Ars Moriendi, the Erotic Self and AIDS

Catalina Florescu


To Rodica, who died first / To Mircea, who continues me


In his book Picturing Health and Illness: Images of Identity and Difference, Sander L. Gilman argues that during the nineteenth century the healthy norm perceived as ugly not only those who were deformed, but also those who were ill, ageing, and/or experienced different bodily “loss of function” (53). In the nineteenth century, how much was medicine responsible for defining ugly as ill, deformed, and getting old, versus beautiful as healthy, and then, for the sake of the community’s health, firmly promoting these ideas? Furthermore, with the rise of photographic art, medicine was able to manipulate and control these ideas even more efficiently. According to Deborah Lupton, “The new technology of photography that developed from the mid-nineteenth century became a valuable strategy in the documentation of patterns of disease and illness, and the construction of the sites of dirtiness and contagion” (30).

This essay focuses on the skin’s narrative as it presents its story when photographed. William Yang takes photos of his good friend, Allan, who is dying of AIDS. Of interests here is to discuss/approach the photographic art not from its scopophilic angle, that is, not from its perverse and pleasurable voyeuristic angle, but to analyze it side-by-side with Drew Leder’s notion of the “the remaining body.” He believes that in states of severe pain, one’s body “dys-appears,” “from the Greek prefix signifying ‘bad,’ ‘hard,’ or ‘ill,’” and he gives as example the English word “dysfunctional” (84). Yang’s photos offer variations of the “body that remains,” and, as we shall see, of the body that gradually did not remain. Through his work, Yang approaches visually the theme of the ars moriendi of the entropic body in pain as reminder of its mortal, gradually disabling fabric.


In the section of his work dedicated to AIDS, Gilman discusses only a collection of posters that have circulated in mass-media, which he researched at the National Library of Medicine at Bethesda, Maryland. Gilman thinks these posters function as the “still images of illness” (174). In other words, he believes these posters may have had an impact on the lay community, although not the intensified, urgent one, as he would have hoped. Because Gilman did not include a single photo of a patient dying of AIDS — although he understood this lack — I juxtapose one of the posters from his book with Yang’s photos taken of his dying friend, Allan, from his project entitled Sadness: A Monologue with Slides. Here I discuss the impact of Allan’s increasingly emaciated body versus the static, almost ineffective quality of the poster in order to consider the idea according to which “AIDS victims are living sculptures. … Both subject and object of art … they combine with their disease to overcome the narcissism of human consciousness. … It is an art of continuous transformation of subject into object and object into subject” (Siebers 220-21).

Yang is an Australian artist with Chinese parentage. The images presented in this section originally appeared in print in Thomas W. Sokolowski’s and Rosalind Solomon’s collection of essays entitled Portraits in the Time of AIDS. According to the editors, Yang presented them as “monologues with slide projection in the theatre” (34) because the main actor of this one-man show is dying of AIDS. Yang’s work consists of seventeen slides with short texts written underneath them. In an attempt to respect the body that is dying, the texts are not recited, but the readers/spectators read them subvocally. The brilliance of this piece resides in its hushed tone, which parallels the act of dying when the patient’s body and mind become more and more tacit and lifeless.

From one photo to another, and from one text to another, we discover Allan, although we never quite get to know him. The minitexts relate Allan’s story: how he was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s, known as “the AIDS ward” (35); how he decided to return home, into a studio shared with a dealer; how AIDS first attacked his lungs, and so he had to keep next to him “a large cylinder of oxygen as he was often out of breath” (37); how AIDS then affected his sight, and he developed a condition known as “CytoMegalo Virus — C.M.V. Retinctus” that gradually “destroyed the retina” of his eyes (39); how he decided “to go off medication” (46); and, how, finally “he went into a coma. I saw a nurse give him a glass of water but the water just ran out of his mouth” (50).

To look at these photos time and time again is to be reminded of Albert Einstein’s vision of the passenger trapped in the train running with the speed of light. That passenger could not sense all that was happening in the train, and especially outside of it, because time moves in its cosmic, non-human, slippery dimension, and thus sensation could not profusely permeate his body. Juxtaposing Einstein’s vision with Allan’s decaying body, I read the latter’s body as if it were coiled up inside his mind just like a snail covers a part of its body under its hard shell. The photos are presented rapidly with no entr-acte in between; in a matter of minutes, time and space seem to collapse. There is no time for a prolonged reminiscence of Allan’s spent life. Allan is dying now, and he does not have time to remember his life. He barely has time to feel his body, a touch, or a kiss on his face, which seems to Yang “to have caved in” (47). Through this work, not only does Yang capture the disturbing moments of a friend dying, but he also touches on the “epidermis” of despair. This “epidermis” is both endotopic and exotopic, meaning that it starts within the patient and then it radiates/extends to his relatives and friends. Yang’s images of Allan dying give the impression that his body levitates, jutting out into space — but unfortunately without much meaning.

On the other hand, the posters advertised for AIDS are simple, if not quite embarrassing and disrespectful given the gravity of this illness. They rarely touch on any aspects related to the illness itself, as they allude more to the immorality of homosexual acts. Gilman explains part of the rationale involved in the process of not presenting people dying of AIDS as follows:

The image of the ‘positive’ body or the body with AIDS is strictly controlled in the world of the public health poster. Nowhere is an image of the ‘ugly’ or diseased body evoked directly, for any such evocation would refer back to the initial sense as a ‘gay’ disease. … Mens non sana in corpore insano cannot be the motto. For representing the ill body as a dying body is not possible. Such a body would point to ‘deviance from the norm’ in the form of illness. And this association with homosexuality and addiction labeled as illness must be suppressed. … All these images are images not of educating, but of control. (162)

The poster chosen for illustration reads “LOVE AIDS PEOPLE,” with AIDS used as a verb and not as a noun; nonetheless, the construction’s subtlety is rather counterproductive. To a certain extent, this poster can be related to Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-02). There, the Apostle touches the actual wound because he needs tactile proof to accept its existence. The act of touching, as well as the skin open by the wound, reveal the fact that “Skin lacks the depth, the interiority we want it to give us. … The flesh we crave as confirmation of our forms cannot do anything but turn us forever out even as we burrow into the holes we find there” (Phelan 42). But the poster presented below brings into focus verbally (therefore propagandistically) how one’s body might be destroyed because of AIDS. Furthermore, the symbol of the arrow is a recurrent motif in the art representing AIDS, especially in light of its religious association with the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (see for example David Wojnarowicz art works which offer a personal interpretation of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian).

But if LOVE AIDS PEOPLE, and if gay men identify themselves with a martyr, then they might easily fall target to this twisted logic and think of themselves as victims. As Larry Kramer notes, gay men are tragic people partly because they feel responsible for an illness that has been affecting both the homosexual and heterosexual communities: “The continuing existence of HIV is essential for the functioning of the totalitarianism under which gay people now live. It works like this: HIV allows ‘them’ to sell us as sick. And that kills off our usefulness, both in our minds — their thinking we are sick — and in the eyes of the world — everyone thinking we are sick” (65).

Gay men have always been a target since, allegedly, they are a menace to the institution of marriage, procreation, and to morality in general. Endocrinology studies have been conducted on gay men, but their results have not been able to say with certainty why some people prefer to engage in homosexual rather than heterosexual acts.

According to Jennifer Terry,

earlier studies from the 1930s aimed at determining distinct somatic features of homosexuals for the most part failed to produce any such evidence. Most of them focused on the overall physical structure of bodies, measuring skeletal features, pelvic angles and things like muscle density and hair distribution. (144)

(Another useful resource is Holt N. Parker’s 2001 article “The Myth of the Heterosexual: Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists.”)

How and by whom are our sexual identities created? Does the presence of one specific anatomical organ delimit one person’s sexual identity? We have been trained into believing that there are only two genders, male and female, partly because of our binary way of thinking. Needless to say, just as in one color there are degrees of its intensity and saturation, so there are in us verbal, behavioral, and sexual tendencies that could make us look and act more or less masculine or feminine.

Even more productive is to note the importance of power (control) and the erotic in our lives considering that the photos (and the minitexts) presenting Allan seem insufficient to initiate a dialogue by themselves. Because the eroticized body is what dies, that is, what is put at risk or could become powerless because of AIDS. The body that cannot touch and be touched anymore; the body that cannot control its needs and desires; and, ultimately, the body that is deprived of its pleasures and thus loses its erotic self. Therefore, AIDS is not only a way to redefine our erotic life, but also becomes a reason to question our hygiene practices. Elizabeth Grosz points out that “erotic pleasures are evanescent, they are forgotten almost as they occur” (195). But when erotic pleasures are controlled, as seems to be the case because of AIDS, have we intervened in such a manner as to program our intercourse? Admittedly, AIDS is predominantly linked with one’s sexuality and, hence, it could make one feel too self-aware about one’s needs, as well as rigid and self-conscious in an (intimate) act which, in essence, is all about losing oneself, being uninhibited.

In the end, Allan’s sense of identity seems to be imprinted only in the camera’s objective lens. After he died, as Yang remembers, “I read his diaries […]. AIDS was a tragedy that was for sure, but as well he had an addictive personality and his day to day life was full of desperation. I hadn’t realize the extent of this and it came as a shock. Yet there were moments of clarity when his fresh test for life shone” (51). Yang does not say more about Allan’s intimate writings and, as he suggests, it was quite surprising for him to discover a richer, more intimate dimension of his friend. Still, until Allan’s diaries will be released to the public to offer us a more palpable view on his life, we rely exclusively on the selections of photos and minitexts accomplished by Yang, thus being aware that, no matter how exquisite they are, they could only say a few things about this enigmatic patient.


After exposing Allan’s gradually collapsing body, we may want to analyze to which extent is dying/death something that reveals our self-centricity. It is by now a truism to say that death is the final moment of our embodiment to which we are denied access. Nonetheless, we cannot stop thinking about (our) death, and the last passage of this essay proposes its own reflection on this subject. Norbert Elias argues that each one of us is a homo clausus (Latin for “closed, self-sufficient being”). He believes that this condition is a consequence of our living an advanced phase in our individualized life. Surprisingly, he relates this self-sufficiency to the ritual of dying. He believes that in highly industrialized societies, a patient may benefit from the most recent technical and medical equipment, but that that person usually dies alone, meaning without his family/relatives around him. On the other hand, as he goes on to argue, “families in less developed states … often go hand in hand with far greater inequalities of power between men and women. [The dying] take leave of the world publicly, within a circle of people most of whom have strong emotive value for them, and for whom they themselves have a such a value. They die unhygienically, but not alone” (87). Elias does not explore this idea in depth, so we are left to wonder what he meant by dying unhygienically, or if he thought that method was better in coping with death. Also, he never mentioned the exact countries/regions he had in mind when he made that remark; therefore, we are left unsatisfied by his comment. Nonetheless, as Elias reminds us, it is important to remember that the traditional death rituals were and are intimate moments (and they should remain like this). The homo clausus idea may be linked with a body that is reaching its final embodiment, and hence becoming a closing-in-itself body.

However, how does a body transact and/or negotiate the moments of its final embodiment? The process of sinking in one’s body, to which I refer, is not a visually, aurally, or especially olfactorily pleasant experience. Our deceitful memory misdirects our emotional brains by indicating which subsystem is still functional and open and which has become useless, that is, closed. In this light, we should redefine Elias’s idea by saying that what appears to be a monolithic structure — a body: closed, sealed, and/or self-contained — is in fact a very fluid body; that death does not reveal our self-centricity because that reasoning may generate an absurd idea, namely, we die alone because we have spent a life alone. Consequently, the dying body becomes the margin par excellence, which, because it is completely out of control, does not stop from leaking and/or emitting smells. This theory is confirmed by a study conducted on dying patients, Dying Process: Patients' Experiences of Palliative Care (2000), where Julia Lawton notes that “on a number of occasions, staff kept aromatherapy oil burners running throughout the day and night in an attempt to veil the odour of excretia, vomit and rotting flesh. … I observed that smell created a boundary around a patient, repelling others away” (135). One has to close one’s eyes to vaguely imagine what it must feel like for the medical personnel to keep the vigil of the dying bodies.

Nonetheless, the lay community is exposed to photographs of the dying only on rare occasions. According to Gilman, these images are not made public because “The classical model of ‘healthy/beauty’ and ‘illness/ugliness’ is part of a cultural baggage that accompanies any representation of the ill or healthy body” (118-19). While the skin is endowed with the capacity of regenerating itself after it has been wounded, thus effacing time, a photograph of a dying body seems to efface one’s memory of one’s accumulated experiences. Such a photograph makes its contents (that is, the time, location, personal context of the shooting) disappear since its details will eventually fade away. As a corollary, the absent body effaces its photographed version, leaving it few chances to be remembered. The theme of the ars moriendi, as presented in this essay, has demonstrated that what dies is not only one’s body, but also the echoed memory of its erotic self.


Elias, Norbert. The Loneliness of Dying. New York: Blackwell, 1985.

Gilman, Sander. Picturing Health and Illness: Images of Identity and Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies.
New York: Routledge, 1995.

Kramer, Larry. The Tragedy of Today’s Gay. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.

Lawton, Julia. Dying Process: Patients' Experiences of Palliative Care. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Lupton, Deborah. The Imperative of Health: Public Health and the Regulated Body. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995.

Peggy Phelan. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Siebers, Tobin. The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Jennifer Terry. “The Seductive Power of Science in the Making of Deviant Subjectivity.” Posthuman Bodies. Eds. Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1995: 135-162.

Yang, William. “Allan from Sadness: A Monologue with Slides.” Portraits in the Time of AIDS. Eds. Thomas W. Sokolowski and Rosalind Solomon. New York: Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, 1988: 34-51.


AIDS; disability; identity; hosexuality; disease; eroticism

Copyright (c) 2008 Catalina Florescu

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