Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hapless in high school

By chance the other day I discovered a curious item, a kind of sub-Proustian madeleine, bound in plastic and teeming with little black-and-white photos. It was my 1952 yearbook from Los Angeles High School. Instead of consigning it to pile in the urban equivalent of a garage sale, where it probably belongs, I let the book trigger some memories.

First let me step back a bit. In the ninth grade, at Mount Vernon Junior High, I had experienced a Peyrefittian episode of attraction to a cherub two years younger. This amounted to no more than puppy love, and it didn’t worry me very much.

What happened in high school was another matter. First, of course, was the overall setting that simply teemed with healthy, energetic, even radiant boys. In those days, such paragons of young virility were untouched by drugs or alcohol, vices that intruded in the following generation. As one could freely ascertain in gym classes, the boys had naturally splendid physiques, in no way resembling the shaved, pumped-up icons of today’s popular entertainment. Throughout the building, it seemed, their hyperactive pheromones diffused an aroma of subtle intoxication. Anyone who had the slightest bit of gayness in him would have to be really dull not to be drawn to this all-environing pulchritude. Looking back, I wonder how I could have gotten through the day without a continuous hard-on. Of course, the situation called for restraint, and substantial penalties awaited those who could not or would not manage a proper display of indifference. So, at least, it seemed in that age of conformity.

In this way I experienced a general seduction in which the male form was imprinted on my being. Yet there was a more specific agency. In the tenth grade I fell head-over-heels in love with one Larry Smith, a boy I scarcely knew well enough to speak to. What vagabond Merlin could have snared me with this enchantment?

Later, examining the matter soberly from a photograph taken at the time, I noted that Larry had fairly conventional Waspish good looks, with a clear complexion and a square jaw. His grades were, I reckon, little better than average. He could do sports, but did not excel in any of them. These things didn’t matter to me, though, for above all Larry was comfortable in his skin--as I, fretful and anxious, was not. He was not striving to be something, he just was. In him, being triumphed over becoming.

In several of his short stories Thomas Mann has analyzed the lure posed to the outsider boy by happy youths like Larry, Even though I did not know it at the time, there was a certain typicality in my fascination.

Larry was in one of my classes, and getting through the academic year was torture. Finally, the spring term was over. I would not see Larry for a full three months! Surely, I thought, the grip of the enslaving passion would loosen, and I could at last be free. But it did not, for I continued to be tormented by Larry’s remembered visage all through the summer. I would lie and writhe on the grass, in a vague Whitmanian hope that this would help to cure me. No such luck. In the fall I saw Larry again, and the passion flamed up even higher, prompted by the immediate visual stimulus of his revered form. I was doomed

Ultimately, the enchantment began to fade, though I still had feelings for Larry. I was not alone in my response, for my homophile buddy Richard W. noted Larry’s good looks in a remark to me.

My inability to shake this passion made clear to me, once and for all, that my nature was homosexual. (I did not know the word “gay” at the time.) The connection sealed my fate in another way: I would henceforth be attracted mainly to straight men like Larry. This was a recipe for unhappiness. Up to a point, the arrangement could work, as it later did with Neal and Chaz, if there was an element of gayness in the other person’s otherwise primarily heterosexual nature. Neal was probably two thirds straight (quite intensely so) and one third gay. Chaz never really quite found himself--not surprisingly, I suppose, considering his seemingly inevitable downward glide path.

I was spared one possible consequence of the Larry entanglement. I was not destined to be caught up in a fixation on 15- or 16-year old boys (his age at the time). I was not to be a boy lover, thank goodness. In due course, I could move on to somewhat older types.

Another set of high school episodes highlights the difficulty that an incipient gay boy would, almost inevitably, experience in those Dark Ages of conformity and ignorance. In ROTC, a sullen boy, trading comments with a confederate, insulted me with a sexual epithet. (He called me a penis; a complement, I suppose.) In this embarrassing situation--there were others present--I didn’t know what to do.

Some weeks later I was sitting in the Assembly balcony. I had gone early to attend some event, and the vast hall was practically empty. What should happen, though, but that Mr. Sullen (I can’t now recall his name) should come up and sit right next to me. Almost fawningly, he made it clear that he had no hostility but wanted to be friendly. He did not apologize for the previous incident and, still repulsed, I did my best to shun him.

Some years later Chuck McC., who had belonged to a surreptitious circle of gay boys at LA High, told me that this sullen youth was homosexual. No doubt the boy was struggling with conflicting feelings. His initial verbal attack reflected internalized homophobia. And then maybe he was trying to get my attention, and didn’t know how to do it otherwise. Clearly, he craved some kind of relationship; hence his approach to me in the Assembly. Dumb though that strange boy may have been, he had figured me out better than I had figured out myself.

Had I been able to suspend my aversion to the kid (who was OK looking, but nothing special), our prospects would have been inauspicious. For I too was struggling with conflicted feelings. In contrast with heterosexual adolescent courtship, our milieu provided no models for two men to link up as “more than just friends.” Any relationship of that kind was perilous, because gossip would ensue, followed by ostracism. To the best of my knowledge, McC.’s circle of five or six youths did not include any couples--they were all just friends together, it seemed. A male couple, on the other hand, would elicit hostile attention. So it is just as well that I didn’t go any farther with Mr. Sullen.

As I bade good-bye in the summer of 1952 to the halls of “Rome” (as we grandly called our high school), I was but dimly aware of the daunting challenges that awaited me. Somehow I must make contact with established homosexuals, a little older than me, who could offer counsel. In so doing I must defend myself, as best I could, from the cynicism and negativity that so pervaded the gay world at that time. So far I had had hardly any sex. I would have to learn how to find partners, and also to learn which modes suited me. How did one perform gay sex? Mutual masturbation was about as far as my imagination extended in those days. Put a cock in my mouth? How very unsanitary. Apart from this prudishness, I had somehow to avoid the danger of public labeling--what we now term outing--for as a person with very little in the way of personal or family resources, the ensuing obloquy would have been very hard to sustain.

And yet, I did manage.

In retrospect, I have concluded that what I learned from LA High was that I could survive (after a fashion), even as a contrarian.  How was I a contrarian? First, just being a “four eyes” (I wore thick glasses) barred me from any hope of joining the “in” crowd. They didn’t have contact lenses in those days.

I also did things that set me apart. I opposed the dominant pop trends by seeking to promote high culture, especially classical music. Yet opera--or so I was told--was “stuffy.” (The expression “it sucks” was unknown then.) My culture-mongering did not stop with classical music, though Mozart was my god. (Later I became almost physically ill when I read a mediocre British novelist’s dismissive comment about “filthy old Mozart.”) I was big on modern poetry and modern art, especially Picasso. Their hermetic qualities made them opaque to most people, which was just fine with me. On my own, I consulted works of explication at the public library, and with the aids I was able to hold forth on the symbolism and formal values that distinguished these highbrow productions. I liked to go to the movies, but shunned the latest Hollywood products in favor of classics of the silent era.

My parents couldn’t afford a TV, or so they claimed. A critic might say that in pushing high culture I was making a virtue of necessity. I didn’t have access to the fare on the idiot box, harmless rubbish that provided common themes for chatting in the cafeteria and during recess klatsches. By way of compensation, I became the apostle of something so very, very much superior!

In the late ‘forties an enterprising small publisher secured the rights to a formerly lost manuscript by Ezra Pound, “Patria Mia.” In the ad, above a fierce photo of the bearded poet ran the caption “the most antisocial writer of our time.” Whee! That guy was for me. Almost feverishly, I started reading Pound, who quickly replaced Friedrich Nietzsche in my affections, My interest in Pound was partly sparked by my ambition to become an avant-garde poet. In fact I was a kind of proto-beatnik, but fortunately I pulled back, because I couldn’t face the life of poverty such a career path would entail. (I wonder what became of the poems, mostly pastiches, that I produced during my high school years?)

When I showed my copy of “The Cantos” to one of my teachers, she remarked: “well, er, isn’t he p r e j u d i c e d?” As I noted, that was an age of verbal circumspection.

I did not share Pound’s anti-Semitism or his admiration of Mussolini. Later on, when I lived in Italy, I came across old-timers who still revered the Duce, but I was never able to make much of this enthusiasm.

Our high school was about 30% Jewish and these students were my natural allies, because, as a rule, they respected culture and learning. By definition the rednecks did not. Still, the Jewish students strove to fit in--to do OK at sports and to avoid the role of missionary culture-vulture, which was my thing.

With a few exceptions, I did not find the Jewish boys sexually compelling. As a sociologist might say, there was “not enough distance.” That is, being similar, we were not complementary enough. With the redneck guys it was different. They might not have much upstairs, but we could always live downstairs--or so I fancied. If only I could just shut up about Mozart and Picasso. But I just couldn’t.

Still, as long as I wasn’t too aggressive about it, being a culture-vulture was fairly safe; not so, sexual unorthodoxy. In high school there were definite limits, and coming out as a proud homosexual would be way, way out of bounds. In fact it was inconceivable. I suppose a Freudian would say that my culture-vulture engagements were a form of sublimation in response to my sexual frustration. Of course, in those pre-pill days most het boys and girls felt sexually frustrated too. For the most part they restricted their encounters to petting. Because of their deprivation, the boys were reputed to suffer from time to from attacks of the dreaded “blue balls.” During an attack almost any mouth would do that might offer the necessary relief. I never got a chance to test this hypothesis, though.

Sublimated or not, I found nonconformity welcome, even alluring.

All the same, from my parents' far-left orientation I also learned that concealment and guile (being in the closet, if you will) were sometimes advisable. As a postal worker, my stepfather could have lost his job in the anti-Communist atmosphere of the era.  Guided by my reading of Arthur Koestler, I came to reject my parents' politics, but the lesson of caution remained.

All things considered, LA High was a hostile, or at least indifferent environment for me.  In 1952 I breathed a big sigh of relief when I got to UCLA --so much more congenial to my love of high culture. The college days must wait for another installment of these reminiscences.

Perhaps it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that subsequently my life has unfolded between two poles.  In my academic career as an art historian, I largely adhered to the cooperative (UCLA) mode.  That was prudent.  However, when it came to the turbulent gay movement I reverted to being a contrarian, my high school stance.  As a result I was virtually hounded out of that movement--not unlike the fate of Don Slater, I suppose. Unfortunately, I lacked his infectious charm.

On my blog, I am free to be as contrarian as I wish--maybe not such a good thing, but hey! I am retired.



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