Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Mark Doty's Essay "Bijou" and Techno-Necrophilia

In the most recent and boring Pushcart Prize XXXIV, the volume sports an exciting, if flawed, Mark Doty essay entitled “Bijou.” Although he never names it, Doty raises the possibility of a techno-necrophilia as a way of assuaging (if not eradicating) gay male grief related to losing lovers in the AIDS epidemic.

The essay begins with a wonderfully bold set-up. Doty writes about watching a 1972 porn film. The film follows an attractive man Bill who witnesses a woman hit by a car. Instead of helping, he grabs her purse and runs only to go home where he ends up, according to Doty, nearly ejaculating in the shower as he thinks about the image of her being almost (or actually?) killed.

The scene then ends abruptly. We never see him ejaculate. As Doty remarks: “just as he’s about to come he sees the woman in fur flying when the bumper of the car strikes her. That’s the end of that, the erotic moment is over, for him, and for the viewer, once the image returns.”

It’s a bit blurry as to what exactly happens in the film. Do we see Bill disgusted with himself for secretly being around by the image and then he stops? Does the director of the movie edit the scene in such a way that his stopping may be implied? Or does Doty simply guess that he doesn't finish? Could some viewers believe that he does, indeed, masturbate to the desired end point? It just is never definitively seen.

Isn’t it at all possible that the film is edited in such a way that we are meant to imagine what may be the most repulsive act to some viewers which they are indeed complicit in emulating: the idea of someone (and themselves by extension) getting off on the image of a (possibly) dead woman?

Perhaps the film (like Doty himself) can’t show or name the taboo: a sort of techno-necrophilia is taking place. We are implicated in the “inappropriateness of the scene.” By watching another man being aroused by the dead, we’re vicariously having a sexual relationship with the dead as well. In the essay, Doty immediately confesses that he doesn't know how to categorize the film and name its intentions: "I'm hesitant to call it porn, since its intentions are less obvious that then..."

Doty does tell us that the film’s protagonist ends up out of the shower (after he may or may not have ejaculated) and back into his own bedroom where he looks through the contents of her purse again. He find an invitation for a “party? An event? Someplace called Bijou at 7 p.m. Then he’s walking in Soho-the old Soho, long before the art glamorous and even longer before the Euro-tourist-meets-North Jersey shopping districts...”

Doty further describes:

“He finds the address, goes in and up, and the movie shifts from the gitty Warholian vocabulary it’s trafficked in thus far to another cinematic tongue. An indifferent woman in a lot of eye makeup sits in a glass booth; Bill proferrs the invite; she gestures toward a door and utters the movie’s only line: Right through there. ‘There’ turns out to be a hallucinatory space, its dominant hue a solarized, acidy green.”

In this space, he ends up engaging in what may be best described as a weird, no-holds-barred homosexual orgy.

Perhaps the most important sentence in the essay appears after he completes the description of the film:

“It makes the viewer feel suspended in a sort of erotic haze, but whatever arousal I feel in imagining Bill’s complete submission to pleasure suddenly comes to a halt, as surely as if I’d seen that woman struck down in the crosswalk again, because I realize that all the men in the scene I’m watching are dead.”

My question is this: since Doty draws an analogy to one's (and his own) inability to masturbate to the visualization of “the dead” (the woman hit by the car, the gay men), what would it mean if one could overcome that taboo behavior? What if one allowed himself to ejaculate to these images?

It doesn’t needs to be said that the presence of technology grows in its sophistication and presence. This may be one of the cures of gay male grief: to use technology as a way of making the bodies of our loves appear and use those images as a way of getting off. This could be a healthy form of what I’ll name as techno-necrophilia. Religious conservatives love to group our sexual acts with anything that is seen as an abomination. I think we should take the word, the idea of necrophilia back from these same very people, and recharge the word with our own meanings, ways of survival.

Many, many years ago, over fifteen years, when I lost a lover to AIDS, I found myself with all this stuff: pictures, home movies, etc. I didn’t know what to do with it, and in my predictable impulsiveness, I threw it out. I couldn’t be reminded of his body. I had tapes of his voice on my answering machine and I kept those, playing them over and over again. I used them for a sensual experience. I was lonely and depressed, and I used his voice as a way of making me full of some sort of desire, even sexual.

I kept on thinking, I wish I could touch him. If only I could touch him. How many of us, as gay men, have thought to themselves, If only I knew that was the last time we would have sex? That question haunts us.

My response: Maybe by keeping my films of him, using them as sexual material, I would have had a sort of physical communion with him. I would have touched him and he me one last time and have been released from my grief, or at least on a more determined, expedient path.

Isn’t watching an image of the dead a way of possessing his body one last time? Is it an ethical and useful form of necrophilia created by our technological resources?

Can’t engaging in masturbatory activities with an image of our dead homosexual lovers, staring as close as you can at their flickering images, even touching the TV screen, and feeling them, provide a necessary release? Doty smartly says he wants to "revive" the phrase : to "have knowledge of someone." Their technologically created bodies are more than memories. You could say they are the real thing. They are the knowledge. You don’t need to remember. His body is right there in front of you. All you have to do is look at the screen and touch yourself and maybe even him. Indeed, you are with him at least one last time.


  1. I guess I have a different relationship to time-- it doesn't at seem at all odd to me to fantasize about the dead. Proust thought of reading as a kind of sociality-- which is most often with the dead. Is thinking with Nietzsche and valuing him as a thinker different than thinking that James Dean is hot-- and I use the present tense advisedly. I think that desire for something absent is a different kind of interference-- to use an image to conjure a lost object is quite different from encountering the past as able to arouse/provoke/stimulate in the present.

  2. After reading this, I'm tempted to revisit the "personal vs. private" discussion. What's interesting to me about this post, and I've seen you do this before, is the way that "you" (and I use that term loosely of course) become the subject of the text you are studying, and that the reader is encouraged to believe that the most significant thing about the object of your gaze is the story you tell in response. Here's where I introduce a question: If a confession is false, forced, or even imagined, can it be either personal or private?