking about the “hookup culture” as something that, booze, objectification, and all, detracts from the educational mission of a university; or at mockingly writing off the conservative pro-abstinence-and-chastity argument that casual sexual contact is degrading to all concerned. We argue that casual sex is oppressive or that it is liberating, but we lack a middle view: a way to recover Allan Bloom from his ridiculous naïveté, a way to respond to what’s dehumanizing as well as confusing about our culture’s sexual expectations for young adults (want proof? watch an episode of HBO’s Girls) without excising eroticism entirely from our sentimental educations or endlessly postponing it until it’s too late, as I think many social conservatives would like to do. My 2010s take on Allan Bloom—which, like his original, comes from thinking a lot about what “παιδὸς κάλλος” means—is that there’s nothing wrong with having lots of sex with lots of partners per se (as long as you use proper protection, etc.), but that there is something morally wanting in doing so in a way that’s instrumentalizing and objectifying, that prefers the pleasure of consumption and boxes ticked to a deeper pleasure of human connection in soul as well as body. Like Bloom, I think that sex as part of the culture of consumption denies young adults the opportunity to see sexual relationships as part of their liberal-arts education, something that will help them to understand how to take an ethical approach to relations with others and to figure out what a good life is and how to pursue it for themselves. It’s worth challenging ourselves to be both sex-positive and serious, and to make room for sentiment and affect within education.

My Victorians knew all too well that where knowledge lay, eros wasn’t far behind. Otherwise those with the cultural capital (wealthy, educated, white, heterosexual-or-something-like-it men) wouldn’t have poured so much energy into keeping knowledge out of the hands of women and children, the poor, Imperial subjects from far-flung lands, or those who stood to gain from the knowledge that Plato (the guide to civilization!) is full of some awfully sexually-charged masculine nouns. Double standards proliferated: the Lambs published their Tales from Shakespeare, and, as Symonds wrote to Jowett, “It is indeed impossible to exaggerate the anomaly of making Plato a text-book for students, and a household-book for readers, in a nation which repudiates Greek love,” yet commonplace books and letters that flowed in and out of the universities of the period are charged with the inextricability of learning and love.

Times are different—empires are no longer in fashion; universities are, theoretically, places where more than the most privileged are welcome—yet eros is still an essential part of the sentimental education, and denying its existence either by divorcing sex from the people having it or by refusing it a place in college life together isn’t the answer to trying to engage with it healthily and productively. Building an environment in which young people can approach their bodies and relations with each other in a psychologically healthy way entails acknowledging the myriad ways in which eros suffuses life, especially the life of the mind. It needs to acknowledge that eroticism doesn’t only happen in intercourse (or a hasty blowjob in a (eating) club’s cloakroom), but can happen in a class, in a tutorial, in a late-night conversation in a dorm room, in the pages of reading assigned or not, in the process of writing essays like this one. On the one hand, this is sublimation at its most classic and most Victorian, sure—but on the other hand, it needn’t stop there. Maybe those conversations, among well-adjusted individuals living in a well-adjusted university community with a healthy attitude to sexual matters, could also be the starting point for meaningful erotic relations that contribute to intellectual, psychological, emotional, etc. growth, regardless of whether they take place between friends, acquaintances, strangers, or steady significant others of any gender. This kind of thinking has the benefit of putting pleasure back at the center of what we expect to gain from knowledge and education, and allows us to think about college as part of the process of growing up and maturation rather than as a credential. And, by combining carnal knowledge with book knowledge, it also offers the possibility that when students are hurt by those with whom they enter into close and vulnerable relationships—as they invariably will be—they have some tools that will help them to deal with the pain. The women in the Indiana University study in the Atlantic seemed to prefer hookups because, while it can be disappointing when the boy doesn’t text, or when the relationship never morphs into something more emotionally meaningful, no-strings-attached assignations aren’t supposed to come with the potential for heartbreak’s soul-crushing pain. But (leaving aside the fact that hookups can be soul-crushing too) young people who have never let themselves hurt inside because they are too busy with their grades and their career prospects don’t know how to put themselves in the shoes of people who are hurting. They don’t know when it’s essential to exercise compassion. And I wonder if what’s wrong with Wall Street, etc., and all the inhumanity in modern American professional life is that students who come out of universities whose mottoes are “work hard, play hard” (I’m looking at you, Princeton and Oxford) never, by keeping those spheres so separate, let themselves be open to the most profound vulnerability.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, on the other side of my bachelor’s degree, it is a rare sunny day, and I am over the moon to be back in a city that has more to say about the seductive allure of the tree of knowledge than any other. I’m fresh from the first week of work on a master’s thesis that is going to be, in some wise, about classical education and what tools it gave young Victorian adults—both men and women—to think about love. This week I read Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s excellent new book The Origins of Sex, which among other extremely interesting and insightful cultural analysis discussed the transition from an 18th-century Britain of sexual liberty and libertinism to a nineteenth century that was far more confused about what it would accept, socially, with respect to sexual expression. That confusion is evident in phenomena like Symonds’ call for an out and proud homosexuality that at the same time employed a moral code largely indistinguishable from that which governed opposite-sex “chivalric love.” Indeed, it seems to me, the Victorians in general rediscovered chivalry (see pre-Raphaelitism) as a way of doing something with one’s bodies that’s not just having fun: that instead mingles love’s pleasure and pain, and that involves a deep connection to the past and sense of one’s place, as a lover, with respect to it.

This is the “glukúpikron” love that Anne Carson’s wonderful Eros the Bittersweet discusses, and its reception is just as fascinating as the original. I’m interested in the connection between, in Anne Carson’s words, “falling in love and coming to know,” which are “not like anything else, but they are like each other.” Back in the Upper Reading Room, now, reading about learning and loving, I feel more alive than I have ever felt since I crashed into crushing despair on the day that I handed in my Symonds thesis. It’s enough to reawaken in me the feeling of that line from Howards End: “a place, as well as a person, may catch the glow.”

I hope to write more in the months to come about pedagogic eros, about carnal knowledge. I hope to write about how being back in Oxford is going to help me get my head around the extent to which the repressive hypothesis about Victorian culture is true, and the extent to which it isn’t. I hope to tell my gentle reader a little bit more about why this city makes my heart stir, why it has made me feel more human than any hookup ever has or, I have come to believe, could. And, finally, I want to work out a little anti-repressive hypothesis of my own, one that needn’t oppose repression with sexual liberation but instead with a different, rather Victorian, kind of freedom: the freedom to jettison short-term satisfaction and the distraction of physical wants and instead to work towards carnal knowledge of a more profound kind. Unpacking the sublimation humming in the walls of this city might, in the end, send us back down a path of bodily discovery, albeit one richer and with more potential for connection than those experiences related in the Atlantic or the Daily Princetonian. Or it might send us down myriad other paths entirely, paths of comradeship or discipleship or companionate marriage (not so much passion as contentment) or the path of the sunset I saw last night from my kitchen window, the sky streaked purple and gold behind Old Tom Tower and casting its dwindling light on the empty Christ Church School playing fields. Everyone has to find their own route to goodness. In Oxford, home of lost causes, where they always knew that what “παιδὸς κάλλος” meant wasn’t so much obscene as just plain untranslatable, it is possible for someone like me to learn to be human and humane in a way that it never was in America.

3 thoughts on “On Carnal Knowledge; or, A Modest Research Proposal

  1. This whole post is wonderfully evocative: it left me full of nostalgia, remembering what it’s like to see the sun set over the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls . . . I really like the idea of a “different, rather Victorian, kind of freedom,” and the rediscovery of chivalry. Years of reading and thinking, of a pretty wonderful kind, to do there. I find myself wondering if Bloomsbury was the betrayal of these ideals (embodied at Cambridge by the Apostles) or their culmination. And thinking how much more radical the Victorians and Edwardians are than the up-to-date thinkers who fill the copies of the Atlantic that unaccountable appear in my mailbox.

  2. Thank you so much. I do need to get to know the Apostles and Bloomsbury a bit better, but I find Forster’s life an interesting case in point. All his rhetoric in the novels and essays about connection and loving difference may have been part of his courageous coming-out (as, of course, was reading Symonds!), but a laundry-list of his relationships doesn’t look so different from or more remarkable than anyone else’s (particularly any liberally-minded self-identified homosexual man of his time–of which there were many, they were just less eloquent than he). Apostle-talk becomes plain old human (often bodily) foibles. Actually, come to think of it, that fall from paradise (as it’s perceived) is part of what The Longest Journey is about.

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