A REVIEW OF WHEN JONATHAN DIED BY TONY DUVERT
Quand mourut Jonathan by French writer Tony Duvert (1945-2008), who won the Prix Medicis for one of his novels, was published by Éditions de Minuit in Paris in 1978. It was translated by D. R. Roberts as When Jonathan Died, published by GMP, London in 1991.
Duvert’s Portrait of the ‘Boy Eternal’
by Robert Rockwood, January-February 1993
Some say Tony Duvert is the most important writer on boy-love today, if rarely read in English. Is there room for hope or beauty in Duvert's tragic vision?
THE THEME of Tony Duvert’s When Jonathan Died is expressed in the novel’s epigram, quoted from Act I, Scene II, of Shakespeare’s A Winter's Tale —
Two lads, that thought there was no more behind,
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be boy eternal.
Although the lines from Shakespeare concern the mutual love between the speaker —Polixenes, King of Bohemia; and Leontes, King of Sicilia — when both were boys, Duvert’s When Jonathan Died shows that a “boy eternal” can be any age.
This poignant man/boy love story portrays the psychology of a boy-loving man and a man-loving boy sympathetically and accurately. Arguing for a child’s right to be taken seriously, the novel reveals the tragedy that results when pressure from society forces an artistically productive man/boy relationship into its negative aspect. The friendship between Jonathan, a painter with “English, Dutch, or German accent, you couldn't tell,” and the French boy Serge begins in Paris when Serge is six and Jonathan, 27. Later, the two are together in a village outside of Paris for “three or four months” when Serge is eight, and for two months when Serge is ten.
Serge at six
Initially, little Serge is too full of spirit to allow his mother, Barbara, to devalue and depersonalize him without a fight, even though he always loses. Jonathan, however, views the boy's antics in a different light:
Jonathan worshipped this turbulence. He saw beyond it. Despite the disagreeable side to the situation, he could sense a truth the child was pointing out; and he recognized beneath the manners he disapproved of, a model he would have liked to follow. For with Serge he was like a wandering disciple, who... has searched for a master... and has found him at last. But this master does not know he knows; only those who have searched for him, after rejecting the great men and the charlatans, can understand. (p. 68)
Barbara “would shake Serge and hit him, reasoning with him in a measured voice ‘Listen now, young man, it’s time to stop the play-acting, don’t you think.” Jonathan, on the other hand, is irresistibly moved to open the door of the linen closet where a weeping six-year-old Serge has taken refuge:
On a shelf fixed very high on the wall, curled up behind a heap of rumpled linen, there was a little animal gasping, rigid, savage, inaccessible, of which no more was to be seen than some ear and a bit of knee. Deeply moved, Jonathan desperately wanted to comfort him, to take him in his arms. Tears in his eyes, he waited and allowed himself to be watched. Then, suddenly, Serge overturned the rampart of linen and fastened himself about his neck. (p. 20)
If Serge has symbolically returned to the womb, reversing the birth process, the moment he falls into Jonathan’s arms he is reborn into a world closer to his spiritual origin. This is a sacramental action, for both Serge and Jonathan are performing an unconscious ritual as though the two were “play-acting” in a psychic drama as old as mankind itself.
As an unmarried person not much interested in parenthood, Barbara is at first pleased to park her son with Jonathan for days or weeks on end. However, when she observes that Serge behaves himself with Jonathan and that the two obviously love each other, she brings the matter up for discussion in her Zen group. The intellectual level of Barbara's friends is apparent as they conclude that Jonathan’s “bad influence” is the result of a deficiency of “orgone energy”:
“I know, but, you see, I don’t know, you know, he doesn’t accept it, he refuses it, like he... well, I don't know... but hey, it's obvious, isn't it?” (p. 21)
For Barbara, Jonathan’s “clear qualification as an unconditional enemy was simply that Serge preferred him to her.” Convincing herself that there is something “not right” about the relationship, Barbara puts a halt to it:
That put Serge back in a bad mood; more disorder, with things getting broken, shouting, and retreats to the top of the... [linen closet]. Barbara concluded from this, in accordance with her own private way of linking cause and effect, that Jonathan upset the boy and had a bad influence on him. (p. 21)
When Jonathan leaves Paris, Serge becomes “passive and closed in on himself.” Barbara is adept at telling lies with malicious intent, even if only for the pleasure of kicking her already-defeated rival when he is down. In a letter to Jonathan she celebrates her recent success in breaking Serge’s spirit:
I hope you think of my lovely boy every now and again!!... He seems to have forgotten you completely!!!!... I talk to him about you — we were even going to see that exhibition of yours in December!... But no, the young man wasn’t interested... You know at their age they forget very quickly, which is best don't you think.... (p. 9)
Serge at eight
After 18 months, however, Barbara is again willing to overlook Jonathan’s alleged “bad influence” and leave her moping eight-year-old son with the artist for the entire summer while she takes a carefree, extended vacation abroad. This unexpected event makes possible the first of two magical interludes in which Jonathan and Serge celebrate their mutual rites of friendship and love unmolested by disapproval from the outside world.
The little dishes of food that Jonathan sets out for the mice that prowl his cottage at night, or his willingness to join the boy in a round of plate-smashing, dismissing it with, “We can eat with our hands, it’s better,” assure Serge that Jonathan is radically different from any grown-up he has ever known. If Serge sees Jonathan as an overgrown boy, Jonathan, who has “no notion of childhood" sees Serge as a master whose realm is cosmic and outside of time:
In the presence of this boy... Jonathan stood aside. He chose to be a servant, not daring even to be a witness.... [H]e allowed himself to be hugged, offered up his nakedness, his sex, his sleep, and observed in the house a diffident splendor in which there basked, as if tomorrow had no existence, the aerial kingdom of the little boy. (p. 29)
Proof of how each feels about the other is revealed in their respective portraits. Jonathan’s drawing of Serge communicates the awe that he feels in the boy's presence:
And beneath the top of the head with its hair so delicately tangled, Jonathan sketched out Serge’s profile as he saw him sitting close, in a pencil line so fluent and so tender that he felt abashed by the beauty his hand produced despite himself. (p. 12)
Serge’s drawing, on the other hand, renders the man Jonathan as a boy:
Serge said: “Now, I’m going to draw you."
He grabbed half a dozen colored felt-tips and in red, blue, yellow and pink, he drew a boy holding a green flower in his hand, eyelashes radiant like stars and smiling from ear to ear, and with very long legs because he was a grown-up. (p. 13)
A reincarnationalist would insist that Serge behaves as though he were an “older soul” than Jonathan. Although the star-like eyelashes suggest the cosmic nature of what Serge is projecting onto Jonathan, the boy sees Jonathan as actually the smaller and younger partner:
Serge was entirely accustomed to Jonathan's docility and to everything that made him different from an adult. Now, he rather thought of the young man as some kind of very small boy, smaller than Serge was himself — and he was very kind and gentle with little children. The boy’s habitual violence and provocations were often put aside; he was even sometimes shy when he cornered Jonathan to make love. Perhaps he felt that he was really the assailant. (p. 83)
Jonathan, for his part, regards Serge as the same size as himself:
Serge's place [on Jonathan's bed] was... a very small space; you couldn't imagine that someone had slept there, a complete body, with nothing missing at all… Jonathan had never seen Serge as small, and he could have sworn in good faith that they were the same size. (p. 99)
These distortions of body image prove not only that Jonathan and Serge have established a psychological and spiritual peer-ship, but that their relationship is a synthesis of opposites in which the man is simultaneously a boy and the boy a man.
This intergenerational erotic attachment, in dissolving traditional boundaries between status and chronological age, has the unexpected effect of applying sexual energy to the service of art. The eros that underlies Jonathan’s artistic response to Serge comes to the fore when Jonathan sketches Serge's feet, an act so meaningful that for eight-year-old Serge it fetishizes the feet (the reader finds out, when Serge is ten, that “bare feet gave him ideas"). When Jonathan's sketch is inadvertently trampled as Jonathan starts kissing Serge’s feet, it is clear that for Jonathan — and, indeed, for Serge, so excited that he is “almost dancing” — art is a sublimated expression of sexual longing or anticipation, subservient to physical sex:
[Jonathan] suddenly pulled Serge towards him by his legs, and spent some time kissing his feet... The child laughed and shouted with pleasure. He thrashed about. The sketch had fallen to the ground, and got trampled and torn. Then they had a rest, and in silence Jonathan and the boy looked at each other in a very particular way. They got up and went back into the house.
As Serge disappeared barefoot in front of Jonathan, he seemed in a hurry, a little insubstantial, almost dancing. (p. 19)
Even when man and boy are mutually occupied by artistic activities, their sexualized banter has priority over art:
They would often draw together.... Pictures, writing, stories followed one after another, each raking his turn like a game of cards, indecent and bantering conversations where the drawing was no more than an accompaniment, riddling burlesques, composed in silence, waiting for solutions.... (p. 65)
What most clearly defines this relationship, however, is that for the young painter the physical presence of the beloved boy imparts the same satisfaction as artistic creation itself:
As soon as the child left him, Jonathan would pick up his brush; as soon as [the child] returned, Jonathan would put [his brush] down and forget the canvas he was working on. (p. 83)
Jonathan copes with Serge’s return to Paris by making a holy shrine out of the boy’s “little civilization in a microcosm,” his garden (depicted abstractly in the cover art by Chris Brown), and tending it with “manic attention” like one who “loved a departed child”:
While he worked, he wasn't sad. His imagination recreated for him each gesture, each attitude, each look on Serge’s face and each intonation of his voice as he had played in the garden: and he was astonished at how much he had remembered, for he thought he had forbidden himself to watch the child. (p. 88)
Barbara’s letters, filled with the usual cruelty that seems to accompany any reference to Serge, adds to Jonathan's torment, even though he tosses them aside unanswered:
[H]er letters, more sharp than friendly, always very brief when it came to the child, told of some very strange things. Serge, it seemed, had complained of his holiday: Jonathan was a real nuisance, bossy, and boring, he had no radio, no television... he lectured you about anything, he only thought about work... you weren’t even left alone to sleep, there was only one bed, and Serge was very glad to get back to Paris.... (p. 92)
As he continued to torment himself, Jonathan thought too that the child could have had a deeper reason to disown him, once he had got back to Paris. For his life with Jonathan had made him very different from what normal people expected a little boy to be. No child could bear to find himself a stranger amongst the people he is obliged to live with. It was an inferiority, a misfortune. In a world of dog eat dog, to respect a child is to pervert him; to encourage in him his fugitive humanity is to change him into a monster his parents, his friends and his school will no longer recognize. Serge must have felt the first painful consequences of this…. He was suffering. And it was because of Jonathan. (p. 94)
Serge at Ten
Two years later, a letter arrives from Simon, Serge’s father, announcing that he and Barbara are planning to marry. This ends Jonathan’s long period of grief. Simon writes to Jonathan that “the boy thought about him a lot and that he would very much like to visit him in the country again.” When Serge’s father delivers his son for a two-month visit with Jonathan, the young artist is awed by the distinctly spiritual appearance that the now ten-year-old boy has acquired since he last saw him:
A boy long in the legs, long-necked, slim and supple as a girl.... His neck, his shining forearms, had a different tone, white and delicate. His hair fell down to the collar, in loose curls. His back was long, his shoulders a. bit narrow.... He was relaxed, with the merest ghost of a smile, a smile of pride, the merest ghost, nothing at all. Jonathan was stunned by his beauty.... (p. 116)
To Jonathan, Serge seems "Bigger, taller, but less solid. Disembodied. Diaphanous.” Touching Serge on the neck, Jonathan is struck by the eery feeling that the boy is both Serge and not Serge. On the one level Jonathan is touching a boy he has known intimately for four years, a fully historical being. At the same time he is aware of a transpersonal aspect, an archetypal dimension, god-like and awesome, comprising two entities in one, a being simultaneously known and not known:
[Jonathan] had the impression that it wasn’t Serge he touched, but an indefinite being, more general, almost abstract: a boy. Any boy. Something in Serge's physical presence did not belong to him himself.
This feeling was new, troubling, almost repugnant. At six, at eight, the child had been wholly his body, and his body had been wholly him. Now, on the other hand, he had curiously, a body to be looked at, attractive and expressive, which must be him, and another body to be touched, this anonymous boy’s body. A body in excess....
Even later that evening, in bed... when Serge teased the young man with such a particular look of mischief in his eyes that Jonathan was certain that Serge now knew what all this was about. (pp. 125-126)
The most significant event of the entire novel occurs as soon as Serge’s father leaves. Serge “shyly” drags Jonathan upstairs to the bedroom, climbing the stairs “with great strides that brought his knees above the waist.”
Serge’s luggage had not been unpacked, just as Jonathan had imagined. But he’d taken out from his old bag an enormous roll of drawings in watercolor, glued end to end like a papyrus, and he'd hung it up across the room. A paintbox and a damp brush on Jonathan’s table showed that Serge had added a few final touches while his father had been talking downstairs. This was the surprise which he had mysteriously been preparing for Jonathan.
The marvellous banner started at the top of the cup-board; then the fat people, the enormous flowers, the crazy houses, the oceans, rivers, forests and brilliant skies ran over the bed, draped themselves over the chest of drawers, lay across the drawing-table, spanned the gap between two chairs and ended in large folds at their feet. There were twenty-five or thirty feet, perhaps more.
Serge looked at the drawings, then at Jonathan, his face all smiling, his arms dangling at his sides. (pp. 123-124)
The ten-year-old’s prodigious art exhibit, hung — significantly — in the bedroom, bears a direct relationship to the four months of man/boy lovemaking that occurred there two years ago, thus defining the bedroom as a sacred place.
Serge’s end-on-end papyrus of drawings serves as a detailed map of the boy’s psyche, painstakingly constructed in the interim since Serge's previous visit with Jonathan. The boy’s running commentary on contents of the papyrus provides the essential ambiance of the entire second half of the novel, a colorful monologue straight from the soul. The drawings are strikingly archetypal and admit to the same type of analysis that dreams do.
The pictorial drama revolves around two main characters: a “captain” (Jonathan) and a “boy” (Serge). There is a “submarine” with “sails like a boat,” which signifies an ego equally at home in the conscious or the unconscious realms of the psyche. The “sea” is the unconscious, and there is sometimes an “island” and other times a “mountain,” an image of a phallicized consciousness, alternately swelling and shrinking, as though the boy had learned to think with the genitals rather than the brain — which is to say that feeling rather than thinking is serving as the primary rational function. In one drawing the “captain” is simultaneously “fishing” and “looking through the binoculars,” not satisfied with merely hooking content from the collective unconscious, but wanting to examine it with a feeling-toned, metaphoric intellect (the binoculars), as Serge is doing by explicating his drawings for Jonathan.
The drawing showing the “hole in the sea” reaches to the crux of the matter: if the water disappears, then “the boat has got no water round it.” This implies that the boat-like ego loses contact with the unconscious, and thus the ability to create dries up. For the captain and the boy the sea returns, however, as soon as the phallic “rocket” big enough to “hold five elephants” reasserts itself. The rocket signifies the elephantine libido of man/boy love, whose periodic resurgence causes the sea of creativity to flow again. Serge expresses this with the beautiful metaphor of a penile erection, in which the “sea-snake” goes “for a walk in the sky.”
A formula for creativity is graphically defined in another drawing. Serge depicts a machine “with pedals and steampipes” that provides deliverance from a sense of isolation captured in a previous papyrus drawing where Serge has portrayed himself as a boy “on the moon... looking at the ground.... There's nothing there for him to eat.” Serge’s art machine illustrates the erotic interface between the individual and the creative imagination. The ten-year-old’s concept of the machine powered by “dirty words" brilliantly articulates the hidden intimacy between eros and art, thereby providing a ready escape vehicle from barren, moon-like places which offer no nourishment for the soul:
“[The boy]’s found a machine to escape, it’s a machine with pedals and steam-pipes, but really, to make it work you have to talk into that loudspeaker there. Then that wheel goes round, that makes the chain go round, and so on. He’s not sitting down properly. What he's discovered is that if he says dirty words, the machine goes very very fast. If he says ordinary words, it doesn’t go fast....
“He must have said something really dirty, it's flying now.” (p. 150)
The epic dimensions of Serge’s papyrus exhibit indicate that the boy’s prodigious artistic efforts are the result of sexuality sublimated during his absence from Jonathan. The one exception occurs when Serge seduces a 15-year-old, as he boasts to Jonathan:
Serge told Jonathan that a little while before the holidays, he sucked a boy of l5 — who had also fucked him, without reserve. The suggestion... had come from the teenager; Serge had agreed without fuss. Nothing came of it; the elder boy, having done his bit, must have got the jitters, and had never set foot in the house again.
[T]he child spoke of it disdainfully, with a laugh in his voice... He was, however just a tiny bit proud of what had happened; Jonathan could see it clearly. (p. 148)
The affair with the 15-year-old starkly contrasts with the sexual relations between Serge and Jonathan, where the sex is transacted without the anxiety that Serge experienced with the older boy:
[E]very three or four hours... Serge would want to be sucked and masturbated; he masturbated the young man at the same time, for the pleasure of seeing the skin slide up and down on the big cock. And Serge, as soon as he had his own orgasm, would say, without batting an eyelid:
“That’s it. Stop now!”
Jonathan would stop. Flies were done up again. Jonathan, for his part, wasn’t concerned to have an orgasm or not. They turned back to other physical activities which had the advantage of not coming to an abrupt end because of an orgasm. (p. 152)
Jonathan never ceases to struggle with the moral dilemma implied by his relationship with Serge. He agonizes over the realization that no adult can engage a child in sex without bearing responsibility for the trauma to which a pathological society subjects the child, if the relationship ever becomes known.
Serge imagined things according to his own experience. How to tell him that their amorous encounters, for example, were not what he believed, not what he lived himself, not what he innocently and frivolously insisted upon, in the perfection of his personality as yet intact. How to tell him it was a crime, to be corroborated by commissioning doctors to spread apart his buttocks; and that their pleasures would bring Jonathan ten years in prison, and bring upon Serge a flood of psychotherapy, torture without instruments.
Jonathan’s silence on this subject meant their discussions about the future could have no meaning. But never, never could he explain to the freest of men, the purest of boys, that he was a criminal. (pp. 155-156)
Knowing that there is no innate contradiction between innocence and sex, except as imposed by a sexophobic society hell-bent on destroying love itself, Jonathan is tormented by his inability to explain to Serge that society condemns the very relationship that the boy needs in order to survive spiritually, a relationship which the boy prizes above life itself. Jonathan attempts to bring the matter up by showing the boy Barbara’s letters. Serge’s reaction to the evidence of his mother’s deception is both noble and poignant:
When [Serge] saw what opinions his mother had ascribed to him, and with what lies she had deceived Jonathan, he blushed all over, tore up the letter in his hand as if twisting someone’s neck, burst out in tears, knocked over the chairs and showered the cupboard with kicks. But he said nothing, not even an insult. (p. 137)
The discussion goes no further than how to “keep them away,” before Serge begins speculating about death. Since Jonathan and Serge first fell in love, the man has himself experienced every separation from the boy as a “fight against death.” Despite an attempt at flippancy, Serge verbalizes a preoccupation with death that is shared by both man and boy:
“When you die in the ordinary way, d’you think it hurts? I wouldn't like that, not really. So, you go to sleep? Is it like going to sleep?
“But if you kill someone, then it hurts them just the same? Can they feel it? With a gun, say?... And with the guillotine? In America they kill people with gas. They say it takes ten minutes. Or what about the electric chair then! That must be strange. It's funny, electricity, it tickles. Have you ever tried, with a battery?
“It has to be a new one. Not the round ones for torches. There are two things sticking out like that. You’ve got to touch them both at the same lime. With your tongue!” (p. 141)
Overt talk about death seems to be Serge’s way of convincing Jonathan that the boy prefers not to discuss the so-called moral aspects of their relationship. One wonders who is protecting whom. The boy — if he is truly the older soul — may be much more aware of the situation than the man realizes.
Art and sex are too closely intertwined to be effectively separated, as Duvert’s story of Jonathan and Serge demonstrates. For a child to experience an art-centered erotic relationship with a man comparable to that depicted in this novel is to feed the child the human equivalent of “royal jelly,” that mysterious substance which genetically transforms a normal bee larvum into the biological ruler of the hive. Such a relationship programs the child's psyche for artistic and intellectual expression as a normal response to eros, effectively transforming what might otherwise have been an ordinary boy into Man as Artist and Creator.
To demonize fundamental human instincts like sex and love is tantamount to inducing a self-initiated auto-immune reaction into the body of society. In stubbornly applying precepts that have failed disastrously in the past and can be shown today to be false (see Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good and Philip Greven's Spare the Child) the self-appointed defenders of society’s collective misconceptions behave like the cultural equivalent of a bull in the china shop. Their misguided efforts result not only in innocent lives ruined or destroyed, but effectively block the intellectual and artistic spin-off which might normally enrich the cultural heritage of our civilization.
The words of the title come true at the moment of Barbara's final remarks to Simon about the boy's request to make a third visit to Jonathan, overheard through the thin wall of the bedroom by the wide-awake ten-year-old:
“Oh no! As far as that’s concerned, no, no, and no! There’s no reason — Serge has no reason, no reason at all! — I don’t want him to carry on seeing Jonathan. I don’t want any more of it.... I’m telling you I don't want to hear about it again. There’s something not right about it... No. It's over, as far as Jonathan is concerned, and that’s it...”
Serge, behind his wall, heard the whole discussion. He carried on thinking about it, long after the parental bed had ceased to creak. (p. 169)
The event referred to in the title is metaphorical yet real: at the end of the novel Jonathan is still alive, like Serge, but as in classical Greek drama, where the violent conclusion occurs offstage, Duvert makes clear that this man and boy can continue their relationship only in another world. In this present world, society has failed them, not the other way around, and the man's death is merely a phone call away from that of the boy. In “killing” the man Jonathan by killing the boy Serge’s relationship with him, Barbara employs psychological weapons to deny life-giving spiritual sustenance to her own son. The societal impact of Barbara’s blunder is where the real tragedy lies, for the Barbara’s of this world in their ignorant, Philistine insensitivity also destroy the future contribution to society which children like Serge seem destined to make, but only if these intellectually and artistically royal ones are not inadvertently condemned to spiritual “death.”
Duvert focuses on one of the most misunderstood processes of the transpersonal human psyche, the “boy eternal,” or puer aeternus aspect of the senex-puer (old man/young boy) archetype. This polar archetype (exhaustively explored in Puer Papers, edited by James Hillman), reflects society's acceptance (the positive senex) or rejection (the negative senex) of the creative imagination (the identifying attribute of the “boy eternal” or puer aeternus). When society constellates the negative senex by creating an environment in which the creative imagination is stifled, the puer also turns negative, expending itself in unproductive anger and violence, or collapsing into itself in spiritual apathy and even suicide, as in Serge's case — resulting in the “puer problem” which Marie-Louis von Franz analyzes in her brilliant study Puer aeternus. When the senex is positive, the puer is also positive, enabling the imagination to explode with creative vitality, as occurred so spectacularly toward the end of the 15th century in the Florentine Renaissance or in England toward the end of the 16th century during the Age of Elizabeth.
Unlike Barbara, to whom her son is a nuisance, Jonathan sees Serge as the living embodiment of an internalized ideal which C. G. Jung, in “The Psychology of the Child Archetype” refers to as the archetype of the “eternal child”:
The archetype of the child... expresses man's wholeness. The “child” is all that is abandoned and exposed and at the same time divinely powerful; the insignificant, dubious beginning, and the triumphal end. The “eternal child” in man is an indescribable experience, an incongruity, a handicap, and a divine prerogative; an imponderable that determines the ultimate worth or worthlessness of a personality. (Collected Works, Volume 9, Part I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 2nd ed., para. 300)
In worshipping the boy eternal in Serge, Jonathan constellates this archetype in himself. In fact, Jonathan constellates the positive senex in his relationship to Serge primarily because he himself is also a puer aeternus. To complicate matters, the boy Serge sometimes serves as Jonathan’s senex. This archetypal shape-shifting is an enantiodromia, a Greek term first coined by Heraclitus to mean “running contrariwise” or play of opposites in which, sooner or later, everything turns into its opposite. The tendency of the opposites within the senex-puer archetype to switch poles is a characteristic that should be pointed out whenever a discussion of man/boy low focuses on the issue of dominance and submission. In thrall to Jung’s “indescribable experience,” which defines the young artist’s perception of Serge, Jonathan reflects that as long as Serge continues to be a “boy eternal,” he will always be whole:
Serge knew how to look after himself; his open and cheerful manner, his laugh, his attention to people, his impertinence and his vitality charmed even the brutish and the crabbed.... The young painter loved this character of Serge’s. He could imagine the child six foot high covered in hair, or even ruined by wrinkles and convictions, without this new Serge making him sad, as long as he imagined him with the child’s humor and... soul. (p. 67)
The remainder of Shakespeare's “boy eternal” speech from whose opening lines When Jonathan Died draws its epigram (quoted at the beginning of this essay) is also relevant to Duvert’s novel:
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly “not guilty”....
Thus does King Polixenes, a positive figure in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, defend youthful homeroticism and the concept of the boy eternal, audaciously raising boy-love to royal status. This confirms that the positive aspect of the senex-puer archetype is fully operative in Shakespeare’s England, an era which saw an astonishing burst of creative energy — until the Puritans constellated the negative senex by establishing a repressive, authoritarian regime and closing the theaters. In the French society of the late 1960s that Duvert is describing, collective disapproval of boy-love has likewise constellated the negative archetype. If the positive puer encourages spiritual and artistic flowering, the negative puer transforms individual creativity into mental illness, and represents for many of the potentially most artistically productive youth a personal sentence of intellectual, spiritual, and even physical death.
Considering the foolish hysteria presently surrounding the topic of man/boy love in most of the English-speaking countries, D. R. Roberts’ elegant translation of Duvert's novel into English should be welcomed by all who regard literary art as our most trustworthy reflection of the human condition. Tony Duvert’s Quand mourut Jonathan, as the novel was titled in the 1978 French original, is one of the finest literary descriptions of the boy eternal since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s exquisite Le Petit Prince [The Little Prince], published in 1943. Duvert’s novel, however, undertakes a greater challenge, for it witnesses, as Saint-Exupéry’s does not, to the unacceptable cost to society in human and cultural terms when an intellectually and artistically productive intergenerational relationship is arbitrarily condemned and the child is treated like a thing rather than a person. Yet, for a novel as freighted with deep meaning and serious purpose as this one is, readers not interested in complexities will discover that the work is at the same time simple, eloquent, and profoundly moving — compelling evidence that When Jonathan Died is not just good, but great.
Reviewed originally published in the Jan.-Feb. 1993 issue of the NAMBLA Bulletin (Vol. XIV, No. 1), pp. 42-49.
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