First published in 2002, Douglas Crimps’s Melancholia and Moralism is a collection of his addresses and essays spanning fifteen years, through the identification of AIDS and the rise of homophobia. A nuanced meditation on queer politics and activism, the book serves as a reminder of the challenges society still faces, especially in light of the tragedy in Orlando. The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Mourning and Militancy,” which was first presented at the “Gay Men in Criticism” session of the English Institute at Harvard University in August 1989.
I will begin then with an anecdote about my own ambivalent mourning, though not of an AIDS death. In 1977, while I was visiting my family in Idaho, my father died unexpectedly. He and I had had a strained and increasingly distant relationship, and I was unable to feel or express my grief over his death. After the funeral I returned to New York for the opening of an exhibition I’d organized and resumed my usual life. But within a few weeks a symptom erupted which to this day leaves a scar near my nose: my left tear duct became badly infected, and the resulting abscess grew to a golf-ball sized swelling that closed my left eye and completely disfigured my face. When the abscess finally burst, the foulsmelling pus oozed down my cheek like poison tears. I have never since doubted the force of the unconscious. Nor can I doubt that mourning is a psychic process that must be honored. For many AIDS activists, however, mourning is not respected; it is suspect: “I look at faces at countless memorial services and cannot comprehend why the connection isn’t made between these deaths and going out to fight so that more of these deaths, including possibly one’s own, can be staved off. Huge numbers regularly show up in cities for Candlelight Marches, all duly recorded for the television cameras. Where are these same numbers when it comes to joining political organizations . . . or plugging in to the incipient civil disobedience movement represented in ACT UP?” These sentences are taken from a recent essay by Larry Kramer, against whose sense of the quietism represented by AIDS candlelight marches I want to juxtapose the words of the organizer of this year’s candlelight vigil on Christopher Street, addressed from the speaker’s platform to the assembled mourners: “Look around!” he said, “This is the gay community, not ACT UP!”
The presumption in this exhortation that no AIDS activists would be found among the mourners—whose ritual expression of grief is at the same time taken to be truer to the needs of the gay community—confidently inverts Kramer’s rhetorical incomprehension, an incomprehension also expressed as antipathy: “I do not mean to diminish these sad rituals,” Kramer writes, “though indeed I personally find them slightly ghoulish.”
Public mourning rituals may of course have their own political force, but they nevertheless often seem, from an activist perspective, indulgent, sentimental, defeatist—a perspective only reinforced, as Kramer implies, by media constructions of us as hapless victims. “Don’t mourn, organize!”—the last words of labor movement martyr Joe Hill—is still a rallying cry, at least in its New Age variant, “Turn your grief to anger,” which assumes not so much that mourning can be forgone as that the psychic process can simply be converted. This move from prohibition to transformation only appears, however, to include a psychic component in activism’s response, for ultimately both rallying cries depend on a definite answer to the question posed by Reich to Freud: “Where does the misery come from?” Activist antagonism to mourning hinges, in part, on how AIDS is interpreted, or rather, where the emphasis is laid, on whether the crisis is seen to be a natural, accidental catastrophe—a disease syndrome that has simply struck at this time and in this place—or as the result of gross political negligence or mendacity—an epidemic that was allowed to happen.
But leaving aside, only for the moment, the larger political question, I want to attend to the internal opposition of activism and mourning. That the two are incompatible is clear enough in Freud’s description of the work of mourning, which he calls “absorbing.” “Profound mourning,” Freud writes in “Mourning and Melancholia,” involves a “turning away from every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription in the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to its mourning, which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests.”
Most people dying of AIDS are very young, and those of us coping with these deaths, ourselves also young, have confronted great loss entirely unprepared. The numbers of deaths are unthinkable: Lovers, friends, acquaintances, and community members have fallen ill and died. Many have lost upwards of a hundred people. Apart from the deaths, we contend with the gruesome illness itself, acting as caretakers, often for very extended periods, making innumerable hospital visits, providing emotional support, negotiating our wholly inadequate and inhuman health care and social welfare systems, keeping abreast of experimental treatment therapies. Some of us have learned as much or more than most doctors about the complex medicine of AIDS. Added to the caretaking and loss of others is often the need to monitor and make treatment decisions about our own HIV illness, or face anxiety about our own health status.
Through the turmoil imposed by illness and death, the rest of society offers little support or even acknowledgment. On the contrary, we are blamed, belittled, excluded, derided. We are discriminated against, lose our housing and jobs, denied medical and life insurance. Every public agency whose job it is to combat the epidemic has been slow to act, failed entirely, or been deliberately counterproductive. We have therefore had to provide our own centers for support, care, and education and even to fund and conduct our own treatment research. We have had to rebuild our devastated community and culture, reconstruct our sexual relationships, reinvent our sexual pleasure. Despite great achievements in so short a time and under such adversity, the dominant media still pictures us only as wasting deathbed victims; we have therefore had to wage a war of representation, too.
Frustration, anger, rage, and outrage, anxiety, fear, and terror, shame and guilt, sadness and despair—it is not surprising that we feel these things; what is surprising is that we often don’t. For those who feel only a deadening numbness or constant depression, militant rage may well be unimaginable, as again it might be for those who are paralyzed with fear, filled with remorse, or overcome with guilt. To decry these responses— our own form of moralism—is to deny the extent of the violence we have all endured; even more important, it is to deny a fundamental fact of psychic life: violence is also self-inflicted.
The fact that our militancy may be a means of dangerous denial in no way suggests that activism is unwarranted. There is no question but that we must fight the unspeakable violence we incur from the society in which we find ourselves. But if we understand that violence is able to reap its horrible rewards through the very psychic mechanisms that make us part of this society, then we may also be able to recognize—along with our rage—our terror, our guilt, and our profound sadness. Militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.