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My 1980s and Other Essays

9780374709761 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2013
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Waynekoestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum

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Wayne Koestenbaum returns with a zesty and hyper-literate collection of personal and critical essays

Wayne Koestenbaum has been described as "an impossible lovechild from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag" (Bidoun). In My 1980s and Other Essays, a collection of extravagant range and style, he rises to the challenge of that improbable description.

My 1980s and Other Essays opens with a series of manifestos—or, perhaps more appropriately, a series of impassioned disclosures, intellectual and personal. It then proceeds to wrestle with a series of major cultural figures, the author's own lodestars and lodestones: literary (John Ashbery, Roberto Bolaño, James Schuyler), artistic (Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol), and simply iconic (Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, Lana Turner). And then there is the personal—the voice, the style, the flair—that is unquestionably Koestenbaum. It amounts to a kind of intellectual autobiography that culminates in a string of passionate calls to creativity; arguments in favor of detail and nuance, and attention; a defense of pleasure, hunger, and desire in culture and experience.

Koestenbaum is perched on the cusp of being a true public intellectual—his venues are more mainstream than academic, his style is eye-catching, his prose unfailingly witty and passionate, his interests profoundly wide-ranging and popular. My 1980s should be the book that pushes Koestenbaum off that cusp and truly into the public eye.

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An excerpt from My 1980s and Other Essays

My 1980s


  • Les Fleuves m’ont laissé descendre où je voulais. —Arthur Rimbaud 


I met Tama Janowitz once in the 1980s. (Was it 1987?) She probably doesn’t remember our encounter. She was a visiting fellow at Prince ton, where I was a graduate student in En glish. At a university gathering, Joyce Carol Oates complimented the ostentatious way that Tama and I were dressed. Seeking system, I replied, “Tama is East Village. I’m West Village.” 

• 

I had little to do with art in the eighties. I saw Caravaggio in Rome, and Carpaccio in Venice. I neglected the contemporary. For half the decade I lived in New York City, and yet I didn’t go to a single Andy Warhol opening. Missed opportunities? My mind was elsewhere. 

• 

My mind was on écriture feminine as applied to homosexuals. I was big on the word homosexual. I read Homosexualities and French Literature (edited by George Stambolian and Elaine Marks). I read Hélène Cixous. On a train I read Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard); I looked out dirty windows onto dirty New Jersey fields. I began to take autobiography seriously as a historical practice with intellectual integrity. On an airplane I read Michel Leiris’s Manhood (translated by Richard Howard) and grooved to Leiris’s mention of a “bitten buttock”; I decided to become, like Leiris, a self-ethnographer. I read André Gide’s Immoralist (translated by Richard Howard) in Hollywood, Florida, while lying on a pool deck. I read many books translated by Richard Howard. In the eighties I read The Fantastic by Tzvetan Todorov (translated by Richard Howard) and meditated on the relation between fantasy and autobiography. I brought Richard Howard flowers the first time I met him (1985), in his book-lined apartment. He assured me that I was a poet. 

• 

I discovered the word essentialism in the late eighties. I should have discovered it earlier. Sex-and-gender essentialism was a dread fate. I feared that it was my condition. Essentialists believed in God and trusted the government. In the early nineties, after I stopped worrying about my essentialism, I realized that I’d never been an essentialist after all. 

• 

Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person-singular pronoun. Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it. 

• 

I am typing this essay on the IBM Correcting Selectric III typewriter I bought in 1981 for one thousand dollars. I borrowed the money from my older brother, a cellist. It took me several years to pay him back. • In the eighties I worked as a legal secretary, a paralegal, and a legal proofreader. I freelanced as a typist, $l.50 per page. I temped for Kelly Girl; one pleasurable assignment was a stint at the Girl Scouts headquarters. I taught seventh- through twelfth-grade English at a yeshiva. I tutored a man from Japan in English conversation. I didn’t turn a single trick.

• 

This morning I asked my boyfriend, an architect, about the 1980s. I said, “Let’s make a list of salient features of our eighties.” We came up with just two items: cocaine, AIDS. 

• 

In 1980 after Reagan was elected I began, in repulsed reaction, to read the New York Times . Before then, I’d never read the newspaper. 

• 

I remember a specific homeless woman on the Upper West Side in the 1980s. She smelled predictably of pee or shit and hung out in an ATM parlor near the Seventy-Second Street subway stop. She seemed to rule the space. Large, she epitomized. Did I ever give her money? I blamed Reagan. 

• 

A stranger smooched me during a “Read My Lips” kiss-in near the Jefferson Market Public Library: festive politics. 1985? I stumbled on the ceremony. Traffic stopped. 

• 

A cute short blond guy named Mason used to brag about sex parties; I was jealous. I didn’t go to sex parties. He ended up dying of AIDS. I’m not pushing a cause-and-effect argument. 

• 

In 1985 I read Mario Mieli’s Homosexuality and Liberation. I bought, but did not read, an Italian periodical, hefty and intellectually substantial, called Sodoma: Rivista Omosessuale di Cultura. That year, I turned to Georges Bataille for bulletins on the solar anus, for lessons on smart, principled obscenity. 

• 

A handsome brunet poet came to my apartment, and I dyed his hair blond. I had a crush on him. He talked a lot about Michel Foucault. The poet and I bought the dye on Sixth Avenue in the Village. In my kitchen he stripped to his undershorts, which had holes. His nipples were large and erect: impressive! I’d never seen such ready-to-go nipples. He leaned over the kitchen sink; I washed his hair and applied the dye. I kept on my undershirt during the session; I wasn’t proud of my body (though in retrospect I respect its scrawiness). I continued to read Foucault throughout the eighties. Foucault never deeply moved me. I switched to Maurice Blanchot in the late nineties. 

• 

My boyfriend worked out downstairs. We lived above a gay gym: the Body Center, corner of Sixth and Fifteenth, now the David Barton Gym. After midnight we could hear loud music coming through our radiators: the Body Center’s cleaning crew had turned up the sound system. 

• 

Geographical facts: during the 1980s, I lived in Cambridge, Baltimore, New York, New Haven. The important city was New York: 1984– 1988. There, I worked out at the McBurney Y. I swam in its skanky, dank, tiny, cloudy, over-warm pool. I recall a not-handsome guy shaving off his body hair at the sink. Careful, I didn’t once enter the Y’s cramped sauna. 

• 

I read all of Proust in summer 1986. Proust and summer passed quickly. That same summer I reread James Schuyler’s Morning of the Poem and experienced an AIDS-panic-related sense of life’s brevity; houseguest, I sat on an Adirondack chair in Southold, Long Island. My host, hardy in the garden, was ill with AIDS. I recall wild blueberries I picked with him, and his reticence, and mine. 

• 

In 1986 or ’87 I heard Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick give a lecture on “unknowing” in Diderot’s The Nun. I had just read her Between Men. Her difficult lucidity gave my stumbling concepts one warm, fruitful context.

• 

In 1984 I took a course in feminist theory with Elaine Showalter and decided to be a male feminist. I decided not to write a dissertation about John Ashbery and W. H. Auden. Instead, I wanted to write a flaming treatise. In a seminar on the Victorian novel, Showalter showed slides of Charcot’s hysterics in arcs-en-cercle and of fin de siècle faces disfigured by syphilis. I flipped out with intellectual glee. Hysteria would be my open sesame. 

• 

In the eighties I was happiest when writing “syllabic” poems. Superstitiously I discovered my existence’s modicum of dignity and value by counting duration in syllables, on my fingers, while I typed, on the same Selectric I am using now. 

• 

I saw Taxi zum Klo and Diva: two films that made a dent. I went to all the gay movies. L ’ homme blessé. On TV I saw Brideshead Revisited and the Patrice Chéreau production of Wagner’s Ring. I went to Charlie Chan movies (guilty pleasure) at Theater 80 St. Marks; there, my treat was buying a blue mint from the transparent vessel on the dim-lit lobby’s counter. I saw Shoah: only the first part. I heard Leonie Rysanek sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Ortrud in Lohengrin and Kundry in Parsifal at the Met, and Sieglinde in Die Walküre in San Francisco. I heard Christa Ludwig’s twenty-fifth-anniversary performance at the Met: Klytämnestra in Strauss’s Elektra, December 20, 1984. 

• 

I wore a bright red Kikit baseball jacket and red espadrilles. I decided that bright blue and red—DayGlo, neon, opalescent—were passports to private revolution. I wore a paisley tux jacket and black patent- leather cowboy boots. I didn’t mind looking vulgar, slutty, off-base.

• 

I spent a lot of the eighties thinking about Anna Moffo, soprano—her career’s ups and downs, and her timbre’s uncanny compromise between vulnerability and voluptuousness. I regret not buying her Debussy song album, used, at Academy Records on West Eighteenth Street: on the soft-focus cover, she wore a summer hat. The LP era ended. 

• 

I focused on my sadness as if it were an object in the room, a discrete, dense entity, impervious to alteration. I never used the word subjectivity in the 1980s, though I was fond of gap, blank page, masculine, and feminine. I planned to call my first book of poems Queer Street, nineteenth- century British slang for shady circumstances, debt, bankrupty, blackmail. I found the phrase in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

• 

In 1980 my new boyfriend gave me a 45 rpm single (blue-labeled Chrysalis) of Blondie’s “Call Me” (from American Gigolo). We considered it our theme song. Then I stopped listening to “popular” music. Not consciously. Not programmatically. The defection happened naturally. 

• 

In 1981 I made an onion-bacon-apple casserole from The Joy of Cooking. I served it, as a main dish, to a schizophrenic friend. A few years later she sent me a letter, dated 1975. This significant confusion of chronology meant that she had cracked up. I began methodically to cook from Marcella Hazan. I tirelessly stirred risotto in a cheap aluminum saucepan with high sides. I made a bombe aux trois chocolats from Julia Child: a molded dessert, for which I used a beige Tupperware bowl.

• 

In 1983 I served a friend a veal roast stuffed with pancetta. We agreed that the roast tasted like human baby. We blamed the pancetta. 

• 

Sometime in the mid-eighties I stopped swallowing cum. I don’t miss its taste. 

• 

The first guy I knew with AIDS died at age thirty-five. His name was Metro. I’ve written about this death before, and I hesitate to repeat myself. I have almost no visual memory of Metro, though I recall his precision and hypercapability; we lay on a stony beach, Long Island Sound, more rock than sand. What sand there was he dusted off his body with decisive, practiced gestures. 

• 

I went to Paris for the first time in the eighties: I wore blue leather gloves purchased on Christopher Street. In a rue Jacob hotel bedroom I woke up, sweat-drenched, feverish; I observed the wallpaper’s mesmerizing, dull pattern, its refusal to serve as reliable augury. On the flight back from Paris I read Marianne Moore’s prose and picked up pointers from its ornery mannerism. 

• 

Despite my best efforts, I existed in history, not as agent but as frightened, introspective observer. I began to fine-tune my sentences—a fastidiousness I learned from Moore’s prose. Precise sentences were my ideals, though in practice I was slipshod and sentimental. I began to seek a balance between improvisation and revision. I revised by endlessly retyping. 

• 

I read Freud in the eighties. He was always describing me, my likenesses, my forebears. Anna O. became my touchstone. I decided that psychoanalysis was the hysterical child born from Freud’s anus.

• 

In 1981 I read Susan Sontag’s On Photography. In 1982 I read her Under the Sign of Saturn. I swore allegiance to the aphorism. But I didn’t read Walter Benjamin until the nineties. 

• 

In 1981 I published for the first time: a story, “In the White Forest,” in a small periodical, The Pale Fire Review. In 1982 I stopped writing fiction. The last story I wrote, “Liberty Baths,” autobiographically reported my San Francisco bathhouse experiences of summer 1979. A guy I met at the baths took me to his loft. A commercial photographer, he shot a whole roll of me nude, from the rear. I was insulted that he didn’t photograph me frontally. I should have been grateful that he found one angle comely. 

• 

I spent the summer of 1983 writing fifty sonnets. My stylistic model was Auden’s sequence In Time of War: I loved his phrase “Anxiety / Receives them like a grand hotel.” I put together a manuscript called, unadventurously, “Fifty Sonnets.” It never got published as a book. In one of the sonnets, I rhymed “Callas” and “callous.” 

• 

The world was doing its best to ignore the fact that I was a writer. In search of fragile legitimacy, I obsessively submitted work to periodicals. Rejection slips arrived, sometimes with a beckoning “Thanks!” or “Sorry!” or “Send more?” I always sent more, immediately, with a treacly letter, informing the hapless editor how much the invitation to send more had meant to me. 

I was not thinking about the world. I was not thinking about history. I was thinking about my body’s small, precise, limited, hungry movement forward into a future that seemed at every instant on the verge of being shut down. 

• 

I didn’t take the HIV test until the nineties. I spent most of the eighties worried about being HIV-positive, only discovering, in the nineties, that I was negative. My attitude in the eighties was: wait and see. Wait for symptoms. When a friend suggested I get tested, I broke off the friendship. It wasn’t much of a friendship. She wanted us to write a collaborative book on Verdi’s Oedipus complex. A semi-invalid, she sent me on errands to buy doll house furniture—her hobby. 

• 

I heard Leontyne Price sing a recital at the Met on March 24, 1985. I still remember the sensation of her voice in my body. I think she gave “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La Rondine as an encore. 

I read Jacques Derrida’s Spurs (translated by Barbara Harlow). I wondered why he didn’t use male testicles—instead of vaginas and veils—as metaphors. Invaginate, indeed! In the 1980s I made snap judgments. 

• 

Poems I published in the eighties, in small periodicals, but never collected into a book: “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”; “ Carmen in Digital for a Deaf Woman”; “Teachers of Obscure Subjects”; “The Babysitter in the Ham Radio.” I published my first full-length essay in 1987: its polite subtitle was “Oblique Confession in the Early Work of John Ashbery.” 

• 

In the eighties I wrote book reviews for the New York Native, a now-defunct gay newspaper. Among my subjects: James Schuyler’s A Few Days, John Ashbery’s April Galleons, Sylvère Lotringer’s Overexposed: Treating Sexual Perversion in America

• 

Does any of this information matter? I am not responsible for what matters and what doesn’t matter. Offbeat definition of materialism: a worldview in which every detail matters, in which every factual statement is material. 

• 

I bought soft-core porn magazines—Mandate, Honcho, others—from a newsstand on Fourteenth Street. I felt guilty about my insatiably scopophilic core; culpable, it could never get its fill of images. Over the years I began to notice changes in porn bodies: the men were growing younger. Now, when I look back at those magazines (I’ve saved many), the men seem like old friends, guys I went to school with. Max Archer. Chad Douglas. Jesus. 

• 

I have always had a rather limited circle of friends; although I am superficially gregarious, most human contact makes me, eventually, uncomfortable. I didn’t realize this fact in the eighties. During those years, I was intensely ill at ease. 

• 

I stopped using drugs (pot, cocaine) when I began to take AIDS seriously. Health suddenly mattered: I wanted always to feel tip-top, without chemical enhancement. 

• 

If my eighties don’t match yours, chalk up the mismatch to the fact that I am profoundly out of touch with my time. I never chose to nominate myself as historical witness. 

• 

Notice, please, my absence of nostalgia. 

I started dyeing my hair in 1984: reddish highlights. I stopped in 1988. I returned to nature. 

• 

My mission in the eighties was to develop my aestheticism. My mission in the nineties was to justify my aestheticism. 

• 

In 1988 I started teaching at Yale. I decided to wear bow ties. I had several: red polka-dot; blue polka- \dot; amber with black triangles; neon yellow. The first semester, I taught a required core course on Chaucer, Spenser, and Donne. I also taught my first elective: a seminar decorously titled “Literature and Sexuality: Countertraditions.” I was hyperconscious of authorities. In 1989, I published my first book, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. When the published book first arrived in my apartment, I admired its cover—George Platt Lynes’s photograph The Second Birth of Dionysus—but wished the book were a novel instead: same cover, different contents. 

• 

In New Haven, outside my apartment, 1989, I was mugged. A guy said, “Give me your wallet or I’ll blow your brains out.”

• 

In 1989 I developed a sustaining, mood-brightening crush on the UPS man. Hundreds—thousands—of men and women in New Haven must have had a crush on that same UPS man. The first time he appeared at my doorstep with a package, I thought that a Candid Camera porn movie had just begun. If you want me to describe him, I will. 

• 

When I look back at the eighties I see myself as a small boat. It is not an important, attractive, or likable boat, but it has a prow, a sail, and a modest personality. It has no consciousness of the water it moves through. Some days it resembles Rimbaud’s inebriated vessel. Other, clearer days, it is sober and undemonstrative. There are few images or adjectives we could affix to the boat; there are virtually no ways to classify it. Its only business is staying afloat. Thus the boat is amoral. It has been manufactured in a certain style. Any style contains a history. The boat is not conscious of the history shaping its movements. The boat, undramatic, passive, at best pleasant, at worst slapdash, persistently attends to the work of flotation, which takes precedence over responsible navigation. As far as the boat is concerned, it is the only vessel on the body of water. How many times must I repeat the word boat to convince you that in the eighties I was a small boat with a minor mission and a fear of sinking? The boat did not sink. 



(2003)

  • "There's anxiety in Koestenbaum's work. There's wonder here, too, and the combination of the two give me a critic that I not only want to read but a critic I want to get to know. It's human to worry, and writing about these worries is a perfect bonding agent. "

    Bookslut

  • "Koestenbaum's essays showcase a stunning display of carefully crafted sentences in an almost dizzying variety of arrangements. The result is a collection that is by turns funny, moving and insightful."

    SF Gate