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My 1980s And Other Essays Review

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 Marx—My 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.”

Continue reading: The imminence of nothingness

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 includeThe People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

DECEMBER 2, 2013

THERE IS NOTHING DRAB about Wayne Koestenbaum. The critic, poet, novelist, and, most recently, painter was dressed in turquoise and yellow the afternoon I chatted with him in his studio; the paintings that covered the walls were small riots of color as well. Koestenbaum’s conversation, like his writing, is both precise and elliptical, frank and expansive. The author of books about opera (The Queen’s Throat), Jackie Onassis (Jackie Under My Skin), and Humiliation dilated on everything from Gertrude Stein to roller coasters while sipping iced coffee. His latest collection, My 1980s and Other Essays, also has elements of the disparate, with pieces on movie stars, porn sites, Debbie Harry, Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, and the obscure American painter Forrest Bess, but reveals a coherent sensibility that is urbane, curious, affable, and surprising.


Lisa Levy: One of the themes in My 1980s is a tension between humiliation and a celebration of pleasure. Are you conscious of that dialectic in your thinking?

Wayne Koestenbaum: I’m conscious of that dialectic in my soma. In humiliation’s wake comes a kind of calm in which enthusiasm dies down. I don’t want to make it seem bipolar in a dull way. I’m thinking of the Forrest Bess essay, or the Frank O’Hara essay, or the Barthes essay, as places where I talk about pleasure. And pleasure for those three was found within a context of — if not drought, then a landscape somewhat bleak. I don’t know if that’s entirely true of O’Hara, actually, but the ’50s were pretty bleak.

LL: I see that in O’Hara. You talk very poignantly about the loneliness in his work. There is pleasure in that aloneness.

WK: I think that O’Hara’s volubility and the clutter in the poems presupposes that no one is listening. This is not true, but it seems like an okay hypothesis to assume the volubility could happen in a void, and that the wish to cram one’s page with enthusiastic utterance can be a logical response to nobody being home. That’s more the case with somebody like [Diane] Arbus, where she’s finding little pockets of jubilation that are framed within each photograph. The obvious meaning of the photograph is abjection, but the obtuse meaning is jubilation, beauty, staunchness, pattern.

LL: You have a real enthusiasm for subtext.

WK: I’m gratified to hear you say that. I think a lot of thinkers would presume that subtext is the stuff you need to sweep away to have a clear space for the structure, the argument, the major truths. My predilection for subtext is certainly distracting; I know that I look for the subtext before I look above, for the — supratext? I’m very uncomfortable in aesthetic environments where the supratext is crying out to be paid attention to, like in a novel. In fact I find it very hard to read novels. I realize I’m echoing the point that David Shields makes in Reality Hunger, which is that we don’t want story anymore because we want something like what reality TV gives us. I don’t want that, but I do want sharp contour. It’s like my fondness for parataxis, a word I only recently learned but I am proud to use. Pattern, contour, color, line, filigree. The syllable rather than the word. Sound rather than sense. Sentence rhythm rather than sentence meaning. The word that distracts rather than the appropriate word. The archaic or off-pitch word. Diction, rhythm, tone.

Elizabeth Hardwick, for instance, has this strange way of being super precise but also kind of vague in the same sentence. I’m mesmerized by it. I heard a lecture she gave at NYU a long time ago. I think Susan Sontag was there; James Atlas introduced her. It was a very small but elite audience. Elizabeth Hardwick was talking about her favorite poets’ prose. She had this stack of books and she kind of randomly read passages out loud. It was pretty incoherent as a lecture, not a stellar performance. But it really revealed the way she reads. There was something about [Vladimir] Mayakovsky, a line about “the dark velvet of his talent.” And I remember Hardwick saying in her Southern accent, “‘The dark velvet of his talent,’ what a great phrase!” That phrase makes no point about Mayakovsky: it’s just a kind of blurry, romantic moment. It showed what she was looking for in literature that she loved, these isolated moments of tone.

LL: There’s a certain preoccupation with thresholds in My 1980s, like in that photograph of Alice B. Toklas on the threshold.

WK: With the Alice photo, what’s symbolic or eloquent about her standing at the threshold is that her position reveals her silence. Toklas’s silence or semi-silence is the obverse of Stein’s verbal voraciousness, and to be in the threshold the way Alice is portrays her liminal relationship to Gertrude’s scene of writing as collaborator, but also absented one. She is also the only stable referent we have to Stein’s writing. Alice is plot, dramatis personae, scene, landscape — she’s everything.

In poetry, the threshold is the line break. In prose, the threshold would be any pause, any period or paragraph break. I don’t know if that many essays in this book are written in one-sentence paragraphs but I like to write in them to maximize the threshold. I certainly like to write in paragraphs separated by an asterisk, like in the “My 1980s” essay. My feeling is that it makes the threshold more prominent and dramatic, and introduces the threshold as a kind of semantic element. It makes the threshold part of the meaning; it foregrounds it.

One thing I do like about fiction that has a lot of dialogue is that there is so much threshold. Ivy Compton-Burnett: she gives a lot of threshold. You never know if someone is in the room or not because it’s just dialogue with no attribution, so all of the sudden somebody speaks and you realize they are in the room and have crossed the threshold. It’s so scary.

LL: Do you like scary things?

WK: I do like scary movies. I don’t like scary experiences particularly. I don’t like noise, fast motion, turbulence, overstimulation. It gets me down.

LL: This collection is called My 1980s, and a lot of the essays have a nostalgic tug. What role do you think nostalgia plays in your work? I’m thinking about the etymology of the word, the longing for home, and in the essays where you talk about your own past you evoke your childhood home. But then there are also your essays about cultural icons like Lana Turner. That’s the other thread of nostalgia.

WK: In the academic world for the last 20 years or so, nostalgia has been a really bad word. But there is a critic, Svetlana Boym, who wrote a book called The Future of Nostalgia, and I’ve had discussions with her about recuperating nostalgia. Sometimes I’ve felt like it was an accusation, or a possible accusation, that so much of my writing is merely nostalgic. So I’ve developed my own theory of nostalgia, not as a return to something that was but as an utter reinvention that has to do with the future.

The reason Walter Benjamin’s work means so much to me is specifically because of this issue of nostalgia. He’s not really nostalgic in his work yet he talks about the aura of the past. He has a specifically revolutionary agenda about looking backward. Once I got that about Benjamin I thought: Okay. Here’s this Jewish mystic Marxist who wants to talk about the Arcades of 19th-century Paris not because he has nostalgia for them, more because he is curious about the past. So he is nostalgic, but he’s more scrupulous than that.

I don’t think I have a longing for home. My strongest sensation is for the thing that was never experienced. Bursts of nostalgia are very potent for me as sources of language and image so I don’t mess with them. A friend of mine once told his psychiatrist he was always sexually interested in a certain kind of person who turned out to be bad for him, and the psychiatrist said, “You don’t fuck with that shit.” Don’t mess with your unconscious. If your unconscious gets excited about something, you follow it. That’s my theory about nostalgia.

LL: You talk about how your writing excites you and persecutes you, and also how you have to eliminate the schmutz from your writing. Do you think you are a dirty writer?

WK: I remember very vividly in childhood hearing the phrase “a dirty mind,” and that was the sense of identity I always had as a kid. I had a dirty mind. I thought it was something to be proud of.

But, on the other hand, I don’t like mess. I spend a lot of time cleaning up my writing. When I say my writing persecutes me, some of the persecution is my sense of my writing’s intrinsic messiness and how much work it is to clean it up. I read a draft of what I wrote and I feel viscerally disgusted. I’m angry at it and I’m angry at me. It’s the way I feel about the broom I used to sweep this studio last week — the way it always has schmutz on it. I hate that. I don’t like dirt!

LL: So you see it everywhere.

WK: Yes. I have a dirty mind. So it’s a funny contrast.

LL: Is there anything you won’t write about?

WK: I don’t write very much about my siblings. I often think that I won’t write about politics, but I don’t think that’s true. Certainly I remember feeling when I was writing Humiliation that I was writing more overtly about politics than I had before and was aware that it was a threshold I had crossed. But the kind of writer I am to many readers is the author of a book on opera and a book on Jackie O. I guess both of those things are assuming this eschewal of overtly progressive politics, and that’s where I become the writer of nostalgia.

I would love to write something a bit more anti-American. I sometimes think there are secret political agendas that have fired my work for five years at a time. The defense of nostalgia has been one; I think another might be a polemic against American terror and noise. You asked if I liked scary things: I like Tippi Hedren in The Birds but I don’t like roller coasters. I don’t like fireworks, I don’t like mobs, I don’t like Black Friday after Thanksgiving. I don’t really like the internet (But I also love it and depend on it.) I don’t like smartphones. There’s a lot I don’t like, and my not liking isn’t even an opinion, it’s a sensation; the things I really object to in this country that would be considered political. It’s always bothered me that politicians, mostly men, have these authoritative male voices. Just the sound of men’s voices and the look of men in suits disgusts me.

LL: Here was my planned last question; we’ll see how it goes. In your Cindy Sherman essay you talk about “ceasing to care” as a moment in an artist’s life when she knows she’s really on to something. Have you ceased to care?

WK: I had ceased to care when I wrote that essay but I’ve started to care again. When I started painting that was a big move toward caring. But let’s just say to neatly end with a paradox, that starting to paint also involved stopping caring because I had to not care about being good. Even though I really cared about painting, I couldn’t care about being sophisticated or coming off as schooled.

LL: So you got your feeling back by becoming an amateur again?

WK: I’m always trying in writing to be amateurish. I don’t feel smart when I’m writing, I feel very, very dumb. It’s hard to say that without sounding disingenuous. Sontag says somewhere that she revises to be as smart as possible, and I do love the phase of revision where a paragraph moves from being really stupid to being smart. I notice this as the sentences get more dense and as I cut out awkward syntax and put better words in. I find something like art in it and I bring it forward. It’s kind of like putting on a lot of makeup. Smart makeup.


Lisa Levy blogs at