Peter Dully

Counting The Bastards: The Problem of Origins in "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"


"Whence the characteristic hysteria of our time: the hysteria of production and reproduction of the real." (Jean Baudrillard, "Simulations and Simulacra," 180)

PRIOR I: He's counting the bastards.

As the Thirteenth Century French version of Prior Walter points out to the Twentieth Century American Prior Walter about the Seventeenth Century British Prior Walter in the 1992 Tony Kushner play, Angels in America, lineage is exceedingly difficult to trace from where we currently stand. The question raised by the 'original' Prior Walter when confronted by antecedent Priors is "[a]m I going to die?" The indeterminacy of origins that the simulacral presence of prior Priors raises is the problem of ending; if the beginning cannot be fixed, what happens in the end? There is a certain peculiarity in asking one's perhaps immortal antecedents about one's mortality, and this question is made even more uncanny by Prior's knowledge that he is stricken with a terminal disease. If death by "pestilence" has somehow been experienced and overcome by Prior's ancestors, the rules governing Prior's death by pestilence immediately seem changed. That these simulations can exist, generated from a position of indeterminate birth and death, challenges linear, narrative conceptions of history as a referent for symbolic relations. This challenge to symbolic relations forms the central element in the "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" Kushner's play proports itself to be. Just as the question of origin is recast as a question of death in this scene, the question of national reality is recast as a question of national fantasy in the play as a whole. In its simplest form, the problem posed by Angels in America can be phrased as a question: if the order of origin and lineage are challenged, does Order, in its symbolic sense, still apply in the same way?

In response to the prior Priors' self-identification as "ancestors," Prior immediately tries to connect their simulacral presence with a referent in the Bayeux Tapestry. His attempt is complicated, however, depending upon whether or not the bastards are counted. What persists in this scene is a symbolic relationship, even though the real relation between participants (and the relation to the "real," in the case of simulacral ancestors) is left indeterminate.

Whether or not the bastards are counted might seem like a infinitesimally small point of interpretation when dealing with a text as sweeping in scope as Angels in America. The bastard, however, represents a figure without traditionally definable patrilinear origin, and it is this lack of definable origin which is at issue in the construction of a "Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Since the legitimate son is traditionally interpreted as an extension of the heterosexual father's will and his eventual replacement in Oedipal configurations, the issue of origin (or the origin of issue) can be posited as the place whence symbolic order comes. The bastard, occupying a space of irrefererential representation within the symbolic order of patrilineage, can be interpreted as a simulation as described in Jean Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulations:" Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Conversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. (170)

The bastard is the symbolic figure wherein patrilinear representation of the son as an equivalent extension of that value within the symbolic order falters. That the identification of a son's mother is not enough to establish symbolic legitimacy for the bastard in Western cultures is a product of the power of naming, or signification, at this level. True inheritors to power within the symbolic order must be named by the father from within this symbolic order to be accorder power. The point de capiton of this order is the legitimated and legitimating practice of heterosexual procreation.

Informing this simulacral scene of counting the bastards is the dis-ordering logic of the hyperreal. What is represented is an excess of pestilence, in the undefinable past, the fantastic present, and the unknowable future. This excess of pestilence results in Prior's unusual question: "Am I going to die?" In realistic representation, or equivalence between the sign and the 'real,' the answer would be a foregone conclusion: as of this writing, there is no cure for AIDS. Yet with the atemporal and originless proliferation of disease in simulation , this logic is rendered suspect. Baudrillard is again useful in describing this logic: "The real does not concede anything to the benefit of the imaginary: it concedes only to the benefit of the more than real (the hyperreal) and to the more true than true. This is simulation." The proliferation of simulacra, and thus the proliferation of pestilence, contains within it the germ of the pestilence's negation through a choking excess of disease.

This re-interpretion of generative power of and over symbolization might represent a way in which the American "National Theme" of genealogy or the tracing of origins can be challenged. As Baudrillard points out, American nationality is predicated on a "Puritan obsession with origins" that persists in "the very place where this ground is gone." American nationality hysterically constructs histories which posit origins, even if those origins must be imported from other or non-existent referents, as with Prior's use of the Bayeux Tapestry. For Baudrillard, the American theme has become one of generation from sterility, movement (in the form of historical progress) through inertia and a historical "determination to reconstitute everything of a past and a history which were not their own and which they have largely destroyed or spirited away." Further, this is manifest in the American national narrative as: The hysteria of causality, the inverse of finalities, which corresponds to the simultaneous effacement of origins and causes, is the obsessive search for origins, for responsibility, for reference. . . the frenzy to explain everything, attribute everything, footnote everything. (Fatal Strategies, 189)

The obsession with naming origins is an obsession with establishing patrilinear lineage; the question historically and hysterically repeated a question of legitimated birth under the aegis of the Law of the Father. Conceived at this (missionary) position in the confluence of Puritan ethos and patrilinear logos, the American National Symbolic, as Lauren Berlant argues, is a Foucauldian discursive field wherein:
Its traditional icons, its metaphors, its heroes, its rituals and its narratives provide an alphabet for a collective consciousness or national subjectivity . . .the historical nation aspires to achieve the inevitability of the status of national law, a birthright. . . citizens are born in nations and are taught to perceive the nation as an intimate quality of identity, as intimate and inevitable as biologically-rooted affiliations through gender or the family. (Berlant, 20, italics mine)

This obsession with ordering through the cataloguing of origins, of constructing nationally symbolic narratives from birth becomes more problematic when the essentially heterosexual model of generation is considered from a position which is deliberately excluded or unnamable from such a narrative. The figure of the bastard is one of these positions; the figure of the homosexual is another. If America is constantly expressing itself in terms of the (re)production of this generative birth image of origin, what place is there for a subject which cannot trace its own origin, or, more significantly for the purposes of this paper, what if one's subjectivity is identified as a location of non-generative sexual practice? Rooted in legitimated heterosex, such a narrative of national procreation and (re)production serves to marginalize other identities as a point of national pride. There are no bastards of the American Revolution, only "Sons" and "Daughters," just as in Edenic America of the National Symbolic, it has always been "Adam and Eve," not "Adam and Steve."

Baudrillard's theories of simulation and hyperreality might then be seen as useful in interpreting a "Gay Fantasia on National Themes." By placing these proliferative models into a dialectical relationship with the events of the play, the site of a countermemory to the National Symbolic which has been traditionally relegated to the margins is revealed. While Baudrillard's proliferative models are grounded in the same homogenizing and hegemonic discourses as the heterosex-based National Symbolic is, these proliferative models also open up the possibility of recognizing the countermemory of such a symbolic order. By positing the generative power of sameness within naturalized and sanctioned heterosexual narratives of origin and geneology in the National Symbolic, the power of naming origins shifts to allow the articulation of an alternative narrative in Angels in America.

In a sense, Harper represents a middle ground between the National Symbolic, maintained with increasing desperation by Roy Cohn, and a countermemory informed interpretation of this order represented by Prior Walter. When she first appears in the play, she is alone, "fretting about the imaginary," as her husband Joe calls it, talking to herself. Her concern is with the center of things falling apart, to paraphrase Yeats, because for her, "everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way. . . This is why, Joe, I shouldn't be left alone." As with Yeats, Harper's concern is with the inadequacy of a familiar order to deal with seemingly new problems; like Yeats, she is the harbinger of a second coming. Her anxiety results in Mr. Lies, the first simulacral presence to visit the stage. "Weird stuff happens," in the disruption of the National Symbolic, according to Harper, and the best example she can come up with is Mr. Lies "[j]ust appearing." Mr. Lies' fantastic and simulacral appearance is duly noted; he isn't "even real," but Harper's response is relatively comfortable, as if the simulacrum were the (almost) logical product of her sterile heterosexual marriage and the crumbling facade of the National Symbolic.

What Mr. Lies expresses is "the price of rootlessness. Motion sickness. The only cure: to keep moving," and within this rootlessness is the logic of the hyperreal; the negation of the motion is the excess of the phenomenon through perpetual motion itself. Baudrillard has written of this as a particularly American phenomenon in opposition to the older order of Europe as "autistic performance" which communicates nothing except the emptiness of the simulacral and the effecement of reference. Movement, for Baudrillard, is constitutive of kind of simulacral nation based on the erasure of generative points of reference. That Harper's loneliness can generate Mr. Lies alone and without heterosex is indicative that there is a dimension of the fantastic present in the play which exceeds realism (literally, equivalence to the 'real') which founds the utopian National Symbolic of America.

Her husband Joe negotiates the National Symbolic in a different way, as initially he believes in the re-generation of "[t]he truth restored. Law restored. . . That's what President Reagan has done, Harper. He says 'Truth exists and it can be spoken proudly'." This rebirth of the equivalence of the sign and the 'real' as the basis of representation runs contrary to the simulacral manifestations that are already apparent to Harper. Further, this re-generation is cast in the terms of the benevolent Father figure of Reagan as the guarantor of the truth, the reborn "Law" and order. Initially, Joe is the dutiful son to the Father Reagan; it is only when Joe is shown, in his growing homosexual attraction to Louis, that the Reagan family isn't "really a family," that Joe decides against moving to Washington to be with his symbolic parents. The dogma of 'family values' which oozes from this widely publicized rebirth of the National Symbolic in the Reagan Eighties is shown as a proliferation in spite of the lack of 'real' referent behind it. In fact, in Louis and Joe's shared re-interpretation, the line between the proliferation of Prior's disease and the politics of the Reagan 'revolution' is blurred. Neither will necessarily get "better," and both are expected to proliferate. That the myth of the First Family as the generative center (with all its simulacral children revealed as bastards by Louis) cannot be maintained even in the eyes of a true believer like Joe is evidence of the development of further cracks in the smooth narrative transmission of National Symbolic order.

Harper's hysterical pregnancy is even more suggestive in unmasking a simulacral element within the heterosex-based National Symbolic. From the outset, Harper is obsessed with the generative processes of the female body, but in distinctly simulacral terms. Heterosex's referents, for her, are filmic ones with monstrous progeny: Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist figure prominently. As the product of her failing relationship with her husband, the man who she loves in an "irreducibly real" way, her hysterical pregnancy can be seen as in excess of the National Symbolic. With the degeneration of traditional sites of generation (Washington is a "cemetery" to her, and her husband is a homosexual with whom sharing the marital bed is a "punishment"), Harper's anxiety is given hyperreal representation in her irreferential and proliferative generation of a child.

The first of Harper's childresn is "[a] baby who does not dream but who hallucinates, who stares up at us with big mirror eyes and does not know who we are," represents the irreferential reflection of a single parent. Such a generation is obviously a product of heterosex with Joe (who carries the mirror-eye gene?); it is the proliferation of Harper's own hallucination and hysteria. Further, this 'child' is capable of generating more monstrosities in and of itself in the form of other proliferating hallucinations. The 'child' is an affront to the named 'truth' of the National Symbolic in its inability to name or even recognize its own heterosex origin (and thus its national "birthright") and in its blind reflection of the attempted imposition of such an origin.

The second issue of her hysteria is simply a "pill" with "no blood." Again, the progeny is irreferential and non-genetic in its lack of parental and national blood flowing in and around it. The pill may very well be Valium; the simulation of calm in the face of Harper's growing instability, but there are resonances with "the Pill" as well; the simulation of pregnancy to prevent procreation through heterosex. Either pill is the dis-order of the hyperreal: Valium as the product of massive anxiety, or birth-control as the product of pregnancy. In either pregnancy, the excess of this National Symbolic obsession with origin is results in the proliferation of simulacra.

The third 'child' in this procession of simulacra is "covered with thick white fur" perfectly compatible with the "new world" of Antarctica. The equivalence of the 'real' and the sign reinforced through the 'truth' of the National Symbolic persists even though this equivalence has no referent in her wildly divergent experience. Her concept of giving birth is predicated on the idea of male "companionship," however, and Harper's overarching desire to have her offspring incorporated into a heterosexual, generative narrative of lineage persists even when it is entirely decontextualized through proliferation of simulacra in the scene(Mr. Lies, the Eskimo, Antarctica and the child itself). The "current of blood" held up by Harper as origin, as lineage, as national birthright, is the vestige of the disintegration of the National Symbolic and the emergence of countermemory.

Roy Cohn is the character in the play who is most fully realized in his service to and power within the National Symbolic as the son of Reagan Joe can never be. In Roy's view, his doctor Henry's problem is that he is "hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean." His belief in "realistic" equivalence of the sign and the 'real' and its utopian generation of truth within the National Symbolic marks Roy as a possessor of "clout" in the Reagan Eighties. Roy recognizes this power in terms of naming and can thus employ its 'truth'-generating powers while at the same time denying his doctor's ability to name him or even the origin of his disease as homosexual. At each of Roy's provocations, Henry can only respond with silent ellipsis, and the scene ends with Henry unable to repeat his own diagnosis: AIDS has become "whatever the fuck you have, Roy." Roy's Adamic power to name makes him "a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys" and AIDS becomes "liver cancer." His debilitating illness becomes "perfect health." Like the "Teflon" President positioned as his symbolic Father, he cannot be implicated by the 'real' or truthful claims of others. Roy is the site of his own origin, autistically irreferential and seemingly infinite in his ability to generate and name 'truths' in the National Symbolic. In his own terms, Roy's "clout" is the ablity to name and "make the Law," rather than be "subject to it."

Roy's confrontation with the simulacral Ethel Rosenberg is telling in this regard. Roy is apparently the sole generative force behind Ethel Rosenberg's position in the National Symbolic. This is a perversion of the apparent 'truth' of the National Symbolic in two ways: First, he kills the heterosexual generative power that "reminded all of us of our little Jewish mamas" by making it the Jewish judge's "duty to America" to kill her. In effect, Roy can efface even the suggestion that his origin or lineage exists anywhere but within his own ability to name it as 'truth.' Second, while this "ex-parte communication" is recognized by Joe as a serious transgression of the Law, Roy is not subject to the laws governing a "[m]urder" that only he can name from his position within the National Symbolic. Like Roy's doctor, Joe is silenced by Roy's ability to name 'truth' even as every 'real' referent implicates him. When the simulacral Ethel Rosenberg arrives as a supposed shock to his conscience, Roy is not frightened. The fear she means to inspire is reflected back at her in hyperreal excess: "I'm scarier than you any day of the week!. . . I'M NOT AFRAID OF YOU OR DEATH OR HELL OR ANYTHING!"

Yet it is at this moment that the named 'truth' essential to the function of the National Symbolic is "forced" into the problem of history. The structure of the scene is reminiscent of that of the simulacral bastards which confront Prior. Roy's hyperreal overcoming of Ethel Rosenberg represents the "simultaneous effacement of origins and causes" described by Baudrillard in Fatal Strategies. Just as Roy positions himself as the origin of Ethel Rosenberg in the National Symbolic, Roy is also symbolically produced by this inscription, as it is the clearest evidence of countermemory within the Law's creation of 'truth.' Cracks in the National Symbolic are revealed by Roy's simultaneous claims to have Fathered Ethel Rosenberg and to have been created by her. Here, legitimated 'truth' and lineage are disrupted completely through excessive and hyperreal irreferentiality where origins and geneologies collapse back on themselves. This eruption of "counter-memory," revealing the simultaneous existence of non-heterosexually generated subjectivity within the dominant 'truth' of heterosexual origin is the disruption of all causality, all history. Roy's claims of self-lineage within the 'truth' of the National Symbolic are shown as untenable; the "immortality" he claims through his service to the 'truth' of the National Symbolic is shown as entirely irrelevant by the negation of the narrative history such a claim would need as its precondition. Roy's origin becomes unnamable as 'truth' with this "simultaneous effacement of origins and causes." In effect, the same order which guarantees Roy's power shows him as transgressive, a singular perversion; his position is revealed as the marginal location of the bastard homosexual of indeterminate origins.

The revelation of this "counter-memory" as a place where marginalized identities, like those of the bastard and the homosexual, "count" is most fully represented in the final two scenes of the play. In them, simulacral generations are not hopelessly reincorporated into the National Symbolic (as with Harper's pregnancy), nor are they cynically manipulated and named as part of the National Symbolic (as with Roy's play with the Law). Rather, simulacral generations are shown as coexistent with the National Symbolic and independent of the generative power of heterosexual origin and lineage upon which it rests. When history is disrupted, so too is the power of origin and lineage to name the 'truth.'

The simulacral (re)production of Louis in Prior's bedroom is a return to the immediate fulfillment of desire possible in the simulacral as it has been expressed in Harper and Roy in previous scenes. The bedroom of homosexual union, marginalized and even unnamable in the National Symbolic Roy upholds, is shown as a competing generative site. Moreover, as Louis is central to Prior's narrative of origin and identity (his gay identity is marked or named by Louis), a different kind of "mending together" is at work in Louis' generation. As the simulacral Prior I remarks, "[n]ow I see why he's got no children. He's a sodomite." Proliferative desire rather than patrilinear origin is the constructive force behind the simulacral generation of Louis. Further, Louis exists outside history (in the rupture of history that Ethel predicts), as he is present in two locations at the same time. In this scene, also, the power of naming is claimed from the indeterminate lineage of the prior Priors, a bastardized position in relation to the National Symbolic.

Prior seems convinced of this at the impending arrival of the Angel which follows. He says: "My name is Prior Walter, I am. . . the scion of an ancient line, I am. . . abandoned I. . . no, my name is. . .is. . . Prior . . .Prior and I live. . . here and now." The nationally symbolic narrative of origins suggested by "the scion of an ancient line" fades away as Prior claims an identity based entirely in the present. His surname falls away. This is emphasized by further self-naming, "my blood is clean, my brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble, I am tough and strong." The pouring forth of this pronouncement of 'truth' so long suppressed by the National Symbolic names an identity which is true only in the countermemory of such a narrative. Prior's re-naming flies in the face of Roy's earlier naming: "Homosexuals" are " men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout." Prior is hardly without clout in this fantastically refigured order, as he is hailed as "Prophet"; one who will ostensibly narrate a history which runs contrary to the legitimated and naturalized narrative propagated by Roy Cohn and other Reaganite functionaries of official 'truth'.

The Angel's arrival also has a filmic referent, but of a distinctly different type from the ones Harper uses to describe her 'child'; the Angel is "very Steven Speilberg." "The Great Work" heralded by the visitation of the angelic simulacrum is that of the "Gay Fantasia," wherein those 'truths' unnamed by the narrative history of the National Symbolic can no longer be relegated to the margins. In effect, the margins have gained an equivalent power to generate and name 'truth' with the revelation of a "counter-memory" which has always existed as a suppressed discourse within the American National Symbolic. The American National Symbolic has heretofore claimed its power through its ability to structure history and lineage as a product of named heterosexual referent, from legitimate father to legitimate son. The re-interpretive "Work" beginning here represents a way in which identity can be asserted without the naming of heterosex-based origin and lineage.

With the revelation of "counter-memory" of proliferative (non-heterosexual) generation and naming as a power existing alongside/ within the dominant narrative of the American National Symbolic, Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" reaches its realization. The dominant historical narrative has cracked open with Prior's ability to simultaneously name his 'truth' and generate further 'truths' (in the form of simulacra) without the symbolic sanction of heterosex. Once again, the mechanism is distinctly hyperreal; heterosexual generation is countered by the homosexual Prior's excessive generation without referent or origin within time or space. Kushner's play lays bare the National Symbolic, and in doing so, reveals a place from which a challenge might be mounted to the National Symbolic's marginalization of identities traditionally named as outside its narrative. In this "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," all the bastards count.