three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Die Buecher der Namenlosen Liebe von Sagitta by John Henry Mackay (originally published in Paris, 1913), new edition, 1924, translated from the original German by Hubert Kennedy as Sagitta's Books of the Nameless Love, Concord, California, 1988

 

Remarkably topical for a century-old plea to closed minds  *****

       1st edition, Paris, 1913

Sagitta was the secret nom de plume of the individualist anarchist writer John Henry Mackay, essentially a German despite his Scottish father.  The nameless love he wrote about between 1905 and 1913 was that made famous as such by Oscar Wilde during his trial and specified by Mackay as being the love of adolescent boys.  Contrary to popular myth, neither man was an apostle for the modern gay cause; the love they both defended still dares not speak its name.

Mackay was an important pioneer, the first man to articulate in writing the feelings of the exclusive pederast.  Others from antiquity down to the 17th century expressed preference for boys over females, but they, like the society they were addressing, took it for granted that men in general were capable of attraction to boys as well as women (even if they never acted on it and might have been condemned if caught doing so).  Yet others had written about homosexuality in the two centuries since northern Europeans had begun to think of men as divided by firm orientation between a heterosexual majority and homosexual minority, but, like Wilde, they ignored the "unbridgeable contrast" Mackay saw between pederasty and androphile homosexuality.

In the six books of the nameless love, Mackay uses a variety of mediums to seek public understanding of it.  The more interesting third is a novel, Fenny Skaller, in which the eponymous narrator ponders successively the photographs of ten boys he has known, each telling a story in the growth of his understanding of his love.  As the translator, Hubert Kennedy, explains in his helpful introduction, it is largely autobiographical.  Fenny is an agonisingly introspective man of conscience, his absolute belief in the propriety of his love fortified by a streak of puritanism which causes him to disdain with harshly-expressed horror the sexual behaviour and character of those with an earthier, less idealistic disposition. For those interested in the mind of the pederast or the adolescent attracted to men, this is an exceptionally clear exposition, rich in apt imagery, which will clear up many popular misconceptions.  To take one important example, Fenny's boys are typical of boys loving men in being "those who in their youth were able to return the love of an older one of their sex just as well as later that of a woman, whose feelings in their youth did not yet go in a definite direction."

2005 edition of Kennedy's English translation

Mackay tries to counterbalance the sombre and tormented tone of Fenny Skaller in his next book, Over the Marble Steps, a charming one-act play about a promising romantic encounter in Venice between a young sculptor and a boy of sixteen.  It is the most delightful of the books, but too short and sentimental to be powerful.  In contrast, Listen! Only a moment! A cry, the final and best of the other books, is an immensely powerful plea for open-minded consideration.

I shall not go into Mackay's various arguments why society should tolerate his love.  They are not flawlessly presented.  He is given to exaggeration or hyperbole: love, he says, "is the only thing that cannot be bought in this mercenary world." (Really? What about trust, for example?)  He is occasionally inclined to have his cake and eat it, as do many arguing for a sexual minority: his staunch adherence to the modernist line that all are born with an orientation that should be tolerated because it is immutable and given by nature does not stop him thinking "a Greek inheritance ineradicably lives on in the breast of each man, each youth." In aggregate, however, I would say his arguments are irrefutable, as are his acute observations on why they have made no headway, and most of them remain extraordinarily topical due to the even more invidious position of his love today.

"The future will one day hear me." Despite all his setbacks and his realisation that his arguments were consistently falling on deaf ears, Mackay adhered to two delusions for believing reason would ultimately prevail, both of which are rich in irony.  First, his belief in the rightness of his love was closely allied to belief in a personal freedom for all, for the inevitable triumph of which he thought "the children of the nineteenth century" had laid the foundations. I wonder if he still believed that in his final months under national socialist rule! At any rate, this line of reasoning has surely lost its credibility since the 1970s when such freedom came virtually to prevail, only to be firmly rejected in favour of safety and control, with pederasty singled out for special repression. Secondly, he was confident that by engaging in love affairs with boys, he and others were laying the foundation for a future generation of fathers who would accept benevolent amorous interest by men in their sons because of the good and happiness it had brought them.  Such thinking does indeed explain why the poisoned perspective of today could never have won influence in ancient Greece, where pederasty was ubiquitous, but hoping it could take effect in the hostile 20th century was surely absurd.  As he himself explained, the result of the ongoing repression is not to stop all clandestine sex between men and boys, but to stifle the genuine love of boys (which he saw as self-evidently protecting them).  Inevitably therefore, the more the repression continues, the more surviving pederastic activity becomes skewered towards the more reprehensible, providing ever more emotive ammunition for misunderstanding and intolerance.

German edition of Fenny Skaller (only), 2007, with Mackay aged 16 on the cover

"Do not believe that you can still do anything that has not already been done to us."  I wonder how his intellect, passionate conviction and principled defiance of unjust laws would play out in a world in which very much more is indeed done against his ilk.  For all his indignation, and without availing himself of the obvious option taken up by some of his contemporaries to escape the exceptionally grim moral climate of northern Europe, he lived his love without serious repercussion, obliged only to be discreet.  Would he anywhere today be able to chat up boys in the street, make dates with them, form strong mutual attachments, sometimes with the approval of tacitly understanding parents?

Mackay's was not a battle that could ever be won purely through reason; he should have known better, since he kept pointing out how irrational was the hostility to his love. I suspect real fiction is a more powerful medium for persuasion, at least in a democratic society.  As Mackay said, people have not the slightest interest in trying to understand a love they do not feel themselves.  Their sympathy may sometimes however be captured through a good, heartfelt story leading them to inadvertent understanding of the emotions involved. His later novel The Hustler was thus a less hopeless effort for his tragically doomed cause, as well as a more enjoyable read.

 

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 28 Aug. 2014