In his essay on art critic James Schuyler in his recently published collection My 1980s and Other Essays, cultural critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum writes, “Liking is itself an art and a difficult one.” Using this statement as his own personal mantra, Koestenbaum proves the utter critical importance of unabashed obsession and fanaticism.
Writing from his singular, unquestionably gay perspective (Koestenbaum is an unrepentant opera queen), Koestenbaum draws the reader into his loves and doesn’t let them go until they join him in adoration. Whether pontificating on topics ranging from his fanboy infatuation with Debbie Harry to his friendship with queer theory goddess Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to a sublime imagined conversation between bombshell actress and Harley Davidson grinder Brigitte Bardot and artist Karen Kilimnik on identity, fame and shopping in shorts, Koestenbaum revels in his obsessions with authors, artists, celebrities and other cultural figures.
His infectious enthusiasm for his subjects allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for these cultural artifacts. For example, I always found video artist Ryan Trecartin’s seizure-inducing, Chipmunk-voiced films completely aggravating and nearly unbearable. However after reading Koestenbaum’s essay on Trecartin’s work, “Situation Hacker,” I revisited Trecartin’s videos and found a new appreciation for them, which is exactly the role of a cultural critic. Not to tear down, not to be snarky, not to attempt to prove their own intellectual worth, but to cause the reader to take another look at a piece of art.
Partially Koestenbaum’s intriguing and quick-witted writing style is to thank (blame?) for instantly capturing the reader’s attention. Filled with flights of thought and sometimes entirely random personal antidotes, Koestenbaum’s writing makes an effort to mine the unexpected, the minor, seemingly unimportant pieces or moments in culture.
In his essay “In Defense of Nuance” on Roland Barthes, Koestenbaum reveals his intent to focus on the smaller nuances or what Barthes would call the punctum. Koestenbaum notes, “How do we travel between the doxa and the neutral, between the studium and the punctum, between the obvious and the obtuse? How can we switch from ordinary to sacred time? Recklessly. Don’t signal. Don’t make an announcement. Simply drift, or veer, into the other lane” (54).
Veering into sometimes random thoughts, details and memories, Koestenbaum’s transition between the obvious to the obtuse is undoubtedly reckless, following Barthes lead. From one reckless critic to another, I have to tell Koestenbaum: it is appreciated.
Read My Lips
Perhaps the most jolting, moving and thought-provoking essay in the collection is “My 1980s,” a collection of Koestenbaum’s memories, both major and minor remembrances, from that decade, which Koestenbaum semi-jokingly boils down to “cocaine and AIDS” (5). From memories of a homeless woman on a block of the Upper West Side to his reading Susan Sontag for the first time to the first person he knew who died from complications from AIDS, Koestenbaum’s 1980s is at once mundane and historically significant.
“My 1980s” highlights the place most of us find ourselves in relation to history, as occasionally participating observers on the periphery of history. At times we are touched by history but more often than not, we live our lives completely alienated from it. As Koestenbaum admits, “Despite my best efforts, I existed in history, not as an agent but as a frightened, introspective observer” (9).
This place in history comes out in Koestenbaum’s “My 1980s” in relation to his position to the AIDS crisis and the losses in the gay communities, in which he finds himself, from participating in an ACT-UP “Read My Lips” kiss-in to remembering friends and acquaintances who passed away to his own fear and hesitation to get tested. Often his memories, like most of our memories, hit on seemingly minute details in life rather than larger historical context and importance.
For example thinking of the first person he knew with AIDS, Koestenbaum remembers, “The first guy I knew with AIDS died at thirty-five. His name was Metro. I’ve written about his death before, I hesitate to repeat myself. I have absolutely 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” (9).
Like Koestenbaum, we could all write our own memories of various decades in our lives and most of us would come up with essays and thoughts much like Koestenbaum’s which are made up of insignificant details that add up to a much larger, more important record of experience. Looking at Koestenbaum, this individual history’s relation, albeit at times peripheral, to a larger history is a powerful, profound essay to read.
Koestenbaum’s 1980s might not be my 1980s or yours but as he explains, “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” (12).
In “I Went By A Devious Route,” Koestenbaum writes, “Proust gave me leave to pursue infatuation as a calling” (275). Perhaps purposefully, Koestenbaum gives readers this same leave as he structures his essays as odes to his obsessions, managing to not appear solely as a pathetic, hand-wringing teenage fanatic. With essays such as “The Pump” detailing his love for opera soprano Anna Moffo including her scuffed Ferragamo pumps (can you say foot fetish?), Koestenbaum delves almost worrisomely yet always amusingly into his favorite things.
My absolute favorite essay in this vein is “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket,” an extended commentary on Blondie singer Debbie Harry who I also adore but not nearly as much as Koestenbaum. Koestenbaum obsesses about aspects of Harry such as her perfect facial structure, the meaning of her icy voice as she croons “I’m not the kind of girl” in “The Tide Is High” and her strutting walk as she wandered down 23rd Street to visit the grocery store in front of Koestenbaum.
Koestenbaum describes, “In the late 1990s, I stood behind Debbie Harry in line at Sloan’s. we lived in the same apartment complex, a behemoth. Sloan’s, the unsavory supermarket around the block was our common ground. One summer evening, a rat crawled past my flip-flop clad feet while I waited in the checkout line. I vowed never again to wear flip-flops while food shopping. If this essay is an allegory, I’m the rat, scurrying alone interpretive thoroughfares where my filth isn’t wanted” (265).
Clearly anything written about filth excites me but his implication that he is a rat, unworthy of Debbie Harry’s dazzling stardom is hysterical and an example to all us fanatics everywhere.
As an unabashed fanatic like Koestenbaum, Koestenbaum’s infatuation with these cultural figures only encourages me and gives me license to be more teenage fan girl-y. I now have a cultural critic to point to when I field complaints that I think too much about David Wojnarowicz’s elongated face and almost impossibly deep voice or when I geek out about Nick Cave’s impeccably tailored suits and short-lived but memorable mustache.
My, My, Myra
I found myself in one of those dumbstruck moments reading Koestenbaum’s incredible, deranged essay “The Rape of Rusty.” Not only analyzing the scene from cranky old Gore Vidal’s classic Myra Breckinridge when Myra, a transsexual and cinema fanatic rapes bro-y Rusty, Koestenbaum conflates this scene with the campy film version of Myra featuring Raquel Welch and his own experiences and sexual awakening watching his grammar school teacher paddle the bare bottom of one of his classmates.
I know, pick your jaw off the floor, this essay is just sublime. I would analyze it further but I don’t want to ruin it, just read it.