An image can be seen which depicts a person with a laptop, most likely working.
The laptop’s screen is illuminated by a bright light, and its keyboard is illuminated by a dimmer light. The person appears to be focused on their work, suggesting that they are deep in thought.
Nigel Cawthorne begins Sex Lives of the Great Artists with an admission of his lack of knowledge in art, but his belief that he could identify what he liked.
However, as he researched the book, he realized art was primarily about sex.
A similar statement is made in the opening of Sex Lives of the Great Composers, where Cawthorne admits to being a philistine, not having a deep appreciation for classical music until he started to write the book.
Now, he listens to classical music while he is working and has come to understand where the great composers are coming from: that music is sex, bottled.
In Nigel Cawthorne’s works on the popes, the British royalty, and the dictators, he draws a similar conclusion – these figures use their power to enhance their sexual lives.
This point of view is so simplified and overstated that there must be something more to his writing. Unless the reader is a thirteen-year-old boy, why bother with Cawthorne’s book on music?
If someone of that age is found reading it and is embarrassed about being moved to tears by Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, then the fact the title of the chapter on the composer rhymes with a slang term for a female body part could obscure the purpose of the book.
The success of these books lies in the fact that they are parodies of the popular biographies which promise to provide psychological insight but are actually more interested in the juicy details.
As readers, we may not be interested in John Adams’ role in the Second Continental Congress, but we would certainly be curious about Abigail’s bedroom shenanigans.
In other words, if the biography section at Barnes & Noble was void of any sexual content, then books about Cary Grant, Rudolf Nureyev, or Gertrude Stein would not be as popular.
Cawthorne even goes as far as to undermine the concept of history by making it equivalent to hearsay, or by suggesting that it has always been that way, despite what we might like to think.
One must acknowledge the contrast between a very broad field of study and a very constricted interpretive approach.
Cawthorne may have a sexually-influenced outlook, but his phallus has an impressive I.Q. and a broad liberal training.
He examines the same psychological concepts, sophisticated theological theories, artistic techniques, and historical conundrums that are basic to standard biographies, but only to the degree that they elucidate the bedroom.
It is not just Cawthorne that has noticed sexual content overlooked by others.
Freud famously analyzed Hamlet and Oedipus Rex at the turn of the century and Leslie Fiedler made waves in 1948 with his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Art historian John Berger exposed Pablo Picasso’s pornographic imagery in The Success and Failure of Pablo Picasso (1965), while Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983) questioned the representation of Jesus’ penis in nativity scenes.
Cawthorne has taken up the mantle of this tradition in his work, although does not have an agenda or framework beyond “everyone cheats and lies about sex”, making him a purist and an outsider at the same time.
The joy of witnessing a single-minded person become absorbed in their work should not be overlooked.
At times, the writing is so passionate that you feel the need to douse the book with water, for instance, when he describes the meeting between Auguste Rodin and Isadora Duncan: “She was in awe when he took two tiny clumps of clay and squeezed them in his hands.
He was perspiring and waves of heat emanated from his body.
In a flash, he had fashioned a set of breasts.
Additionally, he addresses the most wicked transgressions in a casual manner, to illustrate how ordinary they are in his domain.
Just look at Pope Benedict’s credentials: “He engaged in bisexuality, sodomy with animals, and even commanded killings.
Additionally, he was fascinated with sorcery and devil worship.” The main challenge that biographers must confront is allowing their subjects to overshadow their own writing style.
The more absorbing the book, the more probable that readers will give all of the recognition to the individual who lived the life, not the one who depicted it in a vivid and real way.
With Cawthorne’s poor jokes and double entendres, he permeates every page of his work, never letting the reader forget who the storyteller is.
Cawthorne has an interesting approach to his research: he jumps from allegation to rumor to conjecture without taking the time to include citations or footnotes.
He appears to be suggesting that instead of adversaries, we should be having fun; it wouldn’t be too difficult to find fault in his arguments, but let’s enjoy it instead.
While it’s not necessarily desirable for other historians to take after his approach, the image of this dedicated individual studying in the British Library offers a sense of comfort.
Visualize him rummaging through the archives, being guided by his eclectic interests in uncovering pederasty, incest, orgies, and other forms of passion.
Although the discussion of the aristocracy at times may become tiresome, he usually provides what the reader desires – and let’s be honest, that’s what we seek.
Lucky women performing research in Cawthorne’s city may have the opportunity of making his acquaintance.
He once wrote, “The British Library is one of the greatest courts in London, and I’d like to apologize to other readers if my actions are interfering,” referring to the British expression “pulling birds,” which means the same as “picking up chicks.”
Reading five of his books consecutively gave me a sense of what it would be like to be mauled by an elderly professor at a faculty holiday gathering.
Nevertheless, credit is due to Cawthorne for never losing his grip on the fundamentals.
For instance, in Kings and Queens he accurately delineates the differences between George III, who was married to the “dreadful Queen” who gave him fifteen children, and George IV, who had ten illegitimate descendants with his German mistress.
Additionally, in the composer edition, he carefully distinguishes between Schubert (who never moved on from his infatuation with Therese Grob) and Schumann (who was betrayed by Brahms in what the author terms as “a musical menage de tra-la-la”). Most notably, he can keep his Bonifaces and Innocents apart in the papal book.
Cawthorne’s writing style is not particularly flamboyant, but it has a certain boldness that makes other books appear timid.
He utilizes blunt, repetitive sentences like Nerf bats. As an example of this, he stated that Napoleon was too preoccupied with oral sex to successfully combat his enemies, which is comparable to suggesting that Michael Jordan was more focused on steak than scoring points.
In a chapter from Great Composers, he bizarrely described the English companion of Joseph Haydn as having an “unquenchable craving for music teachers”.
Cawthorne also wrote that Saint Jerome was so direct in his warnings of the Roman Church’s corruption that academics would not translate them. This makes it unclear as to how Cawthorne was able to gain knowledge of these statements.
To enjoy these books to the fullest, one should not be hindered by such questions.
When it comes to serious writing, unfounded opinions and broad generalizations are not allowed; however, since these matters are not serious, one may step back and allow Cawthorne to engage in biased musings.
To him, Van Gogh’s nudes are “some of the ugliest and least attractive in the history of art” and Michelangelo’s female figures “look like men with some parts added or taken away”.
After lampooning Freud for his suggestion that Leonardo da Vinci was homosexual (“Thank you, Sigmund”), he then comes up with an explanation for 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.”
Even though his approach to the topic is incorrect, he sometimes succeeds in being convincing.
No doubt, Cawthorne’s individual viewpoint has its boundaries. This is especially striking in Sex Lives of the Great Dictators.
Even if they participated in activities privately, Mussolini (author of provocative books), Mao (who liked to sleep with five females simultaneously), and Stalin (who kept his socks on while snoozing and may have had homosexual inclinations) were some of the most violent mass killers of the twentieth century.
When it comes to Hitler, we must concede that no one has been able to provide an adequate explanation, despite many attempts by excellent authors.
A prime example of someone who has strayed from the conventional path is Unity Mitford. This British noblewoman associated with high-ranking Nazis in the 1930s and published writings such as “Why I Am a Jew-Hater.”
Her sister Jessica Mitford, who had different views and later became a journalist, wrote about Unity in her memoir Hons and Rebels: “Unity had always been an oddball, ungovernable by anyone, which is why she was asked to leave her boarding school at the age of sixteen.
Yet she adopted a highly traditionalist ideology. She had always been a vehement hater, but previously her hatred was more reasoned.
This time, however, it seemed that she had lost sight of what it meant to hate.”
Painful and rational, we do not gain insight into hate or insanity from this story. To wrap it up, Nigel Cawthorne posits: “It is unclear if Hitler ever acted upon his attraction to Unity or if it remained a fantasy.
Nevertheless, he did have a habit of taking young, naive girls and bending them to his will. While Hitler found comfort in Unity’s presence, those close to him found her amusing; Goebbels and Streicher famously referred to her as ‘Mit-fart’.” ✯
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