Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Disintegration of David Wojnarowicz

Disturbing is not a word I throw around lightly when discussing literature. Maybe I’m anesthetized and cynical and it takes a lot to disturb me. Maybe a lot of writers avoid disturbing subject matter or just aren’t honest enough to portray the truly disturbing nature the world. Whatever the case may be, I can say undoubtedly that David Wojnarowicz’s book “Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration” disturbed me. The stories, snippets, essays and rants in this book are thick and heavy, and they’re sure to leave any reader unsettled, angry or downright sad. Take this as my disclaimer.

At its core, this book is the story of slow death from AIDS. There are a lot of suicides, far more suicide attempts, some dead and dying lovers, and behind it all hides a society that either doesn’t care or ignores the horrific disease because they think it doesn’t affect them. Wojnarowicz tackles these issues with prose that is raw, stripped bare and at times brutal. If this book reads like the journal of a dying man, that’s because it was published in 1991, a year before Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications.

While the subject matter and the events recounted in this book are depressing indeed, the book itself is not. Wojnarowicz (artist, filmmaker, contrarian, gay activist, and the list goes on) is too good of an artist to leave you depressed. He tales of prostitution, drug use and alienation are laced with hilarity and poetic insight.

As a queer American, Wojnarowicz  frequently lashes out at what he calls the myth of a “ONE-TRIBE NATION.” (He puts the phrase in all caps every time he uses it, sometimes in bold as well.) This is the basis for much of his disgust with American society. He calls this myth a denial of “the fact that there are millions of separate tribes in this illusion called AMERICA.” This is perhaps his most poignant critique, a dialectic that proves useful twenty-plus years after publication. LGBT Americans have been, and in many cases still are, a minority tribe in America, a tribe with historically few allies and many enemies. This notion of American tribalism is further enhanced by elements of religious tribalism, which set themselves apart from and in opposition to LGBT Americans.

Wojnarowicz spends a lot of time blasting politicians and religious leaders (which I’m a sucker for), reserving his most venomous attacks for those who have made it their goal to oppress gays. I’ll admit, however, that Wojnarowicz’s political arguments frequently fall into the shallow end of the pool. He rants, and occasionally he analyzes, but he doesn’t offer a coherent critique. Wojnarowicz eschews labels and systems of thought, and, like a lot of his avant-garde contemporaries, he doesn’t offer specific answers. This book could easily be criticized as an incoherent and idealistic, and I’m tempted to agree. But in the end Wojnarowicz’s work is just too damned powerful, enthralling and addictive. Like much of his art, “Close to the Knives” is raw and emotive. I love his use of language, the way he strips words of any philosophical or academic pretension. He is not a philosopher, but a student of the human spirit. He understands injustice, bigotry and equality, more so than millions of homophobic Americans today.

Well, that's one way to name a chapter.
The more I read from this guy and about him, the more I like him. I won’t rehash Wojnarowicz’s entire life and career here, because that would take a book-length work. (Plus, there’s Wikipedia for that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Wojnarowicz. And, look at that, I learned he was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, just up the shore from my hometown. Jersey shore pride!) The power of Wojnarowicz's work is evident in the recent hullabaloo about his film "A Fire in My Belly," which was part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The film was attacked as being anti-Christian, and the Smithsonian caved to censorship pressure and pulled the film. The LA Times has a good summary of the film, and here's the Smithsonian attempting to explain their decision to remove Wojnarowicz's work.
Being a photographer, filmmaker, and all-around artistic soul, Wojnarowicz has quite a few things to say about art and media in this book:

“History is made and preserved by and for particular classes of people. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”

“When you buy a newspaper you are being bought.”

“Describing the once indescribable can dismantle the power of taboo.”

“When I was a kid I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent.”

“What some people call ‘pornography’ is simply a rich historical record of sexual diversity that has been made invisible in this world for centuries by organized religion.”

Art quotes aside, this book is not easy to read. It’s hard to listen to Wojnarowicz write about his lovers and friends dying of AIDS, his struggles with the disease, and the sobriety with which he confronts his impending death. “As far as I’m concerned, if there is reincarnation, I’m refusing to come back. Once is enough. If there is somebody you appear before who determines where and when you’ll come back – I’ll punch them in the face. Maybe that will put me on the end of a very long line for the return flight.”

I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I do wish Wojnarowicz could have lived long enough to see the progress our society has made. Surely, he’d still be pissed, rightly mocking all those bigoted politicians and preachers who belong to bullshit organizations with “American” and “Family” in their titles. But I think he would also be proud of the effort LGBT activists and their straight allies have put forth in recent years.

I don’t say this often about writers (we're an odd bunch), but I truly wish I could have met this man. He is a real artist, and anyone interested in the struggle for LGBT rights should take a good look at his work.

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