Posts Tagged 'slavery'

Brung up to it: 19th, 20th, and 21st-century morality.

In H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, written in 1898 (revised in 1910), a man named Graham, an ordinary middle-class schmoe from the late Victorian age, falls into an unexplained trance and wakes up naked in a display case 200 years in the future.

It turns out that during his long sleep his assets were placed in trust, the trust acquired other assets, grew to a monopoly, supplanted the obsolete nation-states – and in short, Graham has become de jure owner of the world.

The council that has been ruling in his name isn’t too happy to have him awake and possibly meddling with their arrangements – particularly since a legend has grown up among the oppressed labouring masses that “the Sleeper”, like King Arthur or Frederick Barbarossa, will someday awake and right the world’s injustices.

While the council debates how to dispose of him, they lock him away in a well-appointed private apartment. Killing time, he fiddles with a curious apparatus in the corner and, on stepping back, realizes that its forward surface is a screen upon which miniaturized dramatic plays appear:

It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

He deduces that the curious little cylinders shelved along the wall represent different dramas that can be played on the machine. Swapping in a cylinder at random, he is treated to an adaptation of the opera Tannhäuser, its opening act set in something called a Pleasure City.

wagner tannhauser venusberg royal opera 2010

The Venusberg scene in Tannhäuser, Act I, The Royal Opera, 2010.
Photo by Clive Barda, The Guardian.

At first Graham enjoys the opera, but its frank eroticism soon offends his old-fashioned sensibilities:

He rose, angry and half ashamed at himself for witnessing this thing even in solitude. He pulled forward the apparatus, and with some violence sought for a means of stopping its action. Something snapped. A violet spark stung and convulsed his arm and the thing was still. When he attempted next day to replace these Tannhauser cylinders by another pair, he found the apparatus broken . . . .

He struck out a path oblique to the room and paced to and fro, struggling with intolerable vast impressions. The things he had derived from the cylinders and the things he had seen, conflicted, confused him. It seemed to him the most amazing thing of all that in his thirty years of life he had never tried to shape a picture of these coming times. “We were making the future,” he said, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!”

No doubt an Englishman of the 19th century, reawakened in the 21st, would be awed by our technological accomplishments, which are far more marvellous than even H.G. Wells foresaw. But many of the social changes that we accept with a shrug, if we don’t outright applaud their implementation, the 19th-century man would regard as horrific regressions to savagery.

I picture the 19th-century man seated beside me on the patio of the coffeeshop I frequent here in suburban Vancouver. He watches the parade of pedestrians, cheaply and garishly clothed, their tattoo-covered limbs exposed, rings in their noses and lips, men and women alike shouting obscenities into their handheld magic mirrors. More foul language floats from the open windows of passing cars, accompanied by music of staggering loudness and primitivity.

A vagrant clatters by with a shopping cart, reeking and muttering to himself. I mention to my companion that my city is considered a model of prosperity and good government, and that its gravest problem is that it’s so attractive to outsiders that its residents are unable to afford the soaring rents.

But my Victorian friend isn’t shocked by the sight of vagrants, merely mildly troubled that an additional century of social reform seems not to have improved the lot of the poorest of the poor. What shocks him is the girls in yoga pants and low-cut t-shirts, the crudity of manners among citizens that I’ve assured him are of the middle or upper-middle classes, the universal vileness of speech. I explain patiently that we have our own speech taboos, just as strictly enforced, they’re merely different from the ones of his era – and while we’re on the topic, would he please refrain from commenting on the number of Chinamen. He laughs, uncomprehending.

At some point, I know, the 19th-century man is going to get hold of a newspaper, and learn of the mobs tearing down the statues of his contemporaries, and of men asserting their right to declare themselves women, and of gay marriage, and abortion on demand, and “medical assistance in dying”, and a hundred other developments which I can predict will outrage him. But what worries me is all the things that will outrage him that I can’t predict, because they’re invisible to me.

In The Sleeper Awakes, the two developments that most offend Graham are the decline of motherhood – babies are now tended by robots in vast antiseptic crèches, freeing their mothers to pursue their careers and pleasures – and the fact that the restless white masses of Europe are kept in line by black riot police from Africa. It is the imminent arrival of a squad of African police in London that triggers the final battle of the novel, in which the Sleeper, heretofore a fairly feckless protagonist, finally steps into the heroic role that legend has assigned to him.

No doubt the casual intermingling of the races is one of the things that would unnerve my visitor from the Victorian age. The dissolution of sex roles is another: the notion that it is a “liberation” for mothers to trundle their infants off to daycare, and to share with their men the duty of bread-winning, he would find highly questionable. But I suspect that just as it was that sexed-up Tannhäuser that first aroused Graham’s sense of “archaic indignation”, it is modern pornography that would strike the man of the 19th century as the most obvious sign of our descent into barbarism. “Look, look what your ‘liberated’ mothers and daughters have been reduced to!” he’d exclaim, and I’d mumble and blush and change the subject.

***

In the Washington Post a few weeks back, book critic Ron Charles celebrated the purging of “racially offensive content” from old and not-so-old movies and TV shows, while expressing some ambivalence about extending the purge into his own area of specialization:

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs.

We may snigger at the palpitations of those 19th-century schoolmarms who thought that children would be harmed by frank reference to bodily functions: mere “silliness”, per Ron Charles. But those 21st-century pedagogues who think children will be harmed by “the n-word”, well, their “critical arguments have been illuminating”.

But is it possible that the harms of exposure to taboo language were exactly as dire for the children of the 19th century as for those of the 21st? If you’re brought up to believe that certain words are dangerous, then hearing those words can induce stress, fear, a lingering state of nervous agitation. Certain groups – in olden times women and children, nowadays “people of colour” among others – are thought to be especially susceptible to such extreme emotional responses, so that knowingly exposing them to these dangerous words amounts to an attack on their composure – an act of violence.

From a Halifax music festival’s public apology for permitting a white presenter to speak aloud the titles of some works by the black composer Julius Eastman:

This event caused direct harm to those involved, those in attendance and to the broader communities surrounding our organization, particularly QTBIPOC folks. [1] We recognize and name this as an instance of anti-black racism. … This resulted in surprise, shock, violence, discomfort, harm and a number of associated experiences for the presenters and those in attendance.

I’d intended to balance the above apology with the complaint of the Brooklyn librarian who in 1905 was “shocked” by Mark Twain’s earthy language. But it turns out that the librarian’s crusade to protect the community was, by 21st-century standards, pretty half-hearted: declaring that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were inappropriate for children, she simply kicked them upstairs to the adults’ department.

On hearing of this, Twain drily observed that,

I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.

I suspect that many 21st-century progressives would assent unironically to the proposal that the Bible, to say nothing of Huckleberry Finn, is too problematic to be read by children unsupervised.

***

In 1950, just shy of the chronological midpoint between the publication of Huckleberry Finn and today, Lionel Trilling observed that:

Huckleberry Finn was once barred from certain libraries and schools for its alleged subversion of morality. The authorities had in mind the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar. We smiled at that excessive care, yet in point of fact Huckleberry Finn is indeed a subversive book–no-one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the customary beliefs of his time and place. [2]

That “great moral crisis” to which Trilling refers is Huck’s mounting sense of guilt over having abetted the escape of Miss Watson’s slave:

I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so–I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?”

huckleberry finn dan pearce illustration octopus books 1978

Huck and Jim, by Dan Pearce, ©1978 Octopus Books.

The “right” thing to do, Huck’s conscience tells him, is to come clean, write Miss Watson with the whereabouts of her runaway slave, and slouch home to Missouri to live down the shameful reputation he’s earned. Huck goes so far as to write the letter, and immediately feels better – “all washed clean of sin” – but his complacency is disturbed by memories of Jim’s kindness and friendship. He plucks up the letter – his salvation:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. [3]

***

Having grown up in the 1970s and ’80s, when free speech assumptions were ascendant, and having consequently had my mind soiled in youth by exposure to subversive works by Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, and yes, Mark Twain, I can’t help rolling my eyes at the efforts of censors of all political stripes to safeguard children – and increasingly, college-age adults – against upsetting words and ideas.

But in fairness to the scruples of the 21st and 19th centuries, I should acknowledge that perhaps my desensitization is nothing to boast about. As H.G. Wells’ friend and sparring partner G.K. Chesterton once put it:

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic. [4]

Contra Chesterton, at present it’s the grandparents who are the paralytics, while their grandkids hone their nerve endings to ever finer degrees of receptivity. But never mind, old-timers: your grandkids will someday be despised by their grandkids as coarse-skinned barbarians; while long-vanquished barbarisms will re-establish themselves unopposed, in new guises flattering to those who profit from them.

M.

1. QTBIPOC: “Queer / Trans / 2-spirit / Black / Indigenous / People of Colour.”

2. Trilling’s essay “Huckleberry Finn” appears in his book The Liberal Imagination, from 1950.

3. Though Huck has resigned himself to being a sinner for Jim’s sake, this doesn’t mean he judges other people’s sins less strictly. When Tom Sawyer unexpectedly turns up, Huck is appalled at how eagerly his old friend agrees to assist in Jim’s liberation:

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

4. That Chesterton quote is from an essay called “About Shamelessness”. It’s included in his 1936 collection As I Was Saying and in his 1949 Selected Essays.

Swap in Brave New World for The Sleeper Awakes and I wrote this very same essay four years ago. Come to think of it, the old one is tighter and better. Read that instead. At other times I have considered works by Wells’ frenemies Bertrand Russell and G.B. Shaw.

Two literary eunuchs.

In this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, that film’s co-star Djimon Hounsou says something odd:

The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.

Now, English isn’t Hounsou’s first language, so he might have misspoken, or been misheard. Or perhaps he subscribes to some esoteric definition of “slavery” that somehow excludes the Roman variety. But on the surface it appears that one of the stars of Gladiator­­ – a movie about slavery in ancient times – came away from it believing that there was no slavery in ancient times.

Speaking of fictional depictions of slavery…

***

“Two literary eunuchs” would be a good title for a bitchy essay about a pair of insufficiently virile male authors. Tolkien and Lewis, maybe? Auden and Isherwood? These nerds? But I’m not sufficiently virile to write such an essay.

Instead I’ll be talking about two actual eunuchs from literature – and from history – the narrators of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.

mary renault the persian boy

Between 1969 and 1981 Mary Renault wrote a biography and a loose trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great. I can recommend them all, but especially the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Persian Boy, from 1972, which describes the most eventful period of Alexander’s career from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who is taken into his personal service.

In Renault’s telling, Bagoas is the child of a Persian aristocrat who, during the dynastic manoeuvrings that brought King Darius to the throne, was killed on the orders of the previous king’s vizier (also named Bagoas, to the confusion of later students of history). Marked for death, the handsome ten year old is instead carried off by one of his father’s murderers:

He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer’s courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. […]

The dealer’s house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer’s feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf.

The newly-made eunuch spends two quiet years as a page-boy to the wife of a local merchant, but as he grows older and his good looks attract the eyes of the men in the bazaar, his owner decides to make a little extra cash pimping him out to his customers. The boy proves so popular that he comes to the attention of the agents of the royal household, and at age thirteen Bagoas is sold again, to begin his training in “the rites of the bedchamber”.

I wonder whether Renault’s book could be published in the current climate of hypersensitivity about depictions of underage sexuality. While Bagoas begins his royal service traumatized by his experiences as a child prostitute, he reluctantly finds himself enjoying his “training” at the hands of an older eunuch. He soon graduates to service in the royal bedchamber, where the ageing Darius handles him gently, kissing and dandling him “like a doll”, but:

In all the time I was with him, he gave no sign of knowing a eunuch can feel anything. One does not tell such things to the King of Kings, if he does not ask.

***

In an Author’s Note, Renault adds that while the real Bagoas’ backstory is unknown,

the conjecture that he was of good birth is not fanciful. Such boys, whose looks had been taken care of and not spoiled by malnutrition or hardship, once enslaved were always at the highest risk of prostitution. Sokrates’ disciple Phaidon (Phaedo) is the best-known case.

mary renault the last of the wine

Phaedo – the namesake of one of Plato’s best-known dialogues – appears in Renault’s earlier novel The Last of the Wine, set among the young followers of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War. She makes Phaedo a native of Melos, an island besieged in 416 BC after defying Athenian demands for tribute. Wounded in the defense of his city, the boy is recuperating in bed when starvation obliges the defenders to submit:

[T]he gates were opened and the Athenians marched in. Presently he heard a great shrieking of women, and the death-cries of men. Soldiers ran in, dragged him from his bed to the Agora, and threw him down among a crowd of young lads and children, who had been herded into the sheep-pound. Just across the square was a pile of corpses newly killed, and still being added to; sticking out of the midst of it was his father’s head. [1]

Purchased in the slave-market by the manager of an Athens bathhouse, Phaedo soon “learned the arts of his calling, and commanded a high price”.

The narrator attempts to befriend the shy, skittish boy who is accustomed to sit in silence at Socrates’ feet. (In the dialogue named for him, Phaedo describes himself sitting on a low stool while Socrates “stroked my head and pressed the hair on the back of my neck, for he was in the habit of playing with my hair at times”.) Phaedo’s new friends are unaware that he is a slave, a fact he conceals not only out of shame, but to protect others from the ignominy of being associated with a bathhouse boy. When he reveals his secret, he is careful to explain that he met Socrates not as a client, but while on an unauthorized break from his trade – he has learned the trick of locking the door so that his manager will think he has a customer, and going out through a window to roam the city.

Later some members of Socrates’ circle send one of their number to the bathhouse to invite Phaedo to a dinner party. This leads to an awkward moment:

“In due course I knocked, and Phaedo opened. All he had on was the paint on his face. I knew then I shouldn’t have come. The next moment he slammed-to the door. He was almost too quick for me, but being rather stronger I managed to hold it. ‘Next room,’ he said through the crack, ‘I’m engaged’ – ‘Wait, Phaedo,’ I began. Suddenly he flung open the door so that I nearly fell inside. He stood there laughing. He looked like something you might come upon in a dark wood. ‘Come in, Lysis,’ he said. ‘Honour the threshold. Who am I to turn away trade?'”

Phaedo is eventually bought by one of Socrates’ friends and set free. He never discusses his past clients, but occasionally the narrator will notice him “watching with irony in his dark eye” as some citizen pontificates about morality.

Luckily for Phaedo, at this time it wasn’t the Greek custom to make eunuchs of their slaves, a practice they regarded with disgust – though as Bagoas states in The Persian Boy, set almost a century later,

[S]o long as they sold boys young into the brothels, I did not think the Greeks had so much to boast of.

***

To resume the narrative of The Persian Boy: After King Darius ignominiously flees Alexander’s army at Gaugamela, Bagoas joins his slow retreat northward through the mountains, faithfully serving his master while his generals and courtiers scheme to depose him. When the coup comes, and the remnants of Persian resistance scatter, the boy finds himself masterless and alone, with no choice but to offer his services in the camp of the pursuing Macedonians:

I waited by the fidgeting horses, while the Macedonians looked at me. Among Persians, the eunuch knows himself marked out at sight by his lack of beard; it was most strange to be in a crowd where no young man had one. Alexander had shaved from his youth, and liked his fashion followed. Persian soldiers would have had any man’s blood, who told them to make themselves like eunuchs; but I don’t think this had even occurred to the Macedonians. They had no eunuchs. I was the only one.

Accustomed to the formal rigours of the Persian court, Bagoas is at first repelled by the easy manners of the Macedonians – “uncouth westerners” who drink heavily, banter playfully with their king, and exercise shamelessly in the nude. They in turn detest him as a “spayed catamite” and resent his “fawning barbarians ways”.

The young king, whom Bagoas find surprisingly courteous “for someone reared in the wilds”, is more receptive to eastern customs. Appreciating his new servant’s elegant manners and remarkable beauty, he employs him as a personal attendant, and later as a Persian language instructor, but declines to invite him to his bedchambers. It is Bagoas who first falls in love with Alexander, and eventually succeeds in seducing him.

mary renault funeral games

Bagoas appears again in Renault’s Funeral Games, set amid the struggles for succession at the time of Alexander’s death. The general Ptolemy watches as Bagoas tenderly nurses the dying king:

At first Ptolemy had disliked this exotic presence haunting Alexander’s living-quarters, encouraging him to assume the trappings of Persian royalty and the manners of a Persian court, having his ear day and night. But he was a fixture one had grown used to.

In Renault’s telling Bagoas became not only Alexander’s lover but one of his nearest confidantes, inspiring his vision of his new empire as a synthesis of the best of eastern and western civilizations. In practice this meant that the relatively democratic norms of Macedonia were supplanted by the pomp and rigidity of Persia.

As word got back to Greece about Alexander’s eastern pretensions – like expecting visitors to prostrate themselves before him – his political enemies began to incorporate Bagoas, in the character of a conniving oriental courtier, into their “anti-Macedonian agitprop”. In her 1975 biography The Nature of Alexander, Renault compellingly refutes the story that Bagoas fabricated a charge of tomb-robbing against a satrap who had insulted him. As relayed by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius:

On one side Bagoas, on the other those whom he had suborned, filled the king’s ears with false charges. Before Orsines suspected that he was being accused he was delivered into bondage. Not content with the punishment of an innocent man, the eunuch laid his hand on him as he was about to be executed. Orsines with a glance at him said: “I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!”

In The Persian Boy Renault makes Orsines genuinely guilty of various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Bagoas’ family.

***

robert graves count belisarius

Unluckily for generations of boy slaves, Alexander’s policy of fusionism led to the adoption of many Persian practices in the west. In a 1937 poem Robert Graves imagined some soldiers of the Byzantine Empire, posted on the eastern frontier, sneering as Alexander’s uncouth Macedonians might have at the decadence of big city customs:

We can know little (as we care little)
Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,
Her white-gowned pederastic senators,
The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,
The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

By the time of the Emperor Justinian – we’re now in the 6th century AD – eunuchs were an integral part of Byzantine court life. Eugenius, the narrator of Graves’ 1938 novel Count Belisarius, though a slave himself, takes a certain pride in the influence of his fellow eunuchs:

It is a principle first learned by our Emperors from the Persian Court that eunuchs, since they are ineligible for sovereignty and incapable of founding dangerously powerful families, can safely be honoured with the royal confidence and used as a bulwark against the possible usurpation of the Throne by a conspiracy of powerful nobles. Eunuchs on the whole make milder and more loyal and more industrious officials than their unstoned colleagues, and their pettiness in routine matters – I do not deny the pettiness – is a strong conservative force. It has therefore long been the practice of rich middle-class families who have enough male children to carry on the line, deliberately to castrate one of the younger ones and dedicate him to a profitable career in the Civil Service. The bastard sons of Emperors too, or of their sons and daughters, are regularly castrated, in order to make useful citizens of them and prevent them from aspiring to the Throne. […]

Thus, to be a eunuch is, in the worldly sense at least, more of an advantage than a disadvantage, as may also be seen by a comparison of slave-market prices. A eunuch house-slave fetches three times the price of an unstoned one; he is worth only a little less than a trained house-physician or a skilled artisan. But a eunuch is seldom a happy man, because the operation has almost always been performed on him before the age of puberty, and he secretly imagines that to be a whole man is something very fine; if only because whole men are apt to jeer at eunuchs and to swear that they would rather be blind or dumb or deaf, or even all three of these things together, than debarred from the sweet and wholesome act of love. Naturally, the eunuch has a ready answer to such boasting: that sex is a madness and never brought anyone much luck. But secretly, as I confess, he is apt to envy the man who can take a woman to bed with him and do more than embrace her as a sister and chastely kiss her eyes.

Unlike Mary Renault, Graves evinces not the slightest interest in the sex life of his eunuch narrator. The passage above occurs during the introduction of the eunuch court chamberlain Narses – another real historical figure – who despite appearing in only a handful of scenes emerges as a more complete character than Eugenius.

When we meet him, Narses is already well advanced in years, a survivor of innumerable palace intrigues, a “dwarfish and repulsively ugly figure” acutely sensitive to slights, who harbours an unlikely aspiration to be taken seriously as a warrior. Antonina, wife to the celebrated general Belisarius, is one of the few to humour the ugly little man when he prattles about military tactics.

To widespread amusement, Narses later convinces the flighty Emperor Justinian to send him as general to Italy, to reinforce Belisarius in his war there against the Goths:

That he was dwarfish and big-buttocked and had a squint and a twisted lip had not seemed very ridiculous when he was gliding along the Palace corridors. … But to see Narses, who had already long passed the grand climacteric of his years, strutting about in the latest fashion of plate-armour … trailing a full-sized sword which was continually catching between his legs and tripping him up – that I assure you was a sight to raise a smile on the face of a man dying of the cholera.

The level-headed Antonina foresees that Narses might prove “a capable officer in spite of his age”, but warns her husband that his touchy personality will demand delicate handling. Her warning proves justified: the eunuch promptly quarrels with Belisarius and sows contention among the other generals, until Justinian is forced to recall him.

A dozen years later, after Belisarius has retired to Constantinople, Narses is again sent out by Justinian against the Goths, and by a series of brilliant victories reconquers Italy. Still later, annoyed once again over private slights, Narses intrigues with the Lombards, who go on to invade northern Italy, putting an end to Byzantine rule there.

***

Whereas Narses has plans and ambitions of his own, the narrator Eugenius is defined primarily by his utter devotion to Antonina, whose servant he has been since she was a child.

In creating his narrator, Graves had even less material to work with (or to constrain his imagination) than Renault did with Bagoas. In fact Eugenius appears only once in the historical record, in the lurid Secret History written by Procopius, who served as private secretary to Belisarius.

In that episode, Eugenius is enlisted in avenging an insult by some unfaithful slaves:

And they say that [Antonina] first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea, being assisted throughout in this impious business by one of the servants named Eugenius…

Note that Procopius never identifies Eugenius as a eunuch – that was Graves’ extrapolation. In fact, in the early stages of the writing of Count Belisarius, Antonina was intended as the narrator. Graves was convinced by his mistress and sometime collaborator Laura Riding to rewrite the early chapters in the slave’s voice, inspiring some prurient eyebrow-waggling over the parallels to the author’s own sex life:

It is often observed that Graves was in effect the devoted slave of Riding, which raises the possibility that he was Eugenius to her Antonina. … [I]t is known that Graves had embraced a life of celibacy for Riding. [2]

At any rate, Eugenius in Graves’ telling, like Bagoas in Mary Renault’s, is innocent of the atrocity attributed to him. Just as Alexander was libelled by jealous Greeks, so was Belisarius by his jealous secretary, Procopius:

Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied – according to his vindictive purposes. (Even I, Eugenius, was introduced into this farrago: for example, I was supposed to have assisted my mistress in the murder of the maid Macedonia: whose tongue, he said, was cut in little pieces and cast into the sea.) [3]

However, Eugenius makes no bones about his involvement in another murder – that of a bishop, whose assassination he succesfully pins on an old rival of Antonina’s. In gratitude, Antonina offers to give him his freedom and a hefty reward besides. He humbly demurs:

“What is money but bodily comforts, which I already possess? What is ‘freedom’ but to be well considered, as I already am?”

Eugenius should have taken his freedom and retired somewhere far from the capital’s “cut-throat factions”; for not long afterward, the scandalous manuscript of Procopius comes to light, full of vile gossip not only about Belisarius and Antonina but about the Emperor Justinian. (In Graves’ interpretation, all the tales about his hero and heroine are malicious distortions, but all those about Justinian are true.)

To save his own skin, Procopius is induced to give false evidence against Belisarius, whom the emperor detests for his own petty reasons. Belisarius is charged with treason, and his household servants are seized and put to torture.

For a slave in such a situation, Eugenius knows, defiant silence is not a winning strategy:

Andreas died under the torture, but in order to vex [the public prosecutor] he did not utter a single cry. I yelled and screamed without ceasing. I knew that to do so would either satisfy the officer of the torture chamber or else disconcert him, so that he would say to the slave: “Enough for the moment, fellow: relax the cords, unscrew!” All my cries were: “Long life to his Gracious Majesty!” and “I know nothing, nothing.” So I escaped. Of the bodily injuries I received that day I shall not trouble you. I am a person of no importance.

M.

1. The real Phaedo, known as Phaedo of Elis, was – as you might suppose – from Elis, which fell to an alliance of Sparta and Athens a few years before Socrates’ death in 399 BC. In The Last of the Wine Renault moves Phaedo’s enslavement over a decade backward in time, to the middle of the Peloponnesian War, and makes him a victim of the most famous instance of Athenian ruthlessness in that conflict.

2. For more about Graves’ decision to make Eugenius and not Antonina his narrator, see “Count Belisarius – Genesis, Gender, and Truth” by Shaun Tougher. For Graves’ turbulent relationship with Laura Riding – “a woman of gargantuan and zany self-esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness” – this snappy book review by Thomas M. Disch covers the essentials.

3. Elsewhere in Count Belisarius, Eugenius denies his involvement in the murder of Antonina’s servant in slightly different words:

That my mistress with my help pulled out Macedonia’s tongue, cut her in pieces, and threw the pieces into the sea is a lie told many years later by the secretary Procopius to discredit her.

Whereas in the passage quoted above, it’s only Macedonia’s tongue that is chopped up. I can’t read the original Greek – which you can consult here – but I gather there’s some ambiguity in Procopius’ phrasing on this point. I can find three translations online:

It is said that she first cut out their tongues, and then ordered them to be hewn in pieces, put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Athenian Society, 1896

She first cruelly cut out their tongues, it is said, and then cut their bodies into little bits which were put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Richard Atwater, 1927

And they say that she first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea…
H.B. Dewing, 1935

In January I referred to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in a discussion of Max Beerbohm and posterity. Years ago while reading The Last of the Wine I noticed that Mary Renault seemed to be the only person puzzled (like me) by the story of the Spartan boy and the fox. And speaking of “depictions of underage sexuality”, in 2018 I had some surprisingly deep thoughts about the Netflix cartoon series Big Mouth.

The first draft of history is often the last.

A few days ago I discussed an Ottawa pizza waitress I identified as SL, who was fired after sharing a Snapchat video which supposedly showed her sister and her sister’s boyfriend flippantly reenacting George Floyd’s death.

That’s what the headlines alleged, anyway. SL claimed that the video merely showed the couple innocently rasslin’ on the floor, and that the George Floyd connection had never occurred to them.

I argued that the media companies that tarred these young people as racists probably ought to have actually confirmed the contents of the video before composing their inflammatory headlines, which might well dog their subjects for the rest of their lives.

Even assuming the worst about SL’s video – that it really was intended to mock and minimize George Floyd’s sad death – it was only a tasteless joke, the kind that young idiots make all the time. In a sane world they would get a stern lecture, suffer some minor punishment, and after a few months and a suitable show of contrition be accepted back into polite society.

But the internet and social media, along with the ever-mounting moral panic over racism, have made such a proportionate response impossible. There are no longer any intermediate punishments available; it’s either ignore the offense, or call down upon the offenders the full wrath of Twitter.

The media seems to have lost interest in SL’s story – just as it threatens to become interesting. Six months, a year, ten years from now, how will she make her way through life with the first page of her Google results identifying her as a racist?

We’ll never find out. SL will carry on, at a somewhat lower trajectory than before, maybe for another seventy, eighty years. But her story is over. It consists of a dozen or so news articles and blog posts, a few hundred tweets, maybe a couple thousand words of text altogether.

The first rough draft of her history has been written, and it’s unlikely to be revised.

***

Ten years ago I looked into another case that was a media sensation for a couple days. At that time I wrote,

I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then.

But it slipped my mind.

The story is described in my post, “The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?”

To quickly summarize, in the summer of 2010 two Russian girls signed up with a job placement agency that promised to arrange “cultural exchange” visas and jobs as lifeguards in the United States. When they arrived in Washington, they were told that the lifeguard positions were no longer available, and that they should instead travel to New York City, where they would be given jobs as hostesses in a nightclub.

It all sounded kind of shady, and when someone who knew the girls posted about it to the then-mighty internet forum MetaFilter, a posse quickly emerged to divert the girls from what everyone was sure was an appointment with sex traffickers. And they were successful! The girls wound up staying in the apartment of a New York MetaFilter user, while the media lit up with feel-good stories about how a bunch of selfless internet heroes had put the boot to wicked Russian mobsters.

As I wrote shortly afterward:

So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.

A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.

The bar was called Lux Lounge. Usually, in order to minimize my impact on the blind wanderings of the search spiders, I try to avoid using the real names of non-famous people and small businesses. In this case there’s little harm in referring to it by name because:

On June 14 [2010], Lux Lounge closed its doors. The closing came about three weeks after the [MetaFilter] saga began, and about four months after the club’s grand opening. (The Daily Beast tried to contact the former owners of Lux Lounge and also the landlord listed for the property, but never got a reply.)

That’s from a (paywalled) Daily Beast story from 2011, which seems to be the most recent mention of the case in the media. The implication is that the mobbed-up characters behind Lux Lounge slunk away into the shadows after the media shone a light on their misdeeds.

Maybe. Or maybe an innocent business was sabotaged by a gang of overwrought internet do-gooders. Or maybe it would’ve shut down anyway, because bars in that neighbourhood are failing all the time: since 2010 there have been at least four different restaurants and bars at its former address on Coney Island Avenue – Mexican, Georgian, Tajik, and most recently Moroccan.

As for Lux Lounge, the Daily Beast writer makes a big deal of the smutty flyer for its “Ass-travaganza Grand Opening” in February, 2010, featuring “a bronzed, near-naked woman wearing bright-yellow thong panties, and just one boot”:

lux lounge coney island grand opening

…And purses her lips over “the club’s Facebook page, full of photos of women in lingerie and fishnets, dollar bills stuffed into their panties.”

Okay, it’s not the kind of joint where I’d like to hang out, as evidenced further by this video of an ear-hammering performance there by a rapper named Akay Stacks in April, 2010. Seriously, turn down your volume before clicking on this.

The club was around for such a short time that after a decade there’s little surviving evidence of what it was like. In the original MetaFilter thread, a user named Bingo suggested that in lieu of lurid speculations, maybe someone should pop by the place and scope it out. Other users warned him off:

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

But Bingo went anyway, and in what strikes me as a pretty level-headed assessment that nevertheless enraged many of his fellow posters, he reported that,

It’s a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood. It seems to be popular with 20-something Russian kids.

It is absolutely not a strip club.
It is absolutely not a brothel. […]

Q: Does this mean that the organization(s) that brought these girls over were necessarily on the level?
A: No.

Q: Does this mean that the person who wanted to meet these girls at Cafe Lux was, de facto, an honest person, with their best interests at heart?
A: No.

…And so on. In response, another poster named Astro Zombie gathered some comments from now-defunct MySpace pages indicating that strippers and escorts were present at various events at Lux Lounge, which…look, I’m neither a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League nor an apologist for “sex work”, as we’re supposed to call it these days. But as far as I can tell, this is the closest anyone has come to producing damning evidence against Lux Lounge, and it’s pretty weak sauce.

My 2010 blog post got a comment from someone named Kim W:

Speaking as a MeFite who has been tangentially involved – one of the members who have been more closely involved is on the U.S. State Department anti-trafficking squad, and got involved very early on. There are details about the case that he CANNOT reveal because they now pertain to an ongoing investigation. That may explain why you haven’t heard any further details on the MetaFilter site – for the same reason that the police do not regularly release updates about current ongoing investigations (think about it).

But by the time the Daily Beast article came out the following year,

The police aren’t investigating. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in New York City says the case was closed after the two Russian women were interviewed the evening of their original arrival in New York, because they said they didn’t feel threatened at the time.

If a case was opened up at the federal level, apparently nothing came of it. We are asked to be realistic about this:

Explains Ken Franzblau, a trafficking expert who has worked with the human-rights group Equality Now and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services: “In a perfect TV world of law enforcement, sure, the police would bust open an international trafficking ring.” But that’s not the real world, he says, where police departments are understaffed and overworked. “In this case, the D.A. and the police ensured that these two women were safe.” That, he says, is a triumph.

A triumph? If you believe, as the Daily Beast evidently does, that the girls were about to be forced or blackmailed into prostitution, then the job placement agency that brought them over was knowingly linked to brutal pimps. Both the agency and the girls’ contact in Brooklyn, a person of unknown nationality called George, felt sufficient sense of impunity to continue hassling the girls – no, battering them – after they’d blown off their meeting at Lux Lounge:

The next day, the Russian company battered the women with calls on their cell phones, telling them they were breaking a contract and threatening lawsuits that would cost their families thousands of dollars. The women were told to fly to Texas immediately for new jobs as housekeepers. Or to go to San Diego to be pedicab drivers. Details on housing arrangements were uncomfortably vague.

George called the Russian women, too, asking where they were.

This was after the girls had already been interviewed by two policemen, who left because the girls said they “didn’t feel threatened”. Did anyone pass George’s contact info on to the cops? Or how about the name and number of the dodgy job placement agency? It was still in business a year later:

The two women’s travel plans involved two separate companies in Russia: One is a regular partner of CETUSA [the nonprofit organization that sponsored the women’s visas in the U.S.] but the other company was unknown to the U.S. organization. The latter is the company the women worked closely with. When contacted by The Daily Beast, that company denied knowing George. […]

The Russian company eventually stopped calling, thanks to the efforts of Ksenya’s boyfriend, the Russian lawyer. He managed to get the company to sign a contract saying the women were free of obligation.

In mid-June, the two women flew home to Moscow, having had no luck getting jobs.

By the time someone gets around to compiling the complete history of sex trafficking in 21st century America, it’ll be pretty much impossible to locate George, or the owners of the job placement agency, or the former owners of the Lux Lounge, or the cops who interviewed the Russian girls, or anyone else who might have added some solidity to this vaporous case. So the historian will probably just copy-and-paste the first-draft version: “The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery”.

M.

The theme of today’s essay is reputation, a topic which interested Max Beerbohm, who attempted to reconstruct the character of an 18th century clergyman from a few lines in the Life of Samuel Johnson. I seem never to have blogged about prostitution, but I once shared my surprise at how freely Nancy Mitford threw around the word “whore”. As for Russian mobsters, I’m less bothered by the remote threat of organized crime than I am by the petty misbehaviours of the mentally deranged.

The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?

Last week a bunch of bloggers linked to this now-famous Ask MetaFilter thread where a guy enlisted the online community to help him save two Russian friends from “a dangerous situation”.

The young women had paid a travel agency 3000 bucks to set them up with jobs on their arrival in Washington, DC. The job placements failed to appear and they were redirected to a late-night meeting at a bar in New York, where they were promised “hostessing” jobs.

A commenter named nadawi summed up what everyone was probably thinking:

if they get to nyc tomorrow, they are signing up to be prostitutes. they will get their passports taken, they will probably be beaten, and the only way to get out will be to die or to become too old to be of use to them anymore.

After much discussion, a MetaFilter user agreed to meet the girls at the bus station in NYC and talk them out of going to the bar. The intervention was successful, and as of last Friday the girls were housed snugly in the apartment of the MetaFilter samaritan.

So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.

A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.

Clearly if they are front operations someone should shut them down. But maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re just ill-organized immigrant-run businesses. Maybe the travel agency found itself unable to deliver on the jobs it had promised, and called in a favour from the friends or relatives who ran the NYC bar. Maybe the meeting was scheduled for the middle of the night because, you know, it’s a nightclub, and the manager wouldn’t be around earlier in the evening.

I can’t say whether this is true or untrue. But after confidently blaring headlines like MetaFilter Saved My Pals From Sex Traffickers and The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery, I would like to see bloggers and news organizations invest some effort into verifying the calumnies they’ve directed against these business owners.

But my suspicion is that the story will quietly fall into obscurity. It’s too good to fact-check.

***

I’m about as remote from the world of human trafficking as a person can be. I have no idea how often immigrant girls in New York are really stripped of their passports, beaten, and forced into prostitution. Sex slavery, like serial murder or child abduction or snuff filmmaking, is such a lurid and exotic crime that it overwhelms the imagination. Our grown-up cynicism disappears and we become children, listening in fascination to stories of witches and bogeymen.

Some crimes at least are susceptible to statistical analysis. We can calculate the real risk of having your kid abducted by a stranger; we can add up the number of annual axe murders. “Sex trafficking” is a fuzzy concept by definition – it encompasses gradations of coercion and consent that are impossible for outsiders to suss out. It can be stretched to include any prostitute who crosses an international border. And of course, we can only count the sex trafficking rings that are successfully broken up by police. This means that people are free to make up statistics:

In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, some British journalists reported that thousands of women from across the world were going to be trafficked into Germany to work as sex slaves for football fans. The Independent reported that Germany was about to experience a “sex explosion”. In the Guardian, Julie Bindel said “Germany’s pimps are casting their eyes on poverty-stricken countries… in their search for women for the Cup”. As it turned out, German police uncovered just five cases of “human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation” during the World Cup – and one of the victims was a German. This did not stop Mary Honeyball from claiming two weeks ago that “thousands of prostitutes were drawn to Germany during the last World Cup” and that “trafficking is on the rise in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, which like all other international sporting events is predicted to effect a steep rise in prostitution”.

In the case of the MetaFilter story, precaution surely justified the effort that went into diverting these girls from their rendezvous at the bar. Whether or not the meeting was dangerous, it certainly sounded dangerous. But note how quickly the story changed from “We have to protect these girls from a sketchy situation” to “We have rescued these girls from a life of sex slavery.”

On a separate MetaFilter thread, when a commenter named bingo made the sensible offer to swing by the bar in question and check it out, other commenters immediately disparaged the plan on the grounds that,

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

Bingo made the trip anyway and wound up having a drink at the bar in question. He described it as “a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood.” He went on to point out:

A place of business with a previously small online footprint will soon have this thread associated with it as a primary search result.

***

As far as I can tell, the most complete listing of resources on what MetaFilter users have dubbed “The Russian Incident” can be found on this Wiki page.

I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then. In the meantime if anyone happens by who can point to actual evidence – as distinct from speculation – that the businesses in question are involved in sex trafficking, that would be great. Or actually, I guess it would be awful. Anyway, it would be helpful to know, one way or the other.

M.

Update, June 1 2010: Somehow in my initial browsing of this story I overlooked this blog post by Mike Cohn, AKA bingo, the guy whose skeptical take on the proceedings upset so many MetaFilterites. Definitely worth reading for the splash-of-cold-water perspective.

Update, June 7 2010: Re-linked Mary Honeyball’s name (in the Spiked article quoted above) to the Guardian editorial where her comment appeared. Previously the link pointed to her blog, which is here.

Update, June 24 2020: Ten years later, a superficially similar media rush-to-judgement reminded me to look into this old story again: “The first draft of history is often the last”.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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