Catalogue essay by Martin Gustavsson - 2003
When Mary Magdalen goes to visit Jesus’ grave she is grief stricken. Not only has she lost her spiritual guide but also the man she loves. She finds the tomb empty and on her way out she meets the man she saw die only days before. She reaches out to touch him, as to prove the miracle but also an act of intense longing. This is when Jesus says ‘Nolle Me Tangere’ or ‘Don’t touch me’. This scene became a famous genre in painting and has been depicted over and over again during the 16th and 17th centuries.
When a few years ago I was asked to write an essay on homosexual aesthetics, and what that might be, I was particularly drawn to this one genre. I wanted to write something that could be seen as a way forward, a way of thinking about gay life that wasn’t just about melancholy masturbation or the pleasures of being the underdog living in some obscure subculture deeply buried underneath any of the big cities, although, today there is a shimmer of romantic fantasy surrounding both these options. At this point I should in all fairness say that there are a number if writers within what’s been labelled Queer Theory that are doing so and from whom I have drawn many of the conclusions that form the basis of this essay.
The painters of the time, mentioned above, knew that the subject matter offered lots of opportunities for the depiction of some sort of sexual tension. There is for example a Bronzino (Noli Me Tangere, 1560-61, Louvre, Paris) where writhing bodies and explosive colours are more reminiscent of orgiastic pleasures than the pious setting the Bible is talking about. Other painters are more restrained showing love scenes in beautiful gardens. Nevertheless the plot is fairly clear and we can be quite sure that we are looking at a love drama being played out. There is often a heavy symbolism in most of these paintings. Mary’s dress is usually red and Jesus’ white, quite a clear indication of what is to come. Next to Mary there is a vessel of some description to symbolise her receptiveness, into which the seeds thrown out by the gardener of Getsemane are supposed to be collected. The gardener is of course Jesus who is either leaning on, or in close proximity to, a rake. He is sowing the seeds of redemption through pleasure.
Now, you might ask why I find this very heterosexual picture so interesting for this context. If we look closer at what has happened and what is happening a different story is starting to unveil. Jesus and Mary have a history together. Very importantly, Jesus has died and been resurrected. In this new state of mind he is saying no to Mary. He is holding out his hand in a stop-like motion and says ‘Don’t touch me’ and in so doing refusing the oval of heterosexual lovemaking, the exclusivity of the couple engaging in procreative sex. Instead Jesus is offering his body for consumption to everybody. He has become a well of love.
Conventional psychoanalysis teaches us that our desire is born out of lack. According to which, Mary’s desire for Jesus could only grow larger through his refusal of her. Jesus is offering something very different here and that is where my interest lies.
But before losing myself further into obscurities I want to talk about an author/artist who is offering redemption through lying, cheating and commotting treason, Jean Genet. Genet is a bit like Jesus. He is mixing with criminals, prostitutes and other lowlife underdogs. He even goes one step further and becomes one, or maybe there was never any choice involved. Genet was a mythmaker. He felt that if the Church in recent times had failed to deliver the myths we need, it is now down to artists to provide myths for our times. Genet writes the Bible but turns it upside down. As a homosexual he already was an outlaw, of which he took full consequence and made vice into virtue. He also, more importantly, offers a new relationality, a new way of looking at ourselves, our desires and how we relate to one another.
“Funeral Rites” is a love story between Jean and Jean (Genet and Decarnin).* Jean Decarnin is a resistance fighter who is shot by Riton, a militia man. Genet writes the book to mourn his lover, to intensify his love for him and finally bring him back. Much in the same vein, it seems to me, as the apostles wrote the gospel. Jean feels Jean’s presence everywhere. A matchbox in his trousers or floral printed wallpaper becomes an extension of the loved one. But the real sacrament lies in lovemaking.
“I idealize the memory of making love so that I can avoid sacrilege. The liveliest parts of his body become spiritualized , and his rod itself , which takes possession of my mouth, has the transparency of a crystal rod. In fact, what I’m holding by the prick with my teeth and pink lips is a fluid, milky body, a luminous fog that rises above my bed or over a wet lawn on which I am lying. It is cold to my lips; I thus avoid pleasure. My love- making continues through this icy fog, which veils it. With our hair light and tousled but damp with the droplets of mist clinging to it, after walking in the dew with our arms still around each others waist, we come to a grove and stood under a beech with red bark.”
There is a plethora of idealized and stereotypical men playing important roles in the book. The German soldier Erik is one of those, and even an unlikely figure as Hitler is taking part in the riotous and outrageous sex scenes that fill the pages. The narrator flows in and out of these fantasies so that one never knows who is having sex with whom. These characters act as stand-ins in a sexual identity that is always in flux. It seems to me to be a way of looking at desire in terms of sameness, or ‘homoness’ as Leo Bersani calls it in his book “Homos”, an excellent read for anyone interested.* Genet equals the ‘other’ and the same and in so doing disarms ‘the other’ as a threat to our own identity. We can lose ourselves in the ‘other’, disappear and immediately be resurrected in the sameness that is shared. There are certain sexual acts that for Genet carries this promise and rimming is one of them.
“I sharpened my tongue to a very fine point so as to burrow neatly into the crack which was as narrow as the eye of the needle. I felt myself being (I’ve got him by the ass!)… I felt myself being there. Then I tried to do as good a job as a drill. As the workman in the quarry leans on his machine that jolts him amidst splinters of mica and sparks from his drill, a merciless sun beats down on his neck and a sudden dizziness blurs everything and sets out the usual palm trees and springs of a mirage, in like manner a dizziness shook my prick harder, my tongue grew soft, forgetting to dig harder, my head sank deeper into the damp hairs, and I saw the eye of Gabes become adorned with flowers, with foliage, become a cool bower which I crawled to and entered with my whole body, to sleep in the moss there, in the shade, to die there”
*”Funeral Rites”, 1969, Grove Press. Org. Title “Pompes Funebres”,Paris 1953, Gallimard
* Leo Bersani, “Homos”, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard Univ. Press
In the garden of Getsemane?
Another theme in Jean Genet’s book is that of betrayal. I feel that it is the most difficult to understand and relate to. If we see it as a way of distancing oneself or a transgression of the norm or the dominant culture, it becomes wholly unsatisfactory since this position is always already contained within the structure of binary opposites, ie the attempt at transgressing the norm is necessary in order to uphold it. Bersani writes interestingly about how Genet through the act of rimming is pointing towards the betrayal implicit in homosexuality.
“The jouissanse of rimming is escalated-one might also say sublimated-into a celebration of Jean’s death and a passion for his murderer and his enemies. The pleasure of tasting Jean’s waste is also the pleasure of tasting Jean as waste, and this is to love Jean as dead, which is to will him dead, and finally, to make virtues of treachery and murder.”
Genet keeps reminding the reader throughout the book that it is a fantasy, a myth in the making and as such should not be taken literally. The cannibalism, the eating of Jean’s corpse and his waste as a metaphor for incorporating the loved one into one’s own body desempowers the idea difference as we know it. He also speaks of making oneself a solitaire through evil. A diamond operating outside the parameters of traditional relationality. Bersani again;
“From these passages a new possibility emerges: evil(to continue using Genet’s term) not as a crime against socially defined good, but as a turning away from the entire theatre of the good, that is, a kind of meta-transgressive depassement of the field of transgressive possibility itself.”
So is Jesus betraying Mary in their meeting outside the tomb? Well it depends on how we look at it. If we want the happy ending he really is. But as I was suggesting at the beginning of this essay Jesus is offering another perspective, and that’s where Jesus and Genet converge. The purpose of the ‘deaths’ of Jesus and Genet seem to me to have similarities. Jesus dies to save us, and himself, from our own limitations and in doing so he is offering his sameness, his body, for consumption in the firm belief and promise that it will never end. Genet dies and is resurrected through rimming his lover. This transformation takes place during sex, in the bodily experience of somebody else and by implication himself, his sameness. Genet takes the sacrament in the most radical way imaginable.
These acts of eating and being consumed point towards an understanding of oneself, one’s desire and sexuality not as defined or constructed out of lack, but as a state of being that is always full, even overflowing and always replenishable. If every meeting, every encounter and every exchange is a recognition of the other as part of the same, the understanding of oneself as missing a fundamental part, one that is ultimately unattainable, falls flat on its face.
When Genet talks about evil I feel that he is describing an affirmation of a position outside of common mores that is his life, and there is no choice in being there. To me Jesus and Genet are offering a redefinition of social codes. We often find ourselves performing within a social structure that seems to already contain any attempt at resisting it. Jesus and Genet remind us of the possibility of turning our backs on what Bersani calls the ‘theatre of good’, and start living.
I never wrote that essay but the ideas started to infiltrate the work and formed the basis for what has now become the series of paintings called ‘The Gospel’
Martin Gustavsson, London, October 2002
Quotes from “Funeral Rites”; page 68-69 and 253
Quotes from “Homos”; Page 160 and163
< BACK TO ESSAYS