During the fifteen years that separate the first New York Times article describing “a rare cancer” affecting gay men (1981) and the introduction of the antiretroviral therapy that has transformed HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease into a chronic illness (1996), many queer writers and artists examined and contested the politics of representation and of memory surrounding the epidemic. Their work represented a reaction against a twofold threat: on the one hand, that their lives and those of their loved ones might be entirely erased by the virus and, on the other, that queer culture and history might be wiped out by resurgent homophobia. Although this literary and artistic production has attracted much attention in recent years (see, e.g., Brophy 2004 and Pearl 2013), the ways some of these writers and artists turned to the classical past to articulate their own practices of memory have not been fully explored. In this paper, I will argue that the American writer Paul Monette and the British director Derek Jarman found in the fragments and ruins of classical antiquity both signs of a queer history in need of protection and models for conceptualizing the future reception of their life and work.
Monette began to write about the AIDS epidemic immediately after the death of his partner, Roger Horwitz. In the memoir Borrowed Time (1988), he details not only Horwitz’s fight against the virus but also his own search for “a voice to describe the nightmare” (p. 153). The memory of some “broken slabs and columns lying in the field, covered with Greek characters erasing in the weather” (p. 146), which Monette had seen in Greece, prompted him to create a record of his and Horwitz’s experience. The profound effect that that trip had on Monette’s imagination is due to the fact that, whereas “most of the rest of gay history lies in shallow bachelors’ graves” (p. 20), in Greece a gay man can still see inscriptions voicing homosexual desire and, thus, can find “his ancestors” (p. 23). As I will show, this connection with past generations of gay men is repeatedly stressed by Monette who, for instance, alluding to the Sacred Band of Thebes, often presents himself and Horwitz as two warriors ready to die side by side, “the group of two for an army” (p. 101). This imagery occurs also in Love Alone (1988), a collection of elegies unfolding without punctuation on the page just as on “a white marble block covered edge to edge with Greek characters” (p. xii). In these two works, Monette not only pays homage to his “ancestors”; he also envisions his legacy as comparable to theirs, fragmented yet capable of “fuel[ing] the fire of those in the front lines” (p.xiii).
Similar themes inform also the oeuvre of Derek Jarman. On the day of his HIV diagnosis, he wrote in his diary: “We must fight the fears that threaten our garden, for make no mistake ours is the garden of the poets of Will Shakespeare’s sonnets, of Marlowe, Catullus, of Plato, and Wilde, all those who have worked and suffered to keep it watered” (Peake 2000, 380). Jarman’s attempt to protect such a garden is clear in Blue (1993), the last film he completed before his death. By incorporating allusions to Catullus into the script – “Kiss me again | Kiss me | Kiss me again | And again” (Jarman 1994, 20) – Jarman cherishes the heredity of his queer ancestors. And in the poem that seals the film he evokes, as I will show, classical fragments and relics to describe the fleetingness of human existence and to meditate upon his legacy.
For both Jarman and Monette, then, the classical past not only shows traces of a queer history that needs to be protected and cherished; it also provides models for imagining one’s futurity, even in the face of the incommensurable loss brought about by the AIDS epidemic.
Classical Reception Studies