Nearly twenty years ago, I edited a collection of essays written by gay writers born into a wide range of religious traditions: Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism—but mostly, a rainbow, if you will, of Christian flavors. It’s a collection of arguments called Wrestling with the Angel: Faith and Religion in the Lives of Gay Men. The book won me a Lambda Literary Prize, and it’s good; I can say that because mostly I didn’t write it, I just gathered the right authors. I was putting the book together in 1994 and people were still dying of AIDS. I wrote to several great writers now long gone—Paul Monette wrote the sweetest teaser, telling me he had the best story to give to the book but hadn’t the energy to write it. He died a week after writing me the letter. The naked civil servant Quentin Crisp rapped out on a manual typewriter a short letter that looked like a poem:
“My dear Mr. Brian Bouldrey,
I’m afraid I don’t wrestle
Let alone the angels
And so it is with regret
That I must say no
To your admirable project.
With admirable admiration,
The signature was here signed with a flourishing cursive “2” for a Q and garnished with a debutante’s circle instead of a dot on the “i”; I have always sought the company of queers who live up to the prayer Ronald Firbank wrote into The Flower Beneath the Foot, “O! help me, heaven, to be decorative and to do right.” Crisp was such a decorative, right-doing soul. In that order.
Other authors were not so friendly to the project. The late great anthologist John Preston wrote to me on the back of a postcard, “If anybody were to bother wrestling with THAT angel, I would advise him to take a handful of aspirin and a long nap.” I felt put in my place. That story has a rueful ending, for my now good, lovely longtime pal Michael Lowenthal (also a contributor to Wrestling) informed me, years after Preston’s death, that his shunning of faith and religion was curious. Michael was, after all, John Preston’s young protégé, who took over many of Preston’s projects after his death from AIDS a year after my book was published. “It’s curious,” Michael tells me, “because for the last week of his life, he kept a well-thumbed copy of The Book of Common Prayer on his nightstand,” proving once again that there are no atheists in foxholes.
Preston’s response was the norm, not the exception; when I was assembling Wrestling with the Angel, I lost a bit of sleep, egotist that I am, wondering whether a bishop might come to my home and throw candles at me, officially excommunicating me from the Catholic church into which I had been baptized, or whether I’d receive angry letters from born agains from around the world. A stoning, a fatwa. Instead, I had a lot of angry people from the gay side of things. Public embarrassment as I stood on the stage with a famous author who mocked any gay attempt to consort with organized religion. Caricatures of me in the gay rags, now cherished mementos among my private papers. How could I be such a hypocrite?, they wanted to know; why would you try to be friends with somebody who hated you? These were real, legitimate concerns. And I get it: it takes real bravery to walk away from somebody who repeatedly abuses you; it seems stupid, even cowardly to try and walk back up to that same abuser. But you wouldn’t believe the number of clergy of all sorts who reached out to me and wished the book well, showing that they, too, were and are caught between two polemical worlds. I realized that there were these others, these priests and clergy I always regarded as opponents, but they were on my side, and we were all wrestling with a narrative that didn’t work, a meaninglessness, a loss of sense—in fact, the germ of the book was my own surprise, at the death of my great lovely partner Jeff, when I rushed to the church to find something to salvage from that bonfire. I rushed into the church that didn’t want me, and I was determined to make them see how little sense, like death itself, that dismissal of me was. That, of course, is the wrestling part. And I wrestle to this day, each day, as if the fight has just begun.
There is a painting in Zurich, the work of Hans Holbein, which uses all his skill as a painter with photo-realist technique, called “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”. There are many episodes in the life of Christ to which artists are drawn, from the Annunciation to the Madonna with Child to Gethsemene to the Crucifixion to the Pieta. This Holbein stands alone—nobody in my knowledge went where Holbein went, nor really has since. It is a painting about six feet long, life-sized, which is part of its horror, and depicts a dead body, one that has been dead for two or three days. It is the body depicted just before the moment all the other painters would prefer to predict; it is the body before the resurrection. Here it is:
The word “grotesque” means “grotto-like”; in the cave. This painting is the definition of grotesque. The mangled corpse, the mouth slack in drawn horror and suffering, the marks and bruises from beatings and nails, that middle finger not extended in the traditional gesture of obscenity, but true obscenity: death by crucifixion, death, the end of meaning. Dostoyevsky’s take: “the face has been horribly lacerated by blows, swollen, with terrible, swollen and bloody bruises, the eyes open, the pupils narrow; the large open whites of the eyes gleam with a deathly, glassy sheen.”
While the art historian John Rowlands looks past rigor mortis and decay: "Far from conveying despair, [the painting's] message is intended as one of belief, that from the decay of the tomb Christ rose again in glory on the third day,” I find it hard to believe—once again, I am wrestling as I have for all my adult life. I’m back at zero, I’ve made no headway, and I’m exhausted by my own doubt. How could this painting make one believe in the resurrection?
“‘That painting! Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting,” says Prince Myshkin, The eponymous Idiot of Dostoyevsky’s novel, which is how I first encountered the Holbein (“Oh,” said my smart-ass colleague when he saw me carrying that book around to lunch and meetings and other pleasure palaces, “is that your biography?”), and certainly, if it does not shake a Christian’s faith in the resurrection, it is by no means a starting place for believing.
And for me, the painting looks clearly like something else I knew quite well: Christ looks like another death from AIDS. Has nobody made this connection before? I’ve looked in libraries and on line, but nothing. My partner Jeff, who died in 1993—it’s the spitting image. The Dead Christ looks like the man I love and loved and all those other men dead from HIV. The bruises like kaposi’s sarcoma, the gaunt drawn face and slack downturned mouth. That painting is for me a grenade of past experience made horribly fresh and present. When I look at it, it sends me back to that moment, and I despair, I have to grieve all over again, I have to start all over, I have to do all the work to reflect upon that experience. In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, the picture hangs over the doorway of the house of Rogozhin, The Idiot Myshkin’s (whose response to Myshkin’s fear about the painting making people lose their faith, is “Yes, I’m losing that, too.”). The painting is over the threshold of Rogozhin’s house, like a horizontal sentry.
Nobody wants to talk about the AIDS era any more, even and especially the ones who survived it, watched our lovers and friends suffer, die, and get buried, but never rise again, a great game of hide and seek in which nobody ever got found. It was terrifying and hopeless, we survivors are all children who still look into clothes hampers and closets and hope they will suddenly just be there, still hiding. Here: look what I’m doing: making a narrative of something that has no story left to it. There was no romance to AIDS, though I think the foolish young me wanted it to be romantic, just as those who want a messiah are romantics. I loved the romantic stories of the saints, which drew me into their useful mythology the way demigods do in Greek myths—men and gods are inert, but the demigods, not quite of this world or that, little monsters, they get the ball rolling. It was God, then, that I had the hardest part with, way up there, just being, rather than doing.
I keep thinking that I have to restore myself in order to honor those who suffered like the man who is the Dead Christ, if you accept that the dead man in Holbein’s painting is the Dead Christ, which is, in itself, a declaration of faith, at least the beginning of one. But what I must instead do is lose myself and dig myself out from the moment. Resurrection, rebirth cannot happen until one dies. Hope dies every time I look at the Holbein. That is the strangest kind of resurrection story.
It’s not just this Holbein, by the way. There is a wooden mask of Christ in the Cluny in Paris that is probably part of a whole crucifix, mostly gone and even what is left is in terrible condition, but so was Christ:
There is that horrible aloneness in these two depictions of suffering. But that is where I must now turn to something that is not so direct, not so obvious about the painting. It is about those who view the Dead Christ. Dostoyevsky, again: “But strangely, as one looks at this corpse of a tortured man, a peculiar and interesting question arises: if this is really what the corpse looked like (and it certainly must have looked just like this) when it was seen by all his disciples, his chief future apostles, by the women who followed him and stood by the cross, indeed by all who believed in him and worshipped him, then how could they believe, as they looked at such a corpse, that this martyr would rise from the dead?...Nature appears as one looks at the painting, in the guise of some enormous implacable and speechless animal, or more nearly …in the guise of some enormous machine of the most modern devising, which has senselessly seized, smashed to pieces and devoured, dully and without feeling, a great and priceless being.”
I nearly want to apologize for quoting Dostoyevsky so extensively, but this is exactly how I feel—and my point is this: it is about how we feel around the Dead Christ, the dead lover, the one who was supposed to make meaning out of the rest of our lives, and in fact did the dead opposite—rendered the world nil. I imagine Holbein, another viewer of his own painting, of his own Dead Christ, working for what were probably hours and days as he put paint little by little to the image. He stared into that abyss for days, dwelling for so long, alone with all hope gone.
Most paintings—most art in general, actually—are in some way mediations, a step away from the raw chaos of life, an artifice, an order that really isn’t there. Holbein’s Dead Christ is just the opposite. It is an expression of scorching sincerity when I’ve grown so used to the safety of lyricism and irony. How can I make you see that painful moment in this essay the way Holbein makes you see it in his painting? How can I write this essay that will remind you of that hopeless moment when those boys died, without making you lose hope from here on out?
And yet we need so much to come back to zero, to start the fight over, to wrestle with the angel of death and of life, to remember if only briefly that there didn’t seem to be resurrection for anybody, especially ourselves, looking there at that body, without transfiguration or irony or metaphor or lesson or redemption Holbein’s is the opposite of lovely and lyric.
And yet: here we are. Proof. Able to live and lose and remember again. It’s those just outside the picture that are the engine of hope.
This is all to say I’m still wrestling with all that loss, and I still stand by that book twenty years later. I am sure there are queers who would take new offense at my wish to change organized religion from within, my wish to consort with the enemy. But if you write to me and call me a hypocrite or toady, I will only love your letter, because it will mean you are wrestling, too, and I will have done my job as a writer. Orwell said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” Wrestling with the Angel was a watershed moment in my life in which I changed my intentions for writing; I used to write to be loved (public relations); now I write to be understood (writing what someone else does not want printed). And to me, the greater, more terrible hypocrisy is our queer demand for absolute respect, while posting Facebook pictures of a slice of pizza being microwaved on top of a Bible because we had “run out of plates”. Respect is a two-way street. And all of us are both inside and outside the grotto that seals in the Dead Christ.
Brian Bouldrey is the author, most recently, of The Peasants and the Mariners. He has written three nonfiction books; Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica, Monster: Adventures in American Machismo, and The Autobiography Box; three novels, The Genius of Desire, Love, the Magician, and The Boom Economy, and he is the editor of several anthologies. He is the North American Editor of the Open Door literacy series for GemmaMedia. He teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and literature at Northwestern University.