Episode 41 - The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Ever get super horny for Alexander the Great, conqueror of worlds?  You will.  Join us as we get classical up in here with Mary Renault's 1972 The Persian Boy, a book about a traumatized teenager whose vast ambition centers entirely on jumping Alexander's bones.  Heads up - this book's got all sorts of traumatic historical stuff in it including but not limited to forced castration, rape, enslavement, and up close and personal war.

We are honored to have a special guest for this episode - John Kinard teaches English at the University of South Carolina, is a librarian at Allen University, believes in the ultimate triumph of the proletariat, and still thinks a great deal about Elisabeth Shue's coat/scarf combo in Adventures in Babysitting. 

He was kind enough to write us a piece for this post as well:

One of the things you’ll know about Courtney, if you know her as I do, is that she’s absolutely mad for poetry. Can’t get enough of it. If you see her out and about, throw a poem at her--the freer the verse, the greater her joy. I knew that if I sent this little gallivant through my own understanding of queerness and literature and didn’t include a poem, she’d just send it back with one of her usual wild demands for poesy. So, let’s open with some verse--here we have a few lines from H.D.’s Tribute to the Angels:
Hermes Trismegistus
is patron of alchemists;
his province is thought, 
inventive, artful and curious;
his metal is quicksilver,
his clients, orators, thieves and poets;
steal then, O orator,
plunder, O poet,
take what the old-church
found in Mithra’s tomb,
candle and script and bell,
take what the new-church spat upon
and broke and shattered;
collect the fragments of the splintered glass
and of your fire and breath,
melt down and integrate,
re-invoke, re-create
opal, onyx, obsidian,
now scattered in the shards
men tread upon.
So, why choose this poem to talk about queer lit? First off, the easy part: H.D. was bisexual. When building definitions of queer literature, including “literature written by queer people” as an entry is a necessary part of the process. And yet that tautological definition is one of the least interesting parts of any queer poetics. H.D. was a bisexual woman--so bisexual, in fact, that she talked at length with Freud about the relationship between her bisexuality and her art. I’m a white, cisgender gay man--my gayness has to date attracted the attention of only locally prominent psychoanalysts, but I choose to dwell in hope. These kind of identity declarations are important to much of queer discourse and, to some, they represent the inimical forces of “identity politics” in art and criticism, out to destroy the sacrosanct nature of, well . . . I confess to being unable to imagine what they think is sacrosanct, but: you better believe it’s something; to other, more correct people, they are just helpful in establishing the position of an author, which seems like something worth knowing.1 It’s certainly not about shutting people out--one of the founders of queer theory as an academic discipline, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, was a more or less straight woman (with queer theory, it’s always “more or less”--acknowledging the constructedness of binaries is key to the whole enterprise) and no one is trying to cancel Epistemology of the Closet.2 
I also chose this selection from H.D. because it’s personally meaningful to me. It was one of the texts that I chose to write about in my PhD comprehensive exams during the spring of 2017, but it only became an important part of my own mental library after that. In fact, I was so strung out both mentally and chemically as I tried to write those pages that I chose H.D. not because of any careful selection process but because I could reach my copy of her collection Trilogy without getting out of bed. I randomly opened to the page where these particular words appear (page 63, as it happens) and went to work. A couple weeks after those exams, which I somehow passed, I “went to Virginia,” the euphemism I now use for institutionalization. Trilogy was one of the handful of things I grabbed on my way out the door, along with a printed-out copy of James Schuyler’s Payne Whitney poems (so called for the Payne Whitney Clinic that was his own Virginia), and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that I’d accidentally gotten in a large print edition. Oh, and a hardcover copy of J.K. Rowling’s play The Cursed Child--but the less said about her and that, the better. Anyway, while reading Trilogy in treatment it became a central text in my understanding of quite a few things, but specifically my own ideas about queerness. I’ll get to those momentarily, but the reason I’m wildly oversharing here is that, one, that’s what I do, and two, I think that art plays a unique role in the life of a queer person. In the absence of direct models for our identity, we magpie ourselves into people. People who think of themselves as straight do this same operation, but they can shop wholesale. When a queer person finds themselves in a mental health crisis, especially a black queer person or other queer person of color, the resources available to them--if any in fact are--are frequently not suitable to their needs. And so you might find yourself in a situation where, say, you are the first openly gay person your counselor has ever spoken to and, well meaning though that counselor may be, you find yourself leaning pretty heavily on that copy of H.D. you happened to bring with you. And, again, that’s if you’re relatively lucky; if you’re a black queer person facing mental health problems, frequently the only institution in American society that will reach out to you is law enforcement, and the hand they extend is not offered in help. Sometimes the only help to be found, however meager, is in some text that can help you think your way outside the limits of the present. The phrase “representation matters” has become a kind of slogan, but there are several different things that people mean when they say representation matters--what I’ll call the Ryan Murphy version means something like, if nine characters one on of his shows are decapitated by a serial killer, fully a third of those heads will have been queer. I don’t mean to say those heads aren’t progress, of a sort. They no doubt are. But the representation that’s most meaningful to me is what H.D accomplishes: imagining queer alternatives to the world as it is--representations of queer possibility. 
In these lines from Tribute to the Angels, and in much of her work, H.D. casts a backward glance--the third queerest of all glances. Her turn to the past is both what I find most compelling about her poetry, and what I think specifically resonates with The Persian Boy. Plenty of reasons for queer people to disdain the past, but what H.D. and Mary Renault ask us to do is something both harder and, I think, ultimately more enduring: to look back at the rubble of what has been and, like the Angelus Novus were they given a moment’s rest from the wind blowing out of paradise, gather up those beautiful things that the so-called victors of history cast aside and, through the various alchemies available to us, “melt down and integrate,/ re-invoke, re-create.” I believe we briefly discuss this in the episode, but think of all the different ways into Alexander’s story that Renault had to choose from, and look at what she chose: the story of a boy enslaved, sold, raped, and abused. We don’t even meet Alexander until the book is nearly half over. Through imagining Bagoas’s story, a life that is otherwise remembered primarily through one small moment in Plutarch--the kiss--Renault transmogrifies one of the most well-known people in all of human history. This is an alchemy far beyond lead into gold, I think, and its result is a material you can start to build a different kind of future with (though if anyone has gotten the gold thing down I’d still be interested). 
I can’t remember what the original brief Courtney and Sara gave me for this was anymore--the history of gay literature? Sometimes I get away from myself. Here’s a syllabus for the mid-20th century gay literature that would have set the stage for The Persian Boy’s publication in the early 70s: The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin; The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith; Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet; Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima; Advise and Consent by Allen Drury; and of course Renault’s own work starting with The Charioteer. If this seems suspiciously like the list on the Wikipedia page for gay literature of this era, well that merely indicates that the collective wisdom has converged with my individual knowledge. What Wikipedia won’t tell you is that these are not the best books by most of these authors. Those would be Vidal’s Julian, Baldwin’s Another Country, Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Genet’s Querelle of Brest,  and Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. I admit to not knowing anything about the further writing of Allen Drury or if he even ever wrote another book, but Persian Boy tops The Charioteer, so to speak. 

This episode is sponsored by viewers like you!  And by Kensington Books, especially and particularly their new Christmas anthology Christmas Kisses with My Cowboy- get it where you get your books!

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