Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 8

Scandalous Adolescence

ALTHOUGH during a large part of his fourteenth year finance constituted John’s main occupation, his attention was never wholly absorbed by it; and after his period of intensive study and speculation he was able to continue the business of gaining monetary power while giving the best of his energies to very different matters. He was increasingly intrigued by the new experiences consequent on adolescence. At the same time he was very seriously engaged on the study of the potentialities and limitations of Homo sapiens as manifested in contemporary world-problems. And as his opinion of the normal species became more and more unflattering, he began to turn his attention to the search for other individuals of his own calibre. Though all these activities were pursued together, it will be convenient to deal with them separately.

The onset of John’s adolescence was very late compared with that of the normal human being, and its duration was extremely prolonged. At fourteen he was physically comparable with a normal child of ten. When he died, at twenty-three, he was still in appearance a lad of seventeen. Yet, though physically he was always far behind his years, mentally, and not merely in intelligence but also in temperament and sensibility, he often seemed to be incredibly advanced beyond his actual age. This mental precocity, I should say, was entirely due to imaginative power. Whereas the normal child clings to the old interests and attitudes long after more developed capacities have actually begun to awaken in him, John seemed to seize upon every budding novelty in his own nature and “force” it into early bloom by the sheer intensity and heat of his imagination.

This was obvious, for instance, in the case of his sexual experience. It should be said that his parents were for their time exceptional in their attitude to sex in their children. All three grew up unusually free from the common shames and obsessions. Doc took a frankly physiological view of sexual development; and Pax treated the sexual curiosity and experimentation of her children in a perfectly open and humorous way.

Thus John may be said to have had an exceptionally good start. But the use which he made of it was very different from that which satisfied his brother and sister. They were exceptional only in being permitted to develop naturally, and in thus escaping the normal distortions. They did all that most children were solemnly forbidden to do, and they were not condemned. I have no doubt that they practised whatever “vices” they happened to think of, and then passed light-heartedly to other interests. In the home circle they would prattle about sex and conception in a shameless manner; but not in public, “because people don’t understand yet that it doesn’t matter.” Later they obviously had their romantic attachments. And later still they both married, and are seemingly well content.

The case of John was strikingly different. Like them, he passed in infancy through a phase of intense interest in his own body. Like them he found peculiar gratification in certain parts of his body. But whereas with them sexual interest began long before consciousness of personality had become at all precise, with John self-consciousness and other-consciousness were already vivid and detailed long before the onset of adolescence. Consequently, when that great change first began to affect him, and his imagination seized upon its earliest mental symptoms, he plunged headlong into kinds of behaviour that might have been deemed far beyond his years.

For instance, when John was ten, but physiologically much younger, he went through a phase of sexual interest more or less equivalent to the infantile sexuality of the normal type, but enlivened by his precocious intelligence and imagination. For some weeks he amused himself and outraged the neighbours by decorating walls and gate-posts with “naughty” drawings in which particular adults whom he disliked were caricatured in the act of committing various “wicked” practices. He also enticed his friends into his evil ways, and caused such a storm among the local parents that his father had to intervene. This phase, I take it, was due largely to a sense of impotence and consequent inferiority. He was trying to be sexually mature before his body was ready. After a week or two he apparently worked through this interest, as he had worked through the interest in personal combat.

But as the months advanced into years, he obviously felt an increasing delight in his own body, and this came in time to change his whole attitude to life. At fourteen he was generally taken for a strange child of ten, though it was not unusual for an observer sensitive to facial expression to suppose him some kind of “genius” of eighteen with arrested physique. His general proportions were those of a ten-year-old; but over a childlike skeleton he bore a lean and knotted musculature about which his father used to say that it was not quite human, and that there ought to be a long prehensile tail to complete the picture. How far this muscular development was due to nature, and how far to his deliberate physical culture, I do not know.

His face was already changing from the infantile to the boyish in underlying structure; but the ceaseless expressive movements of mouth and nostrils and brows were already stamping it with an adult, alien, and almost inhuman character. Thinking of him at this period, I recall a creature which appeared as urchin but also as sage, as imp but also as infant deity. In summer his usual dress was a coloured shirt, shorts and sandshoes, all of them fairly grubby. His large head and close platinum wool, and his immense green-rimmed, falcon eyes, gave one a sense that these commonplace clothes had been assumed as a disguise.

Such was his general appearance when he began to discover a vast attractiveness in his own person, and a startling power of seducing others to delight in him no less luxuriously than he did himself. His will to conquest was probably much exaggerated by the knowledge that from the point of view of the normal species there was something grotesque and repellent about him. His narcissism was also, I imagine, aggravated and prolonged by the fact that, from his own point of view, there was no other to meet him on an equal footing, none fit for him to regard with that blend of selfishness and devotion which is romantic love.

I must make it clear that in reporting John’s behaviour at this time I do not seek to defend it. Much of it seems to me outrageous. Had it been perpetrated by anyone other than John, I should have unhesitatingly condemned it as the expression of a self-centred and shockingly perverted mind. But in spite of the most reprehensible incidents in his career, I am convinced that John was far superior to the rest of us in moral sensibility, as in intelligence. Therefore, even in respect of the seemingly disgraceful conduct which I have now to describe, I feel that the right course is not to condemn but to suspend judgement and try to understand. I tell myself that, if John was indeed a superior being, much of his conduct would certainly outrage us, simply because we, with our grosser sensibility, would never be able to apprehend its true nature. In fact, had his behaviour been simply an idealization of normal human behaviour, I should have been less disposed to regard him as of an essentially different and superior type. On the other hand it should be remembered that, though superior in capacity, he was also juvenile, and may well have suffered in his own way from the inexperience and crudity of the juvenile mind. Finally, his circumstances were such as to warp him, for he found himself alone in a world of beings whom he regarded as only half human.

It was in his fourteenth year that John’s new consciousness of himself first appeared, and shortly after his fourteenth birthday that it expressed itself in what I can only call an orgy of ruthless vamping. I myself was one of the few persons within his circle at whom he never “set his cap,” and I was exempt only because he could not regard me as fair game. I was his slave, his hound, toward whom he felt a certain responsibility. One other who escaped was Judy; for there again he felt no need to enforce his attractiveness, and there again he felt responsibility and affection.

So far as I know, his first serious affair was with the unfortunate Stephen, now a consciously grown-up young man who went to business every day. Stephen had a girl friend whom he took out on Saturdays on his motor-bike. One Saturday, when John and I were returning from a business trip in my car (we had visited a rubber factory), we stopped for tea at a popular roadside café. We found Stephen and his girl inside, almost ready to leave. John persuaded them to “stay and talk to us for a bit.” The girl was obviously reluctant, having perhaps already had reason to dislike John’s behaviour toward her man; but Stephen delayed departure. Then began a most distressing scene. John behaved toward Stephen in a manner calculated to eclipse the young woman at his side. He prattled. He sparkled with just the right standard of wit to fascinate Stephen and pass over the head of his simple companion. He kept the whole conversation well beyond her powers, occasionally appealing to her in a manner likely to trap her into making herself ridiculous. He faced Stephen now with the shy hauteur of a deer, now with seductiveness. He found excuses to move about the room and display his curiously feline, though also coltish, grace. Stephen was obviously captivated against his will, and, I feel sure, not for the first time. Toward the girl his gallantry grew laboured and false. She, poor outclassed little creature, could not conceal her distress, but Stephen never noticed it, for he was hypnotized. At last she looked at her watch and tremulously snapped, “It’s frightfully late. Please take me home.” But even as they were leaving the room John enticed Stephen back for a final sally.

When the couple had gone I told John very emphatically what I thought of his behaviour. He looked at me with the offensive complacency of a cat, then drawled, “Homo sapiens!” Whether he was referring to me or to Stephen was not clear. But presently he said, “Tickle him the right way, and you’ve got him.”

A week later people were talking about the change in Stephen. They said “he ought to be ashamed to carry on that way with the boy,” and that John would be ruined. When I saw the two of them together, I felt that Stephen was struggling heroically against an obsession. He shunned all physical contact with John, but when contact came, either by accident or through John’s contrivance, he was electrified, and could not help prolonging it under a pretence of ragging. John himself appeared to be suffering from a conflict of luxury and disgust. It was clear that he was gratified by his conquest, but at the same time he was repelled. Often he would terminate an amatory brawl with harshness, venting his repulsion by some unexpected piece of brutality, pushing his thumb fiercely into Stephen’s eye, or tearing at his ear. As on an earlier occasion, my disgust and indignation at this kind of behaviour seemed to lead John to self-criticism. He was not above learning from his inferiors. His attitude to Stephen changed back to “man to man” comradeship, tempered by an almost humble gentleness. Stephen, too, slowly woke from his infatuation, but he woke with lasting scars.

For some weeks John refrained, so far as I know, from activities of this kind. But his behaviour toward his elders had become definitely more self-conscious and more body-conscious. He was evidently discovering in his own person an interest which had hitherto escaped him. He studied the art of displaying the bizarre attractiveness of his young body to the best advantage in the eyes of the inferior species. Of course he was far too intelligent to indulge in those excesses of adornment which so often render the adolescent ludicrous. Indeed, I doubt whether any but the most intimate and persevering observer would have guessed that the artistry of his behaviour was at all conscious. That it actually was so I inferred from the fact that it varied according to the standards of his audience, now expressing the crudest sort of self-delight and shameless seductiveness, now attaining to that unadorned and steely grace which was to characterize the later John.

During the eighteen months before he reached the age of sixteen John indulged in occasional and abortive love-affairs with older boys and young men. He was still sexually undeveloped, but imagination forestalled his physique, and made him capable of amatory sensitiveness beyond his years. Throughout this phase, however, he seemed indifferent to the fact that most girls showed some degree of physical repulsion in his presence.

But when he was sixteen, and in appearance a queer sort of twelve-year-old, he turned his attention to woman. For some weeks the girls with whom he came in contact had shown a more positive, often a positively vindictive, attitude to him. This suggests at least that they were being forced to take note of him with new eyes, and that he had already begun to study a new technique of behaviour, directed toward the opposite sex.

Having perfected his technique, he proceeded to use it with cold deliberation upon one of the acknowledged stars of local society. This haughty young woman, who bore the surprising name of Europa, was the daughter of a wealthy shipowner. She was fair, large, athletic. Her normal expression was a rather contemptuous pout, tempered by a certain cow-like wistfulness about the eyes. She had been engaged twice, but rumour affirmed that her experience of the opposite sex had been far more intimate than was justified by mere betrothal.

One afternoon down at the bathing place, accident (seemingly) brought John to the notice of Europa. She was lying in the sun, attended by her admirers. Unwitting, she had settled herself close to John’s towel. Her elbow was on the corner of it. John, needing to dry himself after a swim, approached her from behind, mildly tugged at the towel and murmured, “Excuse me.” She turned, found a grotesque young face close to her own, gave a start of repulsion, hastily released the towel, and recovered her composure by remarking to her audience, “Heavens! What an imp!” John must have heard.

Later, when Europa executed one of her admirable dives from the top board, John evidently managed to get entangled with her under water, for they came up together in close contact. John laughed, and broke away. Europa was left gasping for a moment, then she, too, laughed, and returned to the diving platform. John, looking like a gargoyle, was already squatting on one of the boards, As she stretched her arms for the dive, she remarked with kindly contempt, “You won’t catch me this time, little monkey.” John dropped like a stone, and entered the water half a second behind her. After a considerable time they appeared together again. Europa was seen to smack his face, break from his clinging arm, and make for shore. There, she sunned and preened herself.

John now disported himself in her view, diving and swimming. He had invented a stroke of his own, very different from the “trudgeon” which was still at this time almost unchallenged in the remote northern provinces. Lying on his stomach in the water and flicking his feet alternately, while his arms behaved in the ordinary “trudgeon” manner, he was able to outstrip many experts older than himself. Some said that if he would only learn a decent stroke he would develop into a really fine swimmer. No one in the little provincial suburb realized that John’s eccentric stroke, or something very like it, a product of Polynesia, was even then ousting the “trudgeon” from the more advanced swimming circles of Europe and America, and even England.

With this eccentric stroke John displayed his prowess before the reluctantly attentive eyes of Europa. Presently he came out of the water and played ball with his companions, running, leaping, twisting, with that queer grace which few could detect, but by which those few were strangely enthralled. Europa, talking to her swains, watched and was evidently intrigued.

In the course of the game John threw the ball, seemingly by accident, so that it knocked her cigarette from her hand. He leapt to her, sank on one knee, took the outraged fingers and kissed them, with mock gallantry and a suggestion of real tenderness. Every one laughed. Still holding Europa’s hand, he brought his great eyes to bear upon her face, inquiringly. The proud Europa laughed, unaccountably blushed, withdrew her hand.

This was the beginning. There is no need to follow the stages by which the urchin captured the princess. It is enough to dwell for a moment on their relations when the affair was at its height. Little knowing what was in store for her, Europa encouraged the juvenile philanderer, not only at the swimming pool, where they gambolled together, but also by taking him out in her car. John, I should say, was much too wise, and much too occupied with other matters, to make his society cheap. Their meetings were not very frequent; but they were frequent enough to secure his prey.

The metaphor is perhaps unjust. I do not pretend to be able to analyse John’s motives adequately, even the comparatively simple motives of his adolescence. Though I feel fairly sure that the origin of his attack upon Europa was his new craving to be admired by a woman in her prime, I can well believe that, as the relationship developed, he came to regard her in a much more complex manner. He sometimes watched her with an expression in which aloofness struggled not only with contempt but with genuine admiration. His delight in her caresses was doubtless in part due to dawning sexual appreciation. But though he could imaginatively judge her and enjoy her from the point of view of the male of her species, he was, I think, always conscious of her biological and spiritual inferiority to himself. The delight of conquest and the luxury of physical contact with a full-blooded and responsive woman were always for him poisoned by the sense that this contact was with a brute, with something which could never satisfy his deeper needs, and might debase him.

On Europa the relationship had striking effects. The swains found themselves spurned. Bitter taunts were flung. It was said that she had “fallen for a kid, and a freak kid, too.” She herself was obviously torn between the need to preserve her dignity and the half-sexual, half-maternal hunger which John had inspired. Horror at her plight and revulsion from the strangeness of the thing that had enthralled her made matters worse. She once said something to me which revealed the nerve of her feeling for John. It was at a tennis party. She and I were alone for a few minutes. Examining her racquet, she suddenly asked, “Do you blame me, about John?” While I was trying to reply, she added, “I expect you know what a power he has. He’s like — a god pretending to be a monkey. When you’ve been noticed by him, you can’t bother about ordinary people.”

The climax of this strange affair must have happened very shortly after that incident. I heard the story from John himself several years later. He had laughingly threatened to invade Europa’s bedroom one night by way of the window. It seemed to her an impossible feat, and she dared him to do it. In the small hours of the following morning she woke to a soft touch on her neck. She was being kissed. Before she had time to scream a well-known boyish voice made known that the invader was John. What with astonishment, amusement, defiance and sexual-maternal craving, Europa seems to have made but a half-hearted resistance to the boy’s advances. I can imagine that in the grip of his still childish arms she found an intoxicating blend of the innocent and the virile. After some protest and sweet struggle she threw prudence to the winds and responded with passion. But when she began to cling to him, revulsion and horror invaded him. The spell was broken.

The caressing fingers, which at first had seemed to open up for him a new world of mutual intimacy, affection, trust, in relation with a spirit of his own stature, became increasingly sub-human, “as though a dog were smelling round me, or a monkey.” The impression became so strong that he finally sprang from the bed and disappeared through the window, leaving his shirt and shorts behind him. So hasty was his retreat that he actually bungled the descent in a most unJohn-like manner, fell heavily into a flower-bed, and limped home in the darkness with a sprained ankle.

For some weeks John was painfully torn between attraction and repulsion, but never again did he climb into Europa’s window. She, for her part, was evidently horrified at her own behaviour, for she deliberately avoided her boy-lover, and when she encountered him in public she acted the part of the remote though kindly adult. Presently, however, she realized that John’s attitude to her had changed, that his ardour had apparently cooled and given place to a gentle and disconcerting protectiveness.

When John took me into his confidence about his relations with Europa, he said, if I remember rightly, something like this. “That one night gave me my first real shaking. Before, I had been sure of myself; suddenly I found myself swept this way and that by currents that I could neither stem nor understand. I had done something that night which I knew deeply I was meant to do, but it was somehow all wrong. Time after time, during the next few weeks, I went to Europa intending to make love to her, but when I found her I just didn’t. Before I reached her I’d be all full of the recollection of that night, and her vital responsiveness, and her so-called beauty; but when I saw her — well, I felt as Titania felt when she woke to see that Bottom was an ass. Dear Europa seemed just a nice old donkey, a fine one of course, but rather ridiculous and pitiable because of her soullessness. I felt no resentment against her, just kindness and responsibility. Once, for the sake of experiment, I started being amorous, and she, poor thing, rejoiced like an encouraged dog. But it wouldn’t do. Something fierce in me rose up and stopped me, and filled me with an alarming desire to get my knife into her breasts and smash up her face. Then something else woke in me that looked down on the whole matter from a great height and felt a sort of passion of contemptuous affection for us both; but gave me a mighty scolding.”

At this point, I remember, there was a long silence. At last John told me something which it is better not to report. I did, indeed, write a careful account of this most disturbing incident in his career; and I confess that at the time I was so deeply under the spell of his personality that I could not feel his behaviour to have been vile. I recognized, of course, that it was flagrantly unconventional. But I had so deep an affection and respect for both the persons concerned that I gladly saw the affair as John wished me to see it. Years later, when I innocently showed my manuscript to others of my species, they pointed out that to publish such matter would be to shock many sensitive readers, and to incur the charge of sheer licentiousness.

I am a respectable member of the English middle class, and wish to remain so. All I will say, then, is that the motive of the behaviour which John confessed seems to have been double. First, he needed soothing after the disastrous incident with Europa, and, therefore, he sought delicate and intimate contact with a being whose sensibility and insight were not wholly incomparable with his own; with a being, moreover, who was beloved, who also loved him deeply, and would gladly go to any lengths for his sake. Second, he needed to assert his moral independence of Homo sapiens, to free himself of all deep unconscious acquiescence in the conventions of the species that had nurtured him. He needed, therefore, to break what was one of the most cherished of all the taboos of that species.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00