Homoeroticism and Christian Doctrine: A Talk with Novelist Henry Flesh
What inspired you to write something so sci-fi in nature as Michael?
I don't really see Michael as science fiction, particularly since there's no actual science involved in it. Rather, it's a fantasy, somewhat mythical, a homoerotic take on contemporary Christian fundamentalists' eschatological theories of the end of the world. At first glance homoeroticism and Christian fundamentalism would seem to have little in common, yet to me there's a definite link. Look at some of the art that depicts a biblical Judgment Day. It's full of extremely erotic?and homoerotic?images: naked male angels and archangels accompanying a handsome, somewhat feminine-looking Jesus; nude men writhing in pain and ecstasy as the world ends and they meet their fates.
Then there's the idea of Rapture, something not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but that has become dogma to some fundamentalists. The word "rapture" itself has sexual implications, although I feel that this connotation exists only subconsciously in the minds of people who have such beliefs. (I mean, many Christian fundamentalists are nothing if not repressed?not to mention homophobic.) I think that religious dogmatism is a by-product of sexual repression, a theme I dealt with, too, in my first novel, Massage. In Michael I made the sexuality overt by having Stephen, my protagonist, make love and ejaculate as he is raptured.
I've been in Jungian analysis for years, and naturally this has had a strong influence on me, especially in my approach to dreams and myths. That's why I said that Michael can be seen as somewhat mythical. Dreams are an even stronger element in the book: the further into the novel you go, the more dreamlike it becomes. Indeed, some might see it as the fever dream of a very sick man approaching death.
Was there something you've experienced in your life that helped you make a connection between sexuality and religious fundamentalism?
Actually, there was. When I was a child growing up in a small town in southwestern Ohio, the only openly gay man I knew of was a very handsome black man, Tommy, who also preached at the local African-American Baptist church. He loved telling me fire-and-brimstone stories of the end of the world. Once I went to one of his sermons, in which he recited by heart the Judgment Day section of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, a 1927 epic poem that consists of seven sermons as they would be given by an African-American preacher. Tommy's beliefs comforted me at the time, when my parents had just divorced and I was suffering a lot of bad stuff that was going on in my home. I totally connected with his religious faith and at the same time with his sexuality (he was very camp)?something that I sensed at the time (I was around seven or eight), though I did not yet know what a homosexual was. I think these memories might have been one of the kernels that helped me imagine Michael.
Tell me something about the illustrations. They certainly add a lovely quality to the book.
I've always loved 19th-century novels, which were often illustrated, and particularly liked George Cruikshank's drawings for many of Dickens' novels. When I was planning the production of Michael, I showed Cruikshank's stuff to a good friend of mine, John H. Greer, whose work I had long admired, and asked him if he could do similar things with the illustrations for Michael. I think the drawings he created are brilliant, and his sensibility seems so in touch with my own.
Michael's story seems like a metaphor for the "death" of the gay community from the AIDS epidemic.
In fact, I saw it as a metaphor for the aging process and for death in general. With Michael I tried to face many of my greatest childhood fears. There was the end of the world as described by Tommy, a fear that was exacerbated by the widespread terror of nuclear war that existed in the 1950s and 60s, a terror I certainly absorbed as a child. Beneath it all was the sense of abandonment that I'd experienced when my parents divorced and that Stephen feels in the novel.
In addition, as I wrote Michael I was trying to deal with some things that I was going through then, fears having to do with my approaching 50?in a gay community and an American society that is often ageist?and with my own mortality. It's like, as you get older, you realize how little time you have left to deal with some of the "stuff," dilemmas that you've experienced all your life; you begin to suspect that you'll never "solve" certain things, or even completely understand them.
Do you feel the gay community has really absorbed yet the enormity of the AIDS crisis, especially how it has devastated the arts community?
Most middle-aged and older gay men certainly see it, since it has affected every aspect of their lives, the arts and everything else. Nothing has been untouched, and it's highly unlikely that anyone who lived in an urban center at the height of the epidemic, in the 80s and early 90s, didn't know someone who died of AIDS.
I'm not so sure about younger people. Being younger than I am, you might have a better idea. A lot of kids in their 20s seem to me deeply aware of the crisis. Others, though?at least on the surface?act remarkably blase and don't appear to give HIV a lot of thought. There are, of course, drugs that exist now that weren't around 10 years ago, and they've helped thousands survive. Even so, they're not a cure, and we don't know how long they will remain effective. In addition, though the crisis in Africa is as bad if not worse than it's ever been, I don't think most people?young or old, queer or straight?give this much consideration. George W. Bush and Ralph Nader certainly didn't talk about it much.
What impact has winning the Lambda Literary Award had on you? In what way has it affected your life?
I was, of course, thrilled and honored when I won, and the high that winning it gave me lasted for a while. But then time passed, and all the things that I've always dealt with remained. I was still me, and my life was basically the same. And, paradoxically, getting the award made me question myself: Did I deserve it? Would I be able to write again? And would what I wrote be any good? I struggle with these things every day.
You've just gotten back from Crete, and I know from our conversations that you used to go there a lot. What's the attraction for you there?
This last time I went to research a new novel, part of which takes place on Crete in 1979, when I was first there. I wanted to replicate as much as possible what I'd experienced back then.
Of course, that wasn't possible. Crete has been totally developed, and a large part of it ruined. The fishing village where I used to go is now a tour-group hell. I did manage to find a place on the island that was at least relatively unspoiled, and I got a great deal out of the time that I spent there. In fact, I started writing a new novel during my stay. But I don't know that I'd go back any time soon. Every place seems to be getting so overly developed and Americanized now.
I'm not sure exactly what it was that initially attracted me to Crete. It was almost like an instinctual feeling that I got at some point, like when I saw a film or maybe talked with someone who'd been there, I don't really remember. But I went along with my instincts, and the experience was great, kind of magical. I want to recreate what I went through as much as possible in the novel I've just started.
There's a book party for Michael this Thurs., Nov. 30, at Tonic (107 Norfolk St., betw. Delancey & Rivington Sts.), 7 p.m. Henry Flesh will read; there'll be an exhibit of John H. Greer's illustrations for the book; and the bands Deni Bonet and Clem Snide will play.
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Summer in the City