To read Frank Browning’s latest book The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion is to eavesdrop on series of confessionals, and to be party to the converse positions and erotic agreements of Browning and Brother Peter, a homosexual Dominican monk, a relationship that begins in kitsch surroundings that Jean Paul Gaultier might want to rip off. It is to enter a rich demimonde frocked in drag and incense, at times sensuous and melancholy, at others cavalier and threaded with paradox. The confessions leak from the ecclesiastical to the secular world, revealing the sexual wounds of the Catholic church, the often painful duality required of gay men within the institution. The relationship between Browning and Brother Peter is—in all senses—touching. The Monk and the Skeptic is a remarkable book, full of yearning and transcendence. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with Frank about his book and to have him elaborate further on some of the questions arising from it. Since then, Time magazine has named Pope Francis ‘Person of the Year,’ an accolade about which I suspect we would both remain skeptical.
Frank, reading the first chapters of The Monk and the Skeptic, I thought of Edmund White’s Sacred Monsters, and the notion of those, “so well-known that he or she is above criticism, a legend who despite eccentricities or faults cannot be measured by ordinary standards.” Your attraction to Brother Peter, the John Rechy-esque leather-clad Dominican monk begins in a gallery, at a Pierre et Gilles exhibition. It’s a high-camp Vatican. Rafe, the motorcycle boy who is fleeing his Catholic vows, kisses you on a rock; it’s a recognizably Christian moment. One feels your sense of these meetings as foundations for faith, rather than merely secularizations. Your dialogues with Brother Peter locate the conventionally ‘sacred’ and ‘monstrous’ in unconventional spaces and ideas.
Given the histories of racist southern protestantism, the anti-semitic collaboration of the Vatican and the attitude of large proportions of both to regard women as—in the words of a recent French priest, as “sperm depositories”—I have long found it rather difficult to see much of organized “Christianity” as offering useful sites for sacred reflections—their pitiful scattering of “good works” initiatives notwithstanding. What I found moving about Brother Peter was that, as a young man raised outside of any formal spiritual context, outside of any organized religion, he came to the roman of faith through the tortured love he found with an older priest who—little surprise—then abandoned him in his moment of crisis. As for myself, my childhood in the Kentucky countryside undoubtedly left me with something of an animist sense of spirituality vested in various rocks, trees and streams and in the annual miracle of an apple orchard in full, passionate bloom.
The gestures of Pope Francis seem to have seduced many skeptics into believing they are witnessing a revolution in Catholicism. I’m not at all convinced. I see that he’s been showing off the “bones of St. Peter” this week.
Revolutions are dodgy affairs, especially when they appear to be initiated by the Head Man, don’t you think? His talk seems good, yes, though I’m more impressed by what he says about the abuses of global, oligarchic capitalism that seems bent on grinding “the least of us” into the dirt. The bishops, as best I understand it, being an outsider, are more reactionary on inter-personal social issues than at any time in the last century.
Agreed. The Vatican gave us propaganda fide in the 17th century, and with Francis, as soon as the white smoke rose, so did a new smokescreen of populist propaganda. I don’t give a damn if he drives around in a little Renault prompting hysterical headlines about his “humility” when the institution remains reactionary and abusive. Francis would like to stop the Vatican’s public obsession with gay marriage, abortion and contraception not because the Church has evolved, but precisely because it has not.
Note as well that he was blunt this week about the exclusion of women from priestly rights and duties, declaring that the ordination of women to the priesthood “is not a question open to discussion.” That said, there may be some symbolic value in his statements on contraception, abortion and homosexual passion. Of course, if I believe my journalist friends who’ve looked into his Argentine past, maybe all the talk is Francis’s attempt to clean his dirty hands soiled by his actions/lack of actions during the Dirty War.
Referring to the risk-taking in the gay pornography that he watches and masturbates to, Brother Peter says, “People are fed up with AIDS and putting limits on their pleasure.” I was struck also by an earlier expression in the book where you describe Peter this way: “…his conviction that the human body, and in particular his own body, will persist in its finest perfection for all eternity—so long as he maintains his faith and follows his duties and obligations prescribed by Christ.” Would it be accurate to suggest that Peter, at least when you first met him, regarded his faith as inoculation?
An inoculation against AIDS and other diseases? Not at all. Although I covered an earlier grave illness that eventually took his life, he understood full well his mortality—at least on this earth. On the other hand I’ve just been reading a marvelous book, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity in which historian George Mosse tracks the French and German Enlightenment idea that genuine “masculinity”—as understood jointly by church and state—required a union of a pure soul with a sturdy body and that without such a union, one could not be or become a full man. When it came to sexual activity, Brother Peter exercised strict care even as he drew guilty pleasures from watching barebacking pornography. How much of these soiled thoughts and pleasures he took to confession I honestly don’t know, though he said he had shared some. These days, when bareback sex is back in flower, I don’t see much evidence of such magical thinking, unless belief and acquiescence to pharmaceutical science (and profits), otherwise known as Triple Therapy, can be considered in the same light as “the invisible hand” that supposedly guides the capitalist marketplace.
Marcel Duchamp’s 1920s conceptual drag act Rrose Sélavy supposedly came about because it was simpler to convert his ‘gender’ than from Catholicism to Judaism. You describe both the church and drag as modes of sexual refuge and mysticism. Is the transgender myth of Tiresias becoming our contemporary myth and metaphor?
The Church (big C) certainly became a sort of refuge for Brother Peter, yes, as well obviously of mystic transcendence—clearly a manner of being I couldn’t share with him (nor did he ever try to convert me to it). Duchamp’s notion of conceptual drag and the myth of Tiresias, I suppose, share certain commonalities. For the early modernists/surrealists like Duchamp, what they saw before many was the emptiness—the vacuity—of the dominant and conventional representations of spirit and soul. Tiresias seems to me to be much better seen in the light of the nightly lotto game on Neapolitan TV, where an inner city “femminello” is selected to choose the winning number from a large glass jar where the numbered ping-pong balls bounce around under the pressure of forced air. Why a femminello? Because these males who present themselves as females have a rich Neapolitan history, perhaps drawn on the Tiresias myth as beings possessed of “double vision,” the capacity to see beyond and through the banal habits of ordinary life. Are we generally in the West looking for such a renewed myth? I doubt it—at least not directly. What we are seeing all over the developed world is that women, once freed of the bondage imposed by the churches and the male political elites, are the stars of the classroom, from primary school through post-doctoral studies—and as such that new reality—recorded from Beijing University to the Harvard Business School—is forcing us all to re-imagine our basic, inherited notions of “masculinities” and “femininities.” Does that mean that we’re also seeking new sorts of mythic androgens? Take a walk through the color-coded kids clothing and toy sections of Target and tell me if you really think so.
If Target is your measure, then, yes, you’ll always come up short. The performative aspects of gender and sexuality are ancient of course, and your point about the femminello is well taken. Within the subcultures and with young people that I know, I’d say that they are un-self-conscious about that slippage—that free crossing, experimentation, vagueness—in a way that is not as temporary as it may have been in earlier periods of fashionable androgyny. The succès de scandale of LA Fashion Week was Marco Marco’s drag and transgender show. Duchamp emerged from subcultures that took decades to gain respectability. And that said, I think this lack of self-consciousness regarding gender is easily observed in many teenagers in corporate department stores. Drag and pantomime strike me as relatively mainstream, even tired. Of course, the metaphor like any other can be taken too far, or overstated. The difference now is that slippage, borrowing, and bricolage are validated by genetics, linguistics and politics to an unprecedented degree. It’s true of ethnicity, autism, reason, psychopathology, gender and sexuality: if there’s a spectrum, then we’re all on it. This, for me, is healthy. But, speaking of gender-bending teenagers and corporatism, I’d love for you to talk about Harry Potter.
Fortunately for Daniel Radcliffe, at least for the moment, he’s left behind the near mythic Harry Potter character, who it seemed for several years was everybody’s all purpose mytho-man, myth-boy. Harry Potter as the chosen one. Harry Potter as the utter innocent. Harry as the dream lad to die for. Odd for a puberty-transiting Anglo-Saxon, don’t you think? But, as I tried to put it early on in the book, the Harry Potter character seemed to fill in what Jeanette Winterson has called our—westerners at least—”inescapable hunger for mythic dreams.” Needless to say, given the comely adolescent Radcliffe grew into, gayworld glommed onto the media gossip mill and the fairly plain gender uncertainty of the Potter character, promoting both actor and character into a new sort of homo savior/saint. Okay. As Winterson wisely and beguilingly suggests, none of us in our supposedly rationalist, objectivist modernity can really get through the night without some measure of myth, some sort of deliverance dance to carry us away from Afghanistan and 9/11 and Rush Limbaugh and Endless Aids and the Tea Party Future. Harry Potter, for a few moments (while I was writing about Brother Peter and his myths), seemed to offer a sweet and gentle all-purpose myth. Now that’s over, and, desperate as ever, we wait for the Media Motors who will surely invent a new one soon.
FRANK BROWNING’s The Monk and the Skeptic is published by Soft Skull Press. His other works include The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today, and A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward a Sexual Self.