Magazine article Artforum International

Called Me. (My '80S)

Magazine article Artforum International

Called Me. (My '80S)

Article excerpt

The 1993 appearance of WAYNE KOESTENBAUM's third book, The Queen's Throat, confirmed the author's singular presence on the literary landscape-- and it signaled a fresh turn in American criticism. Forecasting an appetite for "mythologies" as divergent as Jackie O and Andy W, his ecstatic meditation on opera, homosexuality, and desire revitalized cultural studies just as they threatened to succumb to disciplinary dreariness. For this issue, Koestenbaum revisits his own literary coming of age in the 1980s.

I met Tama Janowitz once in the 198os. (Was it 1987?) She probably doesn't remember our encounter. She was a visiting fellow at Princeton, where I was a graduate student in English. At a university gathering, Joyce Carol Oates complimented the ostentatious way that Tama and I were dressed. Seeking system, I replied, "Tama is East Village. I'm West Village."

I had little to do with art in the '80s. I saw Caravaggio in Rome and Carpaccio in Venice. I neglected the contemporary. For half the decade I lived in New York City and yet I didn't go to a single Warhol opening. Missed opportunities? My mind was elsewhere.

My mind was on ecriture feminine as applied to homosexuals. I was big on the word "homosexual." I read Homosexualities and French Literature (edited by George Stambolian and Elaine Marks). I read Helene Cixous. On a train I read Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard): I looked out dirty windows onto dirty New Jersey fields. I began to take autobiography seriously as a historical practice with intellectual integrity. On an airplane I read Michel Leiris's Manhood (translated by Richard Howard) and grooved to Leiris's mention of a "bitten buttock"; I decided to become, like Leiris, a self-erhnographer. I read Gide's The Immoralist (translated by Richard Howard) in Hollywood, Florida, while lying on a pool deck. I read many books translated by Richard Howard. In the '80s I read The Fantastic by Tzvetan Todorov (translated by Richard Howard) and meditated on the relation between fantasy and autobiography. I brought Richard Howard flowers the first time I met him (1985), in his book-lined a partment. He assured me that I was a poet.

I discovered the word "essentialism" in the late '80s. I should have discovered it earlier. Sex-and-gender essentialism was a dread fate. I feared that it was my condition. In the early '90s, after I stopped worrying about my essentialism, I realized that I'd never been an essentialist after all.

Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person singular pronoun. Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it.

I am typing this essay on the IBM Correcting Selectric III typewriter I bought in 1981 for one thousand dollars. I borrowed the money from my older brother, a cellist. It took me several years to pay him back.

In the '80s I worked as a legal secretary, a paralegal, and a legal proofreader. I freelanced as a typist, $1.50 per page. I temped for Kelly Girl; one pleasurable assignment was a stint at the Girl Scouts headquarters. I taught seventh- through twelfth-grade English at a yeshiva. I tutored a man from Japan in English conversation. I didn't turn a single trick.

This morning I asked my boyfriend, an architect, about the 1980s. I said, "Let's make a list of salient features of our '80s." We came up with just two items: cocaine, AIDS.

In 1980, after Reagan was elected, I began, in repulsed reaction, to read the New York Times. Before then, I'd never read the newspaper.

I remember a specific homeless woman on the Upper West Side in the '80s. She smelled predictably of pee or shit and hung out in an ATM parlor near the Seventy-second Street subway stop. She seemed to rule the space. Large, she epitomized. Did I ever give her money? I blamed Reagan.

A stranger smooched me during a "Read My Lips" kiss-in near the Jefferson Market Public Library: festive politics. …

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