Being a resourceful child and with nobody I could confide in, I sought out information on my problem at my local library. Here I met and befriended a dead bearded Venetian named Sigmund. Come on, twelve or thirteen years old, I felt there was something wrong with my mind and it seemed sensible to start with the one psychologist I had actually heard of. I didn't realise that he would be obsessed with sex. Naïve isn't the word.
I soon found that on best prognosis I was
"amphigenously inverted (psychosexually hermaphroditic); i.e., their sexual object may belong indifferently to either the same or to the other sex. The inversion lacks the character of exclusiveness."I had always suspected that whatever was wrong with me would involve long words. I was amphibiously perverted, like some sort of deviant newt! Sigmund at least reassured me that I was not a "degenerate". People like me existed throughout history, he said and didn’t usually have any other sort of mental problem. In fact, some of us had achieved remarkable things. Woopey.
However, elsewhere in his works, I began to suspect something else entirely. I appeared to have become completely unstuck from Freud's psychosexual stages of development. I had sucked my thumb, but years had passed since I grew out of that and it hadn’t once occurred to me to stick anything up my arse.
In all seriousness, everything that I read even about infantile sexuality was so alien to my own experience that I began to entertain the possibility that I wasn’t developing normally. And truthfully, this was a far happier prospect than being ambidextrously diverted.
I may well have been a bit behind my peers with the old psychosexual development. I don’t know, because sex was only ever spoken about in the vaguest of terms. What I did know was that I remained more or less completely disinterested in the contents of my own or anyone else's underpants, whatever disgusting practices I read about in books. I did, however, develop a healthy preoccupation with naked bodies.
I’m not entirely sure how I managed to fill my official school sketchbook with (largely imaginary) nudes, produce a pop art version of Botticelli’s Venus and illustrations for The Emperor’s New Clothes as part of my school projects without anybody batting an eyelid. But the teachers, in that precious gouache-splattered sanctuary that was our Art Block, remained unfazed. One particular sketch in vigorous 9B pencil, of a naked man from behind, standing on a cliff edge with legs slightly apart, buttocks clenched, face and fists raised to the sky, was described as "Rather jolly!"
Through art and its appreciation, I could identify a palpable, if entirely aesthetic crisis. This is beauty, that is beauty. They are different. But is one better than the other? Perhaps.
I am unconvinced by the slope of Venus’ shoulders and David was obviously posing on a cold day. But that's accuracy, not beauty.
I am in far more awe of David as a work of art. I could (and did) copy Venus, whereas I couldn't sculpt something close to that in any medium. But that's skill, not beauty.
Venus is, perhaps, more beautiful. Her hair is fantastic and she has a softness to her. Her pose actually seems more natural, she is more animate, more sensuous...
And even trying to write about her I falter completely, because I have spent so much of my life trying not to arouse suspicion. It is quite hopeless.
Then there was the difficulty of interpretation. I loved all Michelangelo's naked chaps, particularly the painting on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. And particularly Adam, I guess. I mean look at the guy. Is he not beautiful? He is stunningly beautiful. Once again, he was created on a very cold day, but hey.
And the other chaps on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling are similarly lovely. Muscular, but well-padded with it, wonderfully curvaceous and powerful and generally a bit of all right. See, I ought to be writing erotica, I'm so good at this.
And naturally, I said to an older friend who was about to go to Florence on a History of Art trip, "Those men on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are really sexy!"
My friend thought this rather funny. "But they all look like fat women," she said. "Michelangelo was gay, so he painted men who looked like women."
And for the first time I began to entertain the possibility that the lines we draw around this stuff might be completely wrong. There seemed no reason why sexuality would hinder a person's aesthetic frame of reference. Botticelli was also homosexual, but Venus isn't masculine. She isn't even slightly androgynous. She might not have the large breasts and flat stomach which characterise the current feminine ideal, but that is what some beautiful women look like in their birthday suits. I knew because I'd seen them.
And Adam is the same. He is not something out of Cosmopolitan Magazine; he does not fit with out modern ideal of masculine beauty, which is far more svelte - far more like David, in fact. But there are certainly some beautiful men who like that in their birthday suits. I'd seen them as well (I was on the school French Exchange Program, you see).
Unless sexuality could be reduced to a fetish for one set of goolies or another, we were surely attracted to degrees of masculinity or femininity (plus either, neither or both)? Masculinity or femininity are the cultural constructs we project onto the biological reality - in all its wondrous and complex variety - of maleness and femaleness. They are transient and often contradictory, but they do have a massive bearing on sexual attraction and how we understand our own sexuality.
Take the beard. Fortunately, we’re now reaching a stage where men tend to do whatever suits their own looks and tastes, but there were very few twentieth century heartthrobs who had beards. Meanwhile, there have been many cultures in history, as there are in the world today, where any man without a beard would be considered effeminate and thus not at all attractive.
A beard is a biological indicator of a sexually mature male. The idea that one can be attracted to a person without this feature is not at all surprising, because there’s so many other indicators we have to work with. However, that this - or underarm and other body hair, broad hips on a female, the foreskin etc. - might be treated as positively unattractive would be very surprising if we were to consider sex as a perfectly binary, purely biological, impulse.
You’ll be glad to know I wouldn’t have put this in quite so many words when I was a child, but I was beginning to see it.
Still, I couldn't get away from what seemed a very obvious fact: that in general, women seemed more beautiful than men. This was especially the case back then when boys were all sorts of weird shapes, sizes and textures, the poor things. This seemed so obvious that I wasn't afraid to say as much. The conversation would go like this;
"Don't you think that women are more attractive than men?"So maybe that was my problem. Maybe I was not ambiguously inserted at all, but just extraordinarily shallow. After all, beauty did matter to me. Not the sort of uniform geometric beauty that might get a face on the cover of a magazine (and, as I say, varies from age to age), but something more universal, something which it would be impossible to elaborate further on without sounding extremely pretentious. Possibly because it's not universal, but something entirely personal to me. But I hadn't worked that out yet.
"Of course not, I'm not weird."
"But surely you can see that women are better looking than men are?"
"Yes. But that's not the same thing. If I was only attracted to people because of their looks, I would be very shallow indeed."
There's going to be more after this, sorry. Has to come out, but I will pace it...