About disease, I am a fatalist. Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor; then ten years later, Parkinson’s Disease. In neither case could I have done anything to avoid getting ill. I didn’t smoke or drink. More exercise, better food, less tension would have done nothing. A recent book tells me I was poisoned by the air I breathed and the instant coffee I drank. Such is life.
I don’t invite illness. I religiously take flu shots every fall. I take part in Rock Steady Boxing, a program designed for people with Parkinson’s, or at least I did before being forced to sit home, avoiding social interaction except on the telephone. Food is left in my vestibule by a helpful neighbor and the grocery store across the street, so I will not contaminate others or be infected myself. My husband and I have committed only one act of covid treason: we invited a friend to stay with us; she was going crazy alone in her apartment. And so, after 14 days of self-quarantining, we moved her over to our guest room.
I originally wrote this essay for The Good Man Project, an on-line journal that promotes more enlightened visions of masculinity. It went through two very different drafts before it was rejected by a lovely editor. The reason for the rejection was that readers might think, given my fatalist feeling, that I, in the words of GMP, “minimizes or dismisses current guidelines by doctors, scientists, the CDC and our government about social distancing, sheltering in place, hand-washing, quarantines and other actions that are being put in place for the common good.” GMP has an absolute faith in “doctors, scientist, the CDC and the government” that I find strangely naïve, which is to say heteronormative.
The queer movement that grew out of the AIDS epidemic and most of the writers who lived through it, were faced with a very different institutional reaction, and a much more hostile response to the AIDS pandemic. Ronald Reagan, the television personality who was then president, would not even use the word AIDS. As a result, came the motto of the movement “Silence=Death.” Today, Donald J. Trump, the television personality who is president, each day appears in a coronavirus, which he uses as a kind of coronation ceremony, in which he invariable crowns himself. We may have to go back to that World War slogan, “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” or at least the ship of state.
I’m not minimizing or dismissing the current commandments. I do as I am told. I am a responsible person. But I must admit that I don’t feel the patriotic zeal that the GMP tells me I should feel. My love of my fellow humans is not increased by my isolation. I know that it is quite possible that the curve will not be flattened despite handwashing, self-isolating and keeping my hands from my face. (The CDC’s insistence that we not touch myself sounds like the Victorian hysteria regarding masturbation.) But it is not the GMP alone who insists that I must maintain an unwavering obeisance to the higher medical authority of the CDC. The President himself, who every day reminds me what a good job I’m doing (and he’s doing) and that the country will be better off having obeyed him.
Let’s face it. This is no country for campy old men. I am a campy old man (actually I’ve been campy all my life). People seem to be pleased that nursing homes and elder care facilities are locked down, the same phrase we use for prisons. They can express sympathy that the elderly are now secluded and less likely to come in contact with the diseased young. But I really have the sense that people are happy that the old are even less in sight than they usually are. If they didn’t get rich in those maximum earning years, what can they expect but live in social isolation, in nursing homes whose scent alone reminds them they should hurry up and die. Indeed, the body bags mount up in refrigerated trucks. When there aren’t enough ventilators to go around, those over 80 will be required to breath on their own.
The corona virus will be used as an exercise to show how much we care not only about the elderly but about children. It was announced in Baltimore where I live, that social workers will no longer visit homes on a regular basis and will respond only if a neighbor informs the police of an act of abuse. A sound policy since where could Social Services take the child that was free of infection or keep the child from infecting others? We don’t have enough places where kids are kept six feet apart and made to wash their hands while sing the happy birthday song twice.
The day the President issued his National Health Emergence was my 70th birthday, and I had planned a party for Sunday. At my birthday party was a couple, the older one a researcher for Hopkins Hospital looking at AIDS transmission in Africa; the younger one has written books for two Broadway musicals, the last of which was a cross-dressing campy romp. He is HIV+. After the party, the researcher, who had been called back from Uganda to protect him from infection, and who had just spent 24 hours in the air stopping in three continents, began to run a temperature. He immediately went to Hopkins Hospital, but was not given a test for the coronavirus because, he explained laughing, he “failed to fit the algorithm for those eligible to be tested.” By then his temperature was down.
Why did he, a health professional, and his husband take this bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo with humor? I suspect there are at least two reasons behind their seeming light-heartedness, both related to their homosexuality and particularly to AIDS, which originally brought Anthony Fauci, the éminence grise of the Trump administration, to public attention. And these forces play into why my campiness was so offensive to the Good Man Project.
One of the central strategies of camp is to take serious things lightly and light things seriously. Walter Pater, a gay man who was a leader in the Aesthetic Movement, wrote, ““Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve.” The person who is HIV+ and who treats others who are HIV+ is perhaps more aware than most that they live under “a sort of indefinite reprieve,” and that the hammer could come down at any second. Some people make a will, others, the campiest among us, a joke. Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, so when I’m asked how I’m doing, I always say “Better than I’ll ever be again.” One element of camp, especially as it manifested itself in the AIDS era was a gallows humor. In his three brilliant books, David Feinberg captured that campy gallows humor of that day. The theater that came out of the AIDS movement is often outrageously campy. Take the scenes between Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, not know in history from their campy asides, but in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, like two drag queens dishing each other. Ethel compliments Roy, who is dying from complications from AIDS, by noting “you lost a lot of weight. It suits you. You were heavy back then. Zaftig mit hips.” The German/Yiddish at the end the light excessive touch required in high camp.
Larry Kramer, whose The Normal Heart is the other major play of that period, probably would fit on the pages of The Good Man Project because he had the same trust in his absolutist position.. Kramer wanted all gay men to stop having sex for what The Good Man Project calls “the common good.” But his rhetorical strategies run counter to the bromides of GMP. In his various broadsides, Kramer oscillated between humiliating and guilt-tripping his readers in order to gain our obedience. Kramer likes to think of himself as a satirist, but he is no camp. For him, the serious is serious, and the trivial is unforgivable.
Angels in America does not camp about medical institutions, which are unable to do anything. But it sets its focus on religious (and political) authority. Pater makes mortality an arbitrary and unfeeling judge of when we meet the guillotine. Authority is beautiful by creating rituals and ceremonies to grant it power. Churches of all religions rely on ceremonies as a way to establish and maintain their power. Governments, too. But medical institutions, which want to be known for their rational, scientific no-nonsense attitude, are no better. They reinforce their authority through their own rituals, the receptionist, the waiting room, the wrinkled out-of-date magazines, the examining room, the lab coat, the blood pressure cuff, the obligatory scale.
These are monstrance, chalice and ciboria of the Mass.
One reason I can’t help looking at Covid-19 through the perspective of camp is that CDC guidelines on how to avoid infection keep changing. Repeated we are told to keep a distance of six feet from others. Why six? Is four feet too little and eight feet too much? Is there a scientific justification for this yardage? Large mucus droplets generally fall before they reach six feet; that’s a pretty good reason. But aerosol droplet can go much further, and they may be the more harmful. And then there’s the question of wearing face masks. At first, no; then, perhaps, and now a commending yes. I have not heard a scientifically based explanation for this change that seems as arbitrary and magical, as president’s gut belief that hydroxychloroquine is a “game changer.” I am tempted to wear a black veil like widow as I walk the streets.
But I am not a doctor. I have no choice but to follow the guidelines of the CDC (and I urge everyone with whom I don’t come in contact to follow them as well). But having survived the AIDS pandemic, excuse me, if I hold medical authority less than benign and trustworthy.
I do not mean to “minimizes or dismisses current guidelines.” What else can we do? But my crankiness is a sort of camp, to minimize their piety. I am not saying that eventually a sound way of treating Covid-19 will fail to emerge. But now what we have is guesswork.
But what if science does fail? Are we capable of imagining the consequences of failing? But, of course, they won’t fail. They can’t be allowed to fail because we have invested too much in them already. My experience of government action and inaction is that things will work just well enough that we don’t really have to face the consequences. But I cannot live up to the demand that I pretend this is all wonderful, exciting socio-medico-politic occasion. If we weren’t in such a state of denial, we would be able to face the reality of our own deaths.
The poet Randall Jarrell ends “The Face,” with a once beautiful woman acknowledging to herself that she has grown old. “If only living can do this/ Living is more dangerous than anything,” she concludes. Can we accept the danger of living? Will we have to sacrifice the old (that’s me you’re talking about, buddy!) so that Junior will keep his minimum wage job? Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Dachau, wrote This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is that kind of campy, gallows humor that allows me to get through this particular moment.