Monday, February 04, 2008

Castor, Achilles, Euryalus, Aretaeus, Alexander, Dubreuil

And Orestes.

[Or, to get into the spirit of the thing: Orestes and.]

I have a long memory - the kind where a good book can lodge for years, with me dropping by its cubbyhole every so often to continue our ongoing conversation. I've got broad tastes; encounters with the current mainstream are generally disastrous, and I tend to go home to sf/f eventually, but I wind up with a lot of isolated loves. Les Misérables is one of them. I don't know the first thing about other literature of the time and the place; it has no context for me, and if I want to grok all its obscurities, I grok alone.

After years of intermittent obsessing, I think I'm finally done talking to this one beautiful passage. It comes close to the end of Part 3, Book 4, Chapter 1: A Group Which Almost Became Historic, and it describes the connexion between Enjolras and Grantaire.

There are men who seem born to be the opposite, the reverse, the counterpoint. They are Pollux, Patroclus, Nisus, Eudamidas, Hephaestion, Pechméja. They live only upon condition of leaning on another; their names are continuations, and are only written preceded by the conjunction 'and'; their existence is not their own; it is the other side of a destiny which is not theirs. Grantaire was one of these men. He was the reverse of Enjolras.

We might almost say that affinities commence with the letters of the alphabet. In the series, O and P are inseparable. You can, as you choose, pronounce O and P, or Orestes and Pylades.

Grantaire, a true satellite of Enjolras, lived in this circle of young people; he dwelt in it; he took pleasure only in it; he followed them everywhere. His delight was to see these forms coming and going in the fumes of the wine. He was tolerated for his good-humour.

Enjolras, being a believer, disdained this sceptic, and being sober, scorned this drunkard. He granted him a little haughty pity. Grantaire was an unaccepted Pylades. Always rudely treated by Enjolras, harshly repelled, rejected, yet returning, he said of Enjolras; 'What a fine statue!'

Let's get our priorities straight (ha!) here; the slash, is it canon?

See, that's a totally incommensurable question to begin with. Hugo was writing before queer, before 'homosexual' was a word, let alone a rights movement; I can only guess at what he was trying to say about these two men, but he's left me a few hints. Seven, to be precise. Seven people who belong with seven other people.

Castor and Pollux are twins hatched from the same swan-egg, brothers of Helen of Troy; one mortal, the other divine but generous enough to see eternal life as worth sharing.

Achilles and Patroclus - is there anyone left who hasn't read Troy In 15 Minutes? Because, um, they were totally cousins. Totally. <3<3 Cleolinda.

Nisus, Euryalus? Even Wikipedia isn't quite sure about those two. Lovers for sure, but sexually? Maybe, maybe not.

Eudamidas is a character of 2nd-century satire; given the way people wrote at the time, I can't decide if it's more likely that he was fictional, or a vaguely real gossip-piece. He perhaps got himself on Hugo's radar via The Testament Of Eudamidas, a painting Nicolas Poussin made in 1643 about the guy and his testament, based on the original story by Lucian. This unusual document allegedly willed away not just Eudamidas's meagre possessions, but also his daughter and his mother. From the original Lucian:

Mnesippus. Eudamidas of Corinth, though he was himself in very narrow circumstances, had two friends who were well-to-do, Aretaeus his fellow townsman, and Charixenus of Sicyon. When Eudamidas died, he left a will behind him which I dare say would excite most people's ridicule: but what the generous Toxaris, with his respect for friendship and his ambition to secure its highest honours for his country, may think of the matter, is another question. The terms of the will--but first I should explain that Eudamidas left behind him an aged mother and a daughter of marriageable years;--the will, then, was as follows: To Aretaeus I bequeath my mother, to tend and to cherish in her old age: and to Charixenus my daughter, to give in marriage with such dowry as his circumstances will admit of: and should anything befall either of the legatees, then let his portion pass to the survivor. The reading of this will caused some merriment among the hearers, who knew of Eudamidas's poverty, but did not know anything of the friendship existing between him and his heirs. They went off much tickled at the handsome legacy that Aretaeus and Charixenus (lucky dogs!) had come in for: 'Eudamidas,' as they expressed it, 'was apparently to have a death-interest in the property of the legatees.' However, the latter had no sooner heard the will read, than they proceeded to execute the testator's intentions. Charixenus only survived Eudamidas by five days: but Aretaeus, most generous of heirs, accepted the double bequest, is supporting the aged mother at this day, and has only lately given the daughter in marriage, allowing to her and to his own daughter portions of 500 each, out of his whole property of 1,250; the two marriages were arranged to take place on the same day. What do you think of him, Toxaris? This is something like friendship, is it not,--to accept such a bequest as this, and to show such respect for a friend's last wishes? May we pass this as one of my five?

Toxaris. Excellent as was the behaviour of Aretaeus, I admire still more Eudamidas's confidence in his friends. It shows that he would have done as much for them; even if nothing had been said about it in their wills, he would have been the first to come forward and claim the inheritance as natural heir.

Lucian explicitly connected Eudamidas with Pylades. He was writing about two characters having a rhetorical competition over whether Greeks or Scythians had the best friendships. (Lucian himself wrote in Greek but is believed to have been Syrian). The contest begins with Toxaris, the Scythian, telling Mnesippus why Scythians make sacrifices to Orestes and Pylades; "We honour Orestes and Pylades, then, because they excelled in the Scythian virtue of loyalty, which we place above all others; and it is for this that we have bestowed on them the name of Coraci, which in our language means spirits of friendship."

Passing briefly over Alexander and Hephaestion as being too damn famous and Hollywood and canonslashy and all that: the only source I've ever, ever found on Pechméja also refers directly to Orestes and Pylades. (Male Friendship In Pre-Revolutionary France by Jeffrey Merrick, which you can read if you have the right login. I don't, but the blue person is magical like that). Jean Pechméja and Jean Baptiste Léon Dubreuil were both born in the early 1740s in the same small town in Aveyron, but after leaving said small town didn't encounter each other again til the 1770s. By then Dubreuil was a doctor, Pechmeja a writer - their friendship resumed when Pechméja fell ill and Dubreuil moved to the outskirts of Paris to care for him; in return, Merrick tells us, Pechméja dedicated a classical-themed book to Dubreuil with '"respect, affection, gratitude" (le respect, la tendresse, la reconnaissance) for his "austere virtue, generous friendship, and preservative power" (la vertu austère . . . l’amitié généreuse . . . la puissance conservatrice).' The book is about how male friendship is way better than marriage because marriage involves all that complicated sex stuff which just makes people confused and miserable. [Here you may insert your own rant about how much Brokeback Mountain sucked for drawing teh queer as being an idyllic escape from the real-life responsibilities women and children put on a guy, as if queer was somehow the opposite of being a proper grownup who cares for/belongs to a family. Go on. I'll wait here til you're done.]

Here's Merrick's word on the O and the P, if not the intervening T:

According to their contemporaries, Pechméja and Dubreuil enjoyed "the most intimate friendship" (l’amitié la plus intime) and resembled the mythological companions Orestes and Pylades. [...] Inseparable from each other, as if married to each other, Pechméja and Dubreuil shared everything: "dwelling, social circles, good things, bad things, pleasures, and pains" (logement, sociétés, biens, maux, plaisirs, et peines).

I checked the citation on that as soon as I read it, half-expecting it to lead back to Hugo. It didn't. It's from a 1780s-90s thingy called Correspondance secrète, politique, et littéraire. Was that comment influenced directly by Lucian, or was this Coraci thread running wider than that through the literary culture of the time? Also:

According to the marquis de Bombelles, Noailles pressured the local clergy, who had wanted to exclude Dubreuil from burial in consecrated ground because of the way he had died, without the last rites, as well as the way he had lived. Bombelles did not explain what they found objectionable in the life of the successful and respected doctor. No one in 1785 suggested that Pechméja and Dubreuil were sexually involved with each other or even acknowledged that they loved each other, but this one cryptic remark indicates that some contemporaries, in this case institutional advocates of traditional values, believed that friendship might involve dangerous as well as delightful possibilities.

Orestes and Pylades, incidentally, are totally cousins. (For real).

So what have we got there? Three men of myth, two of murky classical history, one who died a mere 20 years before Hugo's birth. A brother, three lovers, a testator, and a best friend who we don't really have reason to believe was also a lover. These, held up to two spirits of friendship. These, and Grantaire and Enjolras, who are not even really on speaking terms with each other. The hell?

Hugo is both quite particular about sex and also fond of making exceptions to all his rules in general; Les Misérables has it that God supports the Swedish model, and that male philanderers are bad, except for the cheerful old one; he idolises marital sex, and equates virginity with not just virtuous conduct, but with a virtuous appearance;

"Monsiuer", said Thénadier, "it is my wife's bridal cap."
The traveller looked at the object with a look which seemed to say 'there was a moment, then, when this monster was a virgin'.

And yet; 'all the nuns in the world are not equal to one mother', and other such sentiments. (I love this book, but it's part of the reason why I think anyone who says wives and prostitutes are the only women who get laid is stuck in the 19th century). Hugo seems to elevate wives and mothers when it comes to women, but men he cherishes as virgins. He makes a point of the virginity of almost all his male cast; of Jean Valjean he says; 'His youth was spent in rough and ill-recompensed labour; he never was known to have a sweetheart; he had not time to be in love.' Then later; 'Jean Valjean had never loved anything. For twenty-five years he had been alone in the world. He had never been a father, lover, husband or friend.' Marius is righteously indignant at his grandfather's suggestion that he take Cosette as a mistress; the antagonist Javert's virginity is also spelled out; 'His life was a life of privations, isolation, self-denial and chastity; never any amusement.'

But Enjolras and Grantaire? Well. The former is clear enough;
'...he did not seem to know that there was on the earth a being called woman... Woe to the love affair that should venture to intrude upon him! Had any grisette of the Place Cambrai or the Rue Saint Jean de Beauvais, seeing this college boy's face, this form of a page, those long fair lashes, those blue eyes, that hair flying in the wind, those rosy cheeks, those pure lips, those exquisite teeth, felt a desire to taste all this dawn, and tried her beauty upon Enjolras, a surprising and terrible look would have suddenly shown her the great gulf, and taught her not to confound the with the gallant cherubim of Beaumarchais the fearful cherubim of Ezekiel.

And Grantaire?
He was frightfully ugly; the prettiest shoe-binder of that period, Irma Boissy, revolting at his ugliness, had uttered this sentence: 'Grantaire is impossible,' but Grantaire's self-conceit was not disconcerted. He looked tenderly and fixedly upon every woman, appearing to say of them all: if only I would; and trying to make his comrades believe that he was in general demand.

Hugo piles up the adjectives right after that, contrasting Enjolras's 'chaste, healthy, firm, direct, hard, candid nature' with Grantaire's 'soft, wavering, disjointed, diseased, deformed ideas': again chastity is a trait that seems to extend well beyond sex - one Grantaire is devoid of even though he isn't getting any sex. Of course, I don't know what the hell he even meant by 'chastity' (and god help me, but I can't find the second volume of my French copy so I don't even know what the original goddamn word he used was). No sex? Not much sex? Not desiring sex? Sex only with people you're allowed to have sex with?

I could be a smart-alec slash canonista and say that Hugo is explicitly discussing only sex with women, but dude, did you catch the bit where I said the word didn't exist til a decade after his book came out? I am sure the OTP never occurred to him. Except for the part where he's talking about Hephaestion and Patroclus and Nisus and expecting us to grok it. You know, the part I got stuck on in the first place. My friend Kathie, being a little under three times my age, has it that the increasing visibility of queer people since the 1960s - and of queer readings of straight homosocial activities - has put new limits on straight masculinity, made it shy away even from homosocial forms more recent than those Hugo describes - constricting itself in fear of eyes like mine. I am just reading, just knowing that whatever bond he's describing is incommensurable with anything that could ever be written today.

He mentions Pylades only once more, in a chapter heading a full 400 pages later; Orestes Fasting and Pylades Drunk, in which Grantaire finally said "Vive la République! I belong to it," and 'Enjolras grasped his hand with a smile.'

A minor edit: here's 10littlebullets on LJ with some more gay metaphors Hugo pins to Enjolras.

an aside for those of you who've been net-stalking me since 2002; When I read that line early into the Lucian - "do you mean to tell me that you people actually sacrifice to Orestes and Pylades? do you take them for Gods?" "Sacrifice to them? of course we do. It does not follow that we think they are Gods: they were good men." - I put the kettle on and paced around the house until it boiled. I am staying with my person's family atm, so I had the restraint to only make one cuppa, not three.

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