On Poetry and Perversion

In November 2005, soon after “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” hit movie theaters, The New Yorker featured an article in which the writer, Adam Gopnik, referred to C. S. Lewis as “…a bright and sensitive British boy turned by public-school sadism into a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert” (emphasis mine). At the time, the movie’s popularity had sparked interest in Lewis’s personal life, and researchers had found evidence that Lewis was mildly sadomasochistic. There were rumors he’d had some kind of dominant-submissive relationship with his friend’s mother, Jane Moore. Letters he’d written as a teenager were dug up and made public: letters in which he confessed to an interest in spanking, and which he signed “Philomastix,” or “whip lover.”

These allegations angered many of his Christian admirers, who wrote letters to editors defending Lewis against the charge of perversion. “Not enough evidence!” “Innocent until proven guilty!” The language was suggestive of a murder trial.

Intrigued, I tried several times to write a poem on the subject, but never succeeded. Each time I posted a draft to an online workshop, it was hopelessly misunderstood. Readers assumed I was attacking Lewis (“pervert”), or defending him against vicious slander (“not a pervert”). No doubt this problem was due mostly to my own limitations, but I suspect even the best writer would have had trouble getting the point across without spelling it out in prosy detail. The point in question being simply that if Lewis was in fact a “whip lover,” it didn’t make him any less brilliant, talented or morally good.

Different doesn’t have to mean defective. A rare Brazilian orchid isn’t flawed because it differs from the norm. Collectors hike through deep jungle and up mountains in search of unusual varieties. No one says of an orchid, “This one looks different from the others. How unnatural!” It’s understood that orchids come in different varieties. Yet when it comes to our own species, we seem to have a blind spot in this regard.

But that’s nature, you protest; what about nurture? The strands are often hard to tease apart. Lewis’s sexuality may have been influenced by abuse he suffered at the hands of sadistic schoolteachers. If so, that’s no reflection on Lewis, who did nothing wrong. If he and Mrs. Moore engaged in more slap than tickle, no one was harmed. On the contrary, it’s the repressed fetishists who do harm: respectable hypocrites who use “discipline” as a pretext for exploiting children, prisoners, and other helpless victims. Dickens was familiar with that type.

Some of what I’m saying here may not sit well with religious fundamentalists, but it’s hardly extreme. A naïve person might even suppose that most poets, being the kind of people who tend to view things from different angles, express themselves in unconventional terms, and find beauty in unexpected places — at least the good ones do — would get it. And some do. Yet strange attitudes persist, attitudes I find perplexing, and which pose special challenges to the poet who would explore this terrain.

First there’s the challenge of making yourself understood without being “telly.” That’s always an issue whenever you write about anything your reader may not be familiar with. A metaphor can’t work unless the vehicle reminds the reader of the tenor; and a reader can’t be subtly reminded of something that’s foreign to him.