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Sex and death

Of Bataille, a video and an infected young man


I'll call him Reid. He is 22. He sits in the chair in my office and he asks me if I've read all the books that fill the shelves behind our chairs.

"I've read some or most of them," I say.

I tell him about my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Akers, who was also the school librarian. "She thought books were magical, that when you opened one, something was being communicated to you personally."

Reid recently tested HIV-positive. He is obsessed with a single question: Why, knowing that he risked infection, did he have unsafe sex repeatedly anyway?

It's the same question that arises but goes unanswered in a video documentary, The Gift, that is being screened this Sunday. The documentary, which I wrote about last week, is about "bug-chasers," men who intentionally attempt HIV infection. But it is more broadly about the growing indifference to safe sex. A discussion, of which I'll be a part, follows the screening.

I tell Reid about the film and he winces. "I just quit thinking about it," he says.

The film, I tell him, postulates that prevention has failed because AIDS has become represented as easily manageable. It also suggests that it's become uncool to speak negatively about HIV for fear of offending the infected.

"Maybe," Reid says. "I only know I immediately started asking why I'd been so stupid. The therapist I was assigned at the clinic kept telling me not to ask why."

"She probably gave you the right advice," I say. "But people like us who are haunted by such questions can't just put them aside."

He falls silent. He is heartbreaking to look at. There is nothing to give away his infection. He is beautiful, but his eyes are full of tears and his sadness makes my heart feel like it is in a clamp. I reach around and grab a book, The Tears of Eros by Georges Bataille, and toss it to him.

"This is such a weird book," he says, thumbing through the pages, which are filled with pictures about the link between death and the erotic.

"Bataille has one foot in the grave and the other in an orgy," I say. I remind Reid of a watercolor by Jim Herbert in my hall. A couple are in bed, the woman's legs spread provocatively. An airplane -- phallic and deadly -- is headed toward the bed. "Every time you fuck," I say, "you unconsciously evoke death. To be alive at the transcendental moment of orgasm, when love reaches excess and then you are suddenly emptied, is to also be reminded in your soul of the reality of death, which is also an emptying. Thus the French call that moment 'the little death.'"

Reid quotes Bataille's foreword: "How can I fully live the 'little death' if not as foretaste of the final death? ... The violence of spasmodic joy lies deep in my heart. This violence, at the same time, and I tremble as I say it, is the heart of death: It opens itself up in me!"

"You and Bataille are saying that sex always involves death?" Reid asks.

"Freud said the task is to keep eros and the death wish separate," I reply. "But that means that the more one risks the taste of death in sex, the more pleasurable it becomes to the psyche."

"Like skydiving without a parachute, except in this case, the parachute is a condom," Reid says.

"Sort of," I reply. "I'm saying that unsafe sex fulfills a natural impulse -- not just to eliminate an annoying latex barrier but to heighten jouissance, the conflation of pleasure and the sense of annihilation. Our moral culture does not provide any acceptable way of negotiating that -- especially in gay life, where we live under the spell of becoming assimilated, normal. But our sex is weird to the mainstream. The less we accept that, the more destructive it can become.

"One way people have classically dealt with the impulse to conflate sex and death is to engage in consensual sadomasochistic play. The Marquis de Sade discovered this after witnessing the executions of the French Revolution."

"Barebacking is a failure of the imagination," Reid jokes.

"Yes, actually," I reply. "But it's also an acceleration of a very human inevitability."

"What do I do now?" Reid asks.

I pick up The Tears of Eros and read one of my favorite sentences: "Only in humor is an answer given to the ultimate question of human life."

"You suggest I make a joke of this?"

I tell him the story of my near-death experience 20 years ago at Piedmont Hospital. I was drifting away, happily dying. I "came back" only when I heard my mother say something and I wanted to make a sarcastic response.

Bataille again: "The ambiguity of this human life is really that of mad laughter and of sobbing tears. It comes from the difficulty of harmonizing reason's calculations with these tears ... with this horrible laugh ..."

The Gift screens at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive. Discussion follows. Consult for more information.

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