three pairs of lovers with space

EXPERIENCE IN ANOTHER CULTURE: A NOBEL PRIZE-WINNER’S STORY BY PARKER ROSSMAN

 

The following is the tenth chapter of Dr. Parker Rossman's Sexual Experience Between Men and Boys, originally published in New York in 1976. Only in its conclusion does Rossman reveal that the Nobel Prize-winner whose story is here recounted from his own writings was the French author André Paul Guillaume Gide (1869-1951). Oddly, Rossman also leaves everyone else in his retelling anonymous, including "a famous man", the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, whose identity Gide himself had made no attempt to hide.

 

Experience in Another Culture: A Nobel Prize-Winner’s Story

The 1977 Penguin Modern Classics edition of If It Die, the first unexpurgated translation into English

Our third guide to the underground gives us an insight into his childhood that helps us to see that sexual experience and its interpretation (rather than just sex acts) is crucial to our understanding of pederasty. A British psychiatrist is exploring the hypothesis that men who are erotically attracted to youngsters may well be of unusual intelligence and sensitivity, whose inversion came earlier in their lives than gay-homosexuals’ because they were precociously perceptive of the emotional deficiencies in their early experiences. The life story presented in this chapter supports the hypothesis and illustrates as well how the same creative intelligence devoted itself to working out artistically a self-understanding and sense of pederast identity. The experiences of persons interviewed for this book tend to substantiate the psychiatrist’s hypothesis in that the fantasy experience of highly intelligent children is creative in elaborating and interpreting their emotional and erotic experience. Their masturbation fantasies may be more effective in influencing their erotic and personality development because that is richer and more imaginative in relating to the erotic level at a particular age. It is crucial to note that lust is a product of fantasy, whereas love and wholesome relationships involve physical contact with real persons. As we listen to this pederast tell of his experiences we wonder if there are differences between his day and ours? What was his understanding of his pederast nature? What triggered his first sexual experiences with boys? What role did his interpretation of that experience play in his decision to become a practicing pederast who did not enjoy traveling unless “there were opportunities to fornicate with boys”? He wrote thousands of words on hundreds of pages, and thousands more have been written about him; so only a selection of detail is made here to present a picture which helps clarify the experiences of other pederasts who have not revealed themselves so thoroughly.

I was a virgin until the age of twenty-three, which may suggest that if one has too chaste an adolescence he runs the risk of a dissolute old age. I was born at the convergence of two stars, and my inner tension results from being a child of two races, two cultures and two faiths - although I was raised to be strongly Calvinist and puritan, a pure and innocent child. Under the other star I was a sensuous boy who could not believe that the sex play I found so pleasurable was sin enough for me to be expelled from school, as I was at the age of nine. My life was shaped by the love I had for my Bible and my parents, but from an early age I also knew that I had to trust my own sensations and experience on such matters as sex. From my earliest years I knew I was somehow different from other boys, and sometimes I thought this meant I had a special calling from God to be an artist who would be able to describe and illuminate his experience. Certainly no other pederast has ever given so many hours and pages to self-interpretation. Sometimes it seemed that my feeling of being different involved some dark secret: a mystery of being that I was conscious of only in the hours of the early morning when half awake (this is the time when one get glimpses into the unconscious). I knew myself to be sexually different from other boys before I knew anything about sex. How could I, at an age when I knew nothing of the sex thoughts of others, be so sure mine were strange? I see how a boy can think himself unique if in his adolescence he is attracted to males rather than to females, but, although I have given a lifetime to thinking about it, I have no idea how at so young an age I could feel that my enjoyment of sex was special. Probably the fantasies which accompanied masturbation played a role or perhaps some severe scolding for masturbating at an age too young for me to remember led me to make a first self-assertion of independence against authority that would deny the reality and importance of my pleasure. In any case, my sex play was a secret, as far back as I can remember.

André Gide (2nd left in 2nd row) at school, 1877, © fondation Catherine Gide

In many ways I did not have a normal childhood. For eleven years I was an only child, sheltered by my mother, lonely without satisfactory friends or playmates, because I was frail and often ill. My father was warm and loving, but also he was very busy and absent much of the time. I loved reading, and my literary career no doubt began as my parents read to me. Perhaps I was a literary pederast in my imagination - greatly influenced by what I read about exotic climes - long before I acted upon my inclinations. Yet many boys and even men must have read the same books, without becoming pederasts. When I was young I not only masturbated alone, but also played sexually under the grand piano with the little son of the janitor. My sex play was not nearly so elaborate as my fantasies, for I really didn’t dare do much, but those daydreams no doubt played an important role in the development of my pederastic character. Yet I probably would not be a good novelist without them, or even a serious artist at all, for it was precisely those erotic fantasies and that sex play which freed me from the rigid constraints which limit so many lives and which inhibit so many artistic imaginations.

As an old man I am still youthful, finding my greatest pleasure in being with the young. I might well be a sour old man otherwise. A few minutes of joy in hearing the laughter of a boy as he plunges into the water, his skin shining, his body bright in the sun, is preferable to a thousand years of frozen, inhibited dullness. Now that I am eighty, I live by proxy through boys I watch, sharing their sense of wonder, and as a result of my pederast desires my total self is as alive as sixty years ago - for I love boys with a sensual curiosity, a voluptuousness, a foolishness, which has often led me to run after them as if I were their age, staying out too long in the rain to help find a ball. I remember E., who had such grace because he spent his afternoons swimming. He looked so awkward in his working-boy clothes, but naked he was perfect. His skin was blond and downy, and with his snub nose and saucy face at fifteen he looked like a fawn. I remember tarrying with V. in a haystack, my clothes full of bits of straw because I could not resist his pure blue eyes. The law would have arrested me for playing with him, but when I had to leave to catch the bus, his eyes were full of tears because I could not stay longer. Then there was that naughty little tramp who was looking for a job as a cabin boy. I gave him money to go to another man who would keep him, aware of a special mania in myself, a lust which grew out of my awareness of how pederast sailors played with boys like him on a ship. Lust, Shakespeare said in Hamlet, will grow weary of a celestial bed and go to prey on garbage. I’ll not speak of the mania I have for going out in the evening to follow boys like that.

Bronze statue of a boy with a thorn in his foot in the Capitoline museum, ca. 50 BC

In the Capitoline museum is a bronze statue of a boy with a thorn in his foot which delights me more than any work of antiquity. Such art, with boyish grace and slimness, did not move me to sensuousness; it was surely the other way around. My demon was already lying in wait for me when I was a child, ready to convince me that what others said was forbidden was essential for my well-being. I did not yet understand that the tempter is an active, positive, energizing force - and never the way you expect. Most people think they are weakened by a sudden surge of temptation, where actually it is the other way around: the demon intertwines himself with everything good and beautiful in your life, so that to reject pederasty is to reject all you value. To destroy the pederasty is to destroy you as well, your whole nature and personality. In other words, the only cure for pederasty is death.

I have always been surrounded by angels, the chief of whom was the cousin I eventually married, and whom I began to love at thirteen. I was never homosexual in the sense of finding men attractive. I was aware, however, that from an early age there were men who found me attractive, and this erotic experience fired some fantasies. Once I felt a real passion for a Russian boy who came to a school party dressed as the Devil, in black tights with steel spangles. Through all of this I was perfectly normal physically, although I may have been more strongly sexed than most boys. Through my youth I was half Protestant minister who bored myself and half small boy playing games. I was deeply affected by the myth of Tristram, including the ideal relationship between a man and his chaste and perfect love. It became characteristic of my life, under this spell, to want love from a woman without sex, and sex with boys I did not love. I was on one hand intoxicated by feminine purity, and on the other by an erotic vision of naked boys playing in the river. Even now, with my wife long dead, I don’t know whether my pederasty was caused by my idealization of her, or whether it was the other way around.

Tristram and Isolde by Herbert Draper, 1901

In my adolescence it was all toss and go, for I had two types of fantasies. Not until I had my first pederast intercourse in my twenties was the emotional decision made that I was truly a man who loves boys - a pederast in contrast to an invert who does not care for women. I think pederasty is a good thing, that such affection can spring up between man and boy to stir affectionate friendship wherein each can find exaltation, protection, and challenge. I see all orthodoxies as error, especially our sexual orthodoxies. It is unworthy of an educated person to have dogmatic opinions about what is right and wrong - that is, to judge an experience without testing it personally. The harmony between man and woman is lovely, as the meeting of negative and positive polarities, but so can the electric spark between two positive poles be exciting - and that is one way to describe the man-boy sexual experience. Everything in God’s creation is to be enjoyed, and to suppress honest love is to deny God - indeed, one can only suppress false gods. The need to play, as with the need to worship, lies at the center of a man’s heart. If it be sin to respond to the touch that moves one’s heart and body, then I can only say I regret not having sinned more. To give joy to the young and to share their joy in return is to celebrate life and cannot be sin.

I mismanaged the courtship of my darling wife both before and after marriage. First she refused to marry me, perhaps even then being aware of a private dimension to my life which troubled her. Rejected, I went to North Africa with a friend, looking forward to some sexual escapades there. Both of us had decided it was time for our chastity to end, and I wanted an experience with a girl to rid me of those fantasies of golden boys bathing in a clear stream with me. A conversation with Goethe had convinced me to separate love from pleasure. So I left my love behind and set off for Tunisia to have fun, not knowing I would there meet a famous man[1] who would open both my mind and soul in devastating ways by showing me that those imaginary boys of mine really existed and were waiting to share with me the voluptuous play I had fantasized since early childhood. From the moment we arrived in Tunisia everything was exciting, the sultry climate, the exotic atmosphere, the charm of the people, the smell and taste of Arabian coffee.[2] I was both elated and troubled when the youngster who carried our baggage to our rooms half undressed himself to show me how to drape myself in native garb. The morning air was delicious, and while my companion got out his canvas to paint, I set out to explore. Each time I left the hotel a boy would appear to carry my coat and rug. This time I signaled to one whose bare knees and legs were enchanting. When we reached an expanse of sand from which we could view the countryside, he spread out my rug and threw himself upon it with a laugh, raising his arms in clear invitation. I sat watching him, wondering what this charming youngster would do next, my heart pounding at the realization that he and I had the same desires. When disappointment clouded his face, and he stood pouting, I seized his hand to tumble him back onto the rug, whereupon he threw off his clothes that were fastened with no more than a string. The touch of his naked body pressed against me was as exhilarating as the lovely splendor of the sunlight on the sand.

Gide (on the left) with Paul Laurens, the friend who accompanied him to Tunisia, 1893, © fondation Catherine Gide

When I returned to the hotel my friend guessed that something had happened from the rapture on my face, but I said nothing. Day after day I found answers to questions about myself that I had never known to ask, in experiences with those youngsters who played around the hotel, their beauty filling me with an erotic and lyrical joy. I was ill for a time, and I delighted in familiarity with their health. My friend and I then employed a servant boy of fourteen, who came to have a great affection for us. He had dreams like Joseph, was obedient and good-tempered. I used him as a character in a novel I was writing about an unconscious pederast, although by then I was perfectly conscious of my own inclinations.

In my illness my thoughts were mostly with the girl I wanted to marry, and I begged her to join me in Tunisia. Then one day my friend came home with exciting news about a darling girl he had met who was from a village where girls prostituted themselves for dowry money. She was amber-skinned and with an almost childish figure, having a savage beauty. We went to a café to see her dance, and on the platform beside her was her younger brother playing the castanets. Half naked under his rags, slender as a demon, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, he was as gorgeous as she was. My friend whispered to me as a joke: “He excites me as much as she does.” With me it was no joke, more than he knew. Later, when I made love to Miriam, I imagined her young brother in my arms. Yet that first intercourse with a woman, and my pleasure with her, convinced me that I was no invert. She was going to come to sleep with us regularly, and things might have shaped up differently had I continued to make love to her, but a telegram came, announcing the arrival of my mother for a visit. I remember my mother’s tears when she saw my friend with Miriam, for she must have suspected the truth about me also. Mother persuaded me to return with her, and although I had another pleasurable intercourse with a woman in Naples, my mind was with boys in North Africa, full of memories of a cafe where boys came to see Caracous, an ancient and obscene play which probably began in Constantinople. In Europe the police would have forbidden it, but in North Africa it was performed each night during the Muslim fast of Ramadan. The same men showed up each night for the play, for it was merely an excuse for assignations with the boys. Under the happy eye of the proprietor a strangely beautiful boy played the bagpipes, and the men mostly came for him. He seemed to smile at everyone without favoring anyone, his music giving the cafe its erotic atmosphere. Some of the men would recite love poems to him, but in public nothing went on but a few caresses, for this was not a brothel, but simply a place of amusement where first one boy danced and then another. They were erotically playful, like young animals frolicking in the spring.

Petit Yaouled, Algeria, 1904, by J. Geiser

The next year I went to Algeria, trying hard to get my beloved cousin to go with me - especially since my hope to marry her had new reasons for renewal - but she would not. I fell under the spell of a friend[3] who insisted that I go with him to another such cafe, which turned out to be an empty place with only a few old Arabs smoking kief. I wondered why we had come until the music began. A marvelous boy then appeared, sat on a stool, and began to play delicious music on a reed flute. He had large, languorous eyes, long shapely fingers, and slender bare olive-colored legs. The music and his charms made me forget time and place until I was asked if I would like to meet the little musician. When I said Yes we were escorted to another part of town, to a house guarded by two huge policemen. My friend said for me not to worry, the policemen were there to protect us and knew full well what was going on. One officer led us upstairs to a small apartment where we were followed by our guide and two young figures wrapped in burnooses which hid their faces. The memory of that night has been at the center of my erotic fantasies across decades ever since. If my love belonged to the cousin I wanted to marry, what word can I use for the emotions I felt as I clasped in my arms that playful, wild, ardent, lascivious musician? After the boy had left I spent hours in a state of quivering jubilation. Although I had come to a climax five times in his arms, I relived my pleasure over and over again, prolonging the echoes of that delight until morning. At the light of dawn I got up to run, feeling no fatigue after the night of sex play but, on the contrary, feeling a lightness of body and soul that stayed with me all day. I wrote to my mother to tell her how marvelous I felt, since she always worried about my health, and I wrote to my beloved that we could delay our marriage no longer. Only marriage, I was convinced, could cure the fever in my blood.

I was concerned enough to go to a specialist to tell the doctor about my pederasty, how I hungered for such sex play, and I asked him if I should get married. He assured me at once that since I was deeply in love, my cousin and I were healthy young people, I would soon discover that my pederast desires were a thing of the past, only having existed in my imagination. He said I was like a hungry person who until then had lived on a starvation diet, but as soon as I married, my sexual health would blossom. He was right about my imagination, which was more powerful than he realized. At the center of my life as a writer it is not easily pushed aside. I now think it would have been better had I had more sexual experience as an adolescent, even homosexual activity. My fantasies would then have been rooted in more realism. As it was I was prepared to enjoy with boys the thousands of erotic masturbatory dreams of youngsters whose bodies were gilded with the pollen of the gods. After I was married I did not need the African boys to feed my dreams. Let me tell you of the boy I adopted, how I remember his tangled hair, his languid, sensuous eyes, his bare legs coming out of homespun shorts - all of which made me a pagan whose heart’s secret occupation was viewing this very special boy as a work of art. He was my travelling companion and his soul offered rapturous perspectives.

Gide's wife Madeleine

I was in anguish to discover that even on my honeymoon I was surrounded by such boys. Because of the love and joy I was experiencing with my wife, my mind and body seemed to come alive to every erotic sensation in the world. Instead of satisfying my erotic hungers, my wife seemed to enlarge them so intensely that I loved everyone in sight. I had been perfectly honest with her before we were married, with allusions to my pederasty and glowing descriptions of boys in my letters, so she could not help but notice the boys who responded to my smiles, and how upset I was by handsome youngsters. She began to get headaches, which weren’t helped by the boys I brought to our rooms to photograph. I was frank with her about being two persons: one, the loving faithful husband; and the other, an adventurer and wanderer whose hunger for exploration was never to be satisfied within marriage. My work flowered in the midst of this conflict, which seemed to spur my creative imagination all the more. Two years later when I went back to Algeria I saw the little musician again. He had hardly changed except that his figure was even more graceful, and he had become so lascivious as to be shameless in his play. No one should make remarks about sex who has not observed breeding animals, thus to see what great variety there is in the world - not only of species, but of varied behavior within species such as mankind. What people consider abnormal would then be seen as a natural part of existence.

With my adopted son as photographer, I explored some of the lesser known corners of Africa. In one country the Sultan sent two boys along with us as pages, both of the young teenagers wearing only a smock which came to mid-thigh. They looked as if they had stepped from the fresco in the Campo Santo in Pisa ready for the grape harvest. They walked with a spring in their step as if ready to dance, and it dawned upon me that the Sultan had sent them not solely for the pleasure of my eyes - yet it hardly seemed likely that he knew of my tastes. Had I requested women would he have sent along two girls?

I doubted it. Boys involved no risk. They were there as a gift if we were interested, and there was no problem for the Sultan if two servants accompanied us. After a day or so the boys seemed hurt by our lack of attention, so I asked the chief steward what their function was. He was quite amused, finding my embarrassment hard to understand. Evidently everyone but me knew what the boys were for, that they had expected to be invited each evening to come inside the mosquito netting over my bed to fan me. It was quite impossible to see through the net, and the heat was so stifling it would be pleasant to be fanned. Sweet little Mala, how I would like to hear his elfin laugh and experience his joy again. He destroyed all pretense by preparing himself with an hour or so of bathing and beautifying before coming to “wield the punkah.” My memory of the sensual delights I experienced inside the netting are not merely those of the transports of Mala’s swooning body, but also of the whole mysterious and fearful landscape. I left Mala out of the book about my African journey, but now I publish my notebooks which speak frankly about my sex play with boys, such as at Luxor, not hesitating to say that my interest is to go where I can meet such boys, since tourism is for enjoyment.

André Gide in old age

I have never exploited anyone, such as paying a boy to do something he didn’t really want to do. I restrain my desires toward someone who does not respond with equal desire. One difference between homosexuals and pederasts, I think, is that the more I love a boy, the less I desire him erotically. My first flash of desire is born out of curiosity to experience another person, and of an affectionate wish to meet his erotic need - for it is better to give than to receive. It may seem odd that I use biblical language, yet when I ask myself who I am, I think of the story of the Prodigal Son. God’s view of deviation is a puzzle to me. Did he create me a pederast? I did not make myself this way, although I allowed myself to fall under the influence of a pederast at a crucial moment in Africa. But by then my pederast nature was already created. I know that if I could live my life over again, I would give more time to sex play with boys, even in the adventures that caused pain and regret. I would spend even more time in Africa, which to me is a festival of sensory memories - every smell, sound and taste. My Africa is both a past and a future, a nostalgia for what is gone, for the sound of the little musician’s flute and laughter; and a grasping of the future, when men and boys will more openly be able to play together as comrades.

How shall I describe my erotic experience with boys? My comrades are on many shores: elegant, tanned boys on a beach, whom no ballet master would dare recruit, for their dancing would be considered too provocative if they danced as they swim, with their natural exuberance. I meet these comrades as I prowl at night when all nature seems to conspire - until I would like to kiss the flowers, or embrace any ardent young body. I understand that each person is different, that somehow we crush the human spirit by failing to allow each child or adolescent to follow the call of his own senses. The mystery remains, the link between my dark childhood, my restless adolescence, my young adventurism, my writings, but the moment of death will find me in a state of ecstasy, for the green and blue water of the river at the end of life has been known by me from the beginning; and the boy who waits there to guide me has eyes as blue as a sea of ice, skin like lilies, hair as a cloud colored by the sun at dawn. He is mysterious, waiting there, sketching his dreams in the sand. Is he the angel I have sought through life’s voyage? Or is he the child I was, born of two stars?

SOME CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS

- To expand this story of André Gide’s experience, which illustrates the impact of another culture, see his Journals (1956), (1926), (1951), (1952), (1964), his autobiography (1934)[4], Corydon (1926), and his novels: (1951), (1930), (1969).[5] On his youth: Delay (1957), on his old age: Michaud (1961). Also of interest: Guerin (1959) and Lambert, his son-in-law (1958).[6]

- As we will notice later with many other boys, if Gide was seduced, he seduced himself with his own imagination. We note that this story is directly the opposite of Chapter 6, where adolescent sexual experience seemed to play a central role in pederast development. Note that Gide was a virgin until his early twenties.

- Does Gide assume sufficient responsibility for his own acts? It would seem that Gide’s pederasty surfaced because in Africa he met boys who were available, but if a boy is to be blamed, it would seem to be the boy hidden inside Gide as a grown man.

 

[1] Presumably he means Oscar Wilde, whom, as described in footnote 3, was the friend he met up with later, but in Algeria, not in Tunisia as Rossman says here.

[2] The rest of this paragraph and all recounted in the next five about Gide’s erotic encounters in Tunisia and Algeria comes from his autobiography If It Die, of which extracts of all the Greek love content are given on this website in the article The Initiation of André Gide. These extracts are much fuller than Rossman’s summary.  The encounters took place in 1893-96.

[3] This was Oscar Wilde, whom Gide had already got to know in Paris and who was in Algeria with his friend Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas for just over a month (January to February 1895). They ran into Gide there by pure chance (at least in so far as any encounters between pederasts in countries that stood out for the ready availability of eager boys can be called chance). Gide’s account in If It Die of Douglas’s liaisons with Algerian boys is given in another article on this website, Bosie’s Adventures in Algeria.

[4] If It Die (New York: Random House, 1934) [Author’s bibliography]. This was a translation by Dorothy Bussy. However all the passages of greatest Greek love interest were excised from this edition of her translation.  An unexpurgated edition of her translation was finally published in 1977 as a Penguin Modern Classic, and the Greek love passages are also presented on this website in the article The Initiation of André Gide.

[5] Gide’s three novels referred to here are listed in the author’s bibliography as The Counterfeiters (New York: Knopf, 1951), The Immoralist (New York: Knopf, 1930) and Urian’s Voyage (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969).

[6] Of these four sources for Gide’s life (besides his own writings) Rossman only lists one in his bibliography: G. Michaud, Gide et l’Afrique (Paris: Editions du Scorpion, 1961).

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