|janecarnall (janecarnall) wrote,|
@ 2009-01-01 08:08:00
|Entry tags:||litfic, mary renault, my fanfic, yay for yuletide|
Yuletide: Far from all intentional ill-doing
This year, as in all years since 2003, I drew a book fandom: The Charioteer, by Mary Renault.
This year, though, I had embraced my bookishness: I had offered to write in all fandoms where I'd read the canon so many times I couldn't remember how many.
I think I first encountered Mary Renault in The Persian Boy, though it might have been The Mask of Apollo. (Nicola Marlow first recommended that to my attention.) This was when I was 15 or 16 - before I came out, anyway - and I didn't read The Charioteer until some time after I came out: 17 or 18. I picked it up first about the same time as The Persian Boy, and was put off by the opening chapter, which is Laurie as a small boy. Sometime after I came out I discovered it was well thought of as a gay novel. I got it out of the library.
Then I found my parents had a copy - I think probably because one of the central characters, Andrew, is a Quaker, a conscientious objector - the main part of the novel is set in 1940, just after Dunkirk. (My parents are Friends, and I was brought up a Quaker, though mostly I only go to Meeting now for weddings/funerals.) That was an elderly paperback, with "three men caught up in the struggle of their forbidden love" or somesuch blurbed on the cover. I read that paperback to death. The copy I now own I bought sometime before 1992. (I know this, because I remember reading it around the time of my Finals and figuring out that the first time I read it I was younger than Andrew, and now I was the same age as Ralph.)
But the story I was asked for wasn't to be about Laurie, or Andrew, or Ralph: it was to be about Alec, who first appears mid-way through the book, the host of a queer party, a close friend and former lover of Ralph's, a medical student (he says he's taking his finals that year, but he appears to be working as a houseman - intern, if you're American - because the nurses refer to him without qualification as a doctor). The title of the story, and the sub-titles, are from the classical version of the Hippocratic Oath.
Ralph, Laurie, and Andrew, are all in different ways more or less contemptuous of their own sexual orientation: Alec makes the only plain statement in the whole novel against that point of view. In The Praise Singer, The Last of the Wine, The Mask of Apollo, and Fire From Heaven, Mary Renault had written a sequence of novels covering a period in Greek history from the time of Simonides of Keos (556–469 BC) to the rise to the power of Philip II of Macedon (382–336 BC) - and, uniquely then and uncommonly even now, Renault took for granted the centrality and commonplace acceptance of same-sex love. (The Persian Boy is of course the romance of Alexander and Bagoas, the eunuch "who was loved by Darius and was afterwards to be loved by Alexander" as the historical record says.)
The Charioteer is set in 1940s Britain, in which sex between men was illegal (and only 20 years earlier, an amendment to make sex between women illegal had been debated and voted down only because the peers in the House of Lords believed it would give innocent women ideas). Laurie and Ralph, both in the armed forces at the time, would both have been court-martialed and sent to military prison had their sexual orientation been exposed in a way that meant their superior officers could not ignore it. (World War II veterans report that what usually happened was that their superior officers did ignore it, as far as they could, for the duration - after the war the perverts could be got rid of or prosecuted, but usually not during.)
The only acceptable books that referenced same-sex love without condemnation were the writings of Plato. At school, Ralph owns a copy of The Phaedrus, which he passes on to Laurie, who at the end of the novel gives it to Andrew. The title of the novel is a reference to Socrates' figure in his second speech about love:
As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three-two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will proceed. The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the prickings and ticklings of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and of the blows of the whip, plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer, whom he forces to approach the beloved and to remember the joys of love.This is the Platonic ideal of love - love of the soul and not the body, love that transcends desire. This is what made the Platonic dialogues, written in a culture which took for granted as normal same-sex desires, so thoroughly acceptable in a culture which regarded gay sex as criminal and shameful. The relationship of erastes and eromenos, lover and beloved, was formally taken for granted and assumed to be sexual with no shame on either side. A boy could be a man's eromenos: when a boy became a man, it was no longer acceptable for him to be a lover's beloved. What I think Plato may have been doing was trying to idealise a long-term relationship of lover and beloved in which both were lovers - but making it acceptable to his culture by saying that both felt for each other what the eromenos was supposed to feel for his erastes - not desire but admiration, hero-worship.