David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night

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David Wojnarowicz reading from his work in 1992 at the Drawing Center as a benefit for Needle Exchange. AIDS Community Television

Running time: 00:31:05

David Wojnarowicz: To the members of the needle exchange. I'm just going to read a couple of things from the book and then a couple of other texts. 

Americans can't deal with death unless they own it. And if they own it, they'll celebrate it like in the Airforce Space Museum of the Atomic Bomb, where whole families and camera-toting tourists gather after the required ID security checks. And in the gray carpeted rooms they walk the mazes of portable screens and platforms, and in large photographs of death and incineration is seen from a discrete distance. 

And the distance is far enough so you can't see the bodies, only the architecture. And the tour in this museum is led by an ancient matronly type who explains various levels of the bomb's invention, with all the glad bearings of a parent who has just given birth to her first child. 

I couldn't deal with the clouds of perfume, the decaying personalities of the crowd, so I wandered off by myself to walk the maze. There were machines that clicked on, set off merely by my presence. And I walk into a paranoid blurb, mechanical men's voices crawling out of hidden speakers, and image after image floating and shifting in fragments of large, grainy black and white blowups of sullen men standing half-conscious with pride, next to sinister fat canisters looking like overturn potbellied stoves. And the voices have all the tone and texture of high school film soundtracks that explain the abstract motions of the sperm entering the side of that egg and fertilizing it, or else the hunger and desire implicit in the tiny snake swallowing the egg 10 times the size of its own head. 

And outside the shed-like buildings are the constant, shrill, vibrating sounds of jets taking off into the afternoon heat. Through a back window that overlooks the concrete edges of the runways, I see a playground with defunct miniature jets and spare broken engines from the spacecraft of the past decades. It's a playground for the kids, and at the moment there's a family gathering among the holes of bomber planes and World War II relics for a photo op. And standing in the shadow of a late model bomber cabled to the asphalt surface of the ground, a grandmotherly type gathers three kids in close to her body, fitting them in the frame of their parents' camera shutter. 

It's three generations of a family and everything is so fucking clean and abstract that I'm feeling dizzy. I'm watching all this surrounded by two screens showing speeded up videos of a nuclear reactor being built by men the size of ants. And they build and rebuild the reactors in 20 seconds flat. And I'm thinking if I owned the place, I'd hook the constant smell of rotten flesh into the air conditioning unit and have all the screens filled with speeded up films of rotting corpses. And the family outside the window is moving to the next plan for the next photo. 

A man steps out from behind a doorway I hadn't even noticed before and offers me his hand in greeting, asking if I'd like a cup of coffee. He looks like the kind of guy who'd one day end up in alcohol detox center studying snakes and insects. I turn away without a word. I'll never shake the hand of someone who I might be fighting against in wartime. 

All I can remember was the beautiful view and that overwhelming urge to puke. I was visiting my friend in the hospital and realizing he was lucky. I mean, even though he was possibly going blind, he did get the only bed in the room that had a window with a view. 16 floors up, overlooking the southern skies as all the world spins into late evening. There was a beautiful distance to the drift but I still wanted to throw up. There among the red and yellow clouds, drifting behind the silhouettes of the skyline, was the overwhelming smell of human shit.

It was the guy in the next bed. All afternoon he'd been making honking sounds like a suffocating goose. He was about 90 years old, and I only got a glimpse of him, and I see they had strapped an oxygen mask over his leathered face. And when he screamed it sounded like a voice you'd hear over a contraption made of two tin cans and a piece of wire. Calling long distance, calling long distance, trying to get the operator, someone in charge, someone in authority, someone who could make it all stop with a pill, a knife, a needle, a word, a kiss, a smack, an embrace. Someone to step in and erase the sliding world of fact. 

This kid walks into my sleep. He's maybe 17 years old. Stretches out on a table, says he's not feeling well. He may be naked or else wearing no shirt. His hands behind his head. I could see a swollen lump pushing under the skin of his armpit, and I placed my hands on his stomach and chest and tried to explain to him that he needs to be looked at by a doctor. And in the shadows of this room in the cool blue light the kid, a very beautiful boy, looks sad and shocked. He closes his eyes like he doesn't want to know or like somehow he can shut it all out.

Later some guy appears in the place. He has this odd look about his face. He tries to make it known that he knows me or somebody close to me. He leans in close and has flat, dull eyes like blue silvery coins behind his irises, and I think it's the face of death. And I get agitated and disturbed, wanting to be left alone with the kid, and I try to steer this guy away to some other location and he disappears for a moment and then reappears in the distance, but far away isn't far enough. I turn and I look at the kid on the table. He looks about 10 years old and there's water just pouring from his face. 

It's a dark and wet concrete bunker, the basement that runs under the building from front to back. There's one other concrete staircase that is sealed off at the top by a street grate. And you can hear the feet of pedestrians and spare parts of conversation floating down into the gloom. And at a midpoint in the room you can do a 360 degree slow turn and see everything. The shaky alcoves built of cheap plywood, a long, waist-high cement ledge where 23 guys could sit shoulder to shoulder if forced to, and the darkened ledge in the back half-hidden by pipes and architectural supports, and then the giant television set. 

It's one of the latest inventions from Japan, the largest video monitor available. And it's hooked into the wall and then further encased in a large sheet of plexiglass in order to prevent the hands of some bored queen from fucking with the dials and switching the sex scenes into "Let's Make a Deal."

The plexi is covered with scratches and hand prints and smudges and discolored streaks of body fluids and at the moment the images fed from a VHS machine upstairs are a bit on the blank. When the original film was transferred, it was jumping the sprockets of the projector and now I'm watching images that fluctuates strobically up and down, but only by a single centimeter. So every body or object or vista or closeup of eye, tongue, stiff dick, and asshole is doubled and vibrating. Kind of pretty and psychedelic, and no one's watching it anyway. 

There's a clump of three guys entwined on a long ledge. One of them is lying down, leaning on one elbow with his head cradled in another guy's hand. The second guy is feeding him the first guy's dick, while a third guy crouching down behind him, pulling open the cheeks of his ass, looking at his finger and poking at the bullseye. The shadows cast by their bodies cancel out the details necessary for making the vision interesting or even decipherable beyond the basics. 

One of the guys, the one who looks like he's praying at an altar, turns and opens his mouth wide and gestures towards it. He nods at me, but I turn away. He wouldn't understand. Too bad he can't see this virus in me. Maybe it would rearrange something in him. It certainly did in me. When I found out, I felt this abstract sensation, something like pulling off your skin, turning it inside out, and then rearranging it so that when you pull it back on, it feels like what it felt like before only it isn't and only you know it. It's something almost imperceptible.  I mean, the first minute after being diagnosed, you're forever separated from what you had come to view as your life or living or the world outside the eyes. The calendar tracings of biographical continuity get kind of screwed up. It's like watching a movie suddenly and abruptly going in reverse a thousand miles a minute, like the entire landscape and horizon is pulling away from you and reversed in order to spell out a psychic separation. 

Like I said, he wouldn't understand. Besides his hunger is giant. I once came into this place, fresh from visiting a friend in the hospital who was within a day or two of death. You wouldn't even know there was an epidemic. At least 40 people exploring every possible invention in sexual gesture and not a condom in sight. And I had an idea that maybe I'd make a three minute Super 8 film of my friend's face, with all its lesions and sightlessness, and then take Super 8 projector and hook it up with copper cables to a car battery slung in a bag over my shoulder and walk back in here and project the film onto the dark walls above their heads. I didn't want to ruin their evening. I just wanted to maybe keep their temporary worlds from narrowing down too far.

We are born into a pre-invented existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation, there are real tribes. Some of the tribes are in the business of sucker punching people's psyches in the form of maintaining the day-to-day job of government. They sell the masses a pile of green-tainted meat, i.e., a corrupted and false history as well as a corrupted and false future. And all of that meat stinks of rotten pus and blood. This particular tribe extols these foul emissions as if they were virtues made of glorious sensitivities. Raise all glory while we do it to them again.

And then there are other tribes which work hand in hand with the government, offering slices of meat in the form of double talk or hope. Hope is a chain of submission. 

And then there are tribes that suckle at the breast of telecommunications every evening after work, and are fatally lulled into society's deep sleep. Day after day they experience waking nightmares, but they've either bought the kind of language from the tribe that offers hope are they're too fucking exhausted or fearful to break through the illusion and examine the structures of their world. 

There are other tribes that experience the x ray civilization every time they leave the house or turn on the TV or turn on the radio or pick up a newspaper or when they suddenly realize their legs have automatically come to a halt before a changing traffic light.

A civil war and a national trial for the leaders of this country, as well as certain individuals in organized religions, is a soundtrack that plays and replays in the heads of members of that tribe. And some members of the tribe understand the meaning of language. They also understand what freedom truly is. And if other tribes wanna hand them illusion of hope in the form of the leash, in the form of language, like all stray dogs with intelligence from experience, they know how to turn the leash into a rope to exit the jail windows or how to turn the leash into a noose to hang the jailers. 

But when the volume of that war reaches epic dimensions and when the person hearing it fails to connect with another member of the same tribe who could acknowledge that sound, that person can one day find themselves at the top of a water tower in suburbia, armed with a high-powered rifle, firing indiscriminately at the ants crawling around below.

That person can one day find themselves running amok in the streets with a handgun. That person can one day find himself lobbing a grenade at the 40-car motorcade of the president. Or that person can end up on a street corner, homeless, hungry, wild-eyed, punching himself in the face or sticking wires to the flesh of his arms or chest.

Out the side window of the car, I see the thick, whirling vortex of a red dust devil on the plains. I abruptly pull the car over and grab my Super 8 camera to film it and it disappears. I stare at the place where I saw it, waiting for it to reappear, but it doesn't, so I drive on. My balls are sliding in lonesomeness. 

The windows are down because of the heat and the motion of the vehicle brings a false breeze onto my face and bare chest and through my scalp. And for one brief moment in time, no one in the world knows where I am. Not family, friends, nor members of government. And that causes me to drift. Gives me room to experience charges of frustrated sexuality. 

Turn the radio knob. I come across a seductive country song. And I close my eyes for periods of time as I drive up into the mountain side, listening to the sound of the singer's voice. In fact, I turn up the volume so I can better hear the reverberation of sound in the man's throat, and that way I can better imagine him whispering sweet things in my ears. He fucks me, holding firm my hips with his calloused hands.

I was lost in the heat of his torso, lost in the heat of his torso and the taste of his tongue.  [inaudible 00:16:31]  behind my closed eyelids, when I felt a bump and a pop as I knocked over a cactus on the roadside. 

I twisted that steering wheel in a hypnotic daze, clammed in, and  thumped back onto the asphalt roadway, leaving a scattering of surprised buzzards shifting into the air like umbrellas. And the sun was slipping towards the edge of the world when I pulled over at a highway rest stop on the crest of a mountain. And no one else was around so I kicked around in the red dust for a while, among the various species of cactus and tumbleweeds, and I took a piss behind the adobe outhouse, pointing my dick in different directions as the urine formed the dark outline of a face in the dry earth, and I felt sad and exhilarated simultaneously. And I walked around watching the light fade over the curve of the earth, creating crazy cat silhouettes of the cactus and scrub, and occasionally the twin beacons of light from a car or truck coming from the distance I was heading towards would float across the folds of the earth and the silence would be broken by the hum of a motor.

And one flippy bat came out early, a baby one wobbling through the gathering breezes under a roadside lamp, getting knocked around by the currents as it tried to catch insects attracted by the light. And over by the drinking fountains a bunch of honeybees trying to drink water from the steel rim. The flood basins fell in and were drowning and I spent a while picking them out, one by one with a soda straw, laying on the concrete walkway where they stumbled around in stupid circles.

And at the sound of each approaching car my dick grew more hard, but each car continued without stop and I want to run out into the dusk and throw myself headfirst onto the earth and roll sideways for miles and miles until the sun came back. And I remembered a friend of mine dying from AIDS while he was visiting his family on the coast for the last time. He was seated in the grass during a picnic to which dozens and dozens of family members had been invited, and he looked up from his fried chicken and said, "I just want to die with a big dick in my mouth."

So sitting on the warm hood of my car as the temperature falls, a 16-wheel rig pulls in the distance and enters the parking strip. And with the compressed hiss of the brakes, the cab door swung open and a young guy swung out. He was shirtless and covered in marks of sweat and dirt, and as he rounded the side of the truck, he nodded at me, "What's up?" And proceeded to walk around the entire truck, kicking each tire a couple of times while I held my breath. And then he climbed back into the cab, shifted gears and drove out of the lot. Darkness had completely descended onto the landscape and I stood up and stretched my arms above my head and wondered what it would be like if it were a perfect world. Only God knows and he's dead. 

I had an odd sleep last night. I felt like I was lying in a motel room for hours, half a week, or maybe I was just a dreaming I was half awake. I'm sorry ...

Fevers. I wake up these mornings feeling wet like something from my soul or my memory is seeping out the back of my head into the cloth of the pillows. I woke up earlier with intense nausea and a headache, and I turned on the television and tried to get some focus outside of my illness. And every station was filled with half-hour commercials disguised as talk shows in which low grade TV actors and actresses talk about how to whiten your teeth, or raise your investment earnings, or shake the extra pounds from your bones. 

I'm convinced I'm from another planet. One station had a full close up of a woman's face, middle aged, saying, "People talk about a sensation they've experienced when they're close to death, in which their entire lives pass before their eyes. Well, you experience a similar moment when you're about to kill someone. You look at that person and you see something in the moment before you kill him. You see his home, his family, his childhood, his hopes and beliefs, the sorrows and joys, and all this passes before you in a flash." I really couldn't figure out what she was making all these references for. 

And the nausea comes back and I try new position on the bed with some pillows and slip back into sleep. And I'm walking through the city. Not really sure where or why. But I gotta piss really bad and I go down the staircase of a subway or a hotel, architecture just growing around my moving body like stone vegetation, and I find this old bathroom, mostly metal stalls and shadows, like the subway station toilets of my childhood. And I could sense sex as soon as I walked in, the moist scent of it in the yellow light and the wet towels and concrete.

And I go into the stall and I pull out my dick and I start pissing into the toilet and a big section of the stall's divider is peeled away and I see this guy in his late teens/early twenties jerking off, watching me. And when I finish, I reach through the partition and feel his chest through his shirt and he zips up and comes around into my stall and closes the door and leans against it with his hands on his thighs. 

And I unzip his trousers and I peel them down to his knees and I roll up his shirt so I can play with his belly, and when his pants are down around his knees, I notice a fairly large wound on one of his thighs, lots of scrapes and scratches on his body. 

The wound does something to me. I feel vaguely nauseous, but he's sexy enough to dispel it. He pulls down his underwear and leans back again like he wants me to blow him. And I crouch and I start slowly licking under the base of his prick. And the wound is close to my eye and I notice this series of red and green and yellow wire. It's like miniature cables looping out of it. Then there's these two chrome cables with sectioned ribs pushing under the sides of the flesh, and then this blue glow coloring the air above the wound. 

I stop licking and I look closer and I see it's a tiny miniature monitor, a tiny black and white television screen with an even tinier figure gesticulating from a podium in a vast room. There is the current president, smiling like a corpse in a vigilante movie, addressing the nation on a live controlled broadcast. And the occasion is an enormous banquet in Washington, a cannibal banquet attended by heads of state and the usual cronies: Kirkpatrick and her biological warfare husband, the Pope seated next to Buckley and his sidekick, Buchanan. And Oliver North's [inaudible 00:23:14] the entertainment, and he squats naked in a spotlight in the center of the ballroom floor, and a small egg pops out of his ass and breaks in two on the floor, and a tiny American flag tumbles out of that egg waving mechanically. The crowd breaks into a wild applause as Whitney Houston steps forward to lead a rousing rendition of "the Star Spangled Banner." 

And I wake up in a fever, so delirious, I'm in a patriotic panic. Where the fuck at 5:00 in the morning can I run and buy a big American flag? My head hurts so bad. I got to get out of bed and stand up right here in order to ease the pressure. And I go to the bathroom and finally after a fucking week I throw up, and I come back into the room, and I yank open the window, and I lean out above the dark, empty streets and scream, "There's something in my blood and it's trying to fucking kill me!"

I still fight the urge to puke. I've been fighting it all week. Whenever I witness the signs of physical distress I have to fight the urge of bend over at the waist and empty out. It can be anything, a bum on the corner with festering sores on his face. It could be the moving skeleton I pass in the hallway on the way in. Some guy, a wasting syndrome and ZMV blindness, is leaning precariously out of his wheelchair in an unattended hallway, searching in sightlessness for something he's lost. He's making these brain sounds. But what he's looking for is beneath the wheels of his chair, a tiny teddy bear with a collegiate outfit sewn to its body and a little flag glued to its paw. And I pick it up and I notice that it has saliva and food matter stuck in its fur. And I wonder if this is what civilization boils down to. 

I place it in the guy's hands and he squeals at me, his eyes a dull gray like the bellies of small fish. I have to resist that urge to puke. It's upsetting. I realize I'm only nauseated by my own mortality. 

My friend on the bed is waking, and the hospital gown has pulled up along his torso in the motions of sleep, revealing a blobby looking penis and schools of cancer lesions twisting around his legs and abdomen. He opens his eyes to eye it a couple of times. I hand him a bunch of flowers. 

"I see double," he says. "Twice as many flowers," I said.

When I put my hands on your body, on your flesh, I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in a distant lake, but all the way beyond its ending. I feel the warmth and texture, and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle. I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching itself from the bones. I see the organs gradually fade into transparency, leaving a gleaming skeleton, gleaming like ivory that slowly resolves until it becomes dust. 

I am consumed in the sense of your weight, the way your flesh occupies momentary space, the fullness of it beneath my palms. I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits to the curves of my hands. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other, I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time, to me, I would. If I could open your body and slip up inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours, I would. 

It makes me weep to feel the history of you, of your flesh beneath my hands, in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures, to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.

"If I had a dollar ..." [inaudible 00:27:52] ... Give it to me! [inaudible 00:28:00]. "If I had a dollar ..." [inaudible 00:28:00] ... Give it to me! [inaudible 00:28:00]. "If I had a dollar to spend for healthcare, I'd rather spend it on a baby or an innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility, not some person with AIDS," says the healthcare official on national television, and this is in the middle of an hour-long video of people dying on camera because they can't even afford the limited drugs available that might extend their lives. And I can't even remember what this official looked like because I reached in through the TV screen and ripped his fucking face in half. 

And I was diagnosed with AIDS recently, and this was after the last few years of losing count of the friends and neighbors who've been dying slow, vicious, and unnecessary deaths because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country. "If you want to stop the AIDS, shoot the queers" says the governor of Texas on the radio, and his press secretary later claims that the governor was only joking, didn't know the microphone was turned on. Besides, they didn't think it'd hurt his chance for re-elections anyways. 

And I wake up every morning, and I wake up every morning, and I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America, and I'm carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg. And there's a thin line between the inside and the outside, a thin line between thought and action, and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone. And I'm waking up more and more from daydreams of tipping Amazonian blow darts in infected blood and spitting them at the exposed necklines of certain politicians or government healthcare officials, or those thinly-disguised walking swastikas that wear religious garments over their murderous intentions, or those rabid strangers parading against AIDS clinics in the nightly news suburbs. 

There's a thin line, a very thin line, between the inside and the outside, and I've been looking all my life at the signs surrounding us in the media or on people's lips, the religious types outside Saint Patrick's Cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade: "You won't be here next year! You'll get AIDS and die, ha ha," and the areas of the U.S.A where it's possible to murder a man and when brought to trial one only has to say that the victim was a queer and that he tried to touch you and the courts will set you free, and an anti-violence bill that the difficulties that a bunch of Republican Senators have in Albany with supporting an anti-violence bill that includes sexual orientation as a category of crime victims. 

There's a thin line, a very thin line, and as each T-cell disappears from my body, it's replaced by 10 pounds of pressure, 10 pounds of rage, 10 pounds of pressure, 10 pounds of rage, and I focus that rage into non-violent resistance, but the focus is starting to slip, the focus is starting to slip. My hands are beginning to move independent of self-restraint, and the egg is starting to crack. America, America, America seems to understand and accept murder as a self defense against those who would murder other people. And it's been murder on a daily basis for eight, nine, 10, 11 — count them — 10 long years, and we're expected to quietly and politely pay taxes to support this public and social murder, and we're expected to quietly and politely make house in this windstorm of murder. 

But I say there's certain politicians that had better increase their security forces, and there's religious leaders and healthcare officials that had better get bigger fucking dogs and higher fucking fences and more complex security alarms for their homes. And queer-bashers better start doing their work from inside howitzer tanks, because the thin line between the inside and the outside is beginning to erode. And at the moment, at the moment I'm a thirty-seven-foot-tall one-thousand-one-hundred-and-seventy-two-pound man inside this six-foot body, and all I can feel is the pressure, all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.

Sometimes I've come to hate people. Sometimes I've come to hate people because they can't see where I am. I've gone empty, completely empty and all they see is the visual form: my arms and legs, my face, my height and posture, the sounds that come from my throat. But I'm fucking empty. The person I was just one year ago no longer exists, drifts spinning slowly into the ether somewhere way back there. I'm a Xerox of my former self. I can't abstract my own dying anymore. I'm a stranger to others and to myself, and I refuse to pretend that I'm familiar or that I have history attached to my heels. I am glass, clear, empty glass, and when I even bother to look in a mirror all I could see is the world spinning behind and through me. I'd see casualness and the mundane effects of gesture made my constant populations. 

I look familiar, but I'm a complete stranger being mistaken former self. I'm a stranger, and I am moving. I am a stranger, and I am moving. I am moving on two legs, soon to be on all fours. I'm no longer animal, vegetable, or mineral. I'm no longer made of circuits or disks. I'm no longer coded and deciphered. I am all emptiness and futility. I am an empty stranger, a carbon copy of my own form. I can no longer find what I'm looking for outside of myself. It doesn't exist out there. Maybe it's only in here, inside my head.