As a rite of passage, it is easily beaten

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THE OLD Boys of Eton and Bradfield and so forth who are writing to the newspapers in such numbers to say whether or not they were savagely beaten by the late Anthony Chenevix- Trench are re-enacting a ritual that belongs very much to the culture of corporal punishment. You were beaten. You went back to your schoolmates. You were surrounded and plagued with questions. You lowered your trousers and displayed your wounds.

And so we have been vouchsafed an astonishing display of Establishment buttocks, a collective mooning by the Great and the Good. And along with this bearing of elite fesses has come a chance to observe how sharply people disagree as to the nature of the evidence against Chenevix- Trench. Some assert that he was a monster of depravity. Others find him upright, justified, a fine educationist, a victim, even.

About Chenevix-Trench himself I have only this to add: that his book on ancient history makes an exciting subject exceedingly dull - and that is crime enough. But about the sharply disputed evidence there is another point: it shows that the same overt act, in this case the beating of a child, can carry a quite different freight of meaning in different circumstances.

One of the kinkiest of the contributions to the debate, and perhaps the most honest, was an article describing how the writer had deliberately set out to explore the bounds of Chenevix-Trench's tolerance. The beating, when it came, appeared in this account to be a sort of seduction and humiliation of the headmaster by the pupil.

Of the more robust defences, most probably come from people who have learnt to view their beatings as a rite of passage. The acquisition of manhood seems to such people to be a reasonable compensation for the humiliation and the pain.

Dissenters from this view feel that 'manhood' is not achieved through such rituals, which are anyway about something else. These are people who have not converted their punishment into an adventure. It remains with them as a thrashing in its primary sense: an expression of power, an humiliation, a wounding.

Players A and B, two friends, decide on a game of tennis. Asked about the outcome, player B says: 'It was a complete humiliation. I was trounced.' This sounds frivolous, but it isn't. Even though, overtly, the game seemed just like a game of tennis, player A has already made a mental note not to play player B again. Too much seems to be at stake for him, and in these circumstances it is impossible for player A, the better of the two, to enjoy the sport. The friendship can continue, but it and the tennis cannot mix.

One supposes that the art of fencing, overtly much the same as it ever was, has lost the greater part of its symbolic content. Once it was about killing and self-defence. But it would come as a nasty shock to the modern fencer to realise that his opponent had murder on his mind.

When the practical value of swordsmanship became outdated, what was preserved in the art of fencing was pure skill without purpose, skill with strong overtones of chivalry. Nor is it likely that a person would fence better in a vicious or angry mood, or with any ulterior or covert purpose. The notion of conquest is at the heart of the sport, but not the notion of humiliation. And not the notion of death, although it is surprising in a way that an association so profound could be expunged from the proceedings.

Still, I would have thought twice before fencing with Hemingway. Not that he actually fenced, but he seems to have been one of those cases, like player B, who turns the overt sport into something else. One of his sons said that Hemingway was not a very good boxer, but he was a very good bar-room brawler, and packed a heavy punch.

Newly arrived in Paris, Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, presented a letter of introduction to a fellow American called Lewis Galantiere, who treated them to an expensive meal and charmed them both until things reached a point when Hemingway thought that his wife was becoming a bit too charmed.

At once Hemingway turned the conversation to the art of boxing, and suggested to Galantiere that they do a little sparring after dinner back at the hotel, where he happened to have in his trunk two pairs of regulation gloves.

The more Hemingway talked about his prowess at the sport, the less Galantiere wanted to fight, but Hemingway wouldn't let him off the hook. Hadley was to be timekeeper. They kitted up and began sparring. Then, in Kenneth Lynn's account, 'after a minute or two, during which neither man threw a single punch, Galantiere straightened up and laughingly said that he had had enough. After removing one glove, he put on his glasses and began to unlace the other glove. Hemingway had been shadow boxing, throwing lefts and rights and dancing about. Suddenly, he lunged at Galantiere and hit him in the face, breaking his glasses'.

According to Hadley, Hemingway felt no contrition. He was glad that the glass had not gone into Galantiere's eye, but glad, too, to have proved his masculine superiority.

Astonishing thing, manhood, isn't it? In the Philippines you traditionally achieve manhood, at puberty, through a form of circumcision in which a single cut is made in the foreskin. All the boys of the appropriate age in the barrio are rounded up and go down to the river to sit for a long time in the cold water, as an anaesthetic. They also spend the day chewing guava leaves, which are supposed to help ease the pain.

The cut is made in the following way: a piece of bamboo is fitted over the glans, and the foreskin is rolled on the bamboo. The cut should be achieved with a single chop of the machete. If two chops are required, that means you have a tough foreskin and are extra macho. After the cut is made, you are supposed to spit the guava leaf pulp on to the wound, with which it is then bound up for the next day or two. A friend of mine told me he went through the whole of this process, managing honourably up to the moment when the cut was made, at which point he spat the pulp straight into the face of the man who was performing the circumcision.

Manhood is for the strong, and initiation rites will often include both pain and humiliation as a precursor to enrolment in the group. But while there may be many worse initiations around the world than a barrio circumcision in northern Luzon, I doubt if there are many more protracted than those conducted in the public schools a few decades ago. Taking, that is, the whole of the education process as an initiation rite, and the punishments and the cult of punishment as a part of the prescribed ordeal. The circumcision is over in a morning, and the pain no doubt passes in a day or two. But there are buttocks - fine British buttocks - still smarting from the attentions of Chenevix-Trench. And other buttocks proud of the initiation they received.