This Public Feeling – by Marcus O’Donnell

Intimacy and technologies: a pre-history

There have always been technologies of intimacy, they are not the product of our internet age. We think, we learn, we love with people but often through things. The gift, the love letter, the dowry. The romance novel, the lovers’ hideaway, the celebrity crush, the diary, the Grindr profile. Memoirs, rituals, hashtags and funerals. Intimacy is always virtual even when it is at its most sensuously physical. It is mediated by memory, story and hope.

Bernini’s St Teresa and a Grindr profile are both snapshots of longing. Both represent bodies turned towards the other. Both tell us something about virtual intimacy.

Intimacy is a liminal space that connects us to something/someone whether that’s through screens, through falling in love with history, through bodies rubbing up against each other and dissolving, or through believing that an angelic arrow is piercing your insides with mystic fire. It’s also about bodies taking flight, refusing to settle. It’s troubling and wonderful.

But that all sounds too exceptional, because intimacy is also quotidian, it’s what Kathleen Stewart has called ‘ordinary affect’:

a surging, a rubbing, a connection of some kind that has an impact. It’s transpersonal or prepersonal—not about one person’s feeling literally becoming another’s but about bodies literally affecting one another and generating intensities: human bodies, discursive bodies, bodies of thought, bodies of water. (2007:128)

Love, especially queer love, is what some queer theorists have called a public feeling (Cvetkovich, A., 2007). The web and other digital technologies both extend and complicate that publicness, but queer love, has never been a private, self-contained emotion. We have always carried into our private moments both the weight and the possibilities of queer history.

We grapple with love and sex and hope and shame and with our first unexpected gifted moments of joy and pain through the only tools we have. There are the things we are told and the things that we come to know, each edging up against the way it seems things are. Both our personal histories and those public structures of feeling shape that journey to understand and to become intimate. For me this tangle of intimacy has always been about love, sex and religion.

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I spent the first decade of the twenty-first century thinking about the apocalypse. My PhD grappled with the end times as it presented itself in the Bush era’s ‘War On Terror’. I traced the ways the last book of the Christian bible, the popularly called Book of Revelation, found its echo both in Bush’s speeches and in the glamorising of torture in Jack Bauer’s 24 and other pieces of popular culture.

Recently I have been asking myself what this all means as we enter the third decade of the century with a new Anti-Christ in office and new contagion spreading different fears.

For all its fantastic imagery of plagues, green and red horses, and multi-headed beasts, the revelation at the heart of the Bible’s apocalyptic book is a simple one: in the end some will be marked with the blood of the Lamb and others with the sign of the Beast, a message that Bush Jr put in even more stark terms: those who aren’t with us are against us. In the Trumpian age those others don’t even rate a mention, you either understand what’s meant by ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ or you don’t. You either wear the baseball cap or you don’t.

Whether or not that cap is the sign of the Lamb or the sign of the Beast depends on your perspective. That’s the intimacy of tribes.

A shared understanding (or misunderstanding) of the threads of history is what makes intimacy possible with strangers. We are all part of what Benedict Anderson (2006) called ‘imagined communities’. The way we imagine ourselves, our similarity and our differences, is what enables communities to exist even across distances as big as nations. As we have seen recently, the fragility of these imagined connections is also what enables nations to suddenly light into fire.

For early Christians, at the end of the first century, who felt increasingly isolated and under attack, the visionary images in Revelation connected them back in time to Jesus and forward in time past their current crisis. The book is a letter from John, a teacher in exile on the Greek Island of Patmos, to the scattered communities of his students. He buoys them up in their time of crisis with a vision of an ending which is also a new beginning.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

Revelation created the Western template for both utopias and dystopias, whether secular or religious. So, in that sense you might say it was the original ‘It Gets Better’ campaign.

The It Gets Better (IGB) video project started by gay columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller was precipitated by a crisis in our community, the increasing visibility of LGBTIQ youth suicide. Savage and Miller’s revelation for young queers, closeted away in their communities like John of Patmos’ early Christians had been, was also in a sense an apocalyptic message: in the end, it gets better, believe this and your suffering will ultimately be transformed into joy.

It’s not that straightforward though, and IGB has rightly been criticised for presenting a white middle-class version of possibility that ignores the material circumstances of many young queer people*. If you are stuck in poverty or if you are a young black person the road to better is a lot more complicated than just hanging on. In this sense IGB, even though it has opened up conversations and brought hope to many, it ultimately shares all the worst aspects of the Bible’s magical thinking.

Both the Bible and contemporary social media are not just narrative technologies they are evangelical technologies, they are deployed to make a point or to provoke a change of heart through a potent mix of proclamation and seduction. As such they can function as both technologies of intimacy and technologies of exclusion.

Narrative, myth, story are the way public feelings become visible, become tangible, the way they begin to wrap around us. So how do we begin to tell each other stories that are invitational rather than evangelical? How do we queer narrative?

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For queers both history and intimacy are unstable. This instability opens the crack of possibility, because even in a post same-sex marriage world we are often still making history and making intimacy against the grain. As Lauren Berlant has written: Intimacy builds worlds, she continues:

it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation. Its potential failure to stabilize closeness always haunts its persistent activity, making the very attachments deemed to buttress ‘a life’ seem in a state of constant if latent vulnerability. (Berlant 1998: 282)

Margery Kempe, an intriguing fifteenth century English mystic, was acutely aware of the instability and vulnerability of love, she hungered for the pain of love. She just couldn’t get enough of Jesus. She was a traveller, businesswoman and mother of fourteen children, who although she probably couldn’t read or write, managed to compose what is regarded as the first English-language autobiography. One might say, that when Margery began to dictate her story, autobiography was a new technology and the eclectic meandering book has the vividness and awkwardness of the new. In a time when only male priests were allowed to talk publicly about intimacy with God, Margery was constantly ‘usurp(ing) places meant for other kinds of relation’.

Which makes her the perfect subject for Robert Gluck a contemporary American queer writer also interested in narrative technologies. He was one of the founders of the ‘new narrative movement’—a loose collection of queer writers who, in the 1980s, began to experiment with a poetic, collage writing style that aimed to do justice to the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of intimate, bodily and sexual life.

‘We were thinking about autobiography,’ he writes in a reflection on the impulses of the early new narrative approach, ‘by autobiography we meant daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistences and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language … a new version of autobiography in which ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ inter-penetrate.’ (2016:18)

Gluck’s Margery Kempe is an example of this type of fictional-autobiographical-dream text. In this beautiful, sexy, poetic novel, first released in 1994 and recently re-issued as part of the New York Review of Books classics series, Gluck rewrites Margery’s autobiography imagining a sexy, young, blond Jesus as her companion and lover. Interspersed with this story is Gluck’s own story about Bob and his love affair with ‘L.’ another sexy young blond. He writes himself as Margery and Margery’s story as his. In this way he negotiates and reimagines different kinds of queer longing across time and gender.

Both Margery’s Jesus and Bob’s L. are unreliable lovers and it is this instability which stokes the engine of desire. In telling love’s story both Margery and Gluck/Bob savour the brief moments of connection they are given, re-enacting them and extending them in time. This intimacy is so slippery that they can only take hold of it through the technology of narrative.

Margery’s autobiography was a type of coming out, a coming out as fraught with danger and misunderstanding as a queer coming out. Her narrative was one of intimate communication with a personalised Jesus at a time when women’s voices were distrusted and discounted, a time when they could more easily be condemned as witches or heretics, than acclaimed as saints. Her courage in recording her story can’t be underestimated. But she also counted this as her best possible defence.

As Gluck says of Margery at the beginning of his account: ‘She replaced existence with the desire to exist.’ She wanted to bring the ethereal story of her mystical desire into some kind of material reality because it had so radically overprinted itself on the routine of her daily life. But it is also a story of failure.

Her story was written down through a complex process of multiple scribes that she cajoled and badgered over a number of years. But one of the ironies of Margery’s struggle to bring this book to life is that it was then lost for hundreds of years. A full copy only came to light again as recently as 1934. This is why Gluck calls her a ‘failed saint’—her story wasn’t really taken up until it was rediscovered, and Margery became an icon for queer and feminist longing.

Gluck’s own Margery also took its time to come into existence. He first heard of Margery, and became excited by her work, as a graduate student in the mid 60s but it wasn’t until 30 years later that the novel was published. At one point he even tried to write a musical about her. In a recent interview he says it was his experience with ‘L.’ that enabled him to finally write Margery:

I could not write about her till I fell insanely in love with a man who was above me—at least I felt he was. Wonderfully handsome, from an old ruling class family, really from a different world. He’d snap his fingers—wow, we’re on a mountaintop in Portugal. My passion was as confused and obsessive as Margery’s; voila! (Davis 2020)

Gluck wrote from Margery and through her: ‘I confected a sentence half-way between Margery’s and mine.’ (Davis 2020)

But his difference to Margery is always there as well. ‘I have less faith in existence than Margery so I describe it more thoroughly,’ he writes in the final chapter.

The fifteenth century mystic wrote her desire for the ‘manhood of Jesus’ his ‘precious body,’ his ‘delightful ears,’ she imagined him sweaty and bleeding, she imagined disappearing inside the wound in his side. This is not enough for Gluck. He needs deeper description. But he adds more than description, he gives us a type of mesmeric poetry that is as vividly real as it is abstract. The first time Margery/Gluck imagines Jesus is worth quoting at length:

Jesus was sitting next to her. He was birdlike, with a short pointed nose and complete arches over his eyes. He had bone-tipped shoulders and she recognized in his ideal posture and long neck her own ‘hidden’ aristocracy. Sandy brown hair fell across his lofty forehead but he was a blond. His beauty seemed intentional because she desired it. He wore a short purple tunic. Tiny pink nipples were visible on his milky breast.

Jesus gazed up past his brow at Margery. His irises were disorganized blue geodes. He had been crying all weekend—it was Monday morning and he was still crying. He whispered, ‘I’m so abandoned.’ He raised his head in sadness and his face held the slow joy of deep sky above the sun.

He stood and turned on the balls of his feet and began to ascend. Margery fell half asleep when she saw the deity turn away. She felt the strongest sensation of her life, a welling of aspiration and desire embodied in the blur of dusty gold, the long smeared shadow of neck and spine, his broad hips, the semicircles of his ass, his long slightly knock-kneed legs. He rotated near the ceiling; she became conscious of the weight of her breasts and the hair down her back. The splayed tips of his long toes floated past her eyes.

Gluck has said that he composes at the level of the sentence, obsessively crafting and recrafting each sentence trying to allow each to sit as its own unit: creating a kind of ‘air’ between them (Leuzzi 2011). We can see this in the quick shifts in point of view and the moves from depiction to reflection. From Jesus’ birdlike features, to his ideal posture and Margery’s hidden aristocracy. From her intentional desire to his tiny pink nipples. From Jesus’ gaze and whisper to Margery’s sleep, waking to her weighted breasts and the splayed tips of Jesus’ toes.

Gluck’s work is also a confection of Margery in another way. It’s a kind of drag performance. ‘My book depends on the tension between maintaining an impersonation and breaking it’, he writes early in the novel. In a recent interview he elaborated on this:

I hope you will see Margery in my book, but also see me when I am stepping into her life and body. I struggled with a decision: should I make the book pure and eliminate myself and my hopeless romance? I decided on impurity, so you can witness my projection into the story of this woman which, like any drag performance, includes moments when the illusion is broken.’ (Davis 2020)

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There’s a reason that I’m attracted to Gluck and his queering of Margery and to the Book of Revelation and its contemporary echoes.

As a teenager on school holidays I used to retreat to a monastery and immerse myself in silence. It was there that I felt most myself. Left alone, not forced to play at being a schoolboy interested in football and girls and cars and whatever else it was that boys at my school, who avoided me, wanted to talk about. At school I was left alone, but on retreat I could be alone.

Like Margery I replaced existence with the desire to exist. Eventually like Gluck I also fell in love with describing that desire and finding other silences that fed it. I became a journalist, a writer and an academic as ways of transcribing and examining that desire. Of exploring it and sharing it with others.

If desire and silence were first twinned for me in those teenage visits to monasteries, as I belatedly grew into my sexuality, I looked for that same intensity in other places.

The first time that I had sex was at a sauna in Auckland after arriving in New Zealand to attend a Catholic youth conference. Like the monastery, gay saunas and sex clubs quickly became a place where I went to be alone. Of course, I went there to have sex and to connect but those dark steamy mazes are also unique places of silence that open up space through a communal participation in a hypnotic collective rhythm.

As Gluck notes in one of his essays: ‘Bataille [the great French philosopher of excess] showed us how a bath house and a church could fulfil the same function in their respective communities’ (2016: 20).

Many years later, after that first sauna encounter, I found that same sense of an extended sexual community online. One night, I found a new lover at a sex club. I went home with him and we stayed together for a few months, but we never stopped playing with other men. In fact, our relationship was played out through these other encounters. Sometimes we would set off to a sauna or sex club together, sometimes we would stay at home and circle through the maze of profiles on Grindr and Bareback.com. Sex for us was an everyday recreational activity but sometimes it edged up against something quite different and brushed against ecstasy. There were usually drugs involved.

The virtual foreplay, the fleshy encounters, the sex club or the pickup site, the relationship, the casual encounters and the not so casual encounters, our regulars, and the excitement of new meets, texts and messages, conversations pre-, post-, and during, knowing smiles and coded asides between my lover and I: each a field of intimacy that bled into each other. All of it was talking, all of it was walking, all of it was silence, all of it was sex.

It took a long time to get to that wonderful abandonment.

When I first began to have sex, after that New Zealand sauna visit, I was wracked with guilt, until months later I unloaded myself again, this time in confession to a priest. In Catholic theology that’s a complete reset. After confession you get to start again. And that’s what I did over the next twelve months: sex, confession, reset; sex, confession, reset; sex, confession, reset. Those confessions were an extended coming out until: ‘I had sex with a man’ became ‘I’m gay’.

It was the early 1980s and sex had become apocalyptic. With the advent of AIDS, gay liberation tipped from the utopic to the dystopic side of the apocalypse narrative. Crisis was mobilising and Catholicism became for me HIV/AIDS activism. In those early years of coming to terms with the virus, the world-building power of our intimacy as activists was intense: we held our own lives and those of our friends in hand. We crafted new ways of knowing and new ways of speaking sex in public: new ways of building public intimacy between gay men that were life-saving.

We did it all without the internet. Without smart phones. Without apps. We did it with narrative. When doctors, politicians and religious zealots were saying, sex is deadly, we said: Safe Sex. Two words, not even a sentence, created worlds where intimacy was possible again, in a space that was neither apocalypse nor utopia.

But it remained fraught. For me, coming out in the early 80s, sex was never just an awkward but normal experience. Those experiences were shadowed by physical and spiritual dangers. Maybe that’s the way sex is. Perhaps it’s never normal for anyone because it’s a place where we spill over into someone or something else and we never know from one encounter to the next when that tipping point might happen. That’s why it’s called la petite mort or little death.

Why I like Gluck’s Margery Kempe so much is that it speaks to my own tangle of love, sex and religion and lights it up with poetry. It traces the virtual web of intimate relations: earthy and physical, as well as virtual and mystical. A type of intimacy that cajoles us into saying things that can’t be said.

Gluck and his new narrative colleagues were enamoured by an idea of literary theorist George Lukas that the novel ‘holds together incommensurates’ (Gluck 2016: 19). Apocalypse also holds together incommensurates: the catastrophic end as holy promise. It twists the traditional narrative of an ending inside out and this trick has been used and misused over centuries to both hold together and to pull apart communities in crisis.

Revelation is a chaotic coded slippery text, a sensuous rich world where raw animalistic desire and the holy urge for transcendence butt up against each other. Like Gluck and colleagues’ new narrative it is a dreamlike collage. What it does constantly say is: Look! There! Something else is happening, something behind the veil of the normal. It is so full of such sharp shifts that the essential reader experience is ‘What next?’ and it keeps us running into the future with its constant refrain of ‘and then …’

Our constructed stories bring together things that might not normally be seen together and in some fledgling way begin to make sense of that juxtaposition.

That’s why narrative is the ultimate technology of intimacy. What next is its challenge, and then, is where we accept the invitation to make sense of it together.

References

Anderson, B., 2006. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books.

Berlant, L., 1998. Intimacy: A special issue. Critical inquiry24(2), pp.281-288.

Cvetkovich, A., 2007. Public feelings. South Atlantic Quarterly106(3), p.459.

Davis, D., 2020. Read Me: Margery Kempe Is a Raunchy, Beautiful Novel of Sex and Devotion, them, https://www.them.us/story/read-me-margery-kemp

Glück, R., 2016. Communal Nude: Collected Essays. MIT Press.

Gluck, R., 2020. Margery Kempe. NYRB Classics.

Johnson, M., 2014. The It Gets Better Project: A Study in (and of) Whiteness—in LGBT Youth and Media Cultures. In Queer youth and media cultures (pp. 278-291). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Leuzzi T., 2011. Interview with Robert Gluck, Eoagh 7, available online: https://eoagh.com/interview-with-robert-gluck/

Phillips, L., 2013. A Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in the ‘It Gets Better Project’. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research3.

Puar, J.K., 2010, In the wake of It Gets Better, Guardian, 16 November http://web.archive.org/web/20160423045457/http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/16/wake-it-gets-better-campaign

Stewart, K., 2007. Ordinary affects. Duke University Press.

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* Jasbir Puar’s (2010) Guardian commentary from the time points to the problematic nature of the IGB narrative: ‘His message translates to: Come out, move to the city, travel to Paris, adopt a kid, pay your taxes, demand representation. But how useful is it to imagine troubled gay youth might master their injury and turn blame and guilt into transgression, triumph, and all-American success?’ This is both a class narrative and one constructed through ‘whiteness’. One analysis from 2014 (Johnson 2014) showed that 85% of the contributed videos were from Caucasian individuals, even though there is generally a higher participation of blacks and Hispanics in US social media sites like YouTube. Another analysis even more tellingly noted: ‘Participants made gross assumptions about their viewers’ racial, class, gender, and sexual identities, overwhelmingly presuming viewers to be Caucasian and of middle-or upper class status and that racial/class differences would have little to no impact on viewers’ lives improving’ (Phillips 2013).

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Marcus O’Donnell is a writer, visual artist and academic. His fiction, journalism and poetry have been published in periodicals and anthologies including, Verandah, Siglo, Bent Street, New Writing, OutRage, Hard, and The Conversation. He is currently an Associate Professor and Director, Cloud Learning Futures at Deakin University, in Melbourne Australia.

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