It has often been observed that modern Western society is typified by a certain “disembodied” style of life. Our shelters protect us from direct corporeal engagement with the outer world, our relative prosperity alleviating, for many of us, immediate physical need and distress. […] The Platonic emphasis on the purified soul, the Cartesian focus on the “cogito” experience, pull us toward a vision of self within which an immaterial rationality is central. (Leder 2-3)
1Drew Leder's book The Absent Body aims at deconstructing this notion of “disembodiment”. Throughout the text, Leder demonstrates how, in everyday life, our bodies are absent, not because we do not pay attention to what they experience, but precisely because we do experience them as absent: “I refer to experiences of bodily absence” (3). French surgeon René Leriche phrases this idea in terms of silence, saying that health is “life in the silence of organs”. In the gay literature of AIDS, the silence of the body gives way to utter cacophony: one after the other, each organ and each part of the body becomes a source of alterations and changes, pain and suffering. The body becomes so present that it seems to be screaming for attention:
The advent of AIDS […] has literally made the body of the gay male an object of massive public curiosity and relentless cultural inquiry. His body is now widely perceived as a site of mysterious and fatal infections—a perception that has prompted its radical (re)othering and (re)medicalizing. The body has emerged as a supertext, a territory over which a bewildering number of competing medical, political, and cultural fictions seek domination. (Nelson 2)
2The body as “supertext” is the notion that will be explored in this paper, which will examine the impact of AIDS on the body of the gay male, using two characters: first, the “homosexual clone”, theorized and analyzed by artist Martin Levine, and then the “AIDS clone”, created by writer David Feinberg. The description of those bodies in pain and of those dying bodies will demonstrate that the issue of identity (its construction and its preservation) is central to the gay literature of AIDS.
3The figure of the pre-AIDS “homosexual clone” is one that is easily recognizable; it is no wonder Paul Hopkins was cast as Michael Tolliver in the 1993 adaptation of the second and third volumes of the Tales of the City series, as he perfectly fits the part: he is a mustachioed young man whose hairstyle and build strongly anchor him in the early 1980s. In Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, Martin Levine argues that far from being anecdotal, the “clone style” has a reflexive dimension:
What mattered was the doubleness of the clone style—its self-conscious, almost parodying references to stereotypically traditional masculinity, and its self-conscious embracing of that very stereotype at the same time. Clone style was both parody and emulation (59).
4This is how Levine describes the “clone”:
[The] gay clone [was] a specific constellation of sociosexual, affective and behavioral patterns that emerged among some gay men in the urban centers of gay American life [and] was the indigenous form of the urban gay enclave. (7)
5In other words, at the bottom of what appears at first glance to be uniformity lies a question of identity—what is at stake is the construction of a specific gay identity.
6“In those plague-free days”, to use Ethan Mordden's phrase (75), the body of the “gay clone” is known to be the product of much effort:
“How can looks change you? Looks are what you are. Looks are what change.”
“You can't change your looks, surely.”
“What's a gym for, then? Mustaches and beards? Clothes?” Don't you know anything? his tone said. Aren't you gay? (Mordden 203)
7Clark, the narrator's friend who asks those questions, points out the very strong link that exists between being gay and taking care of one's body: going to the gym is an integral part of the gay urban lifestyle; gyms are places that are as important to gay neighborhoods as bars, discos and bathhouses. The idea is to sculpt one's body:
[The clone] had a gym-defined body; after hours of rigorous body building, his physique rippled with bulging muscles, looking more like competitive body builders than hairdressers or florists. (Levine 7)
8Writer David Feinberg went through such a process and managed to transform his slender body into a mountain of muscles: “[Feinberg's] hours at the gym had sculpted the skinny kid into the Gay Urban Clone” (Burkett 342). A phrase was even coined to refer to the result of such intense effort:
Clones developed ‘gym bodies,’ which denoted the physique associated with weightlifters. A gym body included tight buttocks, washboard stomachs, and ‘pumped-up’ biceps and pectorals. (Levine 59)
9According to Feinberg, the phrase “gym body” was so frequent that when it was used in the telegraphic language of personal ads, there was a great risk for it to be subject to different interpretations:
The problem with personal ads is that they never work. […] Another guy says he has a gym body. You imagine him tight and lean, without a trace of fat, bulging in all the right places. You meet him and find out he goes to the gym three times a week and his body is just like seventy percent of the guys at the gym, the usual mixture of muscle and paunch, tone and flab. (Eighty-Sixed 8)
10“Gym bodies” were ideals that were pursued by those who claimed the status of “gay clones,” but Nature still had its say: glorified as the body of the gay male was, its relatively untamable nature heralds its deliquescence resulting from AIDS, which will take place barely a few years later.
11Martin Levine refers to Virginia Woolf when he attempts to grasp the tremendous impact that AIDS has had on the gay male body:
Virginia Woolf wrote that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.” And well it might have, especially for the company she kept in London before the War. For gay men, on or about 1984, the world changed—and the world they had struggled to build […] came tumbling down around them. (6)
12It is only fair to say that the world has changed when it comes to describing the consequences of AIDS on a community that had previously glorified the body. In Queer and Loathing, which dates back to 1994, David Feinberg draws a table in which he pits the “Clone Classic” (his version of Levine's “gay clone”) against the “New Clone”, which he also calls the “AIDS clone”; his observation is that in the AIDS era (which he calls the “Age of Anxiety”, as indicated in the title of the second part of his first novel Eighty-Sixed), going to the gym still takes up a lot of gay men's time:
The Clone Classic was found in gyms, discos, and on Fire Island. […] The New Clone could be found at the gym, at ACT UP meetings, at Queer Nation demonstrations, and on Fire Island. (217, my underline)
13But the function of such intense activity has changed dramatically: “In the age of anxiety gay men go to the gym five nights a week, just to keep out of trouble. […] Any way to sublimate desire; anything to avoid sex” (Eighty-Sixed 201). The goal is reversed: before AIDS, he went to the gym to have a body that would trigger desire; after AIDS has hit his community, he goes to the gym in order to tame his desire. In gay neighborhoods, bodies and the way they are thought of have completely changed:
The Castro wasn't the den of iniquity I had remembered five years earlier on my last visit, but then neither was Christopher Street. Cruising was almost obsolete. In bars, men focused on their glasses, not each other. Allan told me that last year stuffing crotches with socks was all the rage, but I saw no evidence of the “padded look.” This year the boys seemed chunkier. If anything, the pads had gravitated to the hips. Richard said that lean was out in San Francisco because it held that “sudden unexplained weight loss” aura about it, and that everyone had a good ten pounds to spare, as if ten pounds could protect one from death. (Spontaneous Combustion 40)
14Crotches are not artificially padded any more, hips are, which would have been considered heresy a few years earlier. In Borrowed Time, Paul Monette makes the same observation:
Within six months, lean—let alone thin—would become synonymous with the flashing amber of AIDS. […] Thus in a year you would start seeing men at the gym who had chiseled themselves like Phidias now suddenly running to fat, the empty pounds accumulating in the waist and buttocks, evidence of the late-night binges on Oreos and Ring Dings that had replaced the faster food of bathhouse sex. (52-53)
15Phidias is the sculptor who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World; his hard work gives way to an orgiastic attitude, whose nature is not sexual but dietary. The idea is still to control one's body, to sculpt it, but the other way around: muscle has turned into fat. And the goal is still not to be the odd one out. Before AIDS, the desire to look like every other gay man could be considered to stem from aesthetic concerns only—although this is certainly not Levine's idea, since he views the “clone style” as a subversive affirmation of gay identity. But once AIDS has settled in the community and profoundly modified the way the gay male body is viewed, it is easily understandable that what is at stake is fear. The object of this fear is stigmatization, of course, but it goes beyond that, as Feinberg's last remark shows: “Everyone had a good ten pounds to spare, as if ten pounds could protect one from death”. Fear is not triggered by other people's eyes, but by one's own eyes on one's own body. It is not about looking exactly like the others, it is about not looking like some others, those who have AIDS. Uniformity persists, but it does not stem from a will to dissociate oneself from the straight population; it is the result of the will not to be associated with those whose weight loss they cannot control. Even inside gyms, the specter of AIDS imposes itself on the patrons:
People simply disappear. Obituaries are posted on the bulletin board at the gym next to Fire Island shares. I always wonder whether someone had just died when I see notices for furniture at drastically reduced rates. (Queer and Loathing 184)
16Symbolically, the irruption of AIDS in the holy of holies of gay neighborhoods, the gym, testifies to the overwhelming presence of AIDS in the gay urban lifestyle, right next to rooms for rent on Fire Island. To this list of locations a new one needs to be added, the doctor's office, which becomes as constitutive of the “gay circuit” as the gym: “‘Who's your doctor?’ I inquired, as casually as in the past I might have asked which gym do you go to…” (Spontaneous Combustion 137).
Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. “English,” writes Virginia Woolf, “which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache… The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” (“On Being Ill”). Woolf's account is of course more radically true of the severe and prolonged pain that may accompany cancer or burns or phantom limb or stroke, as well as the severe and prolonged pain that may occur unaccompanied by any nameable disease. Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned. (Scarry 4)
17When it comes to describing the emaciated and suffering bodies of the same young men who spent hours at the gym after HIV has entered them, authors have trouble finding their words. In What I Did Wrong, John Weir (David Feinberg's close friend) tries his best to make us visualize Zack's body (Zack is undoubtedly Feinberg's fictional double in Weir's novel):
Zack is starving to death. […] He looks wasted. […] He weighs ninety-five pounds. […] When I get back to the bathroom Zack's got the top of the toilet seat down, and he's sitting on it, with his legs crossed. […] He has hiked his genitals in order to cross his legs, and when I look down I see the bones of his legs, his right foot swinging, the sag of flesh from his thighs, the sack of his balls, his penis, the pubic hair as limp as the hair on his head, his belly sunk, skin stretched over a void, rib cage, his nipples clipped to his chest like buttons sewn unto a coat, the gauze bandage guarding the catheter near his right armpit, his long arms of nothing but bone, his sinewy neck, his shoulder plates in back and spinal nubs that poke through skin. My friend. (27-100)
18The fact that he concludes this description with a nominal clause (“My Friend”) testifies both to the pain he feels when looking at Zack/David's body and to his inability to find words to convey his friend's pain and his own. Zack/David's body is in no way aestheticized, which, according to many scholars, is typical of the treatment of AIDS in literature; the idea is not to find beauty in decay, but simply to try and convey this decay through painfully detailed descriptions.
19The way Kushner stages the body of Roy Cohn in Angels in America is worth mentioning. His emaciation is immediately recognized and acknowledged by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; the first words she says to him are : “You don't look good, Roy. But you lost a lot of weight. That suits you. You were heavy back then. Zaftig [= plump], mit hips”, 117. Throughout the play, many stage directions convey that he is in a lot of pain: “Roy doubles over in great pain, which he's been hiding throughout the scene with Joe” (116); “Halfway across the room he slumps to the floor, breathing laboriously, in pain” (117); “Roy in his hospital room. The pain in his gut is now constant and getting worse” (186); “He has an incredibly bad abdominal spasm; he's in great pain” (187). And yet, he will not let the nurse relieve his pain:
BELIZE. I'll get you a painkiller.
ROY. Will it knock me out?
BELIZE. I sure hope so.
ROY. Then shove it. Pain's... nothing, pain's life. (157)
20The reason is, according to such a cynic as Kushner's Roy Cohn, that pain is a defining feature of life: “What can death bring that I haven't faced? I've lived; life's the worst. […] Life is full of horror; nobody escapes, nobody” (64). The longer (the more?) he suffers, the longer (the more?) he is alive—death and the silence that accompanies it signify the end of suffering.
21While the issue of looks was central to the construction of gay identity, with AIDS, it is linked with the preservation of one's identity, since in the case of such an epidemic there is a great risk to fall into anonymity. AIDS literature is often compared (albeit with a lot of precautions) to what Nelson calls “other literatures of crisis”:
One is tempted, of course, to compare [the literature of AIDS] to literature of genocides and holocausts, for example, or to prison writing. One is tempted to compare the memoirs of AIDS to the slave narratives of the nineteenth century. (2)
22Such comparisons inevitably draw a lot of criticism: in Nelson's book, Les Wright argues that the most common analogy, that of AIDS as a gay Holocaust, is dangerous because it is simplistic and deceptive:
Our collective experience has been one of victimization and we have created a social identity, in part, out of this shared experience of oppression. It follows that this victim mentality permeates our collective our collective counter-memory in subtle and insidious ways. […] The myth of gay genocide […] evokes a range of gay political agendas that presume a historically universal homosexuality. (55)
23Still, what AIDS and the Holocaust have in common (and this is the reason why such a comparison is frequent, even though it is risky) is the notion of anonymity, of loss of one's personal identity. All those young men dying of AIDS can end up looking alike, like all extermination camps prisoners, all slaves, all detainees. Guibert looks at his body in the mirror and sees Auschwitz (“Ce corps décharné […] je le retrouvais chaque matin en panoramique auschwitzien dans le grand miroir de la salle de bains”, 18). Feinberg superimposes two images to convey the graphic nature of what he once saw in the mirror:
“Farewell, flat stomach, forever. I fear it would bode ill should it ever reappear, for that would mean I was back on the way down, approaching my Christ-on-the-Cross-in-Auschwitz phase” (Queer and Loathing 215).
24In the very last speech Feinberg ever gave, during a meeting of ACT UP New York, a few weeks before his death, he said: “My weight dropped from 145 to 118. I weighed myself today, 105. Lose 30 percent of your body weight and you're basically dead. I am a corpse” (Burkett 342). Less than a month later, his body did give up on him; on November 2, 1994, he effectively became what he said he already was as his weight kept dropping. As John Weir describes Zack/David's funeral, he says:
I had tracked down the last photograph of Zack taken before he went into the hospital, and we had gotten it blown up, and it was standing on an easel next to the rabbi. An awful picture, though it was how I would always remember him now: a huddle of bones under sacked skin, which happened to be my dying, now dead, friend. His body had nothing to do with him. (205-206)
25According to Mark Doty, whose book Heaven's Coast is a moving account of the last months of his partner Wally's life and of his death due to AIDS, the body is transferred into the text: “Wally is in my body; my body is in this text; this text is light on my computer screen, electronic impulse, soon to be print, soon to be in the reader's body, yours—” (9). To the numerous metaphors associated with HIV, Doty adds that of the infectious nature of the very texts that deal with AIDS—the body as “supertext” gives way to the text as body.
- 1 Frank is not sure such a term is appropriate, contra Anne Hunsaker Hawkins in Reconstructing Illnes (...)
26To conclude, the following quotation taken from The Wounded Storyteller by A. W. Frank seems relevant: “People telling their illness stories do not simply describe their sick bodies; their bodies give their stories their particular shape and direction” (19). In the gay literature of AIDS, and in pathographies1 in general, the body is not only the theme, it is the source and the structuring principle of the creative act. And what is at stake is the issue of identity, and the peril it incurs in sickness:
Perhaps it is true, as Freud maintained, that the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego and that “self” is bound up with the biological integrity of the body. (Hunsaker Hawkins 17)