Along with so many people in my community, I’ve been reading “Fire in the Belly,” Cynthia Carr’s rigorous, detailed, extensive biography of David Wojnarowicz. I just finished the chapter where Peter Hujar dies.
I’ve had a very “duh” realization, reading this book. So many AIDS-related revelations are extremely obvious, and shouldn’t be revelatory at all, but since AIDS is so under-discussed, I tend to have them very late, and alone. This time, my revelation is: Peter Hujar didn’t always know he was going to die of AIDS. Klaus Nomi didn’t always know he was going to die of AIDS. David Wojnarowicz didn’t always know he was going to die of AIDS. And yet, I have ALWAYS associated these names with those deaths. In my mind, there are so many names that only make sense to me in the context of their AIDS deaths. And it’s only after reading such a detailed account of David’s young life that I think, “Oh god, he had PLANS. Peter Hujar had PLANS. They lived their lives with the expectation that they would grow old, the same way I imagine myself at the beginning of something…”
This probably sounds so stupid and quotidian. Probably even insensitive. But it’s hitting me very hard. I feel, myself, like a different person, as I adjust my perspective on these figures to imagine AIDS as a genuine surprise — to imagine premature death as unexpected.
I’ve done so much thinking and writing about AIDS, and so much of it has been optimistic work — work intended to uplift and inspire and inform. I have felt almost evangelical, trying to spread the gospel of these unsung queer artists who vanished so quickly. But, getting deep into this book, I’m returning to the darker impulses and thoughts I had very early on in my project — fantasies of friends dying, as I try to imagine myself in these circumstances, to understand what these years must have been like.
I didn’t expect, reading this book, to confront so many details, to get to know the lives of these people so intimately, on a day-to-day basis — their comings and goings, their routines, their patterns, their apartments, their (our) neighborhood. I didn’t expect my sense of NYC geography to change to wildly, to become so specific, so meaningful. I guess I’m having a very “The Devil’s Arithmetic” experience — transported to a dangerous time, feeling very close to the proverbial knives.
Thinking, tonight, about the ethics of history, and the responsibilities of those of us who read these stories without having lived these stories. What does this ask of us? What, precisely, are we compelled to do?
(Photo of David Hujar’s dead body by David Wojnarowicz)