Resurrecting Hope


Brian Bouldrey, editor of the collection Wrestling with the Angel: Faith and Religion in the Lives of Gay Men, reflects on Hans Holbein’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb:

[F]or me, the painting looks clearly like something else I knew quite well: Christ looks like another death from AIDS. Has nobody made this connection before? I’ve looked in libraries and on line, but nothing. My partner Jeff, who died in 1993—it’s the spitting image. The Dead Christ looks like the man I love and loved and all those other men dead from HIV. The bruises like kaposi’s sarcoma, the gaunt drawn face and slack downturned mouth. That painting is for me a grenade of past experience made horribly fresh and present. When I look at it, it sends me back to that moment, and I despair, I have to grieve all over again, I have to start all over, I have to do all the work to reflect upon that experience. …

Nobody wants to talk about the AIDS era any more, even and especially the ones who survived it, watched our lovers and friends suffer, die, and get buried, but never rise again, a great game of hide and seek in which nobody ever got found.

It was terrifying and hopeless, we survivors are all children who still look into clothes hampers and closets and hope they will suddenly just be there, still hiding. Here: look what I’m doing: making a narrative of something that has no story left to it. There was no romance to AIDS, though I think the foolish young me wanted it to be romantic, just as those who want a messiah are romantics. I loved the romantic stories of the saints, which drew me into their useful mythology the way demigods do in Greek myths—men and gods are inert, but the demigods, not quite of this world or that, little monsters, they get the ball rolling. It was God, then, that I had the hardest part with, way up there, just being, rather than doing.

I keep thinking that I have to restore myself in order to honor those who suffered like the man who is the Dead Christ, if you accept that the dead man in Holbein’s painting is the Dead Christ, which is, in itself, a declaration of faith, at least the beginning of one. But what I must instead do is lose myself and dig myself out from the moment. Resurrection, rebirth cannot happen until one dies. Hope dies every time I look at the Holbein. That is the strangest kind of resurrection story.

(Image of The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, with detail below, via Wikimedia Commons)