Memoirs; Chapter Eight
When I first visited London in 1957 the damage inflicted by World War II was still evident everywhere. Bombed-out lots gaped in the central quarters of the British capital. Austerity was still the rule. Yet when I arrived for a more extended stay six years later, a new spirit was evident. With an emphasis on youth, the new attitude was overwhelmingly one of optimism and hedonism.
Above all the theme was supplied by pop music: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Herman’s Hermits, The New Christie Minstrels, and so on. Working at my desk in West London in the morning, I habitually listened to these and other bands on the BBC program “Top of the Pops.” Soon these bits were supplemented by presentations from pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline, Wonderful Radio London, and Swinging Radio England.
Queen Magazine highlighted fashion and photography, helping to popularize the clothing designs of Mary Quant. The new gear was epitomized by Carnaby Street and the King’s Road in Chelsea. Jean Shrimpton became the most highly paid and most photographed model of the time. Other celebrated models were Veruschka, Peggy Moffitt, Penelope Tree, and above all Twiggy, noted for her slenderness.
In its April 15, 1966 number Time Magazine bestowed the label “Swinging London.” Those were the days!
After an initial orientation conducted under the auspices of the Fulbright Commission I moved into a room in London House, an establishment for foreign students in the Bloomsbury quarter of London. My room had a nice view of Mecklenburg Square where I could watch the changing of the seasons. Apart from a bed and a desk the room had only a sink, what the English called a bedsit. The toilet and showers were communal. located down the hall.
Most of the other students were from the Commonwealth, with a strong Australian contingent. Being gregarious, some of the Aussies tried to make friends with me. I was standoffish because they seemed to spend most of their free time at the bar. In the interests of devoting myself to scholarship I had adopted a strict regime, and neither smoked nor drank. I never resumed smoking tobacco, but did eventually come back to social drinking.
On November 23 I went down to breakfast and picked up The Times of London. I found that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Not having access to a television set, I had missed learning the news the day before. I was scheduled to attend a Thanksgiving dinner in the American Embassy. When the day came I didn't want to go, but I forced myself. We Americans were filled with gloom. So it seemed that my English period had started out on a bad note. After a while, though, I rallied.
The English educational setup much more informal than the one I had experienced in New York. This informality could be a little bewildering. One could go to all sorts of lectures, but there was no need to enroll in formal courses of the type familiar to me.
Officially I was attached to the Courtauld Institute, an art-historical institution ensconced in an Adam mansion in the West End. I was sent for an advising session with Professor Sir Anthony Blunt, the Institute's director. Very much of the old school, Blunt seemed surprisingly nervous during the interview, though not, as it turned out, because he was known to be gay. In fact he was being questioned every afternoon by British intelligence, as he had been a major spy for the Soviets. His academic endeavors, which he took quite seriously, served as a cover for this treasonous activity. Later on, it all came out: Blunt was disgraced and stripped of his knighthood.
Sometimes I found it useful to attend events at the Courtauld, for example, Blunt’s annual Poussin lecture. Nicolas Poussin is one of my favorite artists, but Tony Blunt’s tedious expositions were more dutiful than inspiring.
Instead of the Courtauld, I found it more profitable to sojourn in the serene setting of the Warburg Institute in Bloomsbury. The Institute had been founded in Hamburg, Germany in the 1920s by the independent scholar Aby Warburg, who died in 1929. After the rise of the Nazis, Warburg’s successors managed to transfer the Institute, with its precious books, to England, where it was attached to the University of London. The stated purpose of the Warburg Institute was the study of the classical tradition. In practice, this meant an interdisciplinary approach to a whole range of cultural artifacts and survivals. Because the organization issued a periodical together with the Courtauld Institute, it is sometimes thought to have been concerned with art history; yet except for the director Ernst Gombrich, the professors and scholars there were generally not art historians. The Warburgers mostly occupied themselves with texts.
After London House I moved with my partner Jack to a place in Talbot Square not far from Hyde Park. How pleasant it was to stroll each morning from these modest quarters to leafy Woburn Square where the Warburg Institute was ensconced! The building was located just north of the British Museum. Nearby was Dillon’s, then one of the finest bookstores in the world. There were plenty of pleasant spots for lunch and tea, and other adventurous students to talk to.
Not following the familiar Dewey Decimal System of classification, the library of the Warburg Institute adhered to a series of categories devised by the founder, Aby Warburg. Among his interests were astrology and the history of science, an odd paring but one that came to make sense to me. Herr Warburg was also intrigued by the history and documentation of festivals, ephemeral observances which nonetheless played a considerable role in the eras in which they occurred. The library also boasted a strong representation of literary classics in several languages. For example, Dante Alighieri appeared not just in Italian and English, but in German and several other languages. Consulting this array of versions, one could begin to develop a sense of what Italians call “fortuna,” that is the changing understanding of Dante, and by extension any other major author, in different times and places.
The museums of London were wonderful and I sampled them to the full. In those days the British Library was nestled inside the British Museum, and as a break from my reading I would explore the exhibits. The Elgin marbles from the Parthenon seemed pretty much old hat to me, but I enjoyed other archaeological treasures, notably the Anglo-Saxon horde from Sutton Hoo. In Trafalgar Square the National Gallery had many early Italian paintings; repeated visits to these works had a kind of therapeutic effect on me. After I settled in Talbot Square I would sometimes stroll across Hyde Park to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which specialized in sculpture and the crafts.
Oxford and Cambridge were easy day trips. Sometimes my partner Jack and I would rent a car and travel through various parts of the English countryside. I made a point of seeing all the great Cathedrals. Of these Lincoln, York, and Durham left the most vivid impression.
The London theater was cheap in those days, even for students. Dutifully, I took in a number of traditional productions in the West End. However, there were also big stirrings among the avant-garde, where the epicenter was the English Stage Company located at the Royal Court Theatre. I remember being struck by John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me, which concerned homosexuality in the Austro-Hungarian empire. There were also plays by Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Anne Jellicoe, and N. F. Simpson. International trends were represented by Bertold Brecht (very influential in those days), as well as by the absurdists Eugène Ionescu and Samuel Beckett. I left England too soon to see the premiere of the Rocky Horror Show in 1973.
As regards opera I generally eschewed Covent Garden, which was quite pricey, in favor of the Sadler's Wells opera company, London's second major venue for these events.
There was a great deal to see and do in England, especially in the capital. But the most enduring impression was left on me by certain scholars. Before going to London I knew by reputation the names of a number of luminaries at the Warburg Institute. But I had never heard of Frances Yates. In addition, her discipline seemed outlandish. The Hermetic Tradition, what the heck was that?
First, who was Yates? Dame Frances Amelia Yates DBE (1899-1981) was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Yates' father, a devout Anglican, was a naval engineer who began working in the shipyards as a teenager and supervised the construction of British warships in the years leading up to World War I. Although one of her older sisters attended Girton College, Cambridge, like many independent women scholars, Frances was educated at home by her mother, yet attended Birkenhead High School for some time.
During her Warburg years, she published frequently. Probably her signature books were the trio of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972). The first volume was her breakthrough work. With the publication of her Bruno book she transformed Renaissance historiography. In it Yates unveiled the hermeticism pervading the Renaissance as she saw it. In its heyday, this historical trend reinvigorated the strands of mysticism, magic, and gnosticism of late antiquity that survived the Middle Ages. Challenging the conventional wisdom of historians, Yates held that the itinerant Catholic priest Giordano Bruno was executed in Rome in 1600 for espousing hermetic ideas, and not for his affirmation of the heliocentric principle.
Yates’ central insight, if one can sum if up in a few words, is that the Western tradition that emerged in full flower in early modern Europe was characterized by a vital fusion of reason and unreason. Reason provides critical context, allowing us to sort out concepts that seem valid from others that must be set aside. For its part, however, speculative thought offers an indispensable store of stimulus. It is the caffeine of knowledge. This speculative vein took concrete form in the hermetic or occult tradition.
The two trends were often united in a single individual. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, when he was not developing the fundamental principles of modern physics, expended much energy on alchemy and on working out obscure aspects of Biblical chronology.
These findings indicate that the achievement of what we nowadays term knowledge was not reached by a straight-line progress from one (true) discovery to another, but by a complex interplay between the “normal” and the hermetic. Through her studies of the hermetic tradition, Yates uncovered a whole hidden dimension of European intellectual history. (The term “hermetic,” by the way, derives from Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary Egyptian sage of antiquity.)
Some commentators assert that Yates founded a paradigm, or gave out a grand narrative: the so-called Yates paradigm (sometimes termed the Yates Thesis). As such, her work has not gone without challenge. It has been said that the reception of the work of Yates was colored by the Zeitgeist. I fact, the 1960s, when her work made its first impact, saw the rise of all sorts of New Age trends. This was the era, to put it in a nutshell, when people would ask, on first introduction, “what’s your sign?” These concerns proved ephemeral, but in my view the work of Yates still commands our interest.
ARNALDO MOMIGLIANO AND OTHER WARBURG INFLUENCES
Another luminary who impressed me at that time was the classical historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-1987), who taught at University College of the University of London, located just to the north of the Warburg Institute. Momigliano ranked as the most prodigiously learned of all classical scholars of his time, no mean feat when one considers the formidable competition presented by German and German-Jewish scholars. The Italian kept up with them--and then some.
A Piedmontese of Jewish origin, Momigliano had been forced to leave Italy in 1938 because of Mussolini’s racial laws. He went first to Oxford, and then moved to London. Momigliano’s central insight was that we know not so much ancient history itself as what has been thought and written about that history - historiography, in short. Not only did Momigliano read the ancient historians themselves, but he exhumed many old tomes from the early modern period which had long been neglected. One of his findings was that in those centuries the application of much patient endeavor by antiquarians yielded two distinct methodologies with respect to studying the past. Some traditional scholars continued the time-honored privileging of texts. Others, however, turned massively to material evidence in the form of coins and medals, inscriptions, and objects of all kinds, from amulets and trinkets to works of fine art. This latter approach was of great importance to me as an art historian.
Perhaps more out of a sense of duty than anything else, I religiously attended the art historical lectures of Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001), the director of the Warburg Institute. These presentations, reflecting a commitment to serious research and clarity of language, were impressive. Sometimes, though, I felt that they were stifling in their doctrinaire self-assurance. Regrettably, Gombrich disliked both medieval and modern art, interests which he viewed, rather oddly, as complicit in the Central European authoritarianism from which he had fled. From his friend Karl Popper, Gombrich picked up an obsessive hatred of the philosopher Hegel, to whom he attributed all sorts of ills, including missteps in the field of art history where Hegel had had in fact little influence.
Gombrich was the star art historian in England. Yet I learned, when all is said and done, little of value from him. He stood at the top of a not-very impressive heap, for art historians in England, whether native or foreign born, were generally votaries of a narrow positivism, tediously assembling facts at the expense of broader concerns.
At the Warburg I fell in with Eugene S. of Detroit, who had come to London as a Fulbrighter the previous year. Eugene was very savvy about intellectual life in the British capital, and he urged me to attend some lectures of Karl Popper, the noted philosopher of science. This experience changed my life.
During his lectures Popper, who was a small man, sat as if enthroned in an imposing chair under the proscenium of the lecture hall at the London School of Economics. He was flanked by two young disciples, perched on chairs at either side, as if serving as sergeants of arms.
The occasion I remember most vividly was when he held up a newspaper, saying: "I read today in The Times that those of us in the academic world must all strive to be as good as Oxford and Cambridge." "Nonsense," he declared. "We must do a great deal better than Oxford and Cambridge. " He was referring to the emergent orthodoxy of analytic philosophy at the two leading British universities. Quite correctly in my opinion, he did not think much of the analytic trend, which was in his view obsessed with minor linguistic quibbles, while neglecting the urgent problems of philosophy.
Like Ernst Gombrich, Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) was born in Vienna, a city that could then claim to be the foremost center of innovation in the Western world. Gombrich and Popper were Austrian Jews, who had benefited from the superb educational standards of Central European gymnasia and universities. Their intellectual formation was similar to that of the German Jews who had taught me in New York. Yet the Austrians differed in some subtle ways, some of them reflecting the multiethnic composition of the Hapsburg empire.
As a young man, Popper worked for a time with the psychiatrist Alfred Adler, who was then concerned with helping troubled children. On one occasion Popper discovered a boy whose symptoms did not conform to Adler’s dogmatic theories, and he dared to confront his chief with this exceptional instance. Somewhat impatiently, the great man explained how the boy’s case did indeed fit in with his theories. Cheekily, the young assistant asked: “How do you know that, Dr. Adler.” To which his interlocutor replied “That I know from thousand-fold experience.” To which Popper retorted: “Now you know if from thousand-and-one-fold experience.” In other words, Adler’s interpretation was an example of confirmation bias--showing how we are prone to interpret each new occurrence of a phenomenon in terms of our preconceptions.
This early encounter anticipated one of Popper’s main discoveries, that is, that we establish the validity of truth not by a series of verification efforts, but rather through exposing theories to the possibility of falsification.
As a young man he attended a lecture Albert Einstein gave on relativity theory. The dominance of the critical spirit in Einstein, and its absence in Marx, Freud, and Adler, struck Popper as a contrast of fundamental importance. The latter three, he came to think, couched their theories in terms which made them amenable only to confirmation, while Einstein's theory, crucially, had implications which, if false, would have demolished the theory itself. In other words, the triumph of Einstein’s theories stemmed, paradoxically enough, from their initial vulnerability. By contrast Marxist and Freudian concepts assumed a form that insulates them from critique.
The dominant philosophical trend in Vienna at the time was embodied in the Wiener Kreis, a circle of scientifically-minded intellectuals focused around Moritz Schlick, who had been appointed Professor of the philosophy of the inductive sciences at Vienna University in 1922. The group included Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Viktor Kraft, Hans Hahn and Herbert Feigl. The principal objective of the members of the Circle was to unify the sciences, in their view the only real source of knowledge. To this end, they sought to exclude from philosophy everything that they considered to be useless. The primary target of their eliminationist campaign was metaphysics, which they hoped to demolish by showing that metaphysical propositions are meaningless. The overall tendency was called logical positivism.
After showing some interest in the Circle - he shared their affinity with science - Popper became increasingly critical of the main tenets of logical positivism, especially of what he considered to be its misplaced focus on the theory of meaning in philosophy and on verification in scientific methodology. He articulated his own view of science, and his criticisms of the positivists, in his first major work, published under the title Logik der Forschung in 1934. An English version, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, appeared in 1959.
Yet storm clouds were gathering. The growth of Nazism in Germany and Austria compelled him, like many other intellectuals who shared his Jewish origins, to leave his native country. In 1937 Popper took up a position teaching philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he was to remain for the duration of World War II.
The growing threat of fascism prompted him to recenter his research on social and political philosophy, which became the focus of his magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. In this two-volume work, Popper developed a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society, liberal democracy. Volume one is subtitled "The Spell of Plato," and volume two, "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath.”
Popper’s iconoclastic critique of Plato as an authoritarian drew the ire of many classicists. For his part, Popper held that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by his excellence as a writer. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken his political philosophy as a benign idyll, rather than regarding it correctly as a horrific totalitarian nightmare of deceit, violence, master-race rhetoric, and eugenics. Why did Plato embrace these views? Popper concluded that Plato was reacting against the growing humanism of Athenian society in his own day. In his view, Plato's historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that comes with such a liberal world view. Popper also suggests that Plato was the victim of his own vanity: he aspired to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.
Much later I was to find that Popper’s approach helped to understand Plato’s shift from an early fervent appreciation of male same-sex love to a denunciation of it, as seen in his late work, The Laws.
In volume two of his magnum opus, Popper moves on to examine Hegel and Marx, tracing back their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that, as arch-historicists, the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism. By historicism he means "an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the 'rhythms' or the 'patterns', the 'laws' or the 'trends' that underlie the evolution of history.” (Poverty of Historicism, p. 3). This approach claims that there is an inevitable and deterministic pattern to history,. The overriding force of this supposed pattern serves to elide the democratic responsibility of each of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society,. This way of thinking leads to totalitarianism. Another of Popper’s targets is what he calls "moral historicism", the attempt to derived moral values from the course of history. This tendency may take the form of conservatism, positivism, or futurism. The latter position holds that what is right and just will inevitably triumph. In this way Popper anticipated Sir Isaiah Berlin’s critique of “Historical Inevitability,” as seen in his influential paper of 1954.
After its publication in England, the success of The Open Society and Its Enemies brought Popper an invitation to teach at the London School of Economics, where he moved in 1946.
For Popper the growth of human knowledge proceeds from our problems and from our attempts to solve them. These attempts involve the formulation of theories which, if they are to explain anomalies which exist with respect to earlier theories, must go beyond existing knowledge and therefore require a leap of the imagination. For this reason, Popper places special emphasis on the role creative imagination plays in the formulation of concepts. Formulating our theories with as much verve as possible, we must nonetheless recognize that they may turn out to be false. In this way, Popper dramatically declared, our theories die in our place.
While at the London Karl Popper allied himself with the great economist Friedrich Hayek, whose libertarian thought was later to exercise a great influence on me. Yet since Hayek moved to Chicago in 1950 I never met him.
Popper’s ideas attracted opposition from various quarters. I have already noted the displeasure of Plato scholars because he had disparaged their hero - and also perhaps because a non-classicist should dare to venture into their territory. Yet I have always been encouraged by this incursion and others like it. After all, at one time the experts were almost unanimously certain that homosexuality was perversion. They were wrong, and this needed saying.
Popper also transgressed against some cherished views of the Left. As we have seen he freely criticized Karl Marx. Not unlike his friend Friedrich Hayek, Popper opposed the ideal of universal social planning, then much in vogue. Yet he allowed for carefully targeted “piecemeal planning.”
Popper continued to be intellectually active until the end of his life, producing a number of new books, which I eagerly devoured as soon as they appeared. From his teaching I derived one great lesson: be bold in formulating conjectures--and be ready to abandon them whenever their lack of viability might become evident.
THE TWO ULLMANNS
I had skipped medieval history in college, and here I was studying an eleventh-century Bible! I struggled to put the work in context. Here my partner Jack Ferguson, who was doing a D.Phil. in medieval diplomatic history at the University of Oxford, was of considerable help. The Oxford medievalists, his mentors, were well regarded, but they turned out not to have what I wanted. Instead, I found my real guru in medieval history in Walter Ullmann, the head professor in that field at the rival university of Cambridge. Ullmann belonged to that select body of émigrés from Central Europe (in his case from Austria - most of them wholly or partly Jewish - who were to be so influential in forming my thinking. In such imposing volumes as The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (1955) and Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages (1961), Ullmann sought to lay bare the defining features of political thought in the Middle Ages. He organized his expositions in a series of broad strokes, for example, the contrast between the descending thesis (the principle of hierarchy espoused by the popes and the major rulers) and the ascending thesis (the idea of popular sovereignty, which became prominent only in the later Middle Ages). Ullmann’s approach concentrated on discourse, not events. But he offered what I needed with regard to the mentality or ethos of the era.
I never met Walter Ullmann. However, he frequently spoke on the BBC in a special slot on the Third Programme, where the speakers had to fit their exposition into the twenty-minute interval provided by classical-music concerts. With practice, he had developed a forceful, pithy style that triumphed over the minor handicap of his German accent.
There was also the problem of understanding the Bible itself. I had been raised an atheist, so there was little by way of family background to go on. Besides, I wanted to achieve a scholarly understanding of the exegesis of that complicated body of Scriptures. I duly boned up on the findings of the modern critical-historical school, as represented by such Continental luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Oscar Cullmann. These studies were to come in handy many years later, after I retired and attempted a thorough study of the Abrahamic tradition. Yet they did not throw much light on the message of the miniatures of my illuminated Bible, which turned out to be an early version of Dispensationalism.
Exegesis is a close cousin of semantics. Here I found a guide in another émigré - another Ullmann in fact - Stephen Ullmann, who came from Hungary and taught at the University of Leeds. Intensely absorbing in themselves, his books on semantics were later to offer valuable grounding when I produced my fledgling Homolexis: A Historical and Critical Lexicon of Homosexuality in 1985.
At first I was quite lonely in London. I missed the lively bustle of the McGraw-Hill office, which I had been so eager to escape. Eugene and his wife did their best to offer some companionship. However, it was not until I met Jack Ferguson, an American D. Phil. student at Oxford that I moved towards a stable domestic situation in London. Jack was studying medieval diplomatic history at Wadham College in Oxford, and I of course was a medieval art historian. So our fields of study had considerable overlap. From Jack I learned a good deal about “straight” medieval history.
After a notable dinner, Jack seduced me, and in due course we set up housekeeping in a small flat in West London. He was extremely easy to get along with, and put up with all my moods, some of which were quite foul. I became depressed by the fact that my doctoral dissertation had stalled, because I was unable to solve a key iconographical problem. I experimented with tackling another topic, but in the end I returned to the Stavelot Bible. I only completed my dissertation after I returned to New York, securing the Ph.D. degree in 1969. Jack obtained his D.Phil. at Oxford in 1967.
Not knowing any other models, we imitated the lifestyle of straight couples. An excellent cook, Jack was the wife, and I was the husband. In keeping with our traditional concept of a relationship, we each promised fidelity. As often happens with such vows there was a little cheating, but not a lot. Honesty compels me to say that Jack was more in love with me than I with him. Still we stuck it together with relatively few spats. The real challenge was to occur after we returned to the United States and our different jobs entailed geographical separation.
While we were living together in England we took trips together, sometimes within England and sometimes to nearby spots on the Continent. My dissertation topic required several weeks of research in Belgium, a country I didn’t much care for. We both loved Paris, though. Our most ambitious trip was overland to Greece and Turkey. On the way, our car broke down in Germany and had to be scrapped, yet we coped on trains and buses. That was what students did in those days.
In London we each bore our share of keeping things going economically. Jack had a job with the British government transcribing texts at the Public Record Office. Using my existing connections in publishing, I was able to secure jobs translating books from French, German, and Italian. The task was made easier because the books were all in my field of art history. Once, though, I agreed to edit the English-language version of a short text written by Pope John XXIII when he was a seminary student. On several occasions, the young man would complain along these lines; “What a disappointing week! Only two ejaculations.” I had some difficulty explaining to my very proper British editor that this would not do. We changed it to “pious exclamations,” or something of the sort.
When I wasn’t working on the translations I buried my head in books at the British Museum. I ranged through all sorts of subjects, from psychology and sociology to theology and sinology. In those days, the library contained a formidable array of explicit erotica and books on sexology. However, these were not noted in the official catalog, but were segregated into something called the Private Case. Towards the end of my stay, a journalist managed to extract a copy of the list of these items, but I did not try to follow up. Had I realized their significance, I could have read the classic works of Ulrichs, Hirschfeld, Karsch-Haack, and the other German pioneers of what came to be known as gay studies.
Jack and I did recognize that change was in the offing regarding the legal situation of homosexuals in Britain. We knew about the Report published under the aegis of Sir John Wolfenden. In 1965, when we chanced to be at Delphi in Greece, I spotted Sir John conducting a tour. I went up and spoke to him, but he was busy, so I couldn’t follow up. At all events, early in 1967, not long before we left the country, the Abse Bill, decriminalizing homosexual conduct between consenting adults in England and Wales passed through Parliament. Wow! We were legal.
After I returned to the United States I concluded that, after much work, something similar could be achieved in our own country. In this way the seeds of gay activism were planted in my mind.