The two of us were already sharing a bed, a bank account, and a wardrobe, so I didn’t really know what he was talking about.
I tried to make an effort and began by discussing “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s about this rooster named Chauntecleer, and his henpecking chicken-wife.
But Jason didn’t take the hint.
He said, “You can talk about Chaucer with Arjun. I want to hear about you.”
So, I told him that this lady had tried to cut in line at the supermarket when I was buying pasta sauce, but Jason persisted: “I don’t want to hear about your day. I want to hear about you, Allen.”
Well, one time when I was in high school my father nearly strangled me to death, and he always used to call me a faggot whenever he caught me reading books. I said, “I never told anyone about that. It feels like such a relief to let it off my chest.”
Jason scolded: “You did already tell me about that!”
It was starting to feel really totalitarian, all this insistence that I have a “self” and that I should give an account of it. It made me want to just read Latin with my Latin teacher Arjun.
I tried citing Lacan: “The self is based upon its own lack,” I quipped.
But Jason didn’t relent.
Finally I had to break up with him, and move out.
For a month and a half I subsisted on Budweiser and Marlboros.
Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t help, because my personality is too contrarian—whenever I’m around sober people, all I want to do is drink.
But, when I’m at a bar, abstaining makes me feel so hip and superior.
I can’t help it, it’s just that I like to disagree with people—that’s why my father tried to murder me.
If everyone starts piling on what a bad guy Richard Nixon was, or Atilla the Hun, I’m liable to come to their defense.
It didn’t help matters much that the A.A. I had gone to was a gay A.A.
It was all these gay guys, and they were all telling stories about how their fathers had tried to murder and disown them.
Somehow I got set up on a kind of gay A.A. date.
A friend of a friend is this guy whose name I can’t tell you, and he had been married to a super-famous pop singer, and then after they divorced he came out.
I went along with him to the gay A.A.
This guy was in his 60s, and now it was his first time being gay.
I meanwhile was in my 20s and had been living with a man for three years, but I still didn’t have the hang of it.
I knew that I liked penises and poetry, but that was about it.
And of course if you’ve ever read French theory then you know perfectly well that all these categories are “socially constructed.”
Being “gay” is this historically contingent phenomenon: there literally weren’t any gay people before 1869—the summer of love.
Being gay hadn’t been invented yet.
This goes back to what I was saying before, about how I don’t like to talk about my “self.”
And that’s why I would never want to say, “My name is Allen, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Because all these terms of identity—e.g., “alcoholic,” “homosexual,” “author,” “medievalist,” etc.—need to be problematized, as Michel Foucault would put it.
They need to be put into context.
Anyway, going to the gay A.A. didn’t help.
But I knew that I needed to get my act together, because it had gotten to where my hands were shaking all the time.
Arjun suggested that we try reading Latin together.
Arjun reads Latin every day and watches German soap operas whle he has his breakfast. He’s obsessed with learning languages in order to further his medievalism.
When I decided to become a medievalist I met Arjun who is also a medievalist and he said we should meet every day to read Latin together.
I had just been laid off from my job as a labor union activist, so I had plenty of free time to read Latin and to drink too much and to try to figure out how I was going to make a living reading Latin when the unemployment ran out.
Jason was a Ph.D. student in mathematics and spent all of his time sipping expensive teas and pretending to prove math theorems at a fancy café. I pictured myself doing that only with medieval poems instead of math and I would have coffee instead of tea, and I would do that while the unemployment lasted and I would try to conspire a way to continue doing it.
Arjun was going to help me if I promised to read Latin with him every day. It seemed that he was kind of lonely, and so we met each day at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and 110th Street, right across from Saint John the Divine, one of New York City’s neo-medieval cathedrals.
It’s this great big gorgeous tacky gothic monstrosity that I absolutely love, built back in the 1920s when America’s rich would spend their philanthropy dollars trying to better society, as opposed to now, when America’s rich try to destroy its very foundations by funding right-wing kooks who want to abolish the government and buy everyone machine guns.
The Pastry Shop across the street has great coconut macaroons but terrible coffee.
Arjun brought with him two copies of De consolation philosophiae, by Boethius—“The Consolation of Philosophy.”
This wasn’t the first time that literature had saved my life.
Arjun said that we could read The Consolation together, translating the Latin, so that I could find some consolation for my failed marriage.
Boethius wrote his Consolation in 500 AD, while he was in prison awaiting execution.
He had been sentenced to die by King Theodoric the Great, which you can look up on Wikipedia.
That was a low point for Boethius, when he really needed consolation.
You could say it was like the Anne Frank diary of that time period.
For about a thousand years, it was the most important book in Christendom.
During the Middle Ages it was translated dozens of times into every European language.
Chaucer translated it, and Queen Elizabeth I translated it.
It was even rendered into Hebrew.
It was more popular than the Bible, which technically didn’t exist yet.
Today, almost nobody reads Boethius, which if you ask me is a crying shame. Because Boethius is so gay.
First of all, the heroine of the Consolation is this great big fierce diva, whose name is Lady Philosophy. She’s a Lady, and she doesn’t stand for anybody’s crap.
At the beginning of the book, Boethius is crying, all alone in prison, depressed that he’s lonely and loveless and is going to be killed.
Lady Philosophy descends from the heavens, à la Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
The first thing Boethius notices about her is that she’s wearing an amazing dress with the Greek letters Π and Θ embroidered on it—they stand for practical and theoretical philosophy.
Her dress has been torn to shreds by the hands of uncouth philosophers.
They didn’t know how to treat a lady.
This is what Nietzsche meant when he asked, “What if Truth were a woman?”
Philosophers don’t know what women and homos know, which is that the Truth is very complicated, and it’s much more fun to wear dresses and make-up, and there’s no truth nearly as interesting as a good-old fashioned lie or drag ball.
Lady Philosophy is a scathing queen and she tells Boethius: “Get over yourself!”
Which is also the point of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy: suck it up and stop acting like a coward.
Then Lady Philosophy proceeds to remind Boethius about the Truth of life, which is that this earthly existence is of no consequence, compared to the higher things of God.
The book is what we in the literary business call a “prosimetrum,” meaning that it’s written in alternating passages of prose and verse.
First there’s an ordinary paragraph with Philosophy and Boethius just talking plainly, and then there’s a poem, and it goes back and forth like that.
It’s kind of like at a Broadway show: one minute it’s a serious drama, the next minute everyone is singing and dancing.
One minute you’re being sentenced to death, and the next thing you know: Everything’s coming up roses!
Well, at that time Esther Crabtree had just starting teaching at Ivy League University, right up the street from the Hungarian Pastry Shop and the Cathedral, and Esther had written a whole book about Boethius.
Esther wears all kinds of luxurious dresses that zip up in the back, and a different pair of eyeglasses everyday—her glamour and her erudition, combined with her propensity to cuss like a sailor, meant that I had developed a great big crush on her, and I would always secretly call her “Lady Philosophy” behind her zipped-up back.
I started scheming to try to get a job at Ivy League University so that I could hang out with Esther. One part of my plan was that I would consult medieval manuscripts at the Ivy League Library, so that the folks at Ivy League University would think I had a serious, academic reason for wanting to work there.
At the Ivy League Library they have an Italian manuscript from the 14th century, written on parchment.
It’s a student’s copy of The Consolation of Philosophy, and the manuscript is called Benjamin MS 4.
An Italian student from the Middle Ages wrote out the whole book by hand.
Maybe he needed consolation, too.
As I said, everyone back in the day from Chaucer to Queen Elizabeth I read the Consolation.
But for some reason, this particular student had written the word “penis” in the margin of one page of the manuscript.
And then, on the next page, he had written it a second time: “penis.”
I thought that this was marvelous, because six hundred years later it is also a habit of mine to draw lots of cartoons of penises in the margins of my own schoolbooks.
Also, these two “penises” were written on pages where Lady Philosophy is talking about how life is inherently worth living.
She says, “Look, Boethius, at all the things around you. There are animals everyplace, and they keep reproducing. Why would they do that, unless life were good? Why would nature keep propagating itself, unless this is all worthwhile?”
Which is a pretty interesting argument, when you think about it.
Well, this medieval schoolboy had added, ingeniously, one little word.
“Penis,” he wrote. And, again: “penis.”
It was as if he were trying to say to Lady Philosophy and to Boethius, “Yes, life really is all right, because, if nothing else, I can still screw.”
More so, he says, “I was made to screw.”
Genitals are the proof: life isn’t so bad.
Well, I don’t know if I personally agree with that idea.
After all, what does a 14th-century Italian schoolboy know about anything?
But at any rate, it is an idea, and therefore fun to think about.
Anyhow, I didn’t get accepted to Ivy League University, I think because they could tell that I’m too crude to go to a gentleman’s university, but I ended up going to Underfunded Public University, and I was happy at least to have found this new medieval boyfriend in the margins of the Boethius manuscript.
And I was very happy to have read Esther’s book on Boethius, because Esther says, quite rightly I think, that Boethius conceives of philosophy both as mental, and as physical.
The prose passages in the Consolation use logical argument to appeal to the mind, while the poems are sensuous and appeal to the body.
In case you didn’t know, this is what academics do: make interpretations about other people’s books.
And really, it’s a radical proposition to say that philosophy is mental and sensual, because, as Nietzsche was trying to point out, Western Philosophy tends to ignore and even condemn the needs of the body.
You can see that very plainly in the way that Plato fetishizes the mind.
W.H. Auden has a very funny poem called “No, Plato, No,” in which he says, “there’s nothing I’d rather not be than a disincarnate spirit.”
But, in fact, that’s exactly what Plato wanted to be.
He wanted to be a disincarnate spirit and said that the ideal thing to be is a form without a body, without any of the mess of having to live in the world, which sometimes sounds appealing but how could you eat or read books or make love?
That’s also what a lot of so-called “Christians” want to be—spirits that live entirely in the mind, without filthy bodies and genitals and butts.
Even today, that’s what we’re trying to do with the internet.
The internet is this way of being a person, without having to have a body.
It’s like being in heaven and looking down on the world without being in it, without having to smell what James Baldwin calls “the stink of love.”
But to Plato I say, with my medieval boyfriend, simply this: “penis.”
That’s all the proof I need.
Maybe to you it seems like I’m talking about arcane trivia.
Maybe it seems like people who died hundreds of years ago have nothing to do with anything.
First of all I would say that dead people are people, too.
If you care about democracy then you have to care about the dead.
Whenever people start saying, “think about the children!” and “we want to make a better world for our children,” that’s when I get really nervous because fags like me don’t have children.
Instead I think it’s more important to think about the dead, and what they would want the world to look like.
Second of all, this isn’t trivial nonsense from the past—it’s a matter of life and death.
Without Boethius, I would have drunk myself to death and very nearly did.
This is why I wish Jason could have just listened when I was trying to tell him about Chaucer, because Chaucer really is the most important thing in the world.
Poetry is all the good things like love, which poets invented, and self-development, which was first discovered in novels, and talking to other people, which you couldn’t do if you didn’t have poetry to tell you what to say. Poetry is what makes life possible and I won’t back down on that.
But to return to what I was saying about Boethius singing songs like he’s on Broadway—
This is a very different approach from other philosophers, who are so damn serious all of the time, the way that Jason was.
“I don’t want to hear about your day. Or about the poetry you like. I want to hear about you.”
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Plato hated the body and he thought that all the poets should be kicked out of society, because we make up stories that aren’t true.
He just wouldn’t relent in his quest for the disincarnated truth.
And some people still take that attitude.
Theodor Adorno, for example, said, “After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry.”
But if you’ve ever read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, then you know that poetry saved Levi’s life.
There’s a part in the book, where he and another prisoner are reciting Dante together. They’re in Auschwitz, which is as close to hell as you could ever get. And they recite the part of the Inferno where Dante and Virgil meet Ulysses.
Considerate la vostra’semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza
“You were not born to live like a brute, but for the pursuit of virtue and knowledge!”
When they recite those lines, they remember that there are things that make life worth living, even—believe it or not—in spite of everything.
It might not be true, but it’s better than nothing.
Read more in A.W.Strouse’s newest book, My Gay Middle Ages, available on Amazon.
A.W. STROUSE is a poet, academic, labor activist, and political commentator. His poems and short stories have appeared in various literary journals. He holds an M.A. in Medieval Studies from Fordham University and is currently a Ph.D. student in English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he studies medieval poetry, with a special focus on the history of love.
His newest book, My Gay Middle Ages, was just released by Punctum Books, and is available for free as an e-book, or $15 for a printed copy. A pdf version of his Haiku chapbook can be found on his academic website. And for more of his work, see AWStrouse.com. His short story, “A Faithless Revelation,” appeared in IMPACT Magazine’s inaugural issue.