Velvet & Pus

A queer Catholic imagination
Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo)

When I was in high school, I spent hours hunting for any hint of homosexuality in music, poetry, art—all the places people drop their hints. Is this guy singing, “Once a lover, and his last”? Is the “Oscar” he name-checks...our Oscar? In seeking precedents, my friends and I were trying to figure out what possibilities our futures might hold. Slowly, we built an imagination for ourselves: an extremely mid-nineties imagination, overrun with drawling, white British men and violent death, but a treasury and an ancestry nonetheless.

A few years later, I discovered the Catholic Church. Even at that time there was already talk of a distinctive “Catholic imagination”; people threw around words like “incarnational.” I fell in love with the Church and was baptized in 1998. The Church, my beloved, is bigger than “the Catholic imagination.” I hope I didn’t swoon for that abstract and desiccating daughter of the critical class. But even this abstraction holds some truths and beauties behind its facade. And only now, decades later, I’m realizing how much “the Catholic imagination” and one familiar form of queer imagination have in common. These traditions don’t simply overlap because Oscar Wilde and Steven Patrick Morrissey happened to be baptized in the Church (if such a thing could “happen to be”). They overlap because queer culture preserved and exemplified countercultural truths and unwanted beauties. What I found in the Church was at once strange and familiar—and the familiarity, more than the strangeness, was the result of my experience in queer cultures. You may shape your tongue to Church Latin only to find that the words come out in Polari.

The first overlap I noticed was, of course, the Church’s sensuality. Even before I became Catholic I noticed this insistence on the meaning of the body—“meaning” in the sense that the body could be interpreted, that you could not only feel it but understand it (or misunderstand it). But also “meaning” in the sense of importance: the body means a lot. In high school, I wrote a self-indulgent short story called “The Church Is the Body” about a congregation that rejects a woman due to her chronic illness. This is the teenage victim fantasy, I know. But where did I get that title, and why did I like it so much? I hated the gory paintings and statues in Catholic churches, which is weird since “morbid” and “masochistic” have never been terms I use pejoratively. But I loved reliquaries. I didn’t even love them because they were comic (“Look, they put a foot in a foot!”). What I loved was the luxury and tenderness poured out on corpses. The bodies by themselves are enough to love. The febrile insistence on the flesh: the marble flesh of statues, the wounded flesh of martyrs, both changed and somehow justified by the sacred Flesh broken between our teeth. To encounter the Catholic Church is to touch and smell and taste; to shiver.

So too in the queer world. If you are suspected, taunted, targeted for violence, denied jobs, harassed, and made to doubt yourself because you have what others consider the wrong sensual reactions—if you react with longing and surrender to the wrong physical forms—then your own sensory reactions will become an object of your intense study. As you try to understand why the physical world doesn’t mean to you what others think it should (why do certain physical forms glow red-hot when you’ve been told they should be dull to you?), you spend a lot of time observing, assessing, and contemplating your own responses to physical forms. The physical world is now a problem to you. Your skin, so used to blushing at the wrong times, in the wrong presences, now brushes against the world always ready to react. You begin to interact with the physical world with an intense awareness of your own capacity for arousal. You are pretty much on high alert all the time, and it’s confusing and terrifying and also very hot.

 

The allure of inadequacy, the exposure and even caricature of our own need and lack, is where much of “the Catholic imagination” gets its power.

Gay people learn early how often those we respond to won’t be able or willing to respond to us in kind. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” and all that. Meanwhile in the nineties—and often still today, in many more places than well-meaning heterosexuals realize—we were despised and targeted and we learned to love one another as criminals. We learned to love one another as inescapable, as damaged, as dangerous. We learned to love not in spite of but because. Our wounds became shelters and our humiliations crowns.

So much queer art honors the stripped, the suffering. Yukio Mishima wrote about the sexual fascination of St. Sebastian—although the narrator of Confessions of a Mask insists that he found in Guido Reni’s portrait of the martyr “only the springtime of youth, only light and beauty and pleasure,” it seems clear that the “tranquil and graceful shadows” of the arrows against his flesh are necessary for the painting to have its catalytic effect. And his stilted postscript about Magnus Hirschfeld’s interpretation of St. Sebastian as a figure “in which the invert takes special delight” adds, with its scientific distance from intense emotion, the palpable vulnerability of shame. There is a self- and other-destructive impulse at play in these collisions of desire and suffering, a resignation to unhappiness, or resentment of it. But there are also Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose,” images of sacrificial love in which happiness is the fruit of kenosis.

Camp itself requires a certain spotlit vulnerability. In “An Aesthetic of Lack, or Notes on Camps,” Katie Kresser writes, “In drag, so proudly artificial, there is no attempt to seem edenically perfect and complete. There is no attempt to appear innocent and unmarked.” She says that the halo which artists use to signify sainthood, “with its flagrance and upward pull [says] that no one is naturally complete; to each one is born an intrinsic need, a yawning lack.... Does camp merely say, like every culture in the history of the world before ours, that humanity lacks?”

Catholic physicality comes in two kinds: velvet and pus. You can have a surfeit of gargoyles or a stripped desert saint in a single shaft of light. What you can’t have is normal, healthy people doing normal, healthy things. Such people might be tempted to believe themselves complete and adequate. And the allure of inadequacy, the exposure and even caricature of our own need and lack, is where much of “the Catholic imagination” gets its power.

To be human is to be shamed, defeated, glamorous, brazen: like the compulsive cheat and liar Adrian Healey in Stephen Fry’s comic masterpiece, The Liar, adorning himself with an astrakhan coat, lavender gloves, and an orchid in the buttonhole before he faces the horrors of the boys’ locker room—or like Perpetua binding up her hair before her martyrdom, “for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”

In the queer culture I grew up with there was a deep identification with not only the innocent despised but also with the guilty. My Beautiful Laundrette, the best gay movie ever made, plays on the parallel between the gay hero Omar and his adulterous uncle. Adrian in The Liar does everything from betraying the boy he loves to cheating at cricket, but beneath and prior to these specific acts of perfidy churns an existential shame and guilt: Adrian is the guilty party, which is why we identify with him. Oscar Wilde’s three morality plays of high society, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband, turn on the Christian Möbius-strip morality in which it is the moralizers whose souls are in the most danger. Wilde liked to be thought wicked (for a while), but these plays don’t work if you think extramarital sex or selling state secrets are just dandy. They focus on the moral worth of wrongdoers whose sins earned social condemnation, and the greater sins committed by those who are rewarded by society.

In his 2013 article “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dana Gioia named “spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience” as a feature of Catholic writing. The television writer Jimmy McGovern corroborates: “I’m a writer because I was a Catholic and I took the examination of conscience really seriously.” But Catholicism also demands of us a moral irony: identification with criminals. Virginia Burrus writes, about martyrs like Perpetua, “To be made a spectacle, to be subjected to the gaze of so many eyes, to be publicly marked as a criminal, captive, or slave, to be costumed or stripped, even to have one’s very body ripped open and exposed, was to be made vulnerable to shame in a most extreme and visceral manner.” And in this very shame the martyrs imitated the shamed Christ and “attain[ed] glory.”

I chose Elizabeth of Hungary as my confirmation saint partly because her most famous miracle, the bread changed to roses, reminded me of the titular miracle in Jean Genet’s prison novel, The Miracle of the Rose. In the book, a prisoner loves a murderer because of his crimes. As the murderer is being taken to the recreation area, curls twisting over his forehead like “the twists of the crown of thorns,” the narrator has a vision of his chains turning into white roses. The rose is the queer Catholic symbol par excellence: with its heavy perfume and skin-piercing thorns, it is as glamorous as everything that hurts us, as painful as everything that frees us. This life is broken, above all inadequate—but we are to love all broken and inadequate things. Catholics take this as a duty; in camp it’s simply assumed.

I experienced these aspects of queer culture almost as an observer rather than a participant. I was too young, too privileged, too well-cared-for by my family to get any real wounds myself. I was not Edward II or the yearning, dishonorable hero of The Liar; I was barely the girl with the thorn in her side. The most I can say for myself is that these are the people I loved and the ones who taught me who I was.

 

God did not allow us to experience the shocking beauty of another woman, or another man, as a trick or a cruel joke.

Of course, when we say “the Catholic imagination” we’re always referring only to some Catholics’ imaginations, because the Church transcends genre. Would a Byzantine Catholic recognize the “Catholic imagination” of luxury, criminality, moral irony, and lack? I don’t know! And the queer imagination I’m describing here is only one piece of even my own limited experience of the queer culture of the nineties. I loved Rebecca Brown’s story collection The Terrible Girls, whose camp tragedy and jewel-toned, flickering-shadows cinematic physicality resonate with the queer imagination I’m describing here, but stand alongside, rather than within, its almost exclusively male domain. The other lesbian writers who shaped my experience—Dorothy Allison, Sarah Schulman, Audre Lorde—have even less in common with the specific kind of queer imagination I’m describing. (Brown herself has now converted to Catholicism; Lorde was raised Catholic.) My queer imagination was shaped by Leslie Feinberg, Marlon Riggs, Donna Deitch, and Tribe 8, none of whose work is best illuminated by the lens I’m using here.

And yet I know the thing I’m describing is real because I can recognize it when I encounter it anew. In recent years I’ve discovered two authors who worked brilliantly within the queer tradition I’m outlining, but moved, by sharply divergent paths, beyond its compulsive self-laceration.

José Luis Zárate’s novella The Route of Ice and Salt imagines the terrible passage of the ship carrying Stoker’s Dracula to England. Route was originally published in 1998 but translated into English for the first time this year by David Bowles. In its nightmare vision of men being picked off one by one, seen in the embrace of a stranger and then sick and then dead, it is a novel of the AIDS epidemic. Sex and death intertwine in passages that swerve from pornography into graphic horror. Zárate’s prose is sensual, starting with the title, and swelling in passages like this: “My tongue a blade, a short finger that digs into his skin. Rough, earthy, bitter. And at that moment, mine.”

It’s a threatened sensuality, with the self-policing hyper-awareness of the closet. Zárate’s narrator is the ship’s captain, all suppressed longing and guilt and responsibility. The terrible sea journey teaches him the blamelessness of his desire. Zárate takes the vampire, creature of forbidden thirsts and symbol of sexual excess, and makes him instead a symbol of the homophobic mob. The vampire dissolves into fog, breaks up into a horde of rats. Route plays with the question of whether the vampire is target or hunter, outcast or lord. It comes down on the side of the vampire as abusive community: his eyes are the torches of the citizenry. Meanwhile the homosexual, whom both artists and Catholic theologians have often imagined as consumed by lust so excessive that he cannot confine himself to the proper sex, here becomes a figure of selfless responsibility.

By the end this is a didactic book: “‘I am not a monster,’ I told the Demeter, gripping the helm in the midst of the fog.... ‘But they are.’” The captain sheds the old guilt that has haunted him. “I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself,” he declares, and extends this moral neutrality to “even Sin.” Thus acquitted, he dies trying to thwart the monster, clutching a rosary. The captain claims personal moral superiority over those who once treated him as morally inferior—a posture of pride versus humility, not merely pride versus shame. I disliked these moral lessons. If I wanted to be taught my moral goodness, which I do not, I would not be reading a sexy vampire book.

But Zárate is writing for gay people who had been taught that our sexual desires barred us from responsible love. He says: You are not and were never the disintegrating, destroying vampire. In fact, when you were captured and violated, it was the mob whose teeth began to lengthen and gleam. This moral judgment on the moralizers is the kind of overturning performed by Jesus in the Gospels, as well as Wilde in his plays.

Moreover, the evidence of our senses is not simply to be denied. God did not allow us to experience the shocking beauty of another woman, or another man, as a trick or a cruel joke. When we are pierced by beauty, it isn’t always the vampire’s fangs; sometimes it may be the arrow that pierced Teresa. The grotesquerie and inadequacy of the flesh, while real, are not the only truths. The created beauty and the imago Dei are real too.

Dunstan Thompson’s journey ran parallel to that of Zárate’s suffering captain, but found a different harbor. Thompson is an American poet whose work reflects the stages of his life: first tormented, writhing poetry about anonymous sexual liaisons edged with violence; then scholarly, reflective poems written after he attained domestic happiness with his life partner; and at last, when first Thompson and then his partner began to practice the Catholic faith of Thompson’s youth, devotional poetry of rare gentleness. Thompson’s early work is all like this: “The red-haired robber in the ravished bed / Is doomsday driven.” It’s heady stuff, hot and rough: “This tall horseman, my young man of Mars /...takes / Me to pieces like a gun.” And then Thompson discovered that love was not the enemy of peace. Suddenly he can write:

The end of love is that the heart is still....
Here I have found, as after thunder showers,
The friend my childhood promised me.

Thompson’s later poetry doesn’t argue for the moral worth of anything in particular—not his own life, not his Church. His Heaven is not a reward for good behavior. Heaven is the place where no company is more desirable than that of the despised and the sinners, “among the wrecks / Of life.” It’s the place where the rescued can laugh in relief: “Oh, the saints with the lollipop eyes / Are getting us out with our lives.” Heaven is home, Thompson insists, and kindness: “By kindness, write the mystics, here is meant / The daily going up of self in smoke.” Above all Heaven is friendship, with the Beloved and a beloved, both found after long desperate wandering.

The later poems have not only gentler subject matter than the early poems, but a wider emotional range and much more variation in meter. But they don’t feel like repudiations. In several poems Thompson suggests that obedience to God restores us to ourselves: the immolated self rises from the ashes splendid and laughing. So too his own poetic voice remained artsy and ardent, but insouciance and gratitude replaced much of the anguish.

For all its beauties, the queer imagination that formed me found it hard to picture refuge. It was a violent time and we did not know where to find peace. The churches were more often sites of violence for us than sanctuaries. Thompson’s Heaven is one possible flowering of that gay aesthetic: at once flamboyantly Catholic, and traditionally queer. 

Published in the July/August 2021 issue: 

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, DC. She the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel.

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