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Issue 126

Artefact: The World Will Always Welcome Lovers

High above the hordes of stupefied tourists that shuffle through the clouds of cannabis smoke on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, there is a vast and secret library. It is the home of over seven thousand books reflecting decades of passionate scholarship and collecting by University of Amsterdam professors Gert Hekma and Mattias Duyves. The couple’s private collection spreads across some twenty bookshelves, ranging from little glass cabinets to massive wall installations dominating their spacious, plant-filled apartment, hidden from the Red Light District’s culture of display.

The library’s topics are as broad as they are specific: the Marquis de Sade and his legacy; sexual liberation movements; masturbation, male prostitution, and the intersection between sex and crime. There are a few books on werewolves. There is a shelf devoted to child sexuality and intergenerational love. They have first edition copies of the earliest German sexology books. A section on homosexuality in the Muslim world. Every issue of BUTT magazine. Hundreds of biographies of queer historical figures.

My new artwork is an audio guide of this library, and I am looking for a clue. I need something to guide me through this forest’s worth of paper, some mode of portraying the attributes of this trove of published material.

A book opens, revealing an ex libris bookplate on the inside cover. It was a gift from Mattias to celebrate the completion of Gert’s PhD in 1987. The illustrator Pam Georg Rueter was commissioned to carve a woodcut for the bookplate: an image of two naked youths, encircled by the utopian lyric, The World Will Always Welcome Lovers.

The bookplate is not glued into every publication in the library. I come across it by chance, here and there. I find it in a book from 1964 called Greek Love; in a collection of essays by Esther Newton that includes “The Myth of the Mannish Lesbian”; in a 1908 sexology classic by Edward Carpenter entitled The Intermediate Sex, that warns,

So commonplace is it to misunderstand, so easy to misrepresent.

The bookplate is inside Nat iedereen behoort te weten omtrent Uranisme, a slim turn-of-the-century volume about the nascent attitude that homosexuals – or rather, Uranians – were humankind’s next evolutionary stage. The pamphlet carries a second label, revealing a former owner, Jacob Shorer, whose Amsterdam library of gay material was confiscated during the Nazi occupation of Holland, never again to be recovered. How did this book find its way into Hekma’s keeping?

Now it appears in a copy of The Young and the Evil, a story from 1933 written by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler. Gert pulled it out for me from a bookshelf in the bedroom. I hadn’t found it myself because the Ds, Es and Fs on the gay fiction shelves are arranged in a second row hidden behind the As, Bs and Cs.

I had never heard of Ford, but was enchanted by an interview I found in Gay Sunshine Interviews Vol. 1. Ford chats casually about his enviable Paris set, about meeting surrealist René Crevel at Gertude Stein’s home; about Edith Sitwell introducing him to the great love of his life, painter Pavel Tchelitchew; about Hemingway’s homophobia and big feet. He conjures an image of Djuna Barnes in a Tangiers of yesteryear:

She had finished Nightwood and I was typing it for her. I found a home in the Casbah, and Djuna came down from Paris and lived with me there and our daily routine was that I would go to the beach in the morning, come back and have lunch, type in the afternoon. I don’t know if I finished the book before she went back to Paris or not.

Gay Sunshine Interviews Vol. 1 is kept in a cabinet of books above the toilet, a section devoted to anthologies, including one called Orgasms of Light, where I find a poem by Ford. A line stands out:

Writing comes out like a perfume to attract no one there is no one to attract

Both anthologies are published by Winston Leyland, whose name surfaces repeatedly throughout the library. His influence is extensive and diverse: he is the publisher of a book about consensuality in sadomasochism called The Kiss of the Whip; he is the editor of a book of gay Latin American fiction entitled My Deep Dark Pain Is Love; he is thanked in the translator’s note of a collection of homoerotic poetry by the 8th-century Persian poet Abū Nuwās.

Submit, drink from his hand that boy so generous with his slenderness a gazelle, as if Allah had dressed him in mother-of-pearl fawn-hide

Opening another book, a typed letter addressed to Hekma falls out, written by Leyland himself. He is searching for an apartment in Amsterdam. He is working on a Dutch translation of Verlaine. He signs off yours in affectionate comradeship in gay liberation, Winston.

It is not the only personal letter folded inside book pages that I find. There is one written to Duyves by the late Dutch composer Peter Schad, expressing his enthusiastic distaste for a certain gay composer’s first symphony.

Could I design a narrative around the books in the library that bear Hekma’s ex libris bookplate? Or perhaps Leyland’s touch could act as a cue; he could play a leading role as I navigate this vast cast of interconnected characters. A hunt for books with personal letters inside? Each approach is as appealing as it is arbitrary. Whatever methodology emerges, I know my portrait of the library must be unofficial in nature. There has to be something illicit about my approach, something oblique and bibliomantic. Something queer .

I don’t want to browse through Duvyes and Hekma’s collection like a dilettante, tumbling with the distracted drift of an Internet surfer. But for now, flânerie seems the only sensible approach of wading my way into the library, so I surrender to the labyrinth, looking for hints, sniffing spines for the perfume of writing that comes out to attract no one.

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