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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’

Adam Kirsch
August 15, 2013
Lana Turner, 1941.(Original photo Library of Congress)
Lana Turner, 1941.(Original photo Library of Congress)

In her classic essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” Susan Sontag suggests that camp is to gays what liberalism is to Jews: “Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a particular affinity for liberal and reformist causes. So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard—and the most articulate audience—of Camp.” The analogy, in Sontag’s argument, goes even deeper. Jews and homosexuals are both traditional outsiders in Western culture, and the artistic and political agendas they pursue are means of emancipation and integration. With their liberalism, “Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense.” With Camp—which Sontag always capitalizes, as though it were an ideology—“Homosexuals have pinned their hopes for integrating into society on promoting the aesthetic sense.”

Seen in this way, these two sensibilities are opposites, Sontag writes. “Camp is a solvent of morality,” evaporating Jewish earnestness into playfulness. Yet these opposites have worked together to powerful effect in modern American pop culture, which is to a remarkable extent a product of Jewish and gay creativity. Sontag herself is an example of how the two sensibilities, and the two identities, can inhabit the same person. To straddle irony and sincerity, camp and liberalism, is to occupy a privileged vantage point on the world, not despite but because of the fact that historically it has meant being doubly excluded, doubly vulnerable.

In My 1980s & Other Essays, his new collection of short prose pieces, Wayne Koestenbaum gives a master class in this kind of creative straddling. The word is not idly chosen: When it comes to metaphors, Koestenbaum prefers bodily images, drawn if possible from the domain of sexual experience. This is one of the things that marks him as a product of “queer theory,” an academic movement that, like all such movements, enjoyed its subversive youth and is now passing into serene establishmentarianism. (Koestenbaum is a Distinguished Professor of English at CUNY.)

At times in Koestenbaum’s writing, this genuflection before the bodily and the sexual seems like a mere tic, or like one of those entirely arbitrary rules that the Oulipo writers like to impose on themselves, such as writing a novel without using the letter “e.” In a short piece on Hart Crane, for instance, Koestenbaum mentions Robert Lowell’s “thick lines of steel,” an apt if unsurprising description of Lowell’s severe, ringing early style. He then immediately follows this with “as in ‘buns of steel,’ ” alluding to the title of an old workout video. Nothing is gained, in terms of an understanding of Lowell or Crane, by this reference; it seems like a pure free association, or a gesture of subversive naughtiness. But what is actually being subverted here? At most, we are hearing the echo of a long-ago time when such irreverence in academic or critical writing was actually transgressive.

Yet there can also be a real integrity to Koestenbaum’s insistence on the bodily dimension of experiences ordinarily considered purely mental. When he writes, of Hart Crane’s poetry, that “In Crane’s buns/ lines I love the purposeless buildup, the hefty, panting artifice. His lines want to ‘get off,’ but they can’t,” he is saying something striking and true and helping the reader to understand Crane in a new way. The brilliant but uncoordinated rhetoric of Crane’s poetry is, in fact, unable to achieve (poetic) climax, and if using a sexual metaphor helps us to understand this, why not use it—especially when Crane is one of those poets, like Shelley, who clearly imitates the rhythms of sex in his verse?

Koestenbaum’s celebration of Crane, a hermetic poet, helps to underline the ways that his “queer” aesthetic often cuts across the imperatives of gay politics. The gay-rights movement is essentially a liberal movement, which makes it, in Sontag’s taxonomy, a “Jewish” movement; it is about equality and fairness, the touchstones of humanitarian politics. Queer sensibility, as Koestenbaum defines and practices it, on the other hand, is altogether too hermetic, personal, and wayward to be drafted for emancipatory causes. “In the last forty years,” he writes, “there has been a mistaken emphasis on clarity in the works of literature deemed to come from (and to consolidate) subcultural identities: to be queer, you must be clear. The point of queer poetry may also be to make murky, to distort.” (“Yesterday was the Gay Pride parade,” he writes in another piece. “I didn’t go. I’ve run out of gay pride.”)

Koestenbaum makes his clearest statement of this position in “In Defense of Nuance,” an essay originally published as an introduction to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. Here he seizes on Barthes’ distinction between studium and punctum, in which the former represents the deliberately constructed meaning of an image and the latter its evanescent and magical meaning. “The oppressive studium was the zone of the readily apparent, the sanctioned, the digestible,” Koestenbaum explains, while “the heroic punctum was an accident, an insignificant coruscation … the detail that ‘pricked.’ ” Like Barthes, he is all on the side of the punctum, or as he also calls it, the nuance: “Nuance is distinct from beauty, love, or virtue. Nuance is not a direct object; it is an aura that the object surreptitiously allows. Nuance, a trace, like dust on plush, resuscitates a lost instant when someone … raptly concentrated on a stray interpretive detail.”

This devotion to nuance helps to structure Koestenbaum’s prose. Though he has written several full-length books—on subjects ranging from opera to Jacqueline Onassis to Harpo MarxMy 1980s is a book of fragments and montages. Many of its essays are a page or two long, and the longer ones tend to be made up of strings of aphorisms or observations. This form allows Koestenbaum to slide from insight to detail to pun, without laboring to build up anything so constraining as an argument.

The title piece, one of the best in the book, remembers the decade of the 1980s as a collage of memories: What Koestenbaum read, listened to, tasted, wrote. He feels no compulsion to pin down the Zeitgeist: “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.”

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.