Death at an Early Age

Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, edited by Edmund White. University of Wisconsin Press, 305 pages, $29.95.

In the aftermath of the terse 1981 announcement by the Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) that a strange new disease was killing homosexuals, gay men
mastered the art of throwing a funeral. This was not something for which we were
prepared or trained--no Martha Stewart or Miss Manners to offer helpful
hints--but, of course, no one was prepared for AIDS. Like the citizens of Oran,
about whose plight Albert Camus writes feelingly in The Plague, we were
devastated by the kind of wild contagion that, not long before, scientists had
confidently pronounced to be a thing of the past.

Gay men and their allies had to learn a great many things, and quickly
too--how to administer IV drips and change soiled bedsheets, how to organize for
decent health care and mobilize friends for around-the-clock attendance upon the
sick among us. So, too, with funerals. With so many young men dying (sometimes a
death a week, for those of us who lived at the epicenters of the epidemic), we
needed to devise a fitting way to say our good-byes. Because those who perish
from AIDS are dying out of their season--at 30 or 40 years old, most of them, not
the four score years they might once have imagined for themselves--their funerals
invariably carry the lament of might-have-beens. But amid the necessary tears,
there is, as well, a bracing dash of irreverence in the words of friends and
lovers whose excruciating sense of loss does not blind their gaze.

That kind of clarity suffuses the best of the essays-cum-eulogies that
Edmund White has gathered in Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS.
White is a highly regarded gay author, whose writings include memoirs--A Boy's
Own Story
and The Beautiful Room Is Empty--and, most recently, an
autobiographical novel, The Married Man. While this collection is no
Ravelstein, Saul Bellow's homage to Harold Bloom, some of the pieces are
wonderfully entertaining--funny, sharp, pungent. All of them provide a glimpse
into the looking-glass world of then and now, a might-have-been and a how-it-was
during what, for gay America, has been the age of AIDS.

The period of gay liberation was extremely brief--barely a decade separates
the Stonewall riots from that CDC statement--but for homosexuals it irrevocably
changed the world. "Come out!" was the rallying cry, and many did just that. For
some of the artists celebrated in Loss within Loss, like the architect
Frank Israel and the landscape architect Bruce Kelly, there is no direct
connection between their sexuality and their art: There's no gay monopoly on
edgy postmodern houses and Olmstead-inspired landscapes. Yet for many, sexuality
became their chief, if not their only, subject. They turned their lives inside
out, making them into the stuff of art. Some, like James Merrill, already
ensconced in the pantheon of great American poets, began gradually to acknowledge
the fact that they were gay. Impatient with such hesitancy, a younger generation
coming of age at a time when the closet door had been burst open seized the
moment as an opportunity for experimentation. What the sixties had been for
straight America, the seventies were for gay America. And what resulted was
sometimes good, sometimes self-indulgent; it was only a beginning.

The advent of AIDS raised the stakes--how suddenly the playground became the
charnel house!--and AIDS, inevitably, made its way into art. Being marked became
for some people the means to making their mark artistically. Sometimes, as in
the polemics of David Wojnarowicz--hustler, performance artist, and
memoirist--AIDS is the text. "My rage," he writes in Postcards from America:
X-rays from Hell,
the capitalized words a printed rendering of a howl, "is
really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I'D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT
DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I'D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL."
On occasion, as in Paul Monette's overpraised memoir Borrowed Time, AIDS is
the instrument for whiny self-indulgence; no one else, the writer insists, has
ever suffered as I have. Always, AIDS is lurking in the background, the sentence
of death against which these artists feverishly work, pushing to make themselves
admired or notorious, to squeeze out their best work, the composition or the
painting or the puppet show, before they die.

For every Mozart, a genius from birth, there is a Verdi, still writing operas
when he's 80. Of course, most artists are neither Mozarts nor Verdis: Their work
simply doesn't measure up. Who can tell into which category these gay artists
belong? Many of the essays point to the frenzy of renown. There is Paul Monette,
hoping for acknowledgment by Hollywood's glitterati, and the filmmaker Derek
Jarman, making use of his political activism to give his work the edge that's
necessary if it's to be noticed. The contributions also reiterate the familiar
artistic aspiration to be immortal--or at least to be remembered after death
with, characteristically, an obituary in The New York Times.

Among the artists memorialized in Loss within Loss, only Merrill is an
indisputably major talent. (Curiously, two of the most noteworthy artists to have
died from AIDS, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, go unremembered here.)
Some others--Monette, Israel, Jarman--did memorable work, but most of the rest
seem destined to be forgotten, except by their friends. Yet such a rough
summing-up cannot begin to measure the meaning of these deaths, these incomplete
lives. Who knows what might have been--who peaked early and who would have
bloomed late? (Who knows, for that matter, about those who died before they could
begin to make art?)

There are no rules for such eulogies, no conventions to be followed. Is it the
art that's the proper subject, or the relationship, or the phenomenon of the
disease? What needs to be said in the name of a hunger for knowing, and what, in
the name of privacy, should be left unsaid?

The straight men who contribute to Loss within Loss have to decide what
to make of the sexual divide between themselves and their subjects. In novelist
John Berendt's account of landscape architect Bruce Kelly, it's Kelly's work that
occupies center stage. There's barely any mention of his life--odd, given that
Berendt describes himself as an intimate friend--and nothing at all about his
sexuality. To be gay and an artist, Berendt may be implying, is not always to be
a gay artist--or perhaps Kelly's sexuality was simply unknown territory to
Berendt. Sex does figure centrally in writer Philip Lopate's essay on
experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert, but in ways that only confirm the
stereotypes about heterosexual obtuseness. Sexual orientation wasn't initially
an issue between them, Lopate says, since "Warren never spoke, acted, or gestured
effeminately"--as if limp wrists defined the psychological terrain. While Lopate
gestures to his blind spots, referring at one point to "the potential queer
within me," he can't stop himself from generalizing. "The novelist in me was ever
on the lookout to interpret individual behavior as an extension of tribal or
sociological patterns... . I began to interpret his velvety, throaty vocal tone
... as a possible ågay reflex,' the result of gay men choking back a good
deal of rage in their determination to be nice." Better that this would-be
anthropologist stick to his day job.

When the tale-tellers are onetime lovers, sex is inescapably part of the
narrative, and the many varieties of gay sexuality, from whips and chains to
picket fences, are prominently on display here. But the sex talk, too, is
problematic. Is it essential to truth telling, or a posthumous way to even the
score--or simply highbrow pornography that titillates without informing? For
several of these artists, the answer is clear: The blunt display of gay sexuality
is at the core of their art. What David Wojnarowicz, or painter Peter Kelloran,
or playwright John Russell do in the bedroom is manifested in their creations.
"The timid be damned," novelist Randall Kenan writes about Russell. "He was
queer; his plays would be queer. He was a child of the porno generation; his
plays would be the epitome of the postmodern theater." Playwright Craig Lucas,
crafting an elegy for an entire generation, is blunter: It's all about
fucking--fucking and dying. "Shall I give you all the names? Let's just say
everybody. Through with possibility. Spent." The best of the essays bring to life
the artist, warts and all, and the sexually charged relationship between writer
and subject. I'd never heard of composer Chris DeBlasio, but William Berger's
tough and tender portrait makes me wish I'd known this "possessed" man.

Those of us who have done funeral duty know that AIDS can bring out
deeper--perhaps truer--selves in that time before dying. Why, poet J.D. McClatchy
ponders in his incisive essay, does Paul Monette decide to die in public, to turn
his death into the subject of a documentary film: Is it an act of selflessness,
or the ultimate in narcissism, to record such intimacy? At the other end of the
spectrum of self-disclosure, James Merrill refuses to acknowledge that he's dying
of AIDS, and tacitly enlists others, including McClatchy, the executor of his
estate, in maintaining the fiction. Not until McClatchy's essay "outs" him is the
truth revealed. Was Merrill intent on secrecy, McClatchy wonders, because "his
mother, the emotional center of his family, would have to be shielded" from the
knowledge, or to "protect his lover from possible professional handicaps (he was
an actor)"? Was Merrill protecting himself from "be[ing] put on display, to be
shown and thereby be made åmonstrous' ... or was it merely his
åimage' he wanted obscurely to protect"?

There is, of course, no certain answer to such questions, just as there is no way
of divining the contours of the cultural landscape in a society that never knew
an age of AIDS. We're certainly poorer for the early deaths of these men who were
among the best and most brazen and brightest--not Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke,
maybe, but close enough.

Merrill's "Tony: Ending the Life" can stand as an epitaph for a generation.

"Just see," the mirror breathed, "see who's alive,

Who hasn't forfeited the common touch

The longing to lead everybody's life"

--Lifelong daydream of precisely those

Whom privilege or talent set apart;

How to atone for the achieved uniqueness?

By dying everybody's death, dear heart... .

"Dear heart," indeed: A phrase at once fey and saccharine, knowing and immensely
moving, a mixture that's much like the best of the art these dead young men left
behind.

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