Written a month ago for Hot Press.
“Shaman poet Galsan Tschinag in his Defence of Poetry (Poetry International Web, 1999) made a chilling prophecy when he said that as civilisation advances, people suffering from the madness that is poetic sensibility are less and less tolerated. ‘Defence of poetry thus means,’ he says, ‘defence of humanity.’”
So writes Gabriel Rosenstock in a letter to the Irish Times about Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s troubles, and it clarifies for me something about the fault lines that have opened up in the debate over the right- and wrong-doings of the poet’s activities in Nepal. I find myself appalled at the acidic judgmentalism of those condemning the man, and, at the same time, wondering why I should find myself sitting so uncomfortably on my woolly liberal fence. Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a heightened public scandal, especially one that concerns sexual morality, the middle ground becomes extremely inhospitable.
On the face of it, as a psychotherapist, having listened to many harrowing stories of child abuse, I know more than most the damage it can cause, and my sympathy is never for the abuser. So, I should be ready to jump on the band wagon and lynch the sexual exploiter Ó Searcaigh, join the crowd saying “down with that sort of thing” and calling for him to stop his evil ways, and campaign for his corrupting poetry to be removed from the eyes of our sensitive children studying for the Leaving Cert. Or, not being a lynch-mob kind of man, I should be, at the very least, aching for the plight of the teenagers who felt so hurt and used, and angry on their behalf. I do, but I see both the poet and the film-maker culpable on an individual level. And, on a collective level, of course, the poverty in Nepal is inescapably a factor in this tragedy. But as far as the Westerners go in this story, It’s a subtle charge I am making: the two former friends are both guilty of being unconscious of their own power, and in declaring war against Ó Searcaigh, using her film as her weapon, Ní Chianán has caused inestimable collateral damage. Of Ó Searcaigh’s lack of awareness about the effect of his being a rich Westerner, enough has been said already, and as I have already written, he has to account for himself and his actions. Of the film maker’s, however, more needs to be said.
I cannot believe that any good is served by bringing in a film crew to record what, in effect, are counselling sessions. When the film maker decided to bring in a counsellor to film the teenagers at the centre of the allegations, and it would have been impossible for them to put on record any positive feelings about their exchanges with Ó Searcaigh, because of the way that homosexuality is viewed in Nepal. Although plenty of sex between men happens, the Western notion of gay identity has yet to take root properly, or make any inroads into the culture. Even the head of the main LGBT organisation in Nepal has spoken about he has to be discreet about his orientation. Therefore, it would be next to impossible for a young man to say on film that he had taken his encounter with the poet in his stride, that he had picked himself off, dusted himself down, and got on with his life – which would be the therapeutic goal of any good counsellor. The act of filming, of recording for public display, is anathema to the spirit of counselling, and, in this particular situation, more importantly, the truth. Having their stories and pictures splashed all over the Nepalese press is not something, I believe, they could possibly have signed up for. It would have taken cojones of steel to be brazen enough to deny they were victims of the situation, and the impossible gift of premonition to be able to imagine the effect that speaking as they did in front of a camera would have the effect it has on Ó Searcaigh’s and their own lives. Could they have imagined, in particular, that what they were saying could be used as evidence in criminal charges?
Is it so contentious to say that there are no winners in this sorry saga, only losers? Do I have to accept the polarised nature of the debate, as set by the film maker? It seems that if I am critical of her film, then I am automatically deemed to be a defender of an exploiter of children. It feels as if I am being asked when I stopped beating my wife.
Shortly after I saw the film, I was on the DART one morning. A beautiful young man was sitting in a nearby seat. He must have been sixteen or seventeen; he had a face of shining gentleness and simplicity. He was smiling in open encouragement of his little brother, telling jokes and smiling in a heart-stopping way. I realised he was exactly the same kind of youth that Ó Searcaigh is drawn to, and I marvelled at his presence. I was imagining what it would be like to kiss him, to give him pleasure, to see him moan in surprise. I was thinking, all the time, what would be wrong if such a thing were to happen between us, and for the life of me I was stumped. I suspect that is the result of years of self-development as a gay man, kneading out the knots of my self-loathing, my shame about desiring members of my own sex. I’ve turned what, in my adolescence, had to be a secret desire, and therefore shameful, into something to be celebrated. I stayed there in my happy genial reverie until I asked myself the question: “What if I paid him?”
And then I realised that that would be obscene. Lucre is filthy. It contaminates, sullies, corrodes.
But that’s easy enough to say in a rich Western society. In a country such as Nepal, where poverty is endemic, it has a different lustre. And I don’t believe Ó Searcaigh fully comprehends that yet, because I don’t think he sees himself as a rich man, or a powerful man. A man without love is poor, no matter where he travels.
As Woody Allen says, if sex isn’t dirty, you’re not doing it right. There is something about the transgressive nature of sexuality, the mucky powerplay of it, the electricity of taboo, the draw to lose oneself, to throw caution and dignity to the wind and risk all for beauty, for pleasure: that is part of human nature. It’s not pretty, it’s not fair, and it can be highly destructive. The fact that I recognise that aspect in my own life is the reason I am not so quick to throw stones at Ó Searcaigh, as others are. He’s a man, not a monster, a man seeking escape from himself, in pursuit of beauty and in flight from the pain of relationship. And there, but for the grace of God, go I.