Monday, March 16, 2015

Keynesian pursuits

Last week Jason Soon linked to a review of a new biography about Keynes that appeared in the (UK) Telegraph.  That review only paid short attention to the parts of the book about his tangled love life, noting as follows:
Keynes’s love of ballet was strengthened through his wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, but in the decade prior to his marriage, Keynes had been an active homosexual – even keeping statistics on his sexual encounters. The tangled and overlapping love lives of the Bloomsbury set is as confusing as it is salacious but if this section drags, this is only a small eddy in a book which otherwise flows freely. 
Well, there's no fun in that lack of detail, is there?

Over the weekend, I found a review by the aging, Lefty turned Conservative, Paul Johnson, who was happy to expound more upon this part of the book:
Universal Man contains a fact-packed chapter entitled 'Lover', which contains a good deal of new (to me, at least) information. Keynes's letters chronicle 'the initiations, experiments, risks, sprees, settled confidence and ultimate stability of his sexual history'. Keynes first had sexual intercourse with another male in 1901, when he was seventeen. He discovered (or said he did) that at Cambridge 'practically everybody ... is an open or avowed sodomite'. Apostles divided their activities into 'higher sodomy', which was non-physical but intense, and 'lower sodomy', which was anything else. Keynes performed both, using his persuasive powers for what he called 'flirtation', and his affairs embraced a formidable number of people. Sometimes merely the intimate exchange of ideas was involved - for Keynes intelligence was a major sexual component. Thus he conceived of Einstein, whom he met in 1926, as 'a naughty Jew-boy, covered with ink, pulling a long nose as the world kicks his bottom; a sweet imp, pure and giggling ... I had indeed a little flirt with him.' In the same vein, after a meeting with Lloyd George he wrote, 'I had a terrible flirtation with Ll. G. yesterday.' After Cambridge he transferred his activities to London, writing to Lytton Strachey in 1906, 'I am off to dine at a low sodomitical haunt in Soho ... where guardsmen offer their services at half a crown a bottom.' He compiled, in 1915 or 1916, a list of his sexual partners, identified by their initials and years, showing the wide range of his conquests, from 'lift boy of Vauxhall' and 'sixteen year old under Etna' to 'stable boy of Park Lane' and 'the Chemist's boy of Paris'. The social mix was striking, and included 'the clergyman' and 'Grand Duke Cyril of the Paris Baths'. 
It's rather strange a century later to read about the way the English intelligentsia became so enamoured of the idea of homosexual love as (potentially) a thing of purity and beauty, and intellectualised it so much.* I'm sure I've read that the blame goes back to a 19th century revival of scholarship into ancient Greece.  (The ancient Romans thought the Greeks were so enthusiastically gay because they spent too much time wrestling nude; little did anyone see that naked male pastimes 2,300 years ago would lead to betrayals of Western values to an evil brand of socialism in the 20th Century.  I'm referring of course to the Cambridge spy ring,  not Keynes.)

This guy (I have no idea who he is, writing in Forbes in quasi defence of Niall Ferguson's silly comment that Keynes' homosexuality influenced his economics) at least explains the culture of his times in (what sounds like) an accurate way:
He [Keynes] was not ‘gay’ in the modern sense of the world, fighting against prejudice and bullying from a bigoted establishment. Keynes and his circle were the establishment, whose prejudice led them to bully others. The Cambridge Apostles is the definitive book on the group in which Keynes lived and moved and had his being. He and his circle embraced what they called ‘the higher sodomy’ which was based on the idea, not just that sodomy should be tolerated, but that everything else was inferior. The philosophy of the higher sodomy held that the highest form of human relations was one in which men of refinement, intellect, class and aesthetic superiority combined their male friendships with sexual relations. To go to the club and converse with men of high intellect and then to have to go home to the little woman is a lower life, a falling short of the higher sodomy.
As Strachey’s biographer put it:
“They thought that love of young men was a higher form of love. They had been brought up and educated to believe that women were inferior —in mind and body. If from the ethical point of view . . . love should be attached only to worthy objects, then love of young men was, they believed, ethically better than love of women.”
We have to avoid anachronisms here: Keynes was not the friend of the bride in a modern rom-com, who loved to gossip with the girls. He was drenched in, and in some ways intensified, a culture of misogyny which was characteristic of both his particular era and of his academic milieu. The movement to sexually integrate British universities was a matter of great debate during Keynes’ time at Cambridge. The intensity of feeling is hard for modern people to imagine: Dorothy Sayers’ excellent mystery, Gaudy Night, uses this as the backdrop to a series of crimes and provides Sayers, a Christian feminist (and the only female member of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien’s famous Inklings literary society,) with the opportunity to make the case for women’s equality. Keynes himself actively criticized integration, at least in his own case, opposed having women in his classroom. He went so far as to say that he found female modes of thinking repellant:
“I think I shall have to give up teaching females after this year. The nervous irritation caused by two hours’ contact with them is intense. I seem to hate every movement of their minds. The minds of the men, even when they are stupid and ugly, never appear to me so repellent”
Interesting.  I suppose you could argue that the rise of feminism has meant the fall of homosexual intellectual elitism, which is a good thing all around.   Funny too, given that both feminism and the gay lobby now are considered allies, especially in some dubious identity politics. 

Anyway, Paul Johnson seems very enamoured of the book, and for a crusty Conservative, he actually seems to hold Keynes in high regard.

*  If only TV and Australian Googlebox had been around at Cambridge back in the 19th century, perhaps everyone would have giggled away the idea of gay couples as having the higher attainment of intellectual purity. 

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