TWENTY YEARS AGO, Phyllis Grosskurth wrote a biography of John Addington Symonds (1840- 1893) in which she was allowed to "make use" of these 1883 memoirs, though not to quote from them. Now her edition of this document, splendidly introduced and mercifully cut ("fatal fluency" was Symonds' own term for the careless self-indulgence which spoiled so much of his prose and all of his verse), is added to the shelf which, the publisher suggests, already contains Gosse's Father and Son, Wilde's De Profundis, and the much later Father and Myself by J. R. Ackerley.
There are interesting differences: Wilde has survived as a literary figure as well as a personal myth; Gosse has vanished except pecisely for his autobiographical romance (written in 1907 and of course without mention of his own rather decorous homoerotic impulses); Ackerly is an entirely modern discovery, and much more of an Edwardian, even a Georgian figure than one of these embattled Victorians. Symonds belongs, indeed, to the psychological world and woes of Swinburne and Whitman, and the reason this book has only a documentary appeal is to be found in Henry James' remark, occasioned by reading the privately published pamphlet Symonds had sent to him in 1883, A Problem in Greek Ethics: writing to Gosse, James observes that "humor is the saving salt of the affair" and that Symonds had none.
As mysteriously English as the class preoccupations which govern, which tyrannize Symond's homosexuality and that of so many other literary confessors from Byron to Harold Nicolson, humor, or rather its absolute absence, is the reason we no longer read Symonds today. And it probably has a lot to do with why we continue to read Wilde -- and why we find Gosse, if we take the trouble, startlingly frisky -- a man whom Henry James so deeply enjoyed. The comic sense which Meredith and Shaw were to sideswipe from Nietzsche, which James and even Swinburne were to exalt among themselves, never puts in an appearance in the text which Phyllis Grosskurth has at last made available. "Nothing occurred between us," Symonds writes of a night he spent with the 19-year-old Norman Moor in circumstances of erotic excruciation, "which the censorious could rightly consider unworthy of two gentlemen." Rightly consider . . .
Yet it is important, however awkward, to attend to Symonds as an autobiographer, for he illustrates an important truth about our humanity. He writes in the most absent- minded fashion of his literary career, of his marriage, of his four daughters, and of his extremely shadowy father and friends (his mother died when he was 4, and except for one terrifying episode in a carriage with runaway horses, he claims to have no feelings about her life or death as it may or must have touched his own); all his attention, and all his prolixity, is fastened upon the "secret life" we are so wearily familiar with in those other Victorian confessions, countless interludes with "postillions, drivers, carters, carpenters, doctors, parsons, schoolmasters, porters in hotels, herdsmen on the alps, masons, hunters, woodmen, hotelkeepers, shopkeepers, stableboys, artizand (sic)" in Switzerland, with couriers, guides and gondoliers in Italy.
THE TWO LIVES are entirely apart from each other. In a career of 30 years and as many volumes of history, criticism, travel, translation and verse, as Havelock Ellis says of him in Case XVII of Sexual Inversion three years after his death, "he made himself one of the leaders of English literature"; yet this leadership is not perceived by Symonds as having any connection, causal or sublimated, with the drastic and tormented erotic life here so massively detailed. Which we find mystifying, I think, and truly perverse. We are in the position of an orchestra conductor who must present operas of Gluck or Rameau and convince his players (and his audience) that Beethoven and Wagner have never existed, that emotion must find other stylistic means to register its truth. When Symonds writes, Gide and Cavafy have not yet made themselves known, and Freud has not transformed the world's notion of the "normal" to no more than a segment of the experiential continuum which will include all sexual behavior, hitherto regarded as not only separable but antithetical to the acceptably human, the possibly social.
To Symonds, the divisions and discrepancies of his life did not seem to be the problem: only his solitude, his incapacity to "speak out" beyond the stale literary echoes of his period. With the examples of Cellini's and Gozzi's memoirs, which he had translated, behind him, he realized that some sort of accounting was possible. Yet though he wrote his memoirs for the future, he was so comfortably inhabited by the dialect of his tribe that the radical separations of experience he was indulging and indeed insisting upon remained invisible to him.
That is the value of his book for us -- as a cautionary reminder that we too are likely to be unresponsive to the myths and assumptions which govern our behavior, however intense our scrutiny, however frank our appraisal of ourselves. These memoirs are part of the pathos of literature, not its pathology as Symonds thought. That is their distinction, and their justification.