Saturday, June 20, 2009

D. Keith Mano (September/October 1994)

From 1991 to 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fascinating array of writers, theologians, politicians, artists, and musicians for the Wittenburg Door, the original--only?--magazine of religious satire. From the preparation required to conduct them to the editing required to make them both clear and funny (the Door's two requirements, although not necessarily in that order), these interviews changed my life (mostly for the better). Although I conducted most of the interviews by phone, I was on several occasions able to hop a plane and question my subjects in person thanks to the generosity of Bob Darden and the late Mike Yaconelli, the editors who underwrote my adventures. It was a generosity made all the more special by the fact that the Door was usually deep in the red. For such acts of genuinely Christian charity (or fiscal insanity, I'm not sure which), I remain intensely grateful. Several of my interviews--R.C. Sproul, Chris Yambar--are still online in their entirety. What's posted below is one of the ones that's been MIA for awhile.

It's been a long time since we've interviewed a Russian Orthodox Christian. It's not that we have anything against them. It's just that they're so darned uncontroversial it's easy to forget they exist. It's also been awhile since we've interviewed a really serious novelist. We definitely have nothing against them. It's just hard to get them to return our e-mail. And we also haven't interviewed a contributing editor to Playboy since, well, ever. And though we might have something against them, it's nothing a complimentary subscription to their fine magazine and a free Playboy's Playmate Bloopers video wouldn't resolve.

Enter D. Keith Mano, the only man who's ever lived--or likely ever will live--who is all of the above. He's also a regular in William F. Buckley's National Review and, on a sad note, a recently diagnosed victim of Parkinson's Disease, the ravages of which he's just begun to experience.

As you might expect, the insights into Christianity of anyone this, uh, stimulated can't help proving interesting. Or, as Mano himself told the Door's Arsenio Orteza before the two met in Mano's Big Apple apartment: "I'm working on a serious think piece for Playboy on amateur pornography. I have fourteen cartons of it in my room with fourteen more on the way. So I should be in a good position to discuss our risen Lord."

We're a little rusty on our Russian Orthodoxy and amateur porn, but good novels we know, and Mano's Horn, The Death and Life of Harry Goth, War Is Heaven, The Bridge, and Take Five--each of which features a Christian, usually Episcopalian, trapped in bizarre circumstances--are as good as novels get. Take Five in particular, in which a brilliant and self-destructive independent filmmaker loses each of his five senses one at a time on his road to salvation, ranks as a truly heroic achievement. And his latest, Topless (Random House '91), about an Episcopal priest who runs a topless bar, is a definite page-turner. Or as Joe Bob Briggs might say, "One-hundred-and-seven breasts, three rotting corpses, one hook through the eye, and several dozen Kahluas with breast milk."

The Door says check it out

DOOR: Why are the main characters in all of your novels Christians?
MANO: I guess it's that I'm interested in men as heroes, physical and moral. And it just makes sense, if you're creating anything in the arts, to use the most extreme ingredients that you possibly can.

DOOR: An Episcopal priest in a topless bar is extreme all right.
MANO: The most intense way to deal with this moral heroism was to put serious Christians, whether they were priests or not, under tremendous moral pressure. It's most obvious in Topless, of course, because the lightning rods of the opposite poles are so close together. It is not a great literary triumph to come up with interesting metaphors when you have naked breasts and crosses so close together.

DOOR: Well, we were impressed.
MANO: The work is kind of done for you.

DOOR: All of your novels have wild settings.
MANO: Most art deals in extremes. And the great virtue of the Episcopal Church, which I was very much involved in, is that anything can happen in it. An Episcopal priest can do anything in your novel, and you're probably telling the truth because there's one out there somewhere really doing it. I don't doubt that there are priests running topless bars right now. And they're Episcopal.

DOOR: Were you a cradle Episcopalian?
MANO: No. Though I had been baptized as an Episcopalian as a mere velleity when I was a child, I really came to the faith through the most cynical possible motives. I went to Trinity School on scholarship, and the English prize was only given to confirmed Episcopalians. So my mother said, "You're about to become a confirmed Episcopalian." So I became a confirmed Episcopalian and won the English prize.

DOOR: Something tells us Billy Graham isn't begging you to give that testimony as a stadium-warmer-upper.
MANO: Still, the egg was laid in the larva that I am, and by the time I reached Columbia University, I had something of a revelation, namely a class called Contemporary Civilization II, which covered literature and thought from the end of the nineteenth century through the present. The instructor told us that if we believed in anything before taking this course, we would believe in nothing after we had taken this course.

DOOR: How encouraging.
MANO: It was a lot of Nietzsche, etc. And I saw after two weeks that he was right. So one day I left class and walked over to St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia, an Episcopal chapel, and became a worshiping Christian just to save myself from the bleakness of the prospect that was presented to me by Columbia's liberal-arts education.

DOOR: So that's why half your novels concern Episcopal priests. As for all the sex --
MANO: The Episcopal Church is a wonderfully rich source for a novelist. It's about as useful a milieu to write about as you could conceive of. My own particular take on it, forcing powerful material and sensual imagery up against powerful sacramental and spiritual imagery, is what I have been given by the Lord--I hope--as my particular equipment to create.

DOOR: We wish he'd given us that particular equipment!
MANO: This is what interests me. This is what I know. I know a lot about the spirit and the way it functions and the way grace functions. I know a great deal about the way the human body functions, sexually and in relationships. I have the honor of being the one person that Ruth Westheimer says is too dirty for her to talk to.

DOOR: What made her say that?

MANO: My take on human sexuality is so intense that, although she kids about it, she's scared of it. If you were to ask me whom I feel a particular affinity to as a writer--

DOOR: Whom do you feel a particular affinity to as a writer?
MANO: --it would be John Donne. I think he understood that we're given very little equipment to understand what the meaning of Jesus's sacrifice on the cross is. We're surrounded by physical and sensual things that distract us. So we have to deal with what we have--carefully--and always aware of the risks involved. And the one place where the human being can imagine, in some vague form, what grace is like and what a true vision of God is like is during orgasm.

DOOR: Excuse us. For a minute we thought you said "orgasm."
MANO: It's the one moment in which the human mind is freed from anything but an absolute concentration on a single thing, which you presume the desert fathers achieved when they were meditating on Christ's sacrifice.

DOOR: Uh, we think we know why Dr. Ruth won't talk to you.
MANO: I have covered every form of human sexuality in depth, at times participating, during thirty years of writing. I have been a contributing editor to Playboy for twenty years. I've lived as a transvestite--

DOOR: Excuse us again. We thought you said you'd lived as a transvestite.
MANO: It was a very painful experience for me. I had to shave all the hair off my body, and I didn't achieve enlightenment through it. But it was very interesting, and I'm quite aware of the feminine aspects in me and the masculine aspects in women. They're there. There's no avoiding them.

DOOR: -----
MANO: Transvestism is a complex act, and how you carry it off it depends very much on where you are with your sexuality. Ultimately it made me very angry, but it was very interesting. I can give you the article.

DOOR: Oh, you did it for an article!
MANO: Oh yeah. For Playboy.

DOOR: Well, that explains it, uh, sort of--
MANO: I've studied incest and dealt with people who were into incest. I've done deep and complex research on S&M. Yet it's only recently that I have come to terms, in some small way, with the question of why I am so obsessed with the battle between the body and the spirit, and why I'm writing constant oxymorons, so to speak, which do not help my book sales at all.

DOOR: Books about horny priests would seem to have a built-in audience.
MANO: Yeah, but sexier books are written than mine, and if people read religious books, they read the kind of thing that Fleming Revell or Word Books publishes. They wouldn't touch anything that had as raunchy premises as my books do. Yet up until recently it has perplexed me why I have been fascinated by this subject matter.

DOOR: We're almost afraid to ask, but what happened recently to explain your fascination?

MANO: About two months ago, I came across the passage in Corinthians where St. Paul said that it is a shame for a man to wear his hair long. And I wondered, "If St. Paul says it's a shame for a man to have long hair, why have we always depicted Jesus as having just about as long hair as you possibly could for a man?" There's a character in Topless who admits after a session in a topless bar that when he goes to church, there is no way to avoid the fact that this is a highly sensual image: an almost naked man on a cross in a situation of sacrifice, which is painful, vulnerable, submissive--all the terms that might easily be termed sexual. His head is usually bowed. And the hair, which the ancient Hebrews considered to be one of the most sensual parts of a woman--

DOOR: Um, what exactly are you getting at?
MANO: Here we have Jesus with the outer affects of a female, dying on the cross. So I said to myself, "Well, Jesus was incarnated and took on our humanity." Is that not correct? Correct me if I'm wrong.

DOOR: Sorry. We were just calculating how many subscriptions you might cost us. But, yes, Jesus
took on our humanity.
MANO: That's one of those basics of theology. We must assume that he took on our whole humanity. Otherwise he could not have experienced our suffering, our pain, our temptation, our lowliness, our sordidness, and all the other things that go along with being human. "The Word was made flesh," but it doesn't say the Word was made man. The Word was made flesh. Well, in that case, we would have to assume, since God is omniscient, that in his incarnation he was assuming all humanness, which included the female.

DOOR: Oh boy--er, girl, er--
MANO: This is a controversial thing to think, and you're dealing here with a very conservative Christian, one who left the Episcopal Church in part because he could not take communion from a female. So you're not dealing with a politically correct, radic-lib, feminist fellow traveler here.

DOOR: Whew! For a minute there you had us going.
MANO: But I said, "If Jesus knows what it is to be female, what does he know at the moment of his death on the cross? Well, he hasn't had a child, but then every female doesn't have a child, and that does not deny her femaleness. Jesus has not had intercourse as a female might, but that's not essential either. There are women who still must be considered women even though they are virgins through life. So what was necessary for Jesus to know the female, having known the male?

DOOR: Something tells us you have an answer.
MANO: I supposed that it had to be something along the lines of menstrual blood or pain, whatever it is that women--not men, thank God--go through on a monthly basis. How and when did Jesus experience this? How was he equipped to experience it if he did? And then the image struck me of the last moments on the cross, when a very well-intentioned, good-natured, sympathetic soul--very masculine--namely the centurion, pierces Jesus's side with his spear to carry out, in part, the Old Testament prophecy that his legs should not be broken, etc., but also out of concern for the relatives and out of concern, I think, to spare Jesus any further suffering. So although it was an act of invasion, it was done out of love. But what happens in that act of invasion? We read that Jesus was pierced in the side. That's a vague term.

DOOR: How so?
MANO: It could be any part of the lower body--the abdomen, possibly even the groin. And what happens when Jesus is pierced?

DOOR: Blood and water--
MANO: Yes, blood and water. I feel very strongly that there is a moment here in the passion that has been overlooked. Jesus's side is pierced by a male figure. And very often in Medieval paintings, when Jesus returns and Thomas is feeling his wounds, that wound is very clearly shaped in the form of the female privates. Well, we were talking about where the menstrual blood would come from. It is as if, to my mind, Jesus is recapitulating, in that moment, the entire life of a female.

DOOR: Let's see if we've got this straight--
MANO: Blood of menstruation--that might even be the blood of his hands and feet--blood of the piercing, which is the piercing of the hymen, so that it flows out of the "side," and water, which, if I remember correctly from my two children's births, pours liberally out of a woman in announcing what is to come. And what is to come, of course, is the birth in three days of a new dispensation, a new church, a new relationship between God and man. And it is the moment of death for Jesus at the same time.

DOOR: So what you're saying is--
MANO: In the moment of death, he becomes a viable female, is penetrated as a viable female, gives birth, and dies. And in those days, even up 'til recently, many women died in childbirth.

DOOR: You seem to have it all worked out.
MANO: It has a nice shape to it.

DOOR: Of course, you know what happened to Martin Scorsese for filming The Last Temptation of Christ.
MANO: The question of whether Jesus knew what orgasm was and whether he was fully male has always been a very touchy one in theology. The logic is there that if he's a true man, he must know lust. But then he's perfect, so he can't. He has so trained his mind, through goodness and grace, that he overcomes the temptation and never allows himself to experience lust, which distances him somewhat from being fully male.

DOOR: Isn't that distance inevitable in a perfect being?
MANO: It is, as I say, a touchy question. You could not conceive of Jesus Christ having intercourse with a woman. All that is implied in that is an act of aggression, even in the most loving circumstances, if penetration takes place. It is often painful for a woman even if her instincts are full of love. So obviously Jesus could not have ever had intercourse as a man.

DOOR: Obviously.
MANO: But as a woman? Yes. He could have.

DOOR: Um, we kind of wish you'd quit bringing that up.
MANO: Not orgasm. But he could experience the pain a female feels, what it means to be invaded. He could be entirely passive and be subjected to that, I think, when the spear enters his side, even though, as I say, the centurion is a loving figure. God could not otherwise have given Jesus the experience of sexual intercourse but as a female.

DOOR: Most people probably wonder why God would've had to give him that experience at all.
MANO: Remember when Jesus said, "If you even lust after a woman in your mind, you have done the same as if you had intercourse with her"?

DOOR: Sure, that's--
MANO: A character in one of my screenplays says, "Yeah, don't you wish." But I've always thought that what Jesus was saying there has been misinterpreted over and over by every church and non-church and by atheists as well. What Jesus is saying is not "Don't think about women sexually." What he's saying is "You will inevitably think about women sexually. Don't imagine that if you don't engage in the act you're any better off than someone who does. Don't be a Pharisee about it. You are a man. You will lust. You need absolution, something to propitiate God and to overcome the sinfulness that you feel." Now men particularly are driven by their sexual needs. I don't have to tell you that.

DOOR: Not us, no sir.
MANO: Men rape women; women seldom rape men. And I think, putting it charitably and drawing on my long experience in the study of people who are sexually healthy and those who are not, that the drive a man has to dominate a woman is instinctive, endless, and overpowering.

DOOR: How does your understanding of Christ's transformation into a female at the moment of his death help make sense of this dilemma?
MANO: It's my assumption that Jesus was born, lived, died, and was resurrected in both genders at the same time. If we assume that, then in part, I think, the male in us is looking to attain Jesus's state of grace, which was to harbor both genders safely within himself in a state of harmony. When I pass a beautiful woman--any woman--on the street, I want her. I don't want her because I know her or like her. I just want her. The wanting is a given of the male situation, and it has to be overcome because society would crack if it weren't.

DOOR: You're beginning to sound like a politically correct, radic-lib, feminist fellow traveler.
MANO: There's no question in my mind that we've always felt, in the heart of our Western, Christian culture, that Jesus was very much female. That is why the representations of Jesus with long hair have always been predominant in art. The Virgin Mary was later presented as a harmless sort of woman to whom we can address our need for a maternal outlet in prayer, as a safer way of dealing with the fact that Jesus was as much a woman as a man, particularly when he died.

DOOR: You said that if men don't overcome their wanting of women, society will crack.
MANO: We are coming to a point where the genders are clumsily engaging in civil war with each other. There's a lot of unpleasantness in the land. Men feel terribly threatened. Women have been crucified for many years, so they understand it and have their axes to grind as well. The truth of the matter is, Jesus on the cross is the female being exploited in every which way. I mentioned intercourse being, at its best, an act of penetration, but there are many other ways in which women have been sacrificed, whether from childbirth or being sold as wives or whatever, through history. So when the male S&M devotee binds a woman to a cross, he has to realize, if he's a Christian--

DOOR: Uh, just how many Christian S&M devotees are there?
MANO: Even if he's not a Christian, he ought to realize that he is essentially binding Jesus again, because Jesus contains in him the female--very, very strongly--but almost mystically hidden, I think, because the truth is too painful to deal with. I don't know. I've never heard anyone else say what I'm saying now.

DOOR: Believe us, we haven't either.
MANO: But I can't believe it hasn't been said. I can't believe that someone else has not seen the analogy between the centurion's spear and the male organ before. It can't be original with me after two-thousand years. I think it has been suppressed because it's a very dangerous area. Cultures survive because of differentiation of labor, and making Jesus into an equal man and equal woman is, A, a very perplexing proposition and, B, a socially disruptive one certainly.

DOOR: How does this proposition shed light on the problem of lust?
MANO: It is as if we were constantly acting out those drives that Aristophanes mentions in The Symposium when he speaks of our original state, which was an animal that contained both sexes in it at the same time, and that we were seeking to hammer ourselves back together again and let lust stop. We are trying to achieve Jesus's perfection, which was a mingling, in love, of the two genders that are necessary to procreate.

DOOR: That's consistent with calling Christ "the new Adam" in that the first Adam apparently harbored both genders before Eve was fashioned from his removed rib.
MANO: You're quite right. That is an image for what we understand vaguely about what is in us. One of the problems that our churches have--and I can understand it, and I have to excuse it, but I feel sorry about it--is that they try to achieve salvation by going around the body instead of going through the body, where true illumination lies. You can be saved by believing in Jesus and living a life of absolute abstention from sexuality, but to achieve a true understanding and illumination about what God's gift to us is, you must encounter the body, which is part of the equipment we have here and part of the covenant that Jesus made when he was incarnated. The body must be encountered and understood and accepted for what it is, and, as John Donne would have it, let us then be raped by God and achieve salvation with understanding as well. This is not to say that finding illumination through the body is without its risks. I never underestimate the body and have come close, because of my preoccupations, with those risks.

DOOR: What are you risking?
MANO: My soul. Look, the body is seductive and all-consuming. Give it a chance, it'll take you over. But then again that's what I'm writing about in my books. In a sense my novel Take Five is written as a plea to God to let me escape and let me also make the effort that I've gone through and the risks I've taken worthwhile by somehow transmitting the knowledge that I've gotten by being a very strange Christian, to make it useful and grace-filled to people who can understand what I'm saying.

DOOR: Most Christians probably don't think that the kinds of risks you're talking about are worth the trouble. They would assume that it's playing with fire.
MANO: It is.

So how have you avoided getting burned? Or have you?
MANO: The question is "Are you burned or are you refined?"

DOOR: Are you burned or are you refined?
MANO: What I have been saying about going through the body is essential to my thinking. I could not do it any other way because my body is an insistent animal. But at some point you have to let the body go. And it's not just a matter of giving up sensuality, it's a matter of giving up inspiration. When you don't want to write any more and you don't want to get laid any more, what are you? You have to deal essentially with a new kind of emptiness. The emptiness of the creative spirit as an artist has to be replaced with the creative spirit of the spirit. That's what's happening to Simon Lynxx in Take Five. Gradually his body is being taken away as I hope mine will be--and seems to be and as the Lord ironically seems to be leading me with Parkinson's.

DOOR: But have you been burned or refined by the risks you've taken?
MANO: Here's the best I can do: You take that risk, and the chance of achieving understanding of the Holy Spirit and the will of God is much closer than it would be for someone who's simply accepted Jesus's mediation and avoided dealing with body. When the devil died, you know, around the time of the Salem witch trials, God took a tremendous beating because he'd lost his main adversary. The devil is real, and you have to confront him in order to appreciate what salvation is.


  1. So what happenen to Mano?

    I read Horn a long long time ago, and enjoyed it, and I found his book The Bridge at a library sale and have started reading it. He's good.

    Is he still writing?

  2. I believe that Mano wrote a follow-up to TOPLESS as well as a Platonic-dialogue-type work called THE FERGUS Something-or-Other, neither of which I've read. I assume that he is not writing anymore--whether from Parkinson's or from simply having already written all that he was put here to write, I do not know.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I love Mano's work;used to really really enjoy his pieces in national Review and consider The Bridge to be one of the most prescient books about our possible future that I've ever read.