“Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri” by Jamie James— Artistic Renegades and an Erotic Refuge

James, Jamie. “Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Artistic Renegades and an  Erotic Refuge

Amos Lassen

There was a time when the Isle of Capri was legendary and a destination of great fun and secrecy. It was once the destination for “artistic renegades and a place of erotic refuge.” Capri is isolated and arrestingly beautiful, a perfect place for artists and writers who want to get away from the strictures of conventional society beginning from the time of Augustus, who bought the island in 29 BC after defeating Antony and Cleopatra, to the early twentieth century, when the poet and novelist Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen was in exile there after being charged with corrupting minors, to the 1960s, when Truman Capote spent some time on the island. Other visitors include the Marquis de Sade, Goethe, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Compton Mackenzie, Rilke, Lenin, and Gorky, and many others.

Grounded in a deep intimacy with Capri and full of captivating anecdotes, Jamie James’s “Pagan Light” is the story of how Capri, a tiny island, became a wildly permissive haven for people—queer, criminal, sick, marginalized, and simply crazy who had nowhere else to go. He has wonderful stories as well as shares his own deep intimacy with the island. James combines travelogue, history and literary analysis as he takes us through the lives of foreigners who have, over the centuries gone to Capri to find sexual and artistic freedom. It can also be a literary companion for those visiting the island and a peek into the lives of some who have been but are no longer here.

James writes of  wild parties, ritual nudity, and occasional gunplay, as well as a travelogue of the modern-day island. This is a sensitive, comic, engrossing history about creative people and erotic outlaws who search for  a home that is physical and spiritual. I have never been to Capri but reading this made me feel like I was there.

James gives us  “the intersection of history, art, literature, and place” and a wonderful place for nonconformists. As I read I thought of Noel Coward’s iconic role as “The Witch of Capri” in Tennessee William’s film “Boom” that was based on his play, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”.

This is a literary biography of the island that is built on literature. Since Tiberius moved there from Rome in AD 26, Capri has been a symbol of freedom, “a sexual utopia, a rock of exiles, and a laboratory of the avant-garde.” James describes Capri as four miles of rock as a Mediterranean Las Vegas where rules do not apply. He also resurrects the spirit, and the spirits, of Capri: Homer, Norman Douglas, Romaine Brooks, Axel Munthe, Compton Mackenzie, Gorky, Neruda, and, most memorably for me, the life and work of Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen. We learn  how Capri’s literary community created a genre of its own in fictional biographies and biographical fictions. It is well written and quite amazing to read about the  characters who lived there when it was a paradise for people who political and/or sexual outcasts.

I recently read some rather negative reviews of the book and cannot help but wonder if they read the same book that I did. In fact, I got little insight as to whether they read the book at all.

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