Toronto
3 min

Lusty labours on the road to art

Can you do it if you don’t do it? This, I think, is the seminal question (pun intended) raised by a new biography of novelist Henry James.

Challenging the traditional view of James as gay but celibate, biographer Sheldon Novick suggests that the “master” was more sexual than we thought.

Personally I think this view is probably at least 50 percent wish fulfillment, as the evidence one way or another is decidedly thin on the ground. Leon Edel’s once canonical five-volume life of the author barely alludes to a sex life, let alone a homosexual one, while James himself, though he lead one of the most richly documented lives in history — his letters alone number more than 10,000 — left relatively few hints as to his sexual inclinations.

Still, you’ve got to love Novick for trying and his ideas certainly get people thinking. Mere weeks after David Leavitt reviewed the book in The New York Times, a descendant of James’ wrote in to question both James’ sex life and its relevance. She’d never heard of James “lying about” with anyone, she wrote, and besides it was hardly relevant. Did we want to know the sex life of either author or reviewer? “Pray no.”

But of course it is relevant to those of us who look for identity in the past and who take our gay heros where we can find them. There aren’t many obvious homos in the 19th century and the foremost US novelist of the period is a particularly big catch, especially since he’s such a mystery.

Besides, his life raises some interesting questions about sex, creativity and fulfillment.

These days we just assume you’re either sexual or you’re nuts. If you’re not getting it, looking for it or desperately craving it then you’re probably either repressed, crazy or religious. A century after Freud we can’t imagine a healthy human being who is not in some shape or form sexual.

Artists in particular are expected to be horny little sluts. The myth probably started in the 19th century with Scenes of Bohemian Life, a collection of stories that popularized the word “bohemia” and cemented the association between the artistic life and sex (not to mention inspiring Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème and Jonathan Larson’s Rent).

But it’s taken particular hold in the gay world, where some of the key figures in gay literary history seem to have been perpetually on the prowl. Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, Edmund White — they all racked up big scores in the sexual marketplace and their lives cemented the association between sex and creativity. If they could be that productive while screwing around so prolifically then surely there was inspiration to be found in bed. Perhaps it was a way of laying up energy for future projects.

Lots of people think the opposite, of course, arguing that sex, far from being a stimulant, is actually a bit of a drain on one’s time and talent.

Clive Barker takes this line. Citing a correlation between art, writing and desire, the gay horror writer told The Globe and Mail that he swore off sex for several weeks during the writing of his most recent novel, Mister B Gone.

“If I have sex in the morning, I am useless for the rest of the day,” Barker told the Globe this January. “I’m too bloody happy; I’ve scratched the itch.”

Or, as the prolific 19th-century novelist Balzac reportedly said after orgasm, “There goes another novel.”

What makes James interesting is that he doesn’t take one position or the other. Mildly puritanical, he is not exactly against sex. He just gets on with his work. James wrote that the artist “proposes to give pleasure, and to give it he must first get it,” but whatever his idea of pleasure, it apparently wasn’t sexual. Like Virginia Woolf, who once told a horny in-law that she took as much pleasure from writing as he did from fucking, James appears to have taken his greatest pleasure in art.

He was interested in other people’s sex lives (see the many squalid affairs in his novels) but not apparently his own, and it didn’t affect his productivity one bit. Indeed he was one of the most celebrated and prolific authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

If we assume he was celibate, his life was a sharp rebuke to everything we moderns hold dear. Either there are benefits to keeping a low libido or sex matters far less than we thought.

Personally I rather enjoy the more ambivalent position of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the US psychologist who says creative types have both a lot of “generalized libidinal energy” and “a certain Spartan celibacy” or “continence.” In other words they’re both horny (in a general way) and disciplined, knowing when and how to direct their energy.

So I guess it’s possible to be creative and celibate but not likely. What do you suppose James was up to?