:: Article

The Gayification of the West: An Excerpt from Paradise Overload

By Walter Siti.
Translated from the Italian by Brian Robert Moore.

Photo by ERROR 420 📷 on Unsplash

Fireworks in Sydney, already at three o’clock in the afternoon (our time), flaring pinwheels outside of the nightclubs—but an hour before, from Tonga and from Samoa, ceremonies on the beach with giant fire pits, men built like houses in little skirts and flower-women sending boats into the dark, each boat a torch, toward the new millennium. Thanks to the live coverage we can follow this fire relay, midnight on New Year’s for the famous year Two Thousand being drawn by countless lights as the different time zones progressively present it to us from around the world.

In three hours it will be Thailand’s turn, then Bombay, Iran and the Middle East; the exaltation of technology as systematic invasion and possession. We are, Sergio and I, in a small stone town in the mountains above Orvieto. He’s getting ready to go with his friends to the jazz festival, winter edition; I should be looking over a short story on the compromises and traps of conjugal life. But we’re frozen in front of the screen, we can’t take our eyes off the choreography of a thousand Indigenous people singing and carrying a flaming canopy towards Ayers Rock; this year Aboriginal Australians will be in vogue because of the Olympics.

A spectacular show, wonderfully coordinated in a worldwide production, in every way worthy of the momentous date: except for the fact that the new millennium actually starts next year, but why act sophisticated, you can’t argue with the magic of numbers. We kiss with routine happiness, he’s given me a new pair of pajamas, while he got a black T-shirt with the number 2000 and a glass of sequin-glitter bubbly on it. I’m anxious for him to go, I want to give myself an hour before sunset to take the Heroes calendar out from my bag and savor it in peace—around seven I’ll also go down to Orvieto, everyone will have dinner together before going to the piazza where there’s supposed to be a gospel concert at midnight.

 

Let’s say more as a sociologist than as erotomaniac at this point: there are firefighters, ambulance drivers, lifeguards—even (for the month of March) an unlikely “bank clerk.” They are the civic heroes who have saved a lot of people in the US this year and to whom the city of Los Angeles has dedicated a calendar sponsored by public and private entities. The remarkable thing is that, if you look at it without reading, it has the whole look of a gay calendar. All of them bulging with muscles, waxed and bare-chested (the bank clerk with nothing but his tie hanging over boxy, sculpted pecs); there’s a gas-station worker in a torn jumpsuit holding the pump at just the right angle, the plumber hunched over in a nearly coital pose. I don’t know if they are the actual protagonists of the reported acts of heroism or their stand-ins, but either way it was conceived as a calendar “for everyone,” to put up in offices, and maybe—why not?—in schools.

Here I’d like to develop an idea of mine, which I’ve tried to define as the “gayification of the West”—but I can’t talk about it like this, I need to approach it from a greater distance. The sky has turned dark, the light diminishing so fast that the castle disappears into the damp cold. It will be freezing tonight, I should probably hurry up if I want to avoid going there under the rain. And there it is: now it starts to come down. The gospel concert will be ruined, we’ll come back early and Sergio will want to make love, but I’ve already masturbated with the calendar. I put it back in my suitcase; that it might teach me not to give too much importance to my theories.

 

In any case, I think that everyone can at least agree that the great project of the Western World, the unicum distinguishing it from all other human societies, is its ambition to build a way of life without God. I can’t think of other examples, maybe Confucian China, but I get the feeling that all that was just something for the elites, and in the poor countryside the local gods were going strong. Here the project, be it consciously or not, is one for the masses. There’s no point trying to reach different conclusions by recalling the success of the Pope, even with younger generations, and people’s devotion to Padre Pio, or Communion and Liberation and whatnot. They are, as paradoxical as it might seem, residual or reactive phenomena; people admire the men of the church, the saints, maybe even pray and go to mass, but no one truly believes in the existence of another world anymore, with paradise and the resurrection of souls. If they believed in it, they’d live in a completely different way.

In order to go on without the hope of an afterlife, and of heaven, one needs to be able to hope for heaven on earth. (I’m not talking about a few Stoical-Epicurean intellectuals, I mean regular people.) To give an illusion of heaven on earth is the final goal of consumerism; or, if you’d like, consumerism is a protest over the inexistence of God. Buying grants omnipotence, especially if you buy something for which you have little use; shopping malls are isles of the blessed where (thanks to air conditioning) it’s always spring, where your every wish is a command, where distances are erased because products from all over the world are offered one next to the other, at your complete disposal. Whoever thought of putting up the KaDeWe in Berlin right in front of the Wall thought of it as a fragment of the Terrestrial Paradise to make the Ossis drool. (With lots of prostitution and S&M cellars in the surrounding boulevards; in almost every Western metropolis, the most luxurious shopping centers border the sex districts.)

Goods as a substitute for happiness—it’s obviously no new discovery: Zola’s novel on department stores from 1883 is titled Au bonheur des dames. But as more time went on, the clearer it became that some things can’t be bought: people, dreams, objects too far out of our reach, human relationships. This flaw risked aborting the entire project, or at least slowing its triumphant advance. A model solution was supplied by art and by literature itself. Back when there was still God, and reality was stinking, raw, refractory, art guaranteed an in-between, an alternative world set at a jacked-up, higher schema. With every lurch forward in the economy, as Western citizens gradually came to live a more mechanized, standard form of life, art compensated for what they were losing—flowers and pure feelings and excess and childhood. In that parallel universe, which looked so much like reality (and this explains the other anomaly of the West, that is, realistic art) but which could be bought, nothing would escape man’s omnipotence anymore. You could have the image of two geishas crossing a bridge with Fujiyama in the background in your house, the debate between two intellectuals shut up in a sanatorium, the smile of a deceased relative. The image, that’s the magic word. If one could accept reality being replaced with the image of reality, then paradise on earth could be possible again.

 

If art was able to accomplish this, then the only thing left to do was to expand the process, skimping on the quality and focusing on a mass art. That’s what the twentieth century slowly achieved, with movies, with interior design, advertising, music videos; and, finally, with the look, with the aestheticization of existence transforming information itself and the whole economy into a show. Nowadays people buy (the analysts all agree) not products, but the image of products, the “life quality” promised by a logo. The Nike lifestyle, Versace lifestyle, et cetera.

Politics is determined by expert lookologists who put forward the leaders; the young people in the slums hope in the future they’ll become like the young people in the billboards whom the tailors have made up to look like kids from the slums. We live inside a show whose director is the West’s own gamble to live without a Creator (with the consequence that we need to be the creators of ourselves). A phenomenon is underway that we could call the invasion of the beautiful: while the First World population in general becomes uglier (too much food, little movement, older average age), we also have those who specialize in beauty, supplying others with the icon of the human body to desire—and it is desired, sure enough, on the large and small screens, on the ads that populate our cities. It doesn’t matter anymore if those bodies are real or not, if their beauty derives from innate genetic grace or from industrious surgical plastics (or from grueling reps in the gym, or from injections of deadly drugs) seeing as they’re valuable for their image, and not in and of themselves. We’ve already seen instances of completely virtual bodies, created entirely on the computer, yet capable of inciting passion in the hearts of teenagers. Artistic enjoyment involves a splitting of the I (I who believe in the fiction, I who do not believe); perversions are founded on the splitting of the I; all artistic enjoyment and pleasure is structurally perverse, as Winnicott affirmed. So, if the West has established a mass aestheticization, this means that Western consumerism is founded on mass perversion.

From Walter Siti, Troppi paradisi, Italian edition © 2014 RCS Libri S.p.A., Milano. First published by Einaudi Editore, 2006.

Granting that my hypothesis is correct, homosexuals then wind up in the murky center of this theorem. They are the best interpreters of the zeitgeist and find themselves at an advantage in this new context, similar to handicapped people who can adjust better than most to changed circumstances—like a deaf person near an explosion of noise, or the blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, who’s able to defeat a murderous burglar simply by cutting out all the lights.

Homosexuals have always been conditioned to desire an image rather than a person: “Equal to a known profile, / or better, unknown, unequaled / among all animals, the only earth: / your random form, I loved so.”[1] Their love object is, by definition, a surrogate: the projection of the original goat-stag, not actually existing in nature, half angel, half mirror, and half mother (yes, three halves)—and so theirs cannot be the search for a real individual but for something that points to something else, and for which we need to stay on the surface, because if we went too deep, we’d uncover that he’s not it. What better object than an image, which has no depth at all? The image, as far as it’s limited by a boundary protecting it from fraying in consequences and attachments, is an intensive rather than an extensive infinity, an infinity both concentrated and domesticated. I’ve never bought into the attempts to exalt homosexuality as a politically transgressive condition, impossible for the powers-that-be to stomach, and naturaliter revolutionary; nor am I convinced now by the attempts to make homosexuality pass for an absolutely normal quality, like blond hair or having a taste for salty foods. I think that homosexuality is a condition of a minority group, particularly suited at this moment in time to present itself as a model. In the West—like I said. Homosexuality as the vanguard of consumerist integration, masters of acting in the age of universal acting. And masters of infantile regression in the age of mass infantilism: if consumerism is the battle of the unconscious against the conscious, of immaturity against maturity, then homosexuals are the standard bearers—in their brisk sex they burn emotional sublimations, just as consumerism in its project of dominion nullifies cultural sublimations. But we need to add right away that there are only homosexualities, plural. There are less radical kinds than this one, especially among younger generations: but I would venture to say that they are the least interesting.

 

Sergio reacted to the gospel singers the way he reacts to music in general: by increasing his energies of identification. He was smiling at the large Black women and one of them almost smothered him between her breasts at the stroke of midnight; he himself was a sax. Finally, the pyrotechnics came upon us and a streak of blue flew overhead as we kissed. Then we realized that a bottle of extra virgin olive oil had broken in the trunk and stained my cashmere sweater. It’s his fault, having knocked the bag around haphazardly; he looks down at his belly and wants to cry. Forced intimacy in the damp room, until, shutting our eyes, each one of us takes his own path.

 

There’s a particular type of homosexual, as I was saying, that has been trained from the start to desire the infinite. His love object is unreachable, just as no single good or product is ever enough. It’s this particular type of homosexual who sends the infinite hurtling down into an emphasis on the bodily; in the body’s astral roundness, or in its exhausted hunkiness—in any case, in an abstract perfection that guarantees its belonging to another world. A body to deny the functions of the body, or its temporal failings: corpus a non corporeando.

Gradually, as the aesthetic of the supermarket shifted this homosexual myth toward the ideal of the gym, the feedback coming from the myth in turn persuaded the goods to become eroticized, to present themselves as segments of a perpetually more unisex form. The curve of a scoop of prepackaged ice-cream, the back grill of a car and a human buttock (male or female, it doesn’t much matter) began to be offered up indiscriminately as targets of desire. For that type of homosexual, suddenly in the glare of the limelight, the image of the desired body stays frozen in time (and independent of the human characteristics of the person sporting it), from the time they’re kids to when they die; it’s the same way that companies want their brand names to be stamped in consumers’ minds. In the realm of thought, you could say that the equivalent of the image is the shared cliché, which is accepted without question; communication today is progressively accustoming us to handling images of ideas instead of ideas themselves.

A fabric, as we can see, interwoven with homologies; these days, in the gym, female and male bodies tend to converge and be confused with one another: there’s no substantial gap between a silicone female breast and male pectorals built up from steroids. The important thing is no longer what a body does, but how it’s exchanged at the stock market of desire. Both are sterile, be it male or female. The birth rate goes down, and not just out of fear for the future. Children (the few that are born) are generated artificially, with syringes and petri dishes.

At the deepest core of authenticity there’s the artificial; this is a secret that homosexuals have carried in their hearts for centuries and which they now see crowned on the shrines of power. Just like their longing not to stumble in the ruthless wrinkliness of this world, sheltering their masturbatory dream from ugliness and disenchantment (in a loop of lookalikes, not exempt from a few racist trademarks): behold it, this dream now made real, behind the high battlements the West is raising to defend its standard of living from the barbarians.

 

The television is the respiratory organ of this phase of consumerism; a distributor of images (both in the proper sense and in the sense of clichés) lasting longer and extending further than ever before in the history of the world. Is there, therefore, some connection between the gay imagination and the television? The go-to answer is no, gays generally snub the TV (even if many of them are the ones making it). And yet, let’s try looking at the differences between a gay porno and a heterosexual one. There’s no question that the straight porno is much less self-sufficient, the amount of eroticism that the video can’t actually permeate is far greater. The homo one, if it’s good quality, is a kind of “hall of mirrors” which infinitely absorbs desire and satisfies it through the contemplation of itself. As much as they might try to instill in those female-oriented males a faith in the omnipotence of the image, we are still the experts in this sector (they have to grapple with menstruating, with sanitary napkins, with the Other). And what could be more similar to a “hall of mirrors” than the TV universe, which we can understand as a self-referential system? The TV wipes out downtime; everything is sped up, for fear of boredom and Auditel ratings; and when we have essentially no time to decide, we tend to succumb to stereotypes. The object of desire, for gays, is almost always a stereotype—and so it comes full circle. Gays don’t seem to care all that much about single programs, it’s the system that’s homologous: even if they don’t watch the television (and who’s to say they don’t?), the television is watching them.

 

It’s sufficient to study one of the most recent (and astonishing) stars of gay porn, Billy Harrington. Billy is the new-generation nude: perfect in every detail, his thighbones, his elbows, his forehead, his heels. Not parts of a body, but their platonic ideal. Bigger than a bodybuilder, and yet delicate, elegant; maybe, from a theoretical point of view, the most beautiful specimen to ever be introduced on the market. A kissy pout, irises of clear rose water. The others, the ones from my youth, were awkward at sex. They wouldn’t do much, and left the hardcore stuff to the stagehands; Billy, on the other hand, really commits to the work personally, you can see the little granules harden on the areoles of his nipples, a sign that he’s actually turned on. He plays with his anus for ten minutes, he makes all kinds of faces as if to say that he wants it but no one will give it to him; he seems like he’s going to give head but then moves away, seems like he’s about to put it in but he doesn’t. With every square inch of his whole body screaming of sex, in the end he hasn’t even come, while still revealing all the smiling relaxation of someone who’s had an amazing fuck.

Or, alternatively, on the DVD, they finally do show his orgasm, but in a separate section from the disk’s main storyline, as option 4. There, without any partner in sight, his superorgasm is played back in slow motion and repeated from five different angles: hardly believable fountains of sperm gush out without end, trajectories unthinkable even after ten years of abstinence.

While the old nudes were of the other world, grazing this one but not mixing with it, Billy belongs to a sole world, which is no longer this one nor that other one. What consumerism is bringing about is a reality that is increasingly fake and a fiction that is increasingly real, in a triumph of the trompe-l’oeil; our life is a “half-thing” over which we’re no longer the masters, because it’s controlled by the masters of the image. And, deep down, that’s what we want, because unconsciously we know clearly that our reality (here, in the besieged castle of the West) is a desperate fiction. I don’t know if you’ve noticed what’s been happening to TV ads, or even to shows: more and more they show what’s backstage and behind the scenes, the mistakes that once would have been cut out during filming. The run-through of the commercial is, in fact, the commercial, giving the viewers the disquieting thrill of the fallible, of the true, of the human. And scripted shows have now sucked in Television Personalities who play themselves; in reality shows, stars are mixed in with regular people and it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other, the “gray zone” spreads rampantly. Behind the insistence that the fiction be “real” is the rash hope that reality be fake.

The gay imagination that supplied the model, to put it plainly, has been betrayed in the end. For us it was essential that there was an elsewhere. That the bodies came from there, in the beyond. That’s what made them poetic. Now they come at you from every angle, they mimic familiarity, they let themselves be violated (in Fort Lauderdale, Billy Harrington rubs up against the spectators and gets sodomized by small rods of gelatinous, colored plastic, which he hands out himself in aseptic containers); but you are no longer you and they are no longer they. The Western project has sullied our purity, and we, drunk off success, have felt grateful for it. Mysticism becomes involuntary comedy, growing stiff and numb in the degrading Edens-turned-clubs of parody.

[1] Translation of Al pari di un profilo conosciuto by Sandro Penna (translator’s note).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Walter Siti (Modena, 1947) won Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, in 2013. A former professor of Italian literature, he edited the complete collected works of Pier Paolo Pasolini and was editor of Granta Italia. In 2020, his novel Troppi paradisi (Paradise Overload) was ranked the greatest Italian novel of the twenty-first century, in a list that was voted on by hundreds of individuals from the Italian book world and published by the magazine L’indiscreto. His most recent novel, La natura è innocente (Nature Is Innocent), was published in 2020 by Rizzoli and won the Premio Cortina d’Ampezzo. He lives in Milan.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Brian Robert Moore is a literary translator who worked for several years in the Italian publishing industry, including as editor of foreign fiction for the press Chiarelettere in Milan. His translations have appeared in publications such as Asymptote and The Arkansas International, while his translation of the novel Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza is forthcoming in spring of 2021 from Other Press. He divides his time between Philadelphia and his hometown of New York City.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 16th, 2020.