Friday, February 26, 2010
"Another Way of Being"
Chapter 31 – Truth
It was the middle of July and I was going to leave on my travels with Chris in a couple of days. I hadn’t told Adam about it yet. Adam once more mentioned his plan of going together to a holiday camp but I hadn’t responded. I didn’t want to tell him the truth.
Adam had imperceptibly become a part of my life. He came to the flat almost every afternoon when he had finished his work. I looked forward to his coming. I spent most of my day either writing exams or preparing for them and I wasn’t really interested in any of it. I had read all the books and I knew what I thought about them and there wasn’t really more to be said. But I quite enjoyed the exams themselves. I liked the intense concentration and the sense of competition. I never felt I was competing against other students, but I was competing against the questions, against the system. I had to prove that I could outwit it. I was often hoarse when I came out of a three-hour exam session. I sometimes nearly lost my voice altogether. I later realised it was because of what is called ‘internal articulation’. When you read or write you tend to ‘voice’ the words internally. Your vocal cords are at work all the time even though you don’t utter a sound that anyone could hear. In the exams I had literally written myself hoarse. But that didn’t make it difficult to be with Adam because we hardly ever spoke. We communicated, but we didn’t communicate with words. It is an incredible relief after so much writing and talking just to be close to someone without feeling the need to speak.
Adam is usually waiting for me when I get back from school. It has become part of the daily rhythm for both of us, I suppose, though we never mention it. Adam has gone through a remarkable change in recent weeks. He has lost most of his shyness. He begins undressing as soon as we get to my room. He does it in an unthinking, automatic way, as if he is changing into his football kit in preparation for a match. He pulls off his shirt and his jeans and drops them on the floor. He sits on the edge of the bed to remove his socks and his underwear and he kicks them away. It isn’t so much a feeling of urgency as a wish to get on with familiar things – as if there is a kind of security in repeating what we have done before.
Adam has shed his inhibitions one by one. He had been shocked by many things at first. He thought of certain things as ‘dirty’. Kissing was dirty and bodily fluids were dirty, which meant that kissing or touching parts of the body were dirty. Parts of his own body seemed to be out of bounds even to him. It is through sex that he is discovering much of himself. But he learns quickly. Once he overcomes an inhibition it seems to be gone forever.
But things are not as simple as they appear to be. They had been simple in the beginning. We had been two boys ‘slaking their body’s thirst upon each other’ as Lawrence puts it. But now there is more.
We don’t talk about feelings but the feelings are silently present. Each time, when we have finished, Adam clings close to me. He likes to lie on top of me or to curl around me. He lies still for a long time. I sometimes think he has fallen asleep. But he is not asleep; he is simply holding on to me.
Sometimes he starts wrestling. We play-fight for a while till he collapses on top of me and then we lie still once more. It is a strange thing, this play-fighting between boys. You sometimes use all your strength to get on top of the other boy or to throw him off you but you are always careful to avoid hurting him. It is more like dancing than fighting. And it always ends in this veiled embrace, this silent closeness.
When we are lying together I study his body. I study it with my eyes but more intensely with my hands. I run my hands over his back and over his limbs as if I am handling a sculpture. His body is lean and taut. There are faint traces of puppy fat around the belly and waist but otherwise there is no spare flesh, there is nothing superfluous about him. His skin is smooth except for his hands and his fingers, which are dry and chapped. It is a result of his tiling work, I suppose. The cement-based adhesives that he works with dry the skin and make it peel. But I quite like the roughness of his hands.
Adam is a pretty boy. He is handsome in an old-fashioned English way, but with an extra touch of delicacy – what the Romans would have called a puer delicatus. It is why I noticed him that first time when he was with his skinhead mates. The skinhead style is a wondrously effective formula for disguising good looks, but Adam has been shedding the skinhead style. He has started to wear running shoes instead of boots. He no longer wears braces. His hair is beginning to grow.
He hasn’t been beaten up again since that time after the football match. I would like to know why it happened. He doesn’t want to talk about it but I have my own ideas. I don’t think his skinhead mates saw me with him. But they didn’t need to see us together. They sensed that something in him had changed. Adam had stepped out of the herd. He smelled different to them and they punished him for it.
I read in my Grandfather’s manuscript:
“It is possible that the imaginative and mystical side of Hadrian actually divined godly qualities in the boy Antinous. Who is to say he was wrong?
Antinous experienced Hadrian’s love and attachment. Some have suggested he drowned himself in order to escape from it. But perhaps the explanation is simpler. Perhaps he was drowned in it. Should we consider the possibility that Antinous came to share Hadrian’s idea of Antinous? Antinous found himself on the inside of a relationship – a love – so intense that it transcended everything else in his life. It was transcendent, but it was in its nature ephemeral, because it was tied to his youth and beauty – the one must soon end and the other must soon diminish and eventually vanish. Unless that process can be halted – unless the march of time and the attachment to the decay of the physical body can be stopped. It can be stopped by death. In death youth and beauty are frozen for eternity. From death comes eternal life of a kind.
It was perhaps easier for Antinous to die than to try to live up to the idea of himself with which Hadrian’s love had imbued him. Or maybe death was the only way Antinous could secure Hadrian’s everlasting love?
By dying now in his youth and beauty he would become the eternal ephebe. He would preserve the idea of himself that had come to mean more than life.”
We all knew it was going to be a tight schedule so we coordinated our departure and return. We agreed to pack as much as possible into the second week of July before we went our separate ways. We would have the first ten days of September when we returned, and then there would be three days of performances.
Meanwhile there would be seven weeks without rehearsals, without proper practice even. It is difficult to practise unless you have a suitable space – a large space, a danceable space. It would be nice to think you could practise on a beach, in a meadow, on the side of a motorway – but it doesn’t work like that.
When I am not rehearsing or dancing I am thinking of dance. For me dance is connected to the idea of flight, to my longing to escape from the Earth. Throughout my boyhood, as long as I can remember, I have had a recurring dream. In this dream I am running. I run with bigger and bigger bounds – till eventually I am moving in great slow leaps – and eventually the leaps become so huge and so relaxed that I drift away from the Earth altogether. I am actually flying.
During my recent revision I had to study an anthology of religious verse – Christian religious verse. Christian poets are fond of the metaphor of a caged bird. The cage stands for the physical body. The bird is the suffering human soul who is trapped in the body and doesn’t belong there.
I never saw the sense of this. I yearn to fly, but I do not wish to escape from my body. I wonder why anyone should hate his body so much that he wishes to escape from it.
Except for the pain, of course. To dance, to fly, requires such hard toil. You must buy those few seconds of flight with hours of practice, week upon week of training. You drive yourself until your body aches. In my diaries from that time I found a poem. I must have written it then, but I had long forgotten it. What a young pervert I was! I reversed the Christian metaphor. I turned the bird into a body that was forced to dance for the delight of the soul.
It’s so like flying is the dance
but so much pain to make this leap in air
this so brief flight that you have trained all day
taming your body making it obey
as if it is a bird and you its snare
as if it first must bleed before you dare
an hour before you’re due on stage
before you crouch impatient in the wings
your body aches already, it begins
to flex and stretch and fret and rage
the bird first preens its feathers, then it sings
you will not set it free till it has flown
one perfect circle for you in a gyre
then throw it back like phoenix to the fire
and let it burn to ashes and to bone
when the dance is ended – and you are alone
I read in my Grandfather’s manuscript:
“To understand what was passing through the mind of Antinous as he approached the river Nile on the day of his drowning we need to understand some of the key ideas of Greek thought. The ‘Hero’ is one such idea, and it is an idea that is usually misunderstood. We know that Hellenists thought of Antinous as a Hero after his death, because many of the surviving sculptures depict him with the traditional trappings of the Hero.
For the Greeks a Hero was a religious figure. He was a human being who, because of the achievements or quality of his life, was honoured and ‘immortalized’ in ritual. Shrines were erected in his honour. In some cases annual ‘Games’ were organised to celebrate his memory. The rituals of the shrine, the daily ‘worship’ in the temples, were means of keeping his memory alive. Through the manner of his death Antinous became such a Hero.
We are likely to misunderstand the idea of the Hero because we tend to view it either too concretely or too abstractly. Western religious thought has been dominated for two millennia by a Salvationist religion. The most important belief of Roman Christianity is Resurrection – the idea that the soul survives death and will at some future date return to life in a physical body. For Christians ‘eternal life’ is a concrete and literal concept. The word ‘eternal’ in the phrase ‘eternal life’ refers for a Christian to a measure of time – indeed, it refers to an infinite measure of time.
For the Greek mind ‘eternal life’ or ‘immortality’ was not a measure of time. It was a quality of life rather than a term of life. The man who achieved great things transcended the normal boundaries of life: he lived, like the gods, outside of time and independent of his physical body. He lived on in human memory.
The Hero was a mortal man who underwent an ordeal or struggle that finally led to his death. It was through his overcoming the fear of death that he achieved immortality and the status of the Hero. The Hero was a man who discovered something more valuable than survival, the man who discovered something worth dying for – and hence also something truly worth living for.
A suicide need not be an act of despair. It can also be a demonstration of faith in an idea – in this case, perhaps, that the beauty of youth is more precious even than life.”
I don’t suppose I was unusual as a teenage boy in my fascination with the idea of dying young.
I once found a book in my local library. It was a kind of illustrated guide to the dreadful danger of drugs. There were illustrations – there were photos. If I had been looking for a manual to teach me how to shoot cocaine it would have fitted the purpose perfectly. But I wasn’t really interested in drugs. What fascinated me were the photos.
There were photos of a boy – a rather beautiful boy about the same age as me – shooting cocaine. There were close-ups of the needle entering his skin – close-ups of the scabs on the back of his hands - close-ups of the concentrated look on his face as the ‘rush’ reaches his brain.
The photos were taken inside a public lavatory. This was presumably in order to emphasise the squalor and degradation of the process. One of the photos showed the boy vomiting into the bowl. Another photo showed him dead – with the needle still hanging out of his arm.
I loved it! I thought it was magically beautiful. A young life shattered, ruined, wasted – how poignant! How unutterably sad! How alluring!
It almost made me decide to try cocaine. But I didn’t do that till much later. It wasn’t the drugs that attracted me – it was death. It was the wonderful conjunction of youth and beauty and death.
To die now – right now – when your senses are most alert and the taste of life is so sweet! To die now - before time starts to wear away at your youth. To die now – when you are free of fear.
To die – before you grow ugly and old.
I read in my Grandfather’s manuscript:
“It was of course significant that the imperial party had arrived at the Nile in October. This was the month of the festivals of Osiris, the god whose drowning brought regeneration and fertility. This was the month of sacrifices. All boys who drowned in the Nile were considered a sacrifice. All boys who drowned in the Nile were revered and worshipped.
Was this in Antinous’ mind at the time? Or was it only those who worshipped him after his death who likened him to Osiris – and to Hermes and to Dionysus – all three of them gods that were linked to sacrifice and to resurrection? All three of them gods who journeyed to death and the underworld and who guided souls back to the light? Just as later the image of Christ too was linked with Osiris and Hermes and Dionysus – and to Antinous, of course.
Was Antinous re-living the profound experience of the Eleusinian Mysteries? Was he seeking to transform myth into historical fact?”
Adam and I never talk about who we are or what we do. We never use the word ‘queer’ or even the word ‘gay’, which has only recently come into fashion. But Adam is insistent that we have to hide what we do together. It is our secret. It happens in my room and out of sight. Nobody else must know about it.
I can see that Adam has good reasons to be secretive but I am uncomfortable about this secrecy. It forces me to think of issues that I generally prefer to ignore.
I have been thinking of a passage in my Grandfather’s manuscript that I had read some days before – the passage where he mentions the Greek view of the pathetikoi. My Grandfather had probably written that passage in the early 1960’s. If he had been writing today he would probably not have used the quaint term ‘mature homosexuals’. He would have spoken of ‘straight gays’ – men who desire sex not with boys but with other men. The word ‘pathetikos’ had two meanings. It could mean a passive sexual partner, or it could mean a man who was an object of scorn and ridicule – a ‘pathetic’ person in our modern sense. The two meanings were usually combined, of course.
I did not want to become a pathetikos. But then, I didn’t want to live long enough to be capable of being one.
When you are seventeen most of the people who are ten years older than you seem to belong to another world, and it is a degenerate world. They seem physically coarse and they seem to be obsessed with money and material possessions. I could not imagine living to the age of twenty five. I certainly could not imagine being thirty.
Yet I also imagined a life together with Chris. Sometimes I still dreamt of finding Krisna.
I was occasionally aware that my view of things was riddled with contradictions.
Who was I? Who would I become? And what relationship did the various images I had of myself bear to the reality? I was a boy. I was mercurial, changing. Not especially moody, but changing, inconstant. I thought of the many photos Stefan had taken of me at the Studio. Yes, I could recognize myself in them – but by the time the photos had been developed I had already become something else, I had become another person. It is the nature of boys to be in perpetual change.
Was it possible to live without creating an idea of yourself? Or if you must have an idea of yourself in order to exist, could it be an idea that was fluid and changing? An idea that you discard at the end of each day and invent again tomorrow?
One afternoon quite out of the blue Adam says: ‘I’m small, aren’t I?’
I know at once that it is his cock he is talking about. He is lying back against the pillows and he is looking down at his cock.
I tell him No, it is normal size. It is average. ‘It’s just right,’ I add after a while. He doesn’t answer. But he curls up close to me and buries his face in my neck.
He whispers in my ear. He tells me again about his plan for us to go together to a holiday camp. And he tells me again that it will be quite safe as long as we just pretend we are two mates and that we are looking for girls. I feel a sudden surge of annoyance. I want to tell him that holiday camps are plebeian and that his taboos are plebeian and that he himself is plebeian because he is the product of a disgustingly narrow-minded upbringing and that his suggestion that we pretend we are looking for girls is disgusting too. But I don’t say any of this. I check myself in time.
I get up from the bed and I go to the window. I gaze across the courtyard at the block of flats on the other side. They are still under construction. It was while he was working on that building that I met Adam. It seems such a long time ago but it is only a couple of months. And in a couple of days I shall be going away with Chris.
I feel ashamed of myself for all the unkind things that I nearly said. And I realise it is not Adam I am annoyed with. I am annoyed with myself. And right now I am annoyed with my snobbery and my sense of superiority. I am annoyed and ashamed. But most of all I am ashamed of my cowardice and dishonesty.
I go back to the bed and I sit beside Adam. I explain to him that I cannot go on holiday with him because I have promised to go hitch-hiking in Europe with a boy from my school. He listens quietly. He doesn’t ask any questions. Afterwards he puts on his clothes and he goes away.