Derek Jarman’s films are, already, such a naked, passionate, intimate portrait of their creator and his ideas that one wouldn’t expect that Jarman would have had much energy left over to pour into written autobiography. Nevertheless, Jarman was a prolific writer as well as a filmmaker and artist, and his creative pursuits in multiple artistic forms constitute a unified body of work; the books are every bit as essential as the films to those who wish to understand Jarman. The University of Minnesota Press has thus done a valuable service in reissuing three of these books: Chroma, Jarman’s collection of writings on color, his 1989-90 diary Modern Nature, and At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, a loose autobiographical book that traces Jarman’s experiences of society’s reactions to gayness.
At Your Own Risk is a very angry book, and rightfully so. Jarman was writing in the last years of his life, as he entered the advanced stages of AIDS-related illness, starting to go blind as many of his friends died from the same disease that he knew would soon enough claim him as well. Moreover, he was writing from within a culture that had, throughout his life, consistently restricted and tormented homosexuals, legislating their behavior and, with the onset of HIV/AIDS, all but ignoring the problem until it dawned on everyone that heterosexuals were being affected too. Jarman’s book is structured by decades, from the 1940s to the then-nascent 1990s (the book was written in 1992, two years before Jarman’s death), and in each decade-spanning chapter, Jarman chronicles how gays were treated by society and how his own dawning understanding of his sexual identity developed.
This is also a very hopeful book, though, despite its righteous anger and outrage. Jarman is looking back here, examining a life lived within the restrictive boundaries of what he calls “Heterosoc” (a society-wide conformity that rejects all possibility of other ways to live and love), but he’s also looking forward, imagining a future in which young gay men won’t face all of the same problems that he’s faced. He ends the book with a movingly optimistic address to future generations: “I had to write of a sad time as a witness—not to cloud your smiles—please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. As the shadows closed in, the stars came out.”
At Your Own Risk, then, is Jarman’s attempt to close the book on the past by documenting it, writing about restriction and repression in order to encourage openness and freedom. Before getting to this optimistic coda, however, Jarman must document a great deal of pain, a great deal of bitterness and confusion. He writes about being a boy and having innocent, unknowing attractions to other boys, and of being confused when the adults reacted with horror and censure to innocent boyhood flirtations. He writes of going to school and having no role models to help him understand what he was feeling, of having no idea that there were even others like him, that there was, in fact, a whole underground social structure of men with the same desires and feelings as him. “I was desperate to avoid being the sissy of my father’s criticism,” he writes, “terrified of being the Queer in the dormitory.” Later, he writes of discovering gay role models in art (Genet, Burroughs, Cocteau, Ginsberg) and truly awakening to his own sexuality during a trip to America in the 1960s.
Jarman’s response to a restrictive culture that denies gay sexuality is, in his films and his writings, to be open, to be honest and forthright and at times outright confrontational. He writes frankly about gay sex, about sleeping with multiple partners, finding love or just a night’s sex in a dark corner of some underground bar. Just as his films often incorporated luridly gay imagery, his writing is equally direct, equally visual and sensual. Though he unambiguously exalts gay sexuality and gay life over heterosexuality in an obvious counter-response to the dominant culture’s opposite prejudices, he also doesn’t flinch away from the seedier bits, like when he comes back from America with crabs and is so naïve that he doesn’t even know what they are, telling his mom that he picked up lice.
Jarman’s prose style, as one would expect from his films, is rough and loose, freely stringing together clauses and leaving gaping ellipses in the narratives he’s telling. The voice of the writing should be familiar to those who have seen Jarman’s films. It is the same voice that speaks so poetically throughout Jarman’s moving final film Blue, made when he was near-blind and which substitutes a plain blue screen for any representational imagery. (And the text of Blue was adapted from one of the essays collected in Chroma, confirming the film’s relationship to the director’s writings.) Jarman structures much of At Your Own Risk as a collage, incorporating excerpts from newspaper articles, quotes from artists and authors who he admires (and some he abhors), bits and pieces from the texts of his own films, and some segments that seem to be interviews in which Jarman answers questions about his life and work.
At one point, he pastes in an excerpt from a British medical journal, describing homosexuality as a sexual disorder, the sufferers of which experience a “very marked deficiency of the tender emotions and the altruistic sentiments.” Jarman’s satirical response, directly juxtaposed after the original article, goes to the other extreme, describing heterosexuality as “an abnormal psychopathic state.” One suspects that Jarman is perhaps only half-joking, but his point is made: Each person thinks his or her own condition, his or her own beliefs, are the norm, while anything else is degenerate and sad. At Your Own Risk, as a document of what it was like to be gay and British in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, is a powerful correction to such attitudes.
What’s most refreshing about Jarman, and what sets him apart from so many others, is that he is defiantly unapologetic; he regrets the lost opportunities caused by heterosexual dominance, but not the life he led, not even in light of HIV/AIDS. “We spent our time jettisoning fears and phobias and they spent their time acquiring them, whoever they were,” he writes. “I feel sorry for them because they must have had such impoverished lives.” That says it all: At Your Own Risk, much like The Angelic Conversation or Caravaggio, treats gay desire as a given, as the normal state of affairs, because for Jarman and his friends and lovers, that has been his experience of life.
Of course, though Jarman’s activist embrace of all forms of sexuality as “normal” is generally a positive force, there are also some more uncomfortable components of his stance. At one point, he asserts that “boys who’ve had the good fortune, at fourteen or fifteen or even earlier, to meet older men are nearly always more at ease with themselves sexually.” Jarman, to some extent, means to shock by this: One of his central contentions in this book is that there is little societal understanding of homosexuality in children, of what it means to grow up gay, and he means to force people to think about these issues whether they want to or not. He’s all about openness, about getting the truth out there. In the process, however, quotes like this seem to generalize Jarman’s specific experiences in such a way as to advocate for the obliteration of the age of consent—and implies that it’d be an unambiguously good thing if older men and young boys were allowed to sleep together.
In that sense, Jarman’s attitudes are troubling at times, but they’re also impossible to separate from his context, from his specific experience of a culture in which he grew up feeling he was different but was confronted at every turn by forces that wished to suppress, legislate, and punish that difference into nonexistence. Jarman was a confused, depressed child, and hopes that subsequent generations of gay children will not have to suffer through the same trials. After all, it was only in 1967 that consensual gay sex was finally legalized in Great Britain—and even then only between adults who were at least 21 years of age. Jarman’s broad permissiveness, his seemingly deeply held belief in absolute sexual license, is both inspiring and, in its broadest implications, somewhat unsettling.
Of course, that description could be applied just as easily to Jarman’s films. More than any other filmmaker of his generation, Jarman made a career by tweaking and unsettling the status quo, striking out against conformity and correcting for the lack of gay representations in mainstream culture. His cinema was unrelentingly radical, both aesthetically and in terms of its view of the world. The same sensibility that juxtaposed Shakespeare’s sonnets with images of gay desire and sensuality in The Angelic Conversation, thereby reclaiming the Bard from heterosexuality, is everywhere present in this book.
Above all, as Jarman proclaims in the introduction, this book is a quest for understanding—about AIDS, about gay sexuality, about the pressures of conformity. “We were given so much practical advice,” he writes, “but so little understanding. Understanding does not appear on the drugs list, but it is as vital as a hospital drip. Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law.” It’d be difficult to find a better summation of this great filmmaker’s ethos—all the better because it’s a self-summation from a man who fought, throughout his life, for the right to define himself, to overthrow the imposed definitions of others. With his films, and his writings, he inarguably succeeded in that mission.
Derek Jarman At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament was re-released on March 3 by University of Minnesota Press. To purchase click here.