When Jesse Helms stands up in Congress to inveigh against pervert artists, David Wojnarowicz is one of those he has in mind. Wojnarowicz, who’s “queer” and an AIDS activist, is seemingly better known for the confrontations his work has provoked than for the work itself–he’s been a frequent target of the censorship crowd. “Some of us,” he observes in his recent book, “are born with the cross-hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs.” Wojnarowicz has returned the attacks in kind, denouncing Helms as a “repulsive senator from zombieland” and depicting him in one painting as a crawling insect.
The rude bravado of Wojnarowicz’s counterattack is typical of his approach; he takes to controversy like a natural, slipping easily into the role of the strident martyr. But the anger in his works is real, directed pointedly at those–like Helms–who have tried to render gays and lesbians invisible, to continue to criminalize their sexuality. Wojnarowicz has responded to the attempts to silence him by speaking out more loudly, making invisibility impossible. His recent collection of essays, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, is a part of this campaign, an attempt both to convey to others what it means to live as a “queer in America” and to make sense of the experience for himself.
His struggle against invisibility has been difficult: attacks on his work have not been merely rhetorical. A New York gallery showing his work had its funding pulled by the National Endowment for the Arts; the Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association used sexually explicit images from Wojnarowicz’s work (taken out of context to present the artist as a mere pornographer) in a campaign to defund the NEA itself. These attacks have paid off. Though debate over the issue has dropped from the headlines, censorship itself continues behind closed doors; as recent articles in the Village Voice and elsewhere have made clear, NEA chairman John Frohnmayer has reacted to political pressure on the organization by adopting a rigorous–and explicitly homophobic–regime of self-censorship. When faced with outspoken, sexually explicit art, Frohnmayer’s primary concern seems not to be artistic merit but fear of what the newspapers will say.
The censorship controversies have given Wojnarowicz a certain degree of notoriety; but the simple polarities of the public debate, which render him either pervert or hero, have done violence to the complexity of his artistic project. Those who know Wojnarowicz only from the capsule descriptions of his art included in censorship discussions are likely to be surprised by the complex reactions his art evokes. Working in a wide variety of mediums and styles, combining elements of surrealism with blunt agitprop, Wojnarowicz has been, as a critic for the Nation noted, “whatever it took to get attention: a polemicist, a performance artist and a photographer and painter acclaimed for surrealistic melanges of barren industrial landscapes, homosexual love [and] prehistoric animals.” His works are intended to do far more than shock, however. “This is really how I see the world,” he told Chicago’s Outlines in a recent interview. “People have this idea that I do certain things to provoke certain things. Well, on one level [it’s] great if I can provoke something. But it’s literally what I see and what I experience.”
Nowhere is the complexity of Wojnarowicz’s project more evident than in his essays, brought together in Close to the Knives. The book–subtitled a “memoir”–combines autobiographical fragments with caustic political polemics. The autobiographical pieces, despite their unflinching depictions of the most terrifying brutality, are evocative and lyrical. And even the most strident political outbursts (which are so often quoted by those writing about him), when returned to their proper contexts within the essays seem almost a kind of common sense. A gifted writer, Wojnarowicz emerges in his essays even more than in his art a powerful and original social critic.
To be sure, the book is confrontational. Wojnarowicz’s fury is directed particularly at those who refuse to see the injustices they so casually perpetuate. He hopes his essays will force Americans into recognizing their own prejudices, and the effects those prejudices can have on others. “In my dreams I crawl across freshly clipped front lawns,” he warns the unwary reader. “I enter your houses through the smallest cracks in the bricks that keep you feeling comfortable and safe . . . go up your staircases and into your bedrooms where you lie sleeping. . . . I will wake you up and welcome you to your bad dream.”
But his anger is mixed with empathy, his confrontational passion with a sincere desire to persuade. Wojnarowicz is less worried by his reputation in the art world (which is in any case considerable) than he is about reaching “ordinary” Americans; he doesn’t want to speak only to the converted. “[Knives is] something I want straight people to read, because everyone has lived some variation of the issues in the book,” he told Outlines. “The people I’d like most to read the book are the people least likely to, straight people and teenagers.”
Above all, Wojnarowicz’s essays express a profound and violent rage, a rage at the society that has, as he puts it, “effectively outlawed” the homosexual existence, that has sometimes responded to AIDS with attempts to vilify its victims. Wojnarowicz, himself afflicted with the AIDS virus, is acutely conscious of the current decimation; the book begins with an acknowledgement of friends both living and dead, and among the dead is his lover Peter Hujar. In many ways the disease itself is less maddening than the homophobia it has brought to the surface. “My rage,” Wojnarowicz writes, “is really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.”
This rage leads to frequent outbursts that are far from gracious. In one essay Cardinal O’Connor becomes a “fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas up on fifth avenue.” Wojnarowicz’s “rudeness” goes well beyond such unflattering epithets. Further along in the same essay–a sprawling and controversial piece entitled “Postcards From America: X-rays From Hell”–Wojnarowicz fantasizes about unfettered sexuality and violent revenge. “At least in my ungoverned imagination I can fuck someone without a rubber,” he writes, “or I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw congressman William Dannemeyer off of the empire state building. These fantasies give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds. They give me momentary comfort.”
Wojnarowicz’s anger reaches a dramatic crescendo at the end of an essay called “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-inch-tall Politician”–in part a screed against the influence of television personalities, hence the title. Disregarding the niceties of punctuation and grammar, he lists example after example of public indifference and hostility toward people with AIDS. “I wake up in this killing machine called america,” he practically shouts, “and I’m carrying this rage like a blood filled egg and there’s a thin line between the inside and the outside a thin line between thought and action . . . my hands are beginning to move independent of self-restraint and the egg is starting to crack . . . there’s certain politicians that better increase their security forces . . . because the thin line is starting to erode and at the moment I’m a thirty-seven-foot-tall one-thousand-one-hundred-and-seventy-two-pound man inside this six-foot body and all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.”
Much of his writing along these lines is undeniably powerful, a poetic distillation of anger–an expression of his own rage and attempt to provoke a similar rage in his readers. But unfortunately, when he moves from personal politics to an attempt to understand American society as a whole (“a tribal nation of zombies”), his writing gives way to cliche and overstatement. He castigates the false morality of the rich and powerful, for example, the hypocrisy that allows political leaders to order the murder of journalists and peasants in the third world at the same time they “talk in [their] fake moral code about the grand and glorious designs [they] have planned for the social fabric of america.” Well, yes. It’s accurate enough, but it’s hardly new; blinded by his rage, Wojnarowicz does little to elaborate the reasons for such hypocrisy, to move beyond description to real analysis.
To focus too much on these failings, however, is to miss the point. Wojnarowicz is attempting to do far more than simply express his personal or even his political rage. His essays are attempts to understand the politics and poetics of rage itself, to explain to himself and to his readers how a man who can feel and behave so tenderly toward those he loves and desires can be driven to violent fantasies, to visions of revenge. This fundamental question is what drives the book–and it allows Wojnarowicz to transcend the specific problems of his political critique and to offer finally a kind of moral witness to America’s failures.
The autobiographical sections of Close to the Knives are what ultimately explain Wojnarowicz’s politics and his art. His life, by all accounts, has been extraordinarily difficult. He writes that he grew up in a “tiny version of hell called the suburbs,” battered and sexually abused by his brutal father. Aware at an early age of his homosexual desires, he was deathly afraid that others would find out, that others could tell from the expression on his face the “hateful thing” he had become. “I grew up living a schizophrenic existence in a [society] where every ad in every newspaper, tv, and magazine was a promotion for heterosexual coupling sunlit muscleheads and beach bunnies, and in every playground…there [was] a kid who screamed, FAGGOT! . . . and the sound of it resonated in my shoes.”
Denied the possibility of love and tenderness by “respectable” society, Wojnarowicz sought escape in the underside of New York City. Living on the streets as a teenager, he sold his body to anyone who would pay, from suburban closet cases to disrespectable types just barely off the streets themselves. “I crawled through the walls of every social taboo I could come across,” he writes of his life in the 70s. “I wanted to celebrate everything we are denied through structures of laws or physical force.” Eventually Wojnarowicz was able to get away from this life, though he never returned to respectability. He began at this time to realize, as he later told art critic Lucy R. Lippard, that “my queerness was a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society.” His outsider status began to serve as a kind of moral badge.
Faced with a miserable life early on, Wojnarowicz learned to take refuge in his imagination. “Hell is a place on earth,” he concludes. “Heaven is a place in your head.” Throughout the essays Wojnarowicz describes how he turns inward to realize what is unattainable on earth. The book is filled with impossible erotic longings–desires deferred, turned into fantasy. Driving across the country, Wojnarowicz turns his fleeting glimpses of truckers, construction workers, and so on into extended erotic reveries. At times, though, even imagination cannot ease the pressure of unrealized desire; watching a Chicano boy play pool in a waterfront bar, Wojnarowicz feels lust rising like a “humming” from his stomach. “Standing there sipping from a green bottle,” he recalls, “I could see myself taking the nape of his neck in my teeth as he turned and stared out the window at the rolling lines of traffic for a moment. Light curved around his face and the back of his head, the shaved hair produced sensations that I could feel across the palm of my hand, my sweating hand, all the way from where I stood on the other side of the room.” Stung by the boy’s mocking glance, Wojnarowicz flees the bar, seeking escape from an onrush of dizziness.
Throughout the book Wojnarowicz combines tenderly remembered erotic episodes with unflinching descriptions of their sordid surroundings. For a time he immersed himself in the sexual underground of public restrooms and the Hudson River piers, and at that point his sexual life was tinged with danger and filth. On the piers, he writes, “the smell of shit and piss is overwhelming. . . . undershirts and socks . . . mix with cast-off clothes and pools of urine.” Sex was a mixture of pleasure and pain, excitement and fear. Wojnarowicz’s descriptions of anonymous sex in this underground are themselves an unusual and volatile mixture of blunt naturalism and evocative surrealism–a style of writing deliberately reminiscent of the French writer and fellow “queer” Jean Genet. Describing one surprisingly compassionate encounter in a stranger’s car, pulled to the side of the road in a desert, with both men on the lookout for police, Wojnarowicz is lost in himself when the sexual act is completed. “I’m listening to my soul speak in sign language or barely perceptible whisperings,” he writes, ” . . . and had a cop car pulled up in that moment and had I possession of a gun, I’d have not thought twice about using it.”
All of these experiences, Wojnarowicz implies, go a long way toward explaining his murderous rages. He turns to thoughts of violence in part because American society denies the legitimacy of his longings, and criminalizes their expression. Rage in many ways is the only reasonable response to a fundamentally unreasonable world.
If Wojnarowicz turned to his imagination to give his painful life a kind of poetry, he turned to art as a way of giving sense to the world and to his own existence–critic Lippard notes that he “makes no bones about the fact that ‘making things’ stemmed [his] self-destructive tides.” Art has also served, and still does serve, as a way for him to be visible in a society that depends on his invisibility, terrified that a “few images [of diverse sexuality] will cause the foundations of civilization to crumble and family structures to implode.”
Wojnarowicz looks upon his work as a way of preserving an “alternate history” of the times, a history far different from that made and preserved by American elites. His essays on the Hudson River piers memorialize a bygone time that was to many a kind of sexual paradise, before the advent of AIDS. Because he’s able to explain both the terror and the beauty of this sexual underground, he makes available the complex, highly equivocal historical meanings of this particular subculture in a way few other writers could.
Similarly the title essay, “Living Close to the Knives,” an account of his lover’s last few days of life, helps to record the human complexities of these plague years. The essay’s centerpiece is Hujar’s stubborn, hopeless visit to an obviously fraudulent doctor in hopes of a respite from AIDS. Because Wojnarowicz spares the readers no details, the essay serves as a realistic and believable record of his lover’s death and his own complex feelings toward the man: a mixture of tenderness and anger–anger directed in part at the doctor, in part at Hujar’s understandable but nearly insufferable rages, but mostly at the world that made the doctor possible.
Close to the Knives is oddly reminiscent of an earlier book by an American outsider, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Like Knives, Baldwin’s was an angry book, plainly depicting the violence and bigotry facing American blacks; it helped to explain the unwillingness of many blacks in the mid-60s to assimilate into the larger white culture. Many of Baldwin’s insights anticipate Wojnarowicz’s. “I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them,” Baldwin wrote. “They, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. . . . The Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live.” Replace “white” with “straight,” “Negro” with “queer,” and you have much of Wojnarowicz’s argument in a nutshell.
Baldwin goes on to explore the peculiar symbiosis of white and black in American life; his explanation also illuminates the strange mix of voyeurism and hatred that characterizes homophobic reactions. “The white man’s unadmitted–and apparently, to him, unspeakable–private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro,” Baldwin argues. “The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to be black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.” One suspects that Wojnarowicz and others like him are vilified in part because they so openly represent the desires many of their detractors have attempted to repress in themselves.
In The Fire Next Time Baldwin attempted to go beyond his anger at injustice to the higher ground of love. Wojnarowicz does not emphasize the need to love his oppressors. Perhaps this is a fault; I find it hard to blame him. It is difficult to love the homophobes who have been cheerleaders for genocide, like the Texas politician Wojnarowicz quotes as saying, “If you want to stop AIDS shoot all the queers.” As Baldwin sadly noted, it “demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck.” Wojnarowicz does attempt to get beyond his rage–he is, as he says, “horrified that I feel this desire for murder”–but again and again he’s overcome by the feeling. At least he’s honest enough to admit his hatred, unlike many of his opponents, who hide their bigotry within faux-philosophical discussions of “immorality.” He critiques his own hatred even as he attacks the conditions that have brought it forth.
Like Baldwin, Wojnarowicz has lived many of America’s failings. An important element of his story is the attempt to understand how these failings have poisoned him, turning his thoughts to vengeance. But if vengeance comes to those like Helms, it will not be because of any agitation on Wojnarowicz’s part; Helms is his own worst enemy. Wojnarowicz is not, finally, a threat to America’s morals; he is a threat to America’s vast immorality.
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz, Vintage Books, $11.