In defence of harlots

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

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The Boston, Melbourne, Oxford Universities Conversazioni on Culture is a stimulating series of talks which takes place every year in one of the three venues. This year’s topic was ‘Power Without Responsibility: Was Kipling Right? The Press.’ Yours truly was invited to be one of the speakers alongside worthies such as Andrew Roberts, Kenneth Minogue, Roger Kimball, Renata Adler, Melanie Phillips, John O’Sullivan and David Pryce-Jones. I was billed as giving ‘the occasional address’, which was a presentation defending harlots. If you remember the Kipling quote, used by Stanley Baldwin in a 1931 Westminster by-election, it ends, ‘the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’. I thought the quote rather unfair to harlots and prepared a paper defending them. It was not a triumph, that’s for sure, but it wasn’t a total bomb either.

Actually, it was a singular honour to be invited. Dr John Silber, ex-president of Boston University, is a very learned and able man who has turned BU into a classical academic school and a great institution of learning. (He has resisted lowering standards and making the school attractive to trendy lefties.) Professor Claudio Veliz, the father of the Conversazioni, is an old friend and about as charming and nice a person as one can come across nowadays. I never realised how much fun the world of academia can be. I even sat next to a prof’s wife who got me thinking bad thoughts, the kind I have when I see Ashley Judd cavorting on screen. The Conversazioni are not seminars, but considerations of the great themes of our times by cultivated — experienced — individuals, as opposed to the average academic who looks down through his or her tunnel vision on those who have lived life rather than taught it. Chatham House rules forbid me from quoting what some of the speakers said, and it’s just as well. Everyone let rip. I particularly liked Andrew Roberts on the BBC, Roger Kimball on the New York Times, and an incredibly erudite Kenneth Minogue on the press in general. But back to me, for a change.

Although journalists can certainly be harlots, as can newspapers and TV networks, we all know that in common usage a harlot is a woman who provides a man with sexual pleasure. But does a harlot have power, in the true sense of the word? Does she have the ability to act or produce an effect? In the past, yes, but no longer. Nowadays, compared with the power of the press, she has none at all. Mind you, courtesans — prostitutes with a courtly, wealthy, upper-class clientele — have throughout the ages been known for their responsibility to their wealthy patrons. In fact, they’ve been the epitome of discretion and honesty. I can go on and on with examples of courtesans keeping secrets. Starting with Aspasia, whom Pericles allowed to run Athens, according to Plutarch. Pericles had a high regard for her as a philosopher and politician. Philosophers came to see her with their disciples, and their friends brought their wives to hear her, although she ran a disreputable business because she trained young hetaerae.

But would it be fair to blame her because Pericles elected to follow the advice of his nephew, Alcibiades, and invade Sicily, thus bringing about Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta? Hardly. Alcibiades was the Paul Wolfowitz of his day. Wolfowitz told Bush to invade Iraq when the war was with Osama and the Wahabis, just as Alcibiades told Pericles to invade Sicily when the war was with Sparta. Both invasions had dire consequences, but the men did not take responsibility for their actions.

Talk about harlots being irresponsible. Kipling’s posture is nothing more than a continuation of the attitude of men in Venice during the Renaissance, where harlots of every stripe flourished to such an extent that they were the biggest tourist attraction of Europe. An exquisite courtesan of Venice was the legendary Veronica Franco, a rare beauty who was satirised by literary men threatened by a talent far greater than theirs. Franco, who was painted by Tintoretto, challenged the stereotype of the venal prostitute by demolishing misogynist poets, playwrights and essayists in polished verse, including the famous ‘Veronica, ver unica puttana’. So Venice and the men turned on her in the form of the Inquisition, but she managed to beat the rap and was sent, like Dante, into exile against her will.

History has been very unfair to harlots. From Madame de Pompadour to Madame du Barry (guillotined for no good reason), the great Parisian courtesans took pride in their vocation and acted responsibly with their power. While Napoleon and his nephew frittered theirs away, les grandes horizontales did not. Kipling and Baldwin took a cheap shot, but because of the infamous quote, I got an invitation to address some very nice brainy types. Next week, I will tell you all about the two future Mrs Takis, Amy Freeborn and Jennifer Johnson, the former a rare beauty and computer whizz, the latter no relation to Paul, Frank or Boris, but just as smart if somewhat better looking.