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Saint David

September 23, 2012

At its most joyous, criticism grows from the desire to share what one has loved with one’s real or imagined loves. This can be generous: Eat this, that you might share the rewards that I have found! And it can be selfish: Drink this, that you might understand what is in my head and in my heart!

It’s the latter impulse that leaves me wanting to write about C. Carr’s new biography of David Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly. But when I sit down to try to explain what this book and that artist’s life have meant to me, rather than letting forth a rush of sentences I see a blackboard of biographical algebra.

Born in 1954, David Wojnarowicz is old enough to be my father and just a few years younger than my parents. They seem to be of entirely different worlds, and yet he should have been more their peer than mine.

He died in 1992, a month after I graduated from high school, around the time I was hopping a train from Saint Paul to Chicago in a clumsy attempt to shatter my world for a bigger one. He was 37; I have outlived him.

I first visited the remnants of his East Village in 1997. That was just 5 years after his death and—strangely!—15 years ago.

The New York I moved to was closer to Wojnarowicz’s era of urban decay and art explosion and height-of-the-plague than it is to today. My past is nearly as distant as his.

And yet.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. And change is not always as solid as it looks. It was a relief to see Carr’s and Wojnarowicz’s portrait of the 80s confirm that things really were as bad as they seemed, and it was not just all in my head. I was a child and did not have words for the hatred and oppression that I could feel; this story of an adult gay man, a teenage hustler, a person with AIDS, an NEA casualty, a culture war soldier, this lifestory gives form to the nameless fears I felt back then.

Things have changed. AIDS (for those with the right access to the western world’s healthcare) is no longer the horrifying death sentence that disappeared a generation of my gay fathers, killing David Wojnarowicz and Arthur Russell and Marlon Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe and so many more. Gays and lesbians aren’t the mythical creatures that in the 80s I wasn’t quite convinced actually existed; we deliver the news and decent straights even take gay marriage as their cause.

And yet.

When I watch political coverage and sometimes when I walk through the streets of New York and certainly of more far-flung locales I breathe in waves of hatred and ignorance and I know that these changes are not so secure.

So it is a grave comfort to read Carr’s book and to see how one artist transformed the hatred around him and the rage within him into offerings of beauty. It is a grave comfort to see how one man’s chaotic life yet held work, very good work.

I think of him as Saint David, though in some ways he’s not much of a role model. Carr’s massive book is based on an astounding amount of research, including interviews with, it seems,  just about everyone in the artist’s life. It paints Wojnarowicz as moody, defensive, prone to lashing out at everyone. The book details rift after rift with his most intimate friends. His three major loves were a man who lived an ocean away; a mentor who was a lover and became a friend; and, in his longest and perhaps most supportive and adult relationship, a man he never lived with and many of his friends didn’t even know about. He’d even told that loving last partner that he was third in his priorities—behind his dying ex-lover, and behind his work.

Work came first.

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