Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/26/2011

You write and write and discover you don’t have a point

Reading an academic journal article because the title is captivating is probably a ridiculous non-scholarly pretentious exercise in (f)utility. That acknowledged, I have saved on my desktop “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet” by William Haver. I like “Dirty Old Men” because I like to think of myself as one. I’m fascinated because I know the names in the citation.

Anyone with a passing knowledge (like mine) of Queer Theory studies in academia has heard of William Haver and of Jean Genet. I own a copy of Edmund White’s biography of Genet (unread) and of The Maids, Genet’s murderous play turned movie in 1975. I own that script and have seen it on stage four or five times because my late ex-wife directed it as part of her master’s thesis—directed it using men as the maids. Daring for 1970. At some time/place I saw Genet’s 1950 film Un chant d’amour (A Song of Love), vaguely in memory at some artsy film festival my gay mentor Lance dragged me to when we were in college. I recall images of the film alongside images of Kiss of the Spiderwoman (un)related except for two gay men in prison.

So I have some small familiarity with Genet’s work. And I have noted William Haver’s articles quoted in stuff I have read on Queer Theory.

There you have it. All of my reasons for saving “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet.” Disclaimer: I know very little about Rembrandt or Giacometti although Giacometti’s “Bust of Diego” is one of my favorite pieces at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

Though he wrote throughout his long life, Harry Bernstein did not publish his first book, The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers (2007), until he was ninety-six. . .  In an epilogue. . . Bernstein recounts a return visit, after forty years, to the old neighborhood. . . the houses on the street are being demolished. Little but memory is left of the world that contained him as a child. . . the narrator recalls how he used to lie in bed listening to the clatter of clogs on the cobblestones outside. “Then there was silence,” he concludes, “and my eyes would close and I was asleep”(1).

Steven Kellman’s article is a paean to writers and other artists who have become, one might say, dirty old men—that is, artists who did “not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas). William Haver begins his article quoting Genet’s description of a chance encounter with “a dirty old man.”

Something that seemed to me like a rottenness was in the process of corrupting my entire former vision of the world. When, one day, in a train compartment, while looking at the passenger sitting opposite me, I had the revelation that every man is worth as much as every other, I did not suspect […] that this knowledge would bring about such a methodical disintegration. Behind what was visible of this man […] by the look that butted against my own, I discovered experiencing it as a shock, a sort of universal identity with all men (2).

I do not mean to say that Haver’s article is about old men. (Quite frankly, I’m not sure what it’s about. It bears reading more times than I have done yet. I will.) But the idea that I share (that Genet says he shares) “a sort of universal identity with all men” comes as something of a shock to me (and did to Genet, apparently) every time I realize it. I know dirty old men. My connection between Harry Bernstein and Jean Genet hinges on “old.” Little but memory was left of Bernstein’s childhood world when he wrote his novel’s epilogue when he was ninety-seven. That must be a universal for those who have reached ninety-seven. Obviously little but memory of the world of one’s childhood would be left for most. My father, who has hardly even the memory of the world of his childhood left, will turn ninety-seven in fewer than six months. By that age, if one can experience anything, “the revelation that every man is worth as much as every other,” would, I should think, be an unlikely, unnecessary discovery.

At ninety-seven, one would either have already learned it or would have no occasion, need, desire to learn it. The ultimate way in which “every man is worth as much as every other” is, I need hardly point out, that we are all equally mortal. Haver explains that this equality is

. . . the absolute abjection that is death, is that from which I can distance myself neither in extension, as if death were only a predicate of others, nor temporally, as if death were only a deferred misfortune; death, as material impasse, as absolute abjection, is nothing other, nowhere other, never other, than: here, now, this (3).

The absolute abjection—the ultimate marginalization, the ultimate being cast out of the subjective world and into the objective world, the ultimate and absolute imperative of facing oneself as one will be and yet as one already is—is the discovery that we are all equal. And that is not some future equality that will befall us when we are ready. It is already and not yet the fact of our lives.

This writing, when I began, was headed for a conclusion about the change in attitude, the apparent belief of the Baby Boomers (I’m six months older than that statistical generation) that we are equal in some way other than in the absolute certainty of death. But I can’t seem to get there from here. The Viagra generation may well live forever. I doubt it.

I don’t know how to get out of this corner I’ve written myself into except to quote Genet again.

. . . I wrote that though I shall die, nothing else will. . . Wonder at the sight of a cornflower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand – all the millions of emotions of which I’m made – they won’t disappear even though I shall. [Others] will experience them, and they’ll still be there because of them. More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof which show [others] that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation. The happiness my hand knows . . . will be known by another hand, is already known. And although I shall die, this happiness will live on. ‘I’ may die, but what made that ‘I’ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me (4).

Rembrandt, Giacometti, Jean Genet, Harry Bernstein, Dylan Thomas—the “I’s” who made possible the joy of being for William Haver, Steven Kellman, you and me and will make the joy of being live on without us. I wish I could say that with Genet’s confidence, but I think I’m learning to live into the idea.
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(1) Kellman, Steven G. “Second Wind.” Southwest Review. 93.3 (2008): 412-425.
(2) Genet, Jean. “The Studio of Alberto Giacometti,” in Fragments of the Artwork. trans. Charlotte Mandell. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003. Quoted in Haver, William. “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet.” parallax 11.2 (2005): 25–35.
(3) Haver, op.cit.
(4) Genet, Jean. Prisoner of Love. Trans. Barbara Bray. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England, 1992. Quoted in Haver.

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