Reading: Close to the Knives, by David Wojnarowicz

I recently read the memoir of David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist and activist from New York most active through the 1980s. Titled Close to the Knives, it’s a remarkable book; the writing is insightful and thoughtful, the content deeply emotional, sexual, and political. Most of all it’s thoroughly honest: Wojnarowicz reveals himself in deeply personal detail through key events of his life, but also sharing his dreams, fantasies, and feelings, each as needed to show what he wants to communicate.

I found it gripping; I kept wanting to get back to it as I read it in the evenings after work, and I thought about it a great deal in between and afterward. Reading it felt very much like the kind of intimate conversation you might have with a new friend who’s dared to trust you enough to become personal and vulnerable with you. More than most writing, it felt very much like being in the author’s presence and getting to know him, with all his flaws and insights, struggles and perceptions. The detailed descriptions of his experiences and his thoughts and feelings about them include all aspects of his life; for Wojnarowicz, sexuality was an essential element of living and an important part of expression and emotional fulfillment. After describing a passionate sexual encounter with a man he doesn’t name, he describes the mental and emotional effect of the experience:

“In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room, and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.” (p.17)

We come from similar cultures, but his life is very different from mine. An abusive father and a broken home brought him a violent childhood, followed by an adolescence of desperate homelessness and periods of substance abuse; all struggles I was spared. Despite our very different experiences, much of his thinking about the world, and many of his feelings about living in it, are familiar and relatable.

“I think of these trees and how they look like the winter forests of my childhood and how they were always places of refuge: endless hours spent among them creating small myths of myself alone … I realized then how I always tend to mythologize the people, things, landscapes I love, always wanting them to somehow extend forever through time and motion. It’s a similar sense I have for lovers, wanting to have some degree of permanence in my contact with them but it never really goes that way.” (p.79)

Much of what he describes and expresses is about choosing how to live one’s life, and the challenges of being born into a society that won’t make room for what is just, or for what one’s own nature demands. He describes the pre-invented world where everything is bought up and owned before you’re born, and the power structures are set before you can consent to them. He sees the dominant culture of his society attempting to retain and enforce hegemony in the exercise of power and personal expression. The central culture of the state attempts to homogenize the society and marginalize difference – to enforce the effect, or the illusion, of a ‘one-tribe nation’ with an approved and common culture which suits the aims of those in power, and which crushes the spirit of people who lack power or who can’t belong to the approved culture.

And he describes as well the cost, and the spiritual necessity, of refusing to conform to that imposed culture when it is unjust or unsuited to one’s self, and the consequent suffering he and others experience:

“My fear was based on understanding the social structure that beckoned to me and promised a life of security and support to me if I would just embrace its illusion and lies. If I let this illusion wrap its arms around me I knew I’d suffer a death more terrifying than physical death: an emotional and intellectual strangulation. The life … was one in an activity I cared nothing about but would repeat endlessly until the day my teeth fell out, all in order to be able to eat and sleep inside a tiny wood and plaster structure he’d allow me to call: home” (p.170)

Wojnarowicz chooses instead to live a life and a lifestyle that feel true to him, as far as he can within what room he can carve out in the margins of that pre-invented world. He finds a ‘chosen family’ and community to which he can belong, and from which he draws comfort and fulfillment. But he writes also about the pain and anguish of watching that community be destroyed – proximally by the AIDS virus, but even more so by the indifference and deliberate antipathy of the powerful actors of the state.

After introducing the reader to himself, through a series of vignettes and stories, he introduces us to his society – through experiences on a road trip through the United States. He writes as an observer, describing what he sees and his understanding of it. And he sees many of the same things I’ve come to see in my time living in this country. The political influence of the wealthy and of religion, the power and effects of the plutocrat-controlled media, the growing poverty and economic disparity, and the public policy that seems unconcerned, or even deliberately antipathetic, to the suffering of the public.

“Driving around the city, it didn’t take long to realize that if you didn’t have a vehicle, a machine of speed, you owned poverty. … Other than the clouds in the sky, an occasional bird or dog and the anonymous nomadic poor, all movement in the city was confined to the automobile.” (p.30)

I’m not poor – I have a salaried job and general security, but even I know how the lack of an automobile isolates me from the social and cultural life of Los Angeles. The landscape of the US – urban, suburban, and rural, is familiar from his descriptions, and so, thirty years later, are the circumstances of its people.

Wojnarowicz also sees the political landscape that is the root of so much of those circumstances. An artist in both photography and painting, Wojnarowicz sees the media, and recognizes the power of images in newspapers and on screens. And he sees how they’re used for political power, even merging together with it:

“In a country where an actor becomes the only acceptable president, a country where fewer than half of those eligible to vote even bother to do so – and when they do they elect for two terms a man whose vocation is to persuade with words and actions an audience who wants to believe whatever he tells them – in this context, violence presents a truth that can’t be distorted like words and images” (p.173)

And soon after:

“… the sawdust pouring out of Reagan’s ears on the landscape of television did nothing to wake very many people up, and thus we have a former cia [sic] director as our current death god. The streets have become our sacrificial temples, with millions of homeless and millions more entering that status.” (p.174)

Partway through, though, the theme turns very decidedly to death, and the grief and dislocation that travel with it. All throughout are his descriptions of life inthe killing machine called America, where there is death for minorities, for the poor, for lesbians and gays and his community. But also where whole cities work to build new missile systems, and where the government deals death indiscriminately overseas.

But as the AIDS crisis erupts, the experience of, and the reflections on, death become more personal and more deeply emotional. Wojnarowicz watches the disease spread rapidly as the government responds slowly, if at all. He rages at politicians and religious leaders who either seem, or explicitly are, eager to see the deaths of thousands of people if they’re the kind of people they don’t care about. His community is shocked by loss, frightened for their safety, and decimated in numbers while Reagan’s staff chuckle about it in press briefings and the Cardinal of New York uses his political influence to keep safe sex lessons out of schools. He gives powerful descriptions of the experience of watching loved ones deteriorate and die, of desperate people turning to quack medical treatments, of neighbours wasting away on cold park benches for lack medical insurance. He drives friends to medical appointments, lends them money for medication, and stays by the side of his lover, mentor, artistic collaborator, and closest friend, Peter Hujar, through Hujar’s diagnosis, deterioration and death from AIDS.

Through a series of interviews and vignettes of his own experiences through all this, he reveals in detail the social surroundings and the difficulties faced by one friend who was ultimately driven to suicide. He describes trying to understand death as it happens around him, of numbing himself to each successive report that a friend has died, and finally of coming to grips with his own mortality once he himself is diagnosed with HIV. He details the emotional struggle of trying to make sense of his own life, his past, his place in the world, his thoughts and identity, when suffering and death are now imminently foreseen. Facing that mortality, he also wonders what he will become and experience, in the time he has left, and what the US will become in the next decades.

Reading today, of course, we know what came next. The party of Reagan and his former VP lost the next election, and lost their minds over Clinton. That CIA director’s son brought them back into power, and presided over a massive expansion of the security state and of domestic surveillance on his own people. And after another interregnum of rabid obstructionism and growing influence by fundamentalist and extreme elements, they would win power again with another media personality, this one astonishingly (and soon routinely) cruel and corrupt. The extraterritorial death-dealing would move from the arms-length deniability of the CIA to the open action of the military, and the domestic surveillance would be exposed again and again, and eventually take on new forms in the private sector. Those private sector surveillants would become the inheritors of the media power Wojnarowicz so recognized, in the age of so-called social media and of cultural and political propaganda at least as strong as what he saw on television.

The AIDS crisis would change too. It hasn’t gone away – thirty years after Wojnarowicz’s death, there’s no cure, and no vaccine. But there are treatments which make it possible to live a long and comparatively normal life, and there are both pre- and post-exposure prophylactics which can nearly eliminate the chance of transmission. In our present coronavirus pandemic, the FDA seems to have learned its lesson, and approved vaccines for emergency use on an accelerated timescale, balancing the need for testing and review with the urgent need to save life. (Or was it different this time because the general population was at risk, rather than a few neglected minority groups?)

Ultimately I think this memoir is a story about light in the darkness, and the impermanence thereof. David Wojnarowicz lived through a violent, painful childhood; he fled that and survived a dangerous and difficult adolescence. He eventually found places for expression and fulfillment – in a community and a chosen family, in art, in sexuality. He loved, he felt, he created, he connected, even amidst pain and injustice that never went away. But that community, those friends and lovers, those sources of fulfillment, and his own self and future, were taken from him one by one. In the closing pages, he compares the experience of facing his own mortality from AIDS with a bullfight – a deliberate, slow, and painful killing arising from the dominant traditions of the culture where it’s performed – and repeats the mantra smell the flowers while you can.

Whatever pain we come from, whatever scars we bear, we can all find beauty in the world. But it’s temporary – our lives are short, and might quickly become shorter. So the time to find beauty and connection, to care for each other, to create and share and learn and teach and build in this world is now, while we live. Those who would impose social structures to the detriment of that, but to the benefit of their own power, are the enemies of life and of humanity as much as any deadly virus.