A Long Way From Plato

 Law and Literature ColumnCanada is in the process of following the lead of other nations like Britain and Germany which have committed to pardoning and /or apologizing to large numbers of men who were criminally convicted in past decades for engaging in homosexual acts. The German government has determined that it will pardon 50,000 men and offer some form of compensation where appropriate. Britain is preparing a bill called the Alan Turing Law, named after the brilliant World War II code-breaker and mathematician extraordinaire. Turing was convicted of engaging in a homosexual act and subjected to chemical castration as a term of his treatment imposed by the court; the whole ordeal leading to his suicide in 1954. The 1950s were a particularly bleak decade for Britain, as a zealous search and destroy mission was ordained by the Home Secretary of the day, David Maxwell-Fyfe, and carried out with the full approval of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The current British government plans to make amends for the harsh and punitive stance of the law over many years. The Trudeau government promises a legislative program that may prove to be at least as extensive as the British plans. Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault has been appointed special adviser on the LGBTQ2 issues that his government will address.

In the year prior to Turing’s humiliation and conviction, a brave exception to the atmosphere of repression and silence respecting gay lives came in the form of a novel, The Charioteer, by Mary Renault. Renault had been a nurse prior to turning to writing full-time, and had risked her career when she began a relationship with a fellow nurse who would eventually become her life-long partner. One evening in her partner’s room at the Radcliffe Infirmary she was required to hide under the covers when the head nurse checked up on the staff members during nightly inspections. I found an account by Renault’s biographer of the damning response by critics and the tabloid press to one of Renault’s earlier novels, published in 1939.

“The matron told a Sunday Referee reporter: “This book will obviously sell, and the majority of readers will think it is true. But in my experience it is not. I have been matron at this hospital for 25 years, and during that period I have only once come across a case of sexual abnormality between nurses.”

It is rather astonishing that Renault chose to write such a frank and sensitive portrait of gay men in the most repressive decade for gays in that century and furthermore, that her British publisher took a chance with publication. The novel Purposes of Love did contain some descriptions of lesbian love-making but it was less open than the first post-war novel Renault offered to her publisher, The Charioteer. It offers a vivid sense of what gay men like Turing confronted in the era. It is rather astonishing that Renault chose to write such a frank and sensitive portrait of gay men in the most repressive decade for gays in that century and furthermore, that her British publisher took a chance with publication. (It could have been the subject of a trial for obscenity and indeed, her American publisher declined the novel, clearly on the grounds that prosecution was a genuine possibility).

The Charioteer depicts the growing sexual and psychological awareness of the protagonist, Laurie Odell. Odell is introduced in the opening chapter as a child experiencing sadness and bewilderment. He has come upon his father packing a large suitcase to leave home. The boy senses something ominous and seeks an explanation, but his mother comes upon the scene and rebukes her husband, commanding his silence. The two are incompatible and the chapter ends with the child being read a favorite story, of St George slaying the dragon, in the comforting embrace of his mother. The chapter ends poignantly: “He never saw his father again.” The chapter introduces a key theme in the work: the immense difficulty Laurie will experience in truly understanding the motivations and actions of others, both in his family and circle and in the dangerous world beyond, with its harsh unrelenting condemnation of those who choose to act on their homosexual desires.

Laurie will have to do battle with a number of dragons in the course of the plot and acquire a proper education in the ways of his society, an education that, of course, cannot be learned at the elite public school he attends. There, he encounters a slightly older student, a supremely confident prefect, Ralph Lanyon, who will figure prominently in the plot. Lanyon, we will gradually come to understand, is “sent down” from the school for an indiscretion – an improper sexual encounter with a younger student. Before he leaves, he hands Laurie one of Plato’s’ most interesting dialogues, Phaedrus. The book will serve as a talisman as Laurie later serves in the Navy in the Second World War.

In the year prior to Turing’s humiliation and conviction, a brave exception to the atmosphere of repression and silence respecting gay lives came in the form of a novel, The Charioteer, by Mary Renault. Much of the action is set in the hospital where Laurie is convalescing after a serious wound suffered in the retreat from Dunkirk. Perhaps, his outsider status is a reason he is drawn to a different type of outsider, the hospital orderly Andrew Raynes, a pacifist and a conscientious objector. Renault provides a subtle irony in her handling of one scene where a straight friend of Laurie’s warns him about too close a contact with Andrew.  Laurie comes to learn that this is not because his friend has figured out the risks of an “abnormal sexual relationship”. It is because Andrew may seduce him – that is, seduce him away from his allegiance to Her Majesty and the war effort and into a stance of pacifism. The law would take a very dim view of any such disloyalty.

While The Charioteer focuses primarily on the personal, and the difficulty in achieving a mature and rewarding relationship for two committed gay men, the wider society is depicted with skill and insight as well.  When Ralph re-enters Laurie’s life, the latter is introduced to a new social scene, and encounters a mixed group, some of whom are fairly camp and at times outrageous.  Laurie becomes aware of the tensions and dangers associated with attempting a gay lifestyle. One obstacle to achieving a normal and philosophically coherent manner of living is, of course, the law. Given that homosexual behaviour was viewed as a major crime, blackmail was an ever-present sword hanging over all of these characters. Two  friends engage in a debate over the necessity of succumbing to blackmail. One, Alec, adamantly maintains that self-respect is the most valuable quality a man can possess and under no circumstances would he sympathize with those who allow themselves to be blackmailed.

The high-minded position of Alec leads Ralph to turn to Laurie and ask his help in remembering a figure from ancient Greece who was an exemplary citizen. Ralph makes the case that homosexuality and bisexuality seemed to have been fully accepted in ancient Greece, and many who were bisexual were leaders in politics and the arts. They provided their fellow citizens with many reasons to accept their sexual orientation, given the excellence and virtue they displayed in other areas of life. Ralph longs for a time when this will be possible in contemporary Britain.

The novel ends with a final quote from Plato’s Phaedrus. This book, so much a source of vision and potential wisdom for the main characters, develops the symbolic ride of a charioteer who must properly guide a discordant pair of horses. One is black, rough and untamed; the other pure and white and more orderly. An essential quest in life is to find a way to assert the right degree of control, learning the skills necessary to bring harmony and a proper sense of direction. Following Plato’s lead, it is a challenge but also a necessity to engage in the ongoing educational project of assessing one’s qualities and acquiring the maturity to live a full, intelligent life. By implication, a society that makes that such an unnecessarily difficult assignment has a lot to answer for.

Authors:

Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.
 


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