My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Consider two articles published within the last week. In one, Marie Doezema explains the role played by the philosophers of 1968, who tutored several generations of intellectuals (including my own), in legitimizing pedophilia in late-20th-century France:
After May 1968, French intellectuals would challenge the state’s authority to protect minors from sexual abuse. In one prominent example, on January 26, 1977, Le Monde, a French newspaper, published a petition signed by the era’s most prominent intellectuals—including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, André Glucksmann and Louis Aragon—in defense of three men on trial for engaging in sexual acts with minors. “French law recognizes in 13- and 14-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” the petition stated, “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned.” Furthermore, the signatories argued, children and adolescents have the right to a sexual life: “If a 13-year-old girl has the right to take the pill, what is it for?”
Meanwhile, Katie Herzog observes that an opposite but also repellent phenomenon transpired in late-twentieth-century America, the Satanic panic, a broad and largely baseless outbreak of social paranoia over widespread ritual child abuse, fueled by religious fundamentalism and pop-psychology:
In total, the recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse phenomenon lasted for about 15 years. At the time, Talmadge says, questioning the dominant narrative was akin to heresy. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence backing up these claims; everyone believed, and those who didn’t largely kept quiet.
Looking back on it now, it seems almost impossible that millions of Americans would blindly believe that satanic cults were stealing away with kids during the night, but this was not the first strange wave to hit the U.S., nor will it be the last. From the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare, moral panics, as they are frequently called, pop up.
In these two episodes from recent history, we see an almost comic fidelity to national stereotypes: the French intelligentsia advocates troublingly amoral libertinage, while the American populace loses its collective head over the threat of witches’ sabbaths and black masses. And both of these stories take on a new relevance today, with the just exposure of sexual abuses, and the potential for this exposure to overreach and become unjust, consuming so much of our cultural attention. Is there any way out of this impasse, any intelligent and humane approach to the complexities of desire, any safe course to chart between the Marquis de Sade and Cotton Mather?
All of these questions came to my mind as I read a brilliant, thought-provoking, and troubling masterpiece of a graphic novel from beyond the borders of the U.S. or France. Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas is a manga that was serialized in the early 1970s and published in an official English translation (by Rachel Matt Thorn) by Fantagraphics in 2013. As a work of shojo manga, it was addressed to an audience of adolescent girls. A complex and melodramatic tale of love in a German boys’ boarding school, The Heart of Thomas is widely credited with beginning the “boys’ love” subgenre of manga, as this Atlantic article explains:
The Heart of Thomas is, in fact, one of the seminal works in the boys’ love subgenre of shojo manga (manga for girls). Boys’ love manga are manga that feature male homosexual romance, written (mostly) by women, (mostly) for women. Today in Japan, the genre is well established and popular…
The Heart of Thomas opens with the suicide of a student named Thomas Werner. He has killed himself due to anguish over his unrequited love for his classmate, the dark-haired prefect and perfect student, Juli; Juli is desired in turn by his roommate Oskar (a clear Wilde analogue), as well as by a host of underclassmen. Complications ensue when a transfer student, Erich, arrives at the school—Erich, it happens, could be Thomas’s twin, and much of the plot depends on suspense over whether or not the tragic missed connection between Juli and a smitten classmate will replay itself.
Along the way—and a long way it is, at a novelistically satisfying 500+ pages—a host of psychological and symbolic complexities present themselves, from Erich’s oedipal attachment to his mother (he wears an engagement ring in her honor) to the cruel abuse Juli has suffered at the sadistic hands of the rebel-atheist upperclassman Siegfried (his Wagnerian name echoing the fascist racism of Juli’s other abuser, his grandmother, who scorns him for his Greek patrimony and dark hair). While the narrative is melodramatic and theatrical, it also manages to be measured in pace, with languid adolescent yearning its dominant affect. Hagio creates a little world, an Occidentalist fantasia of European queerness, and lets her cast wander through it, and through their own psyches, on their own time; the effect is absorbing and mesmerizing.
But what can it all mean? The Heart of Thomas in particular and boys’ love in general has no corollary that I know of in contemporaneous American pop culture, comics or otherwise (and it should be said that American comics of the same period, mainstream or underground, offer nothing to my mind as long or complex as what Hagio accomplishes here). The aforementioned Atlantic article concludes that boys’ love manga allows its young female audience a panoply of potential identification beyond what was customarily allowed girls:
The boys’ love genre, then, freed Hagio and her audience to cross and recross boundaries of identity, sexuality, and gender. The reader can be both sexual aggressor and victim; both self and other; both gay and straight; both male and female. Bodies and character flicker in and out, a sequence of surfaces, tied together less by narrative than by the heightened emotions of melodrama—jealousy, anger, trauma, desire, friendship, and love in the heart of Thomas.
Likewise, James Welker, in a 2006 article for the feminist journal Signs, theorizes thusly:
Nonetheless, through…the deliberate ambiguity of the beautiful boy, the reader is encouraged to see not just a girl but herself within the world of boys’ love and, ultimately, is encouraged to explore homoerotic desire, either as a beautiful boy or as herself, either alone or with others, either as her fantasy or as her reality.
In support of these theses in feminist and queer theory, I note that Hagio draws on the traditions of aestheticism and decadence, especially in the decorative splash pages that introduce each chapter, each reminiscent of Beardsley, Mucha, and the Jugendstil movement. Images of angels and roses abound; when Erich learns his mother has died, he is pictured, Sebastian-wise, with a breast full of arrows.
All this classic queer iconography aside, though, The Heart of Thomas feels like a book of great chastity, a word several other Goodreads users have astutely used—a work almost of asexuality. It is Platonic in the most literal sense as Juli comes to understand his physical attraction toward the base and brutalizing humanist Siegfried as a fall into sexual degradation, while his love for the ethereal beauty of Thomas/Erich is in fact a desire for the good as such. Hence the book’s denouement: he becomes a priest, espoused not to man but to God. In what I take to be an explicit allusion to the Phaedrus, Juli even describes what his abuse by Siegfried has cost him as his wings, and he moreover says that he sees all the children in the school as bearing invisible wings, just like the soul as Socrates describes it to his young disciple in the course of his caution against the consummation of desire between men, between tutor and pupil:
Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came, for she cannot grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy, may acquire wings in the third of the recurring periods of a thousand years; he is distinguished from the ordinary good man who gains wings in three thousand years:-and they who choose this life three times in succession have wings given them, and go away at the end of three thousand years.
Juli has “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy,” i.e., an orientation toward the ideal, and so we can presume that his metaphorical wings are budding again by the novel’s final sequence. The Heart of Thomas is in this way not about desire or gender or sexuality at all, but about eros at its most abstract, even eros at the very threshold of agápē, give or take a stolen kiss in the dark.
I am not the only critic to come to the conclusion of spiritual asexuality in the case of Thomas, according to Welker, by the way, and he diagnoses us as suffering from “lesbian panic”:
In spite of the connections drawn on the pages of these magazines, the possibility that these narratives might be seen to actually depict homosexuality remains broadly denied. To allow that the narratives might truly be about homosexuality—between these girls-cum- beautiful boys—would be an apparently unthinkable invitation to read the narratives as lesbian.
While I take the point, and also appreciate the rhetorical necessity for a queer-affirmative cultural politics to redeploy the language of pathology against its pathologizing enemies, I also reserve the right to query the secular sacralization of the sexual as such, whether straight or gay or bi, our total commitment to desublimating love into desire in every last circumstance, even when confronted with narratives that plainly have metaphysical or spiritual aims, as Hagio’s narrative does.
The Heart of Thomas, therefore, is one answer to the question with which I began: how to address eros artistically, in all its gender and age complications, without either foreclosing complexity (like American puritans) or promoting exploitation (like French libertines). This masterful piece of fluid comics storytelling, visual beauty, and literary artistry, charts the middle way with consummate intelligence. Hagio’s spiritual flight burns the unseemly out of the book; what could have been disturbing—an adult’s erotic reverie over the entanglement of early adolescence, perhaps as commended by the philosophers of cultural revolution—becomes a hymn about the journey of every soul amid the violence of time, desire, and death. And because these latter inevitabilities are unflinchingly acknowledged in the story, Hagio’s work is as free from puritanism as it is from libertinism. The Heart of Thomas is a book of and about love.