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Wayne Koestenbaum’s Seriously Campy, Anti-Dandy, Big Gay Collection of Essays

The virtuoso of queer theory’s rhetorically playful and nuanced prose on AIDS, Lana Turner, and the ‘imminence of nothingness’

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Lana Turner, 1941. (Original photo Library of Congress)
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I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort.

But of course, with these words Koestenbaum is reminding us of the AIDS epidemic, and so history and the public world end up inside the essay after all. Indeed, in another prose mosaic, “Heidegger’s Mistress,” he explains that AIDS had a formative effect on his digressive and fanciful way of writing: “I write this way not merely because I enjoy being irreverent or atopical but because when AIDS hit in the early 1980s I decided not to waste my maybe-very-short life writing what I didn’t want to write or obeying rules that in the grand scheme of things (death) didn’t exist. The imminence of nothingness was the only rule I would obey.”

The imminence of nothingness, combined with the love of nuance, would seem to point to a carpe-diem sensibility, a kind of Paterian dedication to the hard, gem-like flame of aesthetic experience. Walter Pater, like Proust, was one of those writers who defies Sontag’s binary: He was an aesthete, but an intensely earnest, “Jewish” aesthete. This sort of aesthete stands at the opposite pole from the Wildean dandy, for whom extravagance goes hand in hand with indifference and irony and ennui.

Koestenbaum, too, for all his rhetorical playfulness, seems fundamentally resistant to dandyism. What could be more camp, one might think, than an essay devoted to the screen image and sordid personal life of Lana Turner? Yet “Privacy in the Films of Lana Turner” turns out to be at once too intellectual and too confessional to really qualify as camp. When Koestenbaum calls Turner’s platinum bun a “punctum,” “where the mind, contemplating Lana, turns over on itself,” he is a kind of philosopher; and when he juxtaposes Turner’s murderous family life with the quarrels of his own family, he verges on Freudian self-revelation.

Indeed, the big paradox of Koestenbaum’s writing is that, for all its ostensible devotion to nuance and the punctum, he is not actually very curious about the minutiae of the outside world. Instead, he always returns in the end to one master subject, one studium, which is himself. When that self is treated introspectively and biographically, as in “Heidegger’s Mistress”—in which Koestenbaum discusses his father’s flight from Nazi Germany as a teenager in the 1930s—he can be affecting. More often, however, Koestenbaum is interested in the theoretical self, the self as it perceives and writes, and this is almost always a dull subject—as dull as putting a microscope under its own lens. “I write to wallow—to feel a soaring upward and then a crash downward,” he tells us. “Diction should hurt. I like to twist a word into its dirty groove.”

But in the end, who cares what a writer feels when he writes? What matters is what he knows and how much of that knowledge he can share with the reader. Subject matter is a great liberator, because it turns the writer’s eye away from himself and toward the outside world and thereby frees him from solitude. Koestenbaum, on the other hand, confesses that “I write for solitude’s sake, not for companionship or communication. My writing may seem chatty but its aims are inexpressive and abstract.” When he escapes the prison of his own intellectual virtuosity, Koestenbaum can be a moving and surprising writer; but in My 1980s he does not escape it often enough.

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Wayne Koestenbaum’s Seriously Campy, Anti-Dandy, Big Gay Collection of Essays

The virtuoso of queer theory’s rhetorically playful and nuanced prose on AIDS, Lana Turner, and the ‘imminence of nothingness’

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