“I know nothing about art. But I know what I like, at least that was what I thought when I started this book,” explains Nigel Cawthorne in the introduction to Sex Lives of the Great Artists. “Then I discovered that art was principally about sex.” Compare this revelation to the one that begins Sex Lives of the Great Composers.“I admit it. I was a philistine. I never really listened to classical music until I started writing this book,” he writes. “Now, though, I listen to classical music while I work. Why the transformation? Now that I have studied the lives and loves of the great masters, I understand where they are coming from. Music is sex, bottled.”
Art is sex. Music is sex. Cawthorne has uncovered variations on the same shocking truth in volumes on the popes, the kings and queens of England, and the great dictators. The Vatican exists to enrich the sex life of the figurehead, and the same goes for the British monarchy. Dictators oppress their subjects and invade their neighbors to get laid more often. These arguments are so patently reductive, and he overstates his case to such extremes, that there must be something else going on here. Why read Nigel Cawthorne? I am assuming that you are not a thirteen-year-old boy. (If you are one, and you happen to be ashamed that Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun moves you to tears, and you are caught with Cawthorne’s book on music, it’s ever-so-slightly possible that this incriminating information will be obscured by the fact that the title of his chapter on the composer rhymes his name with a slang term for a female body part.)
These books unwittingly succeed as parodies of the best-selling biographies that promise psychological insight while actually dishing the dirt.As readers, we may or may not care about John Adams’s role in the Second Continental Congress, but we sure want to know what Abigail was like in the sack. Put it another way: If the biography table at Barnes & Noble were a no-sex zone, you can bet we’d be less likely to pick up a book about Cary Grant, Rudolf Nureyev, or Gertrude Stein. Even more broadly, Cawthorne subverts the very idea of history by bringing it down to the level of gossip, or by implying that it’s always been down there, no matter what we tell ourselves.
You’ve got to appreciate the tension between an extremely wide field of study and an extremely narrow interpretive method. Cawthorne might think with his dick, but his dick has a high I.Q. (for a dick) and a well-rounded liberal education. He delves into the same psychologies, the same abstruse theological arguments, aesthetic strategies, and historical conundrums that underlie conventional biographies, but only insofar as they illuminate the boudoir.
Of course, Cawthorne isn’t the first writer to detect sexual content where others hadn’t noticed it. Freud set the precedent at the turn of the last century, with his analyses of Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.The literary critic Leslie Fiedler started hands wringing again in 1948 with his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” In the field of art history, John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Pablo Picasso (1965) delved into the artist’s pornographic imagery, and Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983) explores representations of baby Jesus’ penis in nativity scenes and memorably describes how, in Maerten van Heemskerck’s Man of Sorrows (1532), the savior’s dead body “quickens its limbs, jump-starts the pulse, sets the blood back in motion, and rises with penis engorged.” Cawthorne sort of belongs to this tradition, but in the absence of an agenda or framework in his project larger than “everyone cheats and lies about sex,” he remains both a purist and an outsider.
The literary pleasure of watching a monomaniac get carried away should not be underestimated. Sometimes, the prose becomes so overheated that you want to bathe the paperback in cool water, as when he narrates an encounter between sculptor Auguste Rodin and dancer Isadora Duncan: “She was very impressed when he took two small lumps of clays and pressed them in his palms. He breathed hard and heat steamed off him.
Then in two shakes of a duck’s tail he had modeled a pair of tits.” Elsewhere, he assumes a blasé tone about the most atrocious sins, to show how common they are in his universe. See, for example, Pope Benedict’s c.v.: “He was bisexual, sodomized animals and ordered murders. He also dabbled in witchcraft and Satanism.” The one great hazard that all biographers face is letting their subjects overshadow their writer’s voice. The more absorbing the book, the more likely that readers will grant all of the credit to the person who led the life, not the one who captured it in all its compelling reality. With his bad puns and salacious innuendo, however, Cawthorne permeates every page of his writings, never letting you forget who the main character is.
It is all somewhat charming, the way Cawthorne carries on his research with a distractible urgency, buzzing from allegation to rumor to conjecture so avidly that such conventional scholarly apparatus as citations and footnotes play no part. By refusing to bother with such armature, he almost seems to be saying, “Look here, let’s not be adversaries. With a little checking, you could probably poke holes in half my arguments, but let’s have some fun instead.”
I don’t necessarily want other historians imitating his methods, but the idea of this tireless soul haunting the British Library is comforting. Picture him digging in the stacks, following his highbrow-lowbrow muse in search of pederasty, incest, orgies, and plain old lust. While occasionally teetering on the edge of tedium, especially in the royalty volume, he generally gives you what you want—and admit it, you want some.
In fact,women who find themselves performing research in his city might be lucky enough to make Cawthorne’s acquaintance. “The British Library remains one of the great pulling palaces in London,” he has written (using an abbreviated version of the British expression “pulling birds,” which means the same thing as “picking up chicks”), “and I should like to apologize to other readers if they find my antics distracting.” Reading five of these books straight through gave me some inkling of what it must feel like to be pawed by a lecherous but basically harmless professor emeritus at a faculty Christmas party. Give Cawthorne credit, though. His grasp of the basics never seems to slip. In Kings and Queens, he ably distinguishes between George III, faithful husband to the “hideous Queen” who bore him fifteen babies, and George IV, who had ten illegitimate children with his German mistress. In the composer edition, he avoids confusing Schubert (never got over his crush on Thérèse Grob) and Schumann (cuckolded by Brahms in what the author terms “a musical ménage de tra-la-la”).Most impressively, he keeps his Innocents and Bonifaces straight, so to speak, in the papal book.
Brandishing blunt, repetitive sentences like Nerf bats, Cawthorne lacks flair as a stylist, but the writing has a certain bravado that makes most other books seem timid.“It is hard to strike out decisively against the enemy when all you can think of is oral sex,” he writes of Napoleon, which is like calling Michael Jordan too preoccupied with steak to score points on the basketball court. In a chapter from Great Composers with an unfortunate salami pun in the title, he saddles the English companion of Josef Haydn with one of the most unusual diagnoses I have ever read:“an unquenchable craving for music teachers.” Saint Jerome, he writes in the volume on the popes, warned of the Roman Church’s corruption in terms “so explicit that, sadly, academics will not translate them.” Does he really expect us to believe that scholars would let any texts by such an important theologian go untranslated? How, then, did Cawthorne find out about them? To fully savor these books, questions of this kind shouldn’t occur to you.
Unsubstantiated opinions and sweeping generalizations are verboten in serious writing, but since none of this is serious, why not stand back and let Cawthorne indulge in unmoored flights of bias? Van Gogh’s nudes “are some of the ugliest and unappealing in the history of art.” All of Michelangelo’s females “look like men with some bits added and others taken away.” After mocking Freud for asserting that Leonardo da Vinci was homosexual (“Thank you, Sigmund”), he solves once and for all the enigma of Mona Lisa’s smile:“It is the look of a woman who has just been made love to and is about to be made love to again.” Despite going about it all wrong, he sometimes manages to be persuasive.
Of course, Cawthorne’s oneman school of thought has its limits.This is especially apparent in Sex Lives of the Great Dictators. No matter what activities they indulged in behind closed doors, Mussolini (who wrote pornographic novels), Mao (who liked to go to bed with as many as five women at a time), and Stalin (who slept with his socks on and may have had homosexual tendencies) were among the most vicious mass murderers of the twentieth century.
And then there’s Hitler, but…let’s be fair to Cawthorne and admit that nobody has done a satisfactory job of explaining him, though many brilliant authors have tried. Consider instead the case of Unity Mitford, the aristocratic young British woman who befriended high-ranking Nazis in the 1930s and published articles like “Why I Am a Jew-Hater.” Here is what her sister Jessica Mitford— who, in contradistinction, became a socialist and later a crusading journalist—wrote in her memoir Hons and Rebels by way of coming to terms with Unity’s course in life: “She had been an eccentric all her life, completely outside the bounds of normal behavior, uncontrollable by governesses, parents, and the headmistress of the boarding school (who had diplomatically informed my mother that, since many girls leave school at sixteen, she saw no reason why Unity shouldn’t be one of them); yet she enthusiastically adopted the most deadeningly conformist of all philosophies. She was always a terrific hater…, but I had always thought she hated intelligently…. I felt she had forgotten the whole point of hating, and had once and for all put herself on the side of the hateful.”
It’s a painful, searching perspective, and probably the sanest to be hoped for, but ultimately we don’t learn anything from it about hate or insane evil. We might as well let Nigel Cawthorne have the last word: “It is not known how seriously Hitler took Unity, or whether their affair was consummated—in Hitler’s strange way or in any other. However, Hitler did make it a practice to take young innocent girls, like Unity, and manipulate them into fulfilling his desires. He certainly found solace in her company, which seems to have resolved his deepest tensions. But those around Hitler found Unity a bit of a joke. Goebbels and Streicher called her Unity ‘Mit-fart’.” ✯