I was reading Close to the Knives in Mexico, where David Wojnarowicz spent significant amounts of time—Oaxaca, mainly, and Mexico City and the border towns—though I didn’t know that then. I was staying at an expensive resort, which was in a state of constant repair, as those kinds of resorts always are: stucco was being smoothed and repainted, bright clouds of bougainvillea were being trimmed, concrete was being resurfaced. It was an ultimately futile tussle between man and nature, one frustrating and poignant to watch; it took teams of people, and their collective diligence, to try to undo what nature would keep doing. One day, the resort would close, and within months or weeks or days, all of those years of vigilance would mean nothing—the rains would rust the metal lanterns, the sun would leach the color from the walls, the hibiscus would grow stalky and shaggy.
I mention this because we tend to associate Wojnarowicz with a specific moment in the culture, with a particular movement of art, and with a brief span of years. On one hand, you can’t not: His art was inextricable from his own biography. It was art that swept up the entirety of who the artist was and what he had experienced—and had seen and felt—into a single image and spat it back out at the viewer; there is a shimmering present-tenseness to it. My life flashed before my eyes, we say when we fear we have just only escaped death, and to look at his work is to realize how charged, how exhausting it must have been to live when your life was always flashing before your eyes, and not just your life but your friends’ lives, and to be so overwhelmed by that constant blur of images, that whir that both never ended and that you prayed would never end.
And yet to associate Wojnarowicz with only those years (though that would be enough) would be to ignore one of the essential teachings of his art, which is that throughout its short history, America has always hated some part of itself. You could write a chronicle of this country by documenting which part of its population America has loathed and tried to disown at various points and why: Native Americans and women and Japanese Americans and Mexican immigrants and people with AIDS. Some groups—like black people—America has always hated. But this self-hatred, this turning against our own, this disavowing of those we have hurt or harmed or those we might be able to help, is a curious and awful national impulse, as baked into our identity as our equally notable sense of generosity, our love of friendliness. All countries hate their own, of course, but what makes America’s tendency so wounding to those of us who have been or are hated is its promise—which so many of us still believe and which the country depends on our believing—that it will behave otherwise, that it will be the exception, that it will not do what nations throughout history have always done. “These are strange and dangerous times,” I read in an essay titled “In the Shadow of the American Dream.” “Some of us are born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, and most times it’s color.” Wojnarowicz wrote those lines in the late eighties. But just five hundred miles north of where I lay watching a man in a stifling-looking tan uniform scrape a sun-seared gecko away from the pavement, there were policemen killing unarmed black men, and political candidates announcing that we should turn away refugees from regions whose affairs we had injudiciously involved ourselves in—he could have written them now. When you accept that this is how your country operates, you will always be fearful: Will I be next? “These are strange and dangerous times.”
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration was published in 1991, and while it’s not Wojnarowicz’s only book—there are also Memories That Smell Like Gasoline and In the Shadow of the American Dream and Seven Miles a Second—it’s his best known and one of only three that were published before his death from an AIDS-related illness, at the age of thirty-seven, in 1992.
It’s perhaps not surprising, given how many more artists are educated these days at graduate programs and how dedicated to one genre of art or another those programs typically are, that relatively few writers are also painters, or dancers are also photographers. Wojnarowicz was self-educated in almost everything in life—painting and stencil work and printmaking and photography and activism and sex—and in his writing, as in his artwork, you can feel the presence of someone for whom there is no fear of breaking the rules, because he has never been taught the rules to break. That ignorance is part of what gives the work its charge and confidence, its seethe and crackle.
When you look at Wojnarowicz’s work, you are struck by how imperfect it is. We live in an era of technical perfection, of art that is beautifully presented and beautifully composed. In his prints, though, colors smudge outside the borders; you can actually watch, as in time-lapse, his photographs become more accomplished, less unintentionally grainy and more intentionally so. You have the sense, as a viewer, of both someone for whom time was on fire—and who was compelled to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible because perfection and finesse demanded an extravagance of time that he didn’t have—but also, more achingly, someone who was rapacious about his learning, for whom improvement was important (a very American quality, that). But there’s also a thrilling sense of someone unable to edit himself even if he wanted to: unlike his colleagues and peers, Wojnarowicz couldn’t hide his art’s ferocity behind likability (like Keith Haring could) or cool wit (like Tseng Kwong Chi) or elegance (like Peter Hujar)—his work was his work.
In the same way, the writing is imperfect. It assaults the reader: to enter one of Wojnarowicz’s texts, whether on the page or on the painting, is to be sucked immediately into its undertow, its incantatory, rushed, gloriously run-on sentences and breathless paragraphs, its made-up, jittery punctuations and scattershot capitalizations. It is impolite writing—impolite in its lack of structure, in its sudden, prefaceless glides between fantasy and reality, in its hyperactivity, in its lack of deference to the reader. But the work doesn’t taunt: it’s the difference between writing that says, Catch me if you can, and, Come with me, come with me, come with me. This writing wants you to follow it, and you want to follow it too.
Close to the Knives is subtitled and marketed as a memoir, and it sort of is, in the same way that all of Wojnarowicz’s work might be subtitled and marketed as memoir: a collection of essays and speeches and dreams that circle between two poles, of anger and sorrow, like a crop duster buzzing an incessant loop over a smoldering swath of land. But really what it feels most like is what it in fact is: war reportage. The most similar experience I had to reading Knives is encountering Shomei Tomatsu’s 1967 monograph Nihon. Tomatsu was one of Japan’s greatest postwar artists, and his subject was the country’s defeat and humiliation and eventual rebirth as a Westernized, modernized country. There is nothing in content or style that relates these two artists, and yet to look at Tomatsu’s photographs—of almost-elderly Japanese women still wearing traditional dress, their hairpieces knocked askew and their makeup tawdry; of a middle-aged couple, clutching at some of their possessions, sitting slumped and unloved at the end of an alley, at the heel end of their stores of dignity—is to sense the same sort of rage, the same sort of awful privilege of getting to see and record suffering, the same sort of tenderness and love for those around you, for life itself, that makes living both unbearable and worthwhile, that you find on every page of Knives.
Because if rage is most of what motors Knives, it’s not the only thing. In instance after instance, the prose becomes beautiful and loving, comes to celebrate beauty and loving. Sex is a confusion, something that was done to the ten-year-old Wojnarowicz; sex is something that makes him less than in his own country; and yet sex is also a source of ecstasy, both a release from and one of the fundamental pleasures of being alive: “In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life,” he writes, in “Losing the Form in Darkness.” In the writing, there is that yearning for what we all hope love will do: answer the silences that live within us, release us from the torment of being ourselves, remind us that what we are taught to think about ourselves is meaningless compared to what we can occasionally feel about ourselves.
Indeed, part of what makes Wojnarowicz’s work so potent is how sincere it is. It reminds you that there is a distinction between cynicism and anger, because the work, while angry, is rarely bitter—bitterness is the absence of hope; anger is hope’s companion. What you find instead, tucked like blossoms into the text, is real desire: for love, as I’ve said, but also for belonging. This fury of not belonging, of being rejected, isn’t contextless; it is the fury of someone who wants, who demands to be counted as a full human being, who wants his life and his dying to mean something to his fellow Americans, who wants a price to be attached to his existence. In a country where some people are reviled, other people are valued, and Wojnarowicz’s gall comes from his daring to have a sense of entitlement, his expectation that he, and all his tribe, should be valued too. It is such a humble, vulnerable wish—a child’s wish: Please let me matter—that it makes you want to cry. There is also his unloved child’s habit of creating parents where none exist: Father Genet, Father Rimbaud, Father Mishima—ways of reassuring himself that he belongs to a family, a race of men who love other men.
And there is also in Knives, unexpectedly, a celebration of America itself, specifically the iconography of America—the long, long highways; the blue glow of the television; the roadside truck stops; the low-ceilinged motels; the orange-clay buttes; the truckers and the cowboys and the cops. It may be a sour celebration—the cops are there to beat you, the truck stops are where you get fucked, the television is where you see Jesse Helms saying you don’t deserve to exist, the highways are what you traverse to get away from your father, who hates you, to a city where you can finally search for your own people—but it is impossible to read these chapters without recalling the iconography that Wojnarowicz invented for himself and spray-painted around the city like runes: If you can read this, you are one of us. The burning house, the target, the soldier with his gun, the flames, the clouds, the dancing man, the falling man—again and again, the falling man.
Recently, there’s been a revival of interest in the years Wojnarowicz was working in New York, making his art, raging against those who reviled him and so many thousands of others for having AIDS and for being gay and for being inconvenient. New York in those years—from the late seventies, when the first cases of AIDS appeared, the gate-crasher bringing the giddy party to its end, through the naming of the disease by the Centers for Disease Control, and then the rapidly mounting death tolls—has been or will be the subject of novels and television shows and movies. There is at least one book being published that imagines Wojnarowicz’s life in the city, and it’s not difficult to see why and how, in the midst of this resurrection, Wojnarowicz might be irresistible: he was so young and so prolific and so vivid. He may have been ambivalent about the art world and its populace—“Susan Whatshername,” he dismisses Sontag, writing about photography, and in the essay “Postcards from America”: “The major museums in New York, not to mention museums around the country, are just as guilty of … selective cultural support and denial” as the government—but one can’t help but wonder what he’d think of this New York, our New York, so close (and it is) and so far (and it is) from the one he inhabited. One wonders if he will become a piece of iconography himself, the kind that is pinned to a dorm-room wall, with only the face changing every decade: James Dean to Malcolm X to Jimi Hendrix to John Lennon to Steve Jobs.
And yet it’s important not to romanticize either the era or the man because when you make a person into an icon, you stop seeing anything past the image itself. A weariness of looking sets in: every movement in America has its own totems, and it’s easy enough, in this age, to shorthand our way through history, to assume that recognizing the symbol—the fold of red ribbon, the hot-pink triangle, the hooded sweatshirt, the multicolored flag—means understanding the narrative behind it. When we make artists into martyrs, we stop their movement and affix them to a sheet of paper, rendering them immobile. We can’t help ourselves; it happens so easily, and we are always looking for people to love, even difficult people. But it doesn’t help us understand them any more clearly.
It’s equally easy to fathom what might have inspired this renewal of fascination for New York during its most inequitable, most desperate, most death-filled years in modern times: what we crave is that sense of collective movement, of collective uncertainty, that sense that nothing, not gender or sexuality or money, could insulate you from something large and immediate and terrifying that could yet shrink itself into something so tiny that it could wriggle in through the walls of your building, past your sheets, and into your blood; that sensation that life was quavering and temporal, that you had to be vigilant, even while completing the most mundane tasks of life. Now that seems exotic and bracing. Then, the war wasn’t someplace far off, something you could turn off or ignore or dip into only when you were feeling guilty; it was two miles south of you, it was seven blocks east, it was one door down. For years, AIDS stratified the city; it drained it of compassion. Like all plagues, it segregated and categorized. But if you lived in the city, you had no choice but to contend with its existence. If you arranged your life just so, you might be able to avoid thinking about it, but you weren’t able to deny it.
In America, we are consumed with the idea of happiness. It’s our birthright, this promise, and so much of our lives is spent in pursuit of it that the quest can become oppressive (not to mention ridiculous: so many of us can’t define it and yet are told to want it, which is the equivalent of running a race on a road that doubles back on itself without our noticing). But really, this country has always been at its best when it is angry, and what really makes us American is not the right to happiness but our right to be angry, to shout and protest without fear of reprisal, to know that even if we are a member of the most hated group in this country, it is our right to try to be heard. Maybe what we’re all yearning for is the blood-zinging fervor of being angry together, of feeling that there is something so urgent that it can’t be ignored, of feeling something so huge that it blots out logic and good manners and good taste. “I wished I had a motorcycle and that I was in a faraway landscape, maybe someplace out west,” Wojnarowicz writes in the fever-essay “In the Shadow of the American Dream.”
I saw myself riding this machine faster and faster and faster toward the edge of the cliff until I hit the right speed that would take me off the cliff in an arcing motion. At that instant when my body and the machine cleared the edge of the cliff and hit the point in the sky where I was neither rising nor falling—somewhere in there: once my body and the motorcycle hit a point in the light and wind and loss of gravity, in that exact moment, I would suddenly disappear, and the motorcycle would continue the downward arc of gravity and explode into flames somewhere among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.
I love this passage because it, like so many of Wojnarowicz’s creations, captures another key element of Americanness: the need for velocity, to feel ourselves being propelled through space, imagining we have the ability to outrun anything that might be pursuing us, that we can make it out of the burning house with not just the one thing most precious to us—but everything.
I have said it’s important not to romanticize, and it is. But as I was reading, I kept thinking of a fable I had loved as a child. “The Boy Who Drew Cats” is a Japanese folktale, recorded, altered, and published by the literary anthropologist Lafcadio Hearn in 1898. The story is about a boy who grows up in a family of farmers, but instead of performing his tasks, he wants only to draw—specifically, to draw cats. He is talented, but there is no money for school, and art isn’t even a dream; it is an impossibility. His father, frustrated, gives the boy to a local temple as an acolyte, but here, too, he is rejected: he is dreamy and unfocused and unable to do anything but draw cats.
The night he is to be cast out of the monastery, the abbot gives him some food and some advice: “Avoid large places; keep to small.” And with only these kindnesses, so stingy they are hardly kindnesses at all, the boy leaves. He walks and walks. He should be frightened, and perhaps he is—Japan at night is full of goblins, the hills busy with demons—but no mention is ever made of how the boy feels on this journey, on being discarded for a second time. Finally, after many miles, he is exhausted, and when he sees a temple, high on a hill, he climbs toward it. The boy calls out, but no one answers, and finally, he lets himself into the empty building.
What the boy doesn’t know is that the temple has been abandoned because it has become the haunt of a goblin, one that not even the monks can expel. Here, Hearn tells us, he is frightened, but it is dark, and there is nowhere for him to go. To comfort himself, he finds some ink and begins to draw: over the rice-paper walls, across the tatami-mat floors, up and down the wooden beams. Again and again, he paints cats, so many that soon the room is covered. But before he goes to sleep, he remembers the abbot’s warning—avoid large places; keep to small—and tucks himself into a cupboard.
Late that night, he wakes to a terrible noise: a screeching, a wailing, a tearing of flesh, a splatter of liquid on straw, a rending, a ripping—Hearn does not specify. The boy hears bone cracking against bone, hears the wet thwack of meat being slammed against a hard surface, hears the clamorous sound of death and suffering. He tucks himself tighter into the corner of the cupboard and waits. On and on the horror goes; on and on he waits. And then, abruptly, it stops. He waits and waits some more. And then, at last, he draws back the cupboard’s sliding door and steps out. There he sees, in the middle of the room, a rat. A goblin rat. A goblin rat so enormous that for a while, its exact shape is unclear: the boy sees only a hill of bloody fat and flesh, not its actual form. And then he looks around him and sees his cats and sees that all of their mouths are wet and red and realizes that his creations have killed what others, in their inability to conquer, have run from.
After that, Hearn tells us, the boy becomes a hero and, later, a great artist. “The Boy Who Drew Cats” is meant as a ghost story, but it is really a fable of transformation, the one every artist has at some point hoped for: that someday, his art will do what not only he cannot but what no one can. It will come to life, golemlike, and it will save him, it will protect him, it will avenge him. One day, this kid will get larger, and he will destroy everyone who tried to push him down or away, who hid him in a cupboard.
Perhaps that hope burns doubly high when what you want to be avenged for is the right to love and fuck who you want. Perhaps it is doubly charged when it is driven by the belief that eventually sheer relentlessness will save you, that if you say it enough, if you draw it not once but hundreds of times, thousands of times, the America you want to exist will materialize before you, its atoms rearranging themselves to create a picture you don’t yet know how to imagine.
Maybe Wojnarowicz saw all this. Probably he didn’t. But I like to think that he would have liked to see all these symbols, his own versions of cats, here in one place, an army of his own fighters that have long outlived not only him but so many of his friends and members of his tribe. All this iconography drawn not across a temple’s walls but across his own version of a temple, New York, the place he came to, as so many have and so many will, when no place else felt like home: on the walls of the Hudson Piers and the Second Avenue subway stop, on the sidewalks of the East Village, and on the backs of already-used pieces of paper collected in his apartment. Hundreds of them, a militia of orphans: burning house, falling man, target. Soldier, dancing man, America in flames. So many that even after the goblin is killed, they’re waiting still, ready and tensed for when they might be needed next.
Hanya Yanagihara is a novelist based in New York and the editor in chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
Reprinted from David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, by David Breslin and David Kiehl, published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and distributed by Yale University Press. © 2018 Whitney Museum of American Art.