Guided by the wandering hand

Image of Harry Eyres

A few years ago the outspoken classics professor Mary Beard got into trouble when she owned up to a “certain wistful nostalgia for that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy, which had flourished, after all, since Plato, was stamped out”. A classic (in every sense) case was the “wandering hand” of the august Oxford professor of Latin Eduard Fraenkel, with whom the now equally august Lady Warnock, as recounted in her own memoirs, had heady discussions of Greek and Latin poetry “combined with kisses and increasingly constant fumblings with [my] underclothes.”

When Beard said that “any academic woman older than her mid-forties is likely to have an ambivalent reaction to this” she was engulfed in protest from more politically correct colleagues. A typical response came from June Purvis, professor of gender history at Portsmouth University: “The wandering-hands fraternity used their status and power to exploit female students, and some were silly enough to feel ‘flattered’ by this attention ... Very pathetic.”

This particular storm was brewed in the UK; in the US, where rules concerning sexual harrassment have been hardening since the 1980s, Prof Beard might well have been lynched. Her subtle and interesting argument, that there had been something treasurable about the older culture of closeness and sometimes amorous warmth between university teachers and students (who often went on holiday together in the 1930s), combined with potential for abuse, had been entirely lost in the noise.

Heaven knows what the righteous brigade would make of Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion, recently published in a new translation by Anthea Bell by the admirable and tireless Pushkin Press. Confusion, which I recently devoured at a sitting, is in essence a simple story. An elderly academic looks back on the most intense and formative relationship of his life. The setting is a small and secluded German university, where as an undergraduate he came under the spell of a strange and ambiguous figure, part inspirational teacher, part broken old man.

Roland (the only person named in this pared-down tale) becomes the lodger and then amanuensis of this Shakespearean scholar, who dictates to him the first part of the history of the Globe Theatre he has been working on for decades but has never finished. At the same time Roland is driven to distraction by the professor’s apparently cruel and disdainful treatment of him; eventually he shares his frustration with the professor’s much younger, boyishly attractive and sexually unsatisfied wife. You can imagine the consequences.

Roland feels he has betrayed his teacher, and everything that matters to him, but the terrible and tender kiss that ends the story betrays a deeper secret. The professor’s unfeeling façade has been a mask to protect both teacher and student from an impossible love. Yet far from being at the end repelled by an old man’s lust, Roland closes his account with these words: “I feel I have more to thank him for than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

If Prof Purvis and others like her were shocked at Prof Beard’s admission of an “ambivalent reaction” to groping dons, what on earth would they make of Roland’s thoroughly unambivalent declaration of love for a lecherous lecturer?

To make more sense of this, it is worth going back to the earliest, most beautiful and shocking discussion of the erotic dimension of pedagogy in western literature, the speech by Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium. What is shocking there is Alcibiades’s utterly frank description of his attempt, as a young and beautiful boy, to seduce his (relatively old and famously ugly) teacher, Socrates.

Thinking he will be able to exchange his youthful beauty for Socrates’s mature wisdom, and counting on the philosopher’s known penchant for beautiful young men, Alcibiades goes to great lengths to lure the great thinker into bed. He invites Socrates to train and wrestle with him in the gymnasium (remember that Greeks exercised naked); he invites Socrates to a tête-à-tête dinner, twice; eventually he creeps into bed with his teacher and snuggles up to him under the blanket, but still Socrates resists.

When asked by the slighted Alcibiades to explain his actions, or lack of them, Socrates gives a typically teasing and challenging answer. He points out that if Alcibiades really thought he could exchange his physical good looks for the intellectual beauty he sees in Socrates, he would be getting by far the better end of the deal. He would be exchanging dross for gold. But he is not yet old enough to see clearly, and may well be mistaken. Not all teachers have been able to exercise Socrates’s self-control. Roland, after that kiss, never saw the professor again. But Socrates and Alcibiades seem to have remained friends.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.