Hello there. It’s been a while.
Recent gay media (Our Flag Means Death and Heartstopper) has given me serious brainrot – a destruction which (akin to eating, sex – if we believe Hildegard -, the passion, even Lyctorhood – Gideon reference) inspires and facilitates renewed creation. A (re)generative death.
I was really distracted for a while by the strength of my emotional reactions to these shows, but after allowing myself to absorb and reflect on why I (and so many others) have been so powerfully impacted by these stories, I have come to a place where I have things to say and the concentration to say them. [Attention: this post contains mild spoilers].
Obsessively thinking about Our Flag Means Death (OFMD) (produced by David Jenkins & Taika Waititi) has cascaded into a renewed obsession for The Locked Tomb series (TLT) (by Tamsyn Muir), and I then watched (and began reading) Heartstopper (HS) (by Alice Oseman) in the meantime. Though each of these stories approaches the topic of queerness and queer romance from varied perspectives, narratives, and tropes, one theme remains utterly pervasive in all of them: abounding joy in revelation and renewed life. The revelation, of course, concerning a character’s (queer) love for another character; the renewed life, then, concerning their queer “transformation” – the stepping into the freedom of queer space (piracy and especially the Revenge, anywhere that isn’t the Ninth, literally the queer community) and out of the oppression of heteronormative space (land and specifically the married state, the Ninth but also the Emperor’s purview, rugby lads and literally straight identification). This is not to say that the transformations the characters experience are painless and unencumbered – indeed, the movement from normative to queer space (from closeted – or entombed – to openly queer identities) and learning how to navigate within that new space (orienting oneself within that queer space) is itself the adventure narrative in all three stories, and thus is fraught with trials. However, it is not queerness itself – and this is a key point in all the narratives which brings me no small amount of wonder and appreciation – that causes the suffering the principal characters experience during their adventures. Rather, it’s the confusion (puberty-like, if you will) of becoming and reorientation, a confusion exacerbated by and even rendered painful (terrifying) by the harsh and constant resistance of normative characters (bullies, often: the Badminton brothers and Izzy, Crux and Harrow’s parents, Harry and Ben). Indeed, rather than contributing to the suffering of the principal characters, supporting characters (all also queer-coded in their own right, typically “established” queers, e.g.: Lucius and Frenchie, Palamedes and Camilla, Tara and Darcy) help the babygays through the process of reorientation either directly (Lucius talking both Stede and Ed through breakups, Tara telling Nick that he doesn’t have to come out to anyone until he’s ready) or indirectly (usually by setting an example for what a healthy queer relationship can look like: Lucius and Blackpete, Palamedes and Camilla, Tara and Darcy). Furthermore, the principal characters themselves help and support each other (Stede teaches Ed aristocratic etiquette and Ed teaches Stede pirate skills; Harrow starts explaining things to Gideon and Gideon starts showing Harrow compassion; Nick makes Charlie feel wanted and worthy and Charlie shows Nick patience and compassion as he struggles with his sexuality). Essentially, the ultimate source of healing throughout the three narratives is the queer. To come out as queer or step into the queer spac is to escape the tomb – the closet – but because of normative resistance there is a cost – a “trial of suffering”, as it were, which can be deadly and which restrains the character from attaining the queer space (coded as joy and freedom in all three narratives) easily or immediately. And yet, the suffering and deadliness do not emanate from queerness – queerness, rather, is the gaudium ultimum and the medicus.
So, what does this have to do with the medieval? Well, in thinking through these narratives and specifically the way they frame suffering and joy, normativity, and queerness, I’ve come to understand that part of what I find so astounding and appealing about them is that they conceptualise queerness in the same way that I see Hildegard von Bingen and Mechthild von Magdeburg representing “queerness” in their mystical theology: that is, a “queerness” or a “lesbianism” which, my research aims to show, is the divine in these mystical texts – the locus of eternal life and ultimate joy. With Hildegard, this is especially visible, as her erotic construction of the female virginal body through Mary in her devotional poetry is one which, because inherently “lesbian” (exclusive of the male phallus entirely, but open to the female gaze and touch through song), is whole and fecund. Indeed, for Hildegard, it is – to put it bluntly – Eve’s transgression into “straightness” which caused and bore death in humans: a straight death, a wound, that can only be rectified, healed, through a fecund, “lesbian” woman who remains untouched by the phallus and thus intact (whole). As such, Hildegard’s theological narrative of humanity’s salvation resounds with the joy of the queer – it is as much a celebration of salvation, freedom, rebirth, eternal life as it is a celebration of queerness. A “lesbian”, because she’s a “lesbian” (in which Mary and Hildegard represent the principal romantic couple), returns us to joy and wholeness from a state of abject and miserable brokenness. It is much the same with Mechthild, though figured differently, as her narrative of salvation deals much more directly with the trials and sufferings of the world than Hildegard’s. Nevertheless, Mechthild’s ecstatic union with the divine (as Lady Love or feminised Christ) may also be perceived as “lesbian”, and indeed it is not the divine directly who causes her to suffer in this world – for, indeed, Lady Love can only be a source of joy, leading Mechthild towards joy. Rather, it is this world and everything ungodly within it (that is: all it’s heteronormativity) which causes her suffering. It is, for her, an unfeeling and cruel world in which she experiences life as a sort of outcast on the margins, alienated from her peers and distraught by their sinfulness and their (“straight”) lust. But Mechthild gladly suffers the trials of the world because the divine is her physician (They heal her as she makes her way towards Them) and she knows that the purest joy awaits her in the heavenly kingdom (the queer space, where a genderqueer God awaits her with loving embraces in the form of Divine Love (female) and/or a feminised Christ). Once again, mystical theology presents us with an understanding of the queer in which eternal life, ultimate joy, and healing balms are figured as queer (in this case: “lesbian”) while human sin and the mortal world which are at the root of oppression and suffering (imprisonment, even) for the mystic figures as heteronormative. An important part of my doctoral work is on emphasising precisely the parallel nature of these relationships (death/life, suffering/joy, hetero/queer) at the heart of mystical texts, at the very core of their Christian theology. I want to show that not only did queerness (in my case specifically “lesbians”) exist in the Middle Ages, but that it was also vehemently not a demented, abject experience of the queer – as moderns are so wrongly wont to believe. This is perhaps what most drew me to Hildegard when I began studying her, and it’s what I’ve continued to search for as I extend my studies to mystics like Mechthild.
I don’t want to tell another queer narrative of suffering when I write this history; we have far too many of those, and why? Almost every queer I know personally loves being queer (myself absolutely included). Discovering our queerness and coming out (however we did so) has only improved our lives. Mine is a queer narrative of joy, of renewed life, of freedom – and so is theirs. And yet for some reason I have struggled for years to find this narrative represented anywhere – especially mainstream. That is precisely what I found so amazing about discovering Hildegard and Mechthild four years ago, and that is why – I believe – OFMD, TLT, and HS have so deeply affected me now. These are all queer narratives where queerness can only be life-affirming, healing, and gay (pun intended) – that is the narrative I want to tell, that’s the narrative I long to see.
– Hannah Victoria