Sunday, January 02, 2005

The vampire's mirror: the parable interpreted

I wrote the parable "The Vampire's Mirror" as part of a continuing reflection on the theme of invisibility (cf. the poem "Transparency"), and more specifically about a phenomenon that I would call "cultural reflectivity." Cultural reflectivity is the extent to which one sees one's own reflection in the prevailing culture, the extent to which one's values, ideas, and assumptions are reflected in one's surroundings. There are some groups for whom there has been a more or less deliberate attempt to ensure that their existence is not reflected in the culture, to erase their presence from the societal mirror, as the presence of women, people of color, and so many others has frequently been erased. In the ancient world, slaves and non-citizens were referred to as "aprosopoi," which means "faceless." But it means more than this. Prosopon in Greek means both "face" and "person." To be one of the aprosopoi means to have been depersonalized, dehumanized, devaluated. It means to be one of those whose presence is never mentioned in the story by which a people defines its identity.

And yet the vampire's mirror is about something more than this. Specifically, I wrote the story in response to some statistics that were referenced by a friend of mine, a psychologist, regarding the relatively high rates of depression, disease, and suicide among gay and lesbian people, as a way of thinking about how this invisibility affects those who suffer it.

Vampires are invisible because they are dead, because their very presence constitutes an unwarranted intrusion upon the land of the living. And I think that this cultural invisibility contains within itself the seed of a kind of death. It has all the approbative force of a societal mandate: "you should not be here, you do not belong here." Is it any wonder, then, that those whose presence has been thus erased fulfill this collective mandate in their own lives? When gay and lesbian people engage in self-hatred, self-destructive behavior such as use of drugs, risky sex, and suicide, they are in effect acting on our orders. "You are dead." They fulfill the mandate we have given them: to disappear.

Although their lives are undeniably a part of the human experience, gay and lesbian people are surrounded by books, billboards, magazines. television programs (and yes, churches) in which they do not exist, in which there is no sense in which their presence is reflected. They are invisible.

And for this reason, when I read about the litany of physical and psychological maladies afflicting the general homosexual populus (though by no means all homosexual people, as I should hasten to point out), my immediate response is "To what extent am I responsible for this?" As Fr. Zossima taught us, we are to make ourselves responsible for everyone and everything. I wonder to what extent I, by silence and complicity, have contributed to a cultural landscape that could inspire such self-loathing in homosexual people. I wonder how I could contribute to a world wherein they would value themselves enough to make positive and healthy choices for themselves and those they love.

St. John Chrysostom wrote regarding the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that the greatest pain afflicting Lazarus was that "he could not see another Lazarus." He stood outside a world of plenty looking in and seeing no reflection of himself, nothing there that confirmed that he ever existed. People who passed him at the gate looked past him, beyond him, through him.

I wonder how it feels to be invisible.


Anonymous said...

Why is there so much rejection of homosexuality in the Orthodox Church? I wonder. I know many really wonderful & intelligent Orthodox folk who on the subject of homosexuality & gay marriage become (seemingly) incredibly intolerant & rigid.

I guess I can only look at myself.

While I have much sympathy now around these issues, I did not always feel this way. Before I got to college, I had never met anyone who was homosexual. Or so I thought. Turns out, about a third of the girls in my prep school were having sex with each other, & it wasn't until after graduating, when one of my best friends from those days made advances towards me, that I first experienced my own fear, & then revulsion, & then anger & just wanting to block the whole thing. Incidentally, she also told me about what all these other people I knew had been doing for years.

I was pretty much completely homophobic for a few months after that. But this was not to last long. I wound up at art school for college, & oddly enough, even during first semester freshman year, my best friends there turned out to be gay. And since I really loved these guys as my friends, but there was no chance of being sexual with them, I had the unique opportunity to see into their world gradually, & to allow my inhibitions & fears around homosexuality to relax & open up a little more.

A couple of years down the road, I had a few experiences with women. These encounters were kind of odd & not entirely comfortable, & I think, on reflection, that I never could really get past my fears to be truly present. But it did make me realize that I had no high horse to sit upon, in any way. My fear made me a relational liability, & I was certainly in no position to judge or criticize...I didn't even really understand.

All I can say now is..."do not judge, do not legislate others' choices"...because all of it is more complex than the immediately apparent.


Sampson said...
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Sampson said...

OK, take two on that comment...

I agree with Johanna that this is one issue on which otherwise thinking and open-minded Orthodox people--people who have very enlightened views on other subjects relating to gender and sexuality--seem to revert to something much more, I don't know, primal.

I am firmly convinced that one of the biggest obstacles to a frank and open discussion of homosexuality in the Orthodox Church is the celibate episcopacy. It is my observations that, as celibate people, our bishops are extremely sensitive to the accusation of being gay. This begins when they are archimandrites, when even the insinuation of being a homosexual can be a career-ending event. This often breeds two traits in our candidates for the episcopacy: 1) a latent and deeply-seated homophobia, and 2) a powerful resistance to any discussion of the issue of homosexuality. Frankly, most of our bishops are terrified that if they do anything but condemn homosexuality in the strongest of terms, people will assume they are gay. Hell, some people assume this no matter what.

So I believe that any serious reexamination of this aspect of our tradition will have to be led by married clergy who are comfortable enough in their own sexuality to address this question seriously.

And there is much to be reexamined. Our tradition is not nearly so clear-cut on this subject as some have led us to believe.

Sampson (who is happily married and perfectly comfortable in his orientation, thank you, so don't even go there...)

Anonymous said...

"And there is much to be reexamined. Our tradition is not nearly so clear-cut on this subject as some have led us to believe."

In what ways is our tradition not nearly so clear-cut on this subject as some have led us to believe? I would like to hear more of your thoughts on this.


Sampson said...


I'm just not ready to post any more on this subject right now. When I do, I want it to be a deeper exploration of the human experience, not just a statement of position. But if you want to read some things that have informed my thinking, here are two resources:

1) Chapter 9 of William Basil Zion's book, Eros and Transfiguration.

2) This post from Real Live Preacher.