By Tim Trengove-Jones
“Falling down, falling down, just like Spring rain.” So the 80s song went. The Spring rain hasn’t yet arrived in Johannesburg but its harbinger, the August wind, has. So, rather than Spring rain falling down, the last of the yellowed, desiccated Jacaranda leaves swirl down in irritating gusts, and those of us prone to allergies, have mucous falling down in a parody of Spring rain.
As I write the snow lies on the Drakensberg mountains: lovely to look at, less lovely to experience. The Springboks (Amabokke Bokke) won their first game in the Southern rugby competition against Argentina and the Cincinnati tennis finals are about to be played before the weary tennis pros make their way to the US Open.
Who could be bored?
As Spring rolls in, the various Pride Parades draw closer. More wearied than a tennis pro at the end of a tough season, I draws a heavy breath, and my psychological legs feel heavier at the mere mention of Pride Parade. And then I recall “the youth,” that to – to me – unknowable mass of “the young and lovely.” Pride “is for them,” I tell myself. For months, visions and revisions of “what to wear” have been going down. Money has been saved. Money has been extorted.
All to ensure that “the look” can be achieved.
Men, psychologists tell us, live in the eye. Young gay men certainly do. And, tragically, older gay men do even more so: it is the only “life” left them. If, in the “straight world,” 50 is the new 30, in the “gay world,” resolutely behind the times, 30 marks the advent of invisibility. Put it to the test: find a heterosexual male who speaks of himself as “old” at 23. Try not to find a self-identifying man who has sex with men who does not think of himself as ageing at the age of 23.
This privileging, this obsession with “youth and beauty” is a defining characteristic of the gay male sensibility. It is definitively recorded in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray where the advent of Dorian’s sense of his own beauty is also the advent of his scarifying knowledge that his beauty will fade, and he will grow “old and ugly.” The knowledge that it is “beauty that must die” is what terrifies him, not the knowledge of his own mortality. The two things, mortality and the temporary tenure of beauty, are related not identical. And this fear of ageing has become more and more pronounced in both the hetero and homo worlds.
While “we all” resort to lotions and notions, rely on the knife, subject ourselves to pain and expense in the futile pursuit of a modern, techno-driven pursuit of “youth and beauty,” it is in the psyche of the man who has sex with men that the trauma of losing the “youthful hew” strikes most damagingly.
Unlike Spring, in the human being, “Spring” does not return: are seasons are not, ultimately, cyclical, but linear: our physical seasons, at any rate. Tutored into this “tragic” self-awareness, Wilde’s Dorian becomes a collector, you recall. He assembles, serially, perfumes, furniture, tapestries, jewels. Each and every one of his collected items is exquisite, rare and, above all, beautiful. No, don’t interject that what he finds beautiful you might not. Wilde is bright, very bright, and has insisted that “Beauty needs no justification, it is its own justification.” What is key, though, is the serial nature of Dorian’s collecting: nothing suffices. Nothing.
This appetitive drive is fundamental to his collecting: it tells us that he is engaged in some kind of displacement activity. Wilde, too, knows this, and recounts that “This was to be, for Dorian, an escape, for the moment, from the terrible dread that was always with him.” Beyond the psychological insight, part of the genius of Wilde’s insight is registered in the use of the definitive article, “the terrible dread…”. The assumption is that we know this dread, that this dread is obvious and does not require elucidation or definition: the terrible dread….
Yet the nature of this dread might not be immediately obvious to you or to me. And were we to compare notes, you might define the dread as something different to my account of it. What is certain is that each of us would quite readily provide an account of this dread and, for each of us, the account would be valid, because very real.
The effort, the long planning, the expense, which many of “us” pour into a “Pride Outfit” is pertinent here. Is it mere celebration? Is there such a thing as mere celebration? Is the expense (various) devoted to the assemblage of “a look” not symptomatic of a kind of “dread”? The fear that I will not stand out? The fear that I will stand out? The fear that I won’t get laid after an after party? The fear that I shan’t feature in the pictures that will be paraded on Mambaonline, for instance? Do I not wish to be recorded as gorgeous, to be noted as flamboyant, to be certified as desirable?
Wilde noted: “give a man a mask and he will show you the truth.” At the first ever Pride Parade in Joburg (When was THAT, who remembers that? – Answers on a PC, and the first correct answer received will win a ….) many participants had paper bags over their heads. These were obvious(ly) masks. But the flaunting of the body (we hope) beautiful, the varied outfits donned for the day by the participants at Pride are themselves masks. This is one of the (more subtle?) ironies of the events: “coming out” remains a form of masquerade.
Neil Bartlett, a great student of Wilde, has himself spoken of what he thinks “we” are fighting for: the capacity to be “free from shame.” If our physical life is one of linear declension, our psychological and emotional lives might, perhaps, involve elements of circularity: we commit the same faults, we repeat the same routines.
“Hope springs eternal.” As we move into Spring, and as we re-encounter Pride season, I do hope that the masks donned are donned with thoughtful self-consciousness. And that, so many years down from the first Pride Parade, and so many years on from the last of the great Constitutional victories for LGBTIQ citizens, we will be able to keep moving towards a life without shame. A life in which self-esteem, “grounded on just and right,” becomes a reality for more and more of us.
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