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Andrew Sullivan explicates the politics of friendship

By Michael Joseph Gross

NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

LOVE UNDETECTABLE: NOTES ON FRIENDSHIP, SEX, AND SURVIVAL, by Andrew Sullivan. Alfred A. Knopf, 251 pages, $23.

Andrew Sullivan's Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival consists of three essays, beginning with an extended version of his 1996 New York Times Magazine article arguing that the plague of AIDS has ended and been replaced by a disease -- HIV infection -- that is more or less manageable for those with access to new drug therapies. In the short run, this argument will draw greater attention than anything else in the book; it has already begun to inspire rancorous debate.

Yet Love Undetectable is best compared not with recent books about changing trends in HIV infection and AIDS (such as Gabriel Rotello's Sexual Ecology), but with Kaddish, a new book by Leon Wieseltier, Sullivan's New Republic colleague. Love Undetectable, like Kaddish, is a book that demands to be read not for its argument, its style, or its groundbreaking examination of some subject heretofore only partially explored. Both books could be recommended on these grounds; yet their greater distinction is to convey the authors' thoughtfully emotional experiences of life disrupted by natural tragedy and restored to order by the bewildered practice of religious faith. (In Wieseltier's case, the tragedy was his father's death. In Sullivan's case, the tragedy is his own diagnosis with HIV and his loss of many friends to AIDS.)

The similarities of structure and sensibility in Kaddish and Love Undetectable embody the best aspects of their authors' editorial work at the New Republic (where Sullivan was editor from 1991 to 1996, and where Wieseltier has been literary editor since 1983). Their achievement at the magazine has been to approach politics in a way that transcends the most obvious meaning of that term, by considering the social implications of personal relationships, religion, and culture in order to encourage more humane and nuanced kinds of politics. In this spirit, Love Undetectable offers its freshest political observations when it talks about personal friendship.

The book is shot through with stories about Sullivan's own friendships, stories that open onto meditations about the extent to which "homosexuals . . . have managed to sustain a society of friendship that is, for the most part, unequaled by any other part of the society." HIV and AIDS, Sullivan argues, have been a crucible of homosexual camaraderie: "Once gay men had experienced beyond any doubt the fiber of real responsibility -- the responsibility for life and death for themselves and others -- more and more found it impossible to acquiesce in second-class lives. . . . Plagues and wars do this to peoples. They force them to ask more fundamental questions of who they are and what they want."

Sullivan's exploration of friendship is most erudite in the book's final essay, "If Love Were All," which draws on Aristotle, Augustine, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis, and the philosopher Michael Oakenshott, among others, in order to define friendship and suggest the political implications of friendships among gay men.

Aristotle teaches Sullivan that friendship "has to be a reciprocal relationship, it has to be between equals, and it has to be between people who physically share each other's lives." Friendship, therefore, is intrinsically political: "It has to be practiced in order to exist. It is not merely a feeling. It is a behavior." Even developmentally, Sullivan suggests, friendship is the place where most gay men learn to integrate their private and public identities: ". . . it is only when the gay child finds his first true friend that he can really exist at all. Until then, only a part of him exists, the public part, the part that has learned how to act and portray a real person, while the essential person, in his deepest self, remains hidden from view, even, in many cases, from himself." Yet the political power of friendship among gay men is threatened, according to Sullivan, by "the obsession with sexualizing gay men -- an obsession driven by gay radicals as much as by straight conservatives."

Not that Sullivan is a prude: his awe and reverence for sex are clear throughout this book. Sex is for him "almost a sacrament of human existence," with the power to erase, if only momentarily, "the distance that makes our everyday lives a constant approximation of loneliness." Sullivan is also candid about his own experience of promiscuity and his belief that "understanding promiscuity is a necessary first step to transforming it . . . into something more meaningful and dignified and loving."

Without denigrating sex, then, Sullivan suggests that gay culture could become more influential by de-emphasizing sex and working to "reconcile gay men and women with their families and communities as a whole." This shift, he imagines, could have a salutary effect on heterosexual culture as well, liberating straight people "to experience a more fluid and satisfying and intimate range of nonsexual relations without the fear of stigma or moral panic. This is why the movement for homosexual liberation is actually a misnomer. It is a movement for human liberation, and heterosexuals stand to gain from it as much as anyone."

Because Sullivan writes frequently about Catholicism, it's not surprising that religion informs Love Undetectable's reflections on gay culture. Yet this book does mark a startling change in the way Sullivan writes about religion. For the first time, Sullivan seems just as comfortable writing about his faith as about his church; for example, he describes two mystical experiences that occurred shortly after his infection with HIV with a passion and precision that, in the past, he has too often reserved for explications of Thomas Aquinas.

Sullivan's willingness to grant his own faith an authority equal to that of the Church makes Love Undetectable more persuasive and accessible than any of his previous writing about religion. He has always made careful and respectful use of Scripture and Christian tradition to define terms and make arguments, and he has often been critical of churches. Now, Sullivan goes further. His discipline gives way to near-prophetic fury at churches that teach worshippers to love the (homosexual) sinner and hate the sin (of gay sex), and churches that capitulate to a culture in which silence defines the ethic of homosexual life -- a silence Sullivan equates with "a statement that some people are effectively beneath even the project of an ethical teaching." Most harshly of all, he inveighs against ecclesiastical idolatry of conjugal love. "The Christian churches," Sullivan writes, "which once wisely taught the primacy of caritas to eros, and held out the virtue of friendship as equal to the benefits of conjugal love, are now our culture's primary and obsessive propagandists for the marital unit and its capacity to resolve all human ills and satisfy all human needs."

Readers poised to pick nits will find plenty of problems with Love Undetectable. They will rightly object to Sullivan's lesbian-shaped lacuna, his penchant for beginning sentences with the conjunction and, his debater's weakness of providing three examples when one would do just fine, and his failure to consider the competitive, almost Darwinian dynamics of gay culture as a counterweight to its egalitarian emphasis on friendship.

Yet such objections fade in comparison to the book's overall effect, which is to give readers a clearly defined responsibility. We now have to wonder whether gay friendship might be salt and light to the world, and might even begin to disarm our cross-wielding political enemies. At best, gay culture exemplifies one quality that Jesus hoped would distinguish his followers: "By this all people will know that you are my disciples," he said, according to John's account of the Last Supper, "that you have love for one another."


Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer in Boston.


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