Pedophilia, Greek for “pedo” meaning child and “philia” meaning love or friendship, is considered by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a psychological disorder involving recurrent, intense, and sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviours involving sexual activity, with a prepubescent child. And while this may seem immoral to us, pedophilia is no new concept. Ever since the 1600s B.C.E., when Athenian pederasty was a common social practice, pedophilic behaviour has been a recorded part of human history.
Pederasty – the instance of erotic relationships between adult men and adolescent boys – was seen in Ancient Greece as a desirable instructional practice, implemented to teach the youth cultural, civic, and moral values. The relationship, either platonic or sexual, was seen as a perfectly acceptable social institution, and was practiced by several other peoples, including the Celts and other Germanic tribes.
However, the rise of Judeo-Christian values, notably the condemnation of sodomy, led to a change in mores, and pederasty became increasingly uncommon. It was only in 1886 that the study of pedophilia began, with Viennese psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing and his work Psychopathia Sexualis.
In literature, too, pedophilia has become a common theme. Present as early as the 14th century in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, pedophilia also depicted in works such as Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Norwegian Wood,/i> by Haruki Murakami, and several of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Goethe’s “Marienbad Elegy.”
Two of the most famous works of fiction prominently featuring pedophilia are, of course, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Both these novels have garnered international recognition and popularity, and gained classic status.
Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ascetic middle-aged author who, after a chance encounter, decides to go on sabbatical. Aschenbach finds himself in Venice, and soon notices a beautiful Polish youth by the name of Tadzio. Slowly, as the plot unfolds, Aschenbach’s obsession causes him to forsake his former asceticism and controlled nature in favour of one more passionate and youthful. However, this emotional awakening ultimately results in a loss of dignity and Aschenbach’s death.
Similarly, Nabokov’s Lolita also tells of an emotional awakening. After failing to consummate a childhood relationship with a young girl named Annabel Leigh, Humbert Humbert, the protagonist, becomes obsessed with “nymphets,” or girls between the ages of nine and 14 possessing an ethereal quality that he finds pleasing. After meeting Dolores Haze, known throughout the novel as Dolly or Lolita, he sees Annabel in her, and falls in love with the 12-year-old shortly thereafter. The rest of the novel then describes the growth and eventual failure of their relationship.
Regardless of the awakening experienced by both protagonists, neither Lolita nor Death in Venice were intended as promotions of pedophilia. Aschenbach eventually loses all the self-control he once prided himself upon, and Humbert Humbert often begs the reader to understand that he is not proud of his actions and regrets effectively robbing Lolita of her childhood.
Although both novels have sparked controversy since their publication, the key to their success may very well be this indirect criticism of pedophilia. Regardless of the pederasty of antiquity, pedophilia remains a social taboo, unimaginable to many of us.