Right after 9/11 I began hoarding photographs of the Twin Towers off the internet: hundreds of megabytes of images in a folder called “Stuff”. I had no idea what it was for, mind you: when I finally threw out the folder into my trash, I did so without thinking… sometime in 2006. But I fixated on that image that was only going to be there once and then gone: the smoke, the metal, the aircraft, people running away from the cloud, the dust, the aftermath. Not sure why, I just did. I did the same thing to Bloom County strips. It was the same impulse all over again, just differently directed. And finally: hundred of images of icons also collected off the internet. These were not collected for veneration – although I did print out a few and frame them for my icon corner. This was yet another collection of images for the sake of collecting images.
I have this memory from when I was in 5th Grade, of collecting pictures out of magazines and catalogues. The content, as such, is not important: my eleven-year-old mind would not have been able to explain it. I kept them in an album under my mattress, certain even then that no one would be pleased with finding them. What I most remember is how similar all the images were, one to another. I thought of this decades later when a friend said to me: “Line up all my lovers against a wall and you’d swear they were all in the same family.” Naturally, in addition to 9/11 and Icons, there has also been a porn collection, and while not all my lovers are visibly related, you could divide them up into two or three tribes or flavors.
A priest was surprised to learn from me that the gay community often divides up along visual typography: men with facial hair, men without it; men with sculpted muscles or men with more natural body types. Men shop for clothing that matches their body stereotype or, perhaps they can dress the part for more than one. Certainly every man is unique and every “type” is filled with millions of subtle variations on a theme, but there are Themes: visible Themes that we use to divide and classify each other and – most importantly – select our sex partners.
Straight men on the prowl do this to women as well, as I learned in the Fraternity House in college; and, perhaps, women do it also. Men, however, seem to be more keyed to the visual stimulation, but that’s not what this is about. Rather, to the point: as a gay man with no family to support, no marriage to maintain, and no jealous spouse, it’s about how I have the liberty to hoard, if you will, all the men that match my types. And I know they are doing it to me, too; as my (now-ex) said to me one day, “If you didn’t have (random physical attribute) I would never have dated you.” I felt like I had been picked to match a china set where one dinner plate had been cracked. Very romantic.
I think it is, essentially, hoarding beauty. This even true of the 9/11 photos, certainly true of the icons, but it is also true of the porn. I think it is true of the “tribes” or “types” of men, the patterns of lovers. I think it boils down to possessing beauty, a simple greed. Lust – because it is a sexual greed – and a broken lust at that. A passion because I do it nearly without thinking about it, staring unblinkingly at a man on Muni or in a magazine or an a website as certainly as if he were chained naked in front of me. This is an issue with a false self: my ego, my greed, my lust externalized into what I “know” I want, even though some part of me only wants what’s best for my soul and my salvation, some part of me has to be silenced by being told “This is what God really wants for us all other witnesses aside…”
When this dawned on me, listening to Mtr. Kallistos, my first thought, deep down inside, was “Wait, is that all there is?”
It was a confirmation and a temptation: I wanted to find something meatier, something stronger to wrestle against (and probably lose, but gloriously). I’d been imprinted with an idea of beauty and I had spent my life pursuing it, obsessing over it, but never asking it to point Godwards – which it could not do if I wanted it to – and in the obsession, it had become a passion. I created a false self out of the passion, convinced that “me” wanted this and “would die” without it. And even when I “turn it off” it was not “me” that was acting, but the “false me” refraining from action. Even in my celibacy I was feeding the false me.
My connection was the verse “he who saves his life will lose it.” There are two words for life in the Greek Bible: Soma and Zoe. All living beings from amoeba to humans have soma. But only God has Zoe. The purpose of the Christian path is to let all our somatic and psychosomatic stuff get burned up in the divine fire of God’s Zoe. This is the meaning of “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live: not I but Christ living in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God.” My soma, broken, same-sex attracted, lusting, hoarding beauty can, really, fall in love with God and be exchanged for his beautiful, divine Zoe. His life becomes mine. He lives me: starting now.
Beauty, in and of itself, must have the same levels as soma/zoe: even an icon, if treated only as art, becomes an idol. Beauty upon beauty, lust upon lust, self-referential porn piled on top of self-referential porn… all becomes a passion. We are soma for the sake of soma (LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST! NO FEAR!) or we are artists for art’s sake. An icon is not supposed to receive your gaze, as art, by itself: but rather direct your gaze inwardly towards heaven. I can turn any sort of god-directing beauty in to Pornography if I only use it as “beauty for beauty’s sake”. If I keep it around because it makes me feel good. It, here, can be a collection of pictures or even men.
Sex, according to the owner’s manual, is a natural tool given to us for the working out of our salvation, uniting to types of energy for the procreation of children and a deepening of their own communion in Zoe. But it is possible to use sex just for fun, for selfish ends, for somatic purposes that seem perfectly “healthy” and even “normal”. But they’re not salvific. We are masturbating for something to do right now. All sex is masturbation at last, even when there are other persons present for there is never anyone else really present save as a tool for my orgasm. I’m using you – a picture or a person – to jerk off. And Screwtape laughs at me because something that was really fun once is no only ever rote repetition, no greater joy with someone I love than with someone I don’t know or with someone only in my head. All sex is in the head anyway.
One’s conscience has been seared.
Death is the only thing left, really: that’s why they used to call it dissipation. Death is the only thing that can make an exciting difference. Death is a new “Wow!”
Unless a choice is made for Zoe.