Wayne Koestenbaum Would Like to Thank Dreams and Nouns
Some Advice for the Graduating Class of Bennington College
(and the Rest of Us)
Why shouldn’t I begin with dreams? Delmore Schwartz did. My first writing teacher told me that a story of mine—embarrassingly sentimental—reminded her of Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” I use dreams to escape responsibilities, not to fulfill them. Last night’s dream, complicated, involved harissa, I began to say, but in fact last night’s dream didn’t involve harissa. Language leads me into the trap of saying what’s not true. Or, language leads me to say what’s true, but in a masked fashion. Harissa, the word that had no part in my dream, but that came to mind when I entertained the notion of telling you my dream, is a hot paste I’m not fond of. I don’t like spicy food, though I once did. I’ve become like my maternal grandfather, a rhetoric-prone man with a tetchy stomach. Or, I’ve become a tetchy man with a rhetoric-prone stomach. Back to harissa, and its secret truth: my sister’s name is Elissa; and, when I mentioned “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” at the beginning of this paragraph, I wanted to use the word haruspicate. Haruspicate and Elissa meet on the turf, too spicy, of harissa. I overuse haruspicate, because, like Schwartz’s narrator, I’m always metaphorically in a movie theater watching a film of my parents’ courtship. At the end of this paragraph I’ll stand up in the theater and shout, “Don’t do it! Don’t get married!”
Would you rather hear about my grandfather’s high-flown rhetoric or about his dyspeptic stomach? Or would you rather that I speculate about the connection between rhetoric and digestion? To engage in those speculations, I’d need first to tell you about the prudent warnings of my grandmother, the wife of the man with the nervous stomach. My grandmother would say to me, in a restaurant, “Don’t fill up on water.” I had a habit of guzzling ice water before the meal arrived. For the past week, I’ve been overindulging in bubbly water. The more seltzer I drink, the more I will resemble a poem in which a perfect adequation obtains between emotion and language. This attachment to seltzer—this conviction that carbonated water corrects a possible asymmetry between form and content in a poem or in a life—arose only recently, and in response to re-seeing Fellini’s La Strada. The relation between Giulietta Masina’s face and the Nina Rota theme that is her lachrymose leitmotif is like the relation between ice water and satiation; the two elements don’t exist in a system of cause-and-effect, but hover around each other until they grow inextricable, like the lichen I saw, this afternoon, covering a wooden chair that has been a mainstay of my backyard patio for so many seasons that I can no longer sit on the chair without intruding on the lichen and perhaps destroying it. The chair and the lichen exist in a subtle tug-of-war, like a bickering couple, Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a man and wife who exchange the roles of aggressor and victim with such rapidity that the spectator has a difficult time deciding which of the two characters deserves our sympathy and which deserves our scorn. George, with his cardigan and his crestfallenness, represents my condition as academic, while Martha represents the pitfalls of my mistaken use of volubility as the key weapon in my quest to be popular. Popularity, the quest for it, the impossibility of achieving it, haunted my childhood. I was popular in fourth grade.I believe in acting shamelessly but I also believe in apologizing afterward.
In fifth grade, alas, my popularity vanished, and it never returned with the same abundance. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have in common an overvaluation of the past, and a disdain for the present. This overvaluation, however, isn’t exactly nostalgia. I’m not nostalgic for fourth grade. I’m simply telling you that my tragic sense began there, or shortly afterward, when I realized it was possible to possess something intangible—popularity—that by vanishing without warning would define the period of drought that followed as monstrous rather than merely as disappointing. Writing—the art, the attempt—takes place for me against a symphonic background in which the monstrous is like a dominant seventh chord that threatens to topple the kingdom, and the disappointing is like a piccolo that skims, a hummingbird, above the cello and violin. A piccolo, as a single instrument, can’t create a dominant seventh chord; it can participate in the chord’s formation by supplying one of the notes, but it can’t summon simultaneously all of the pitches that the chord requires to announce its threshold-adjudicating presence. The dominant seventh stands guard at the precipice, and no monologic instrument can utter the full medicine.
It’s likely that I’ve lost by now the thread of whatever logical sequence of images and ideas brought me to this juncture, where I stand, somewhat plaintively, offering you the life-raft of an apology. I believe in acting shamelessly but I also believe in apologizing afterward; and every sentence, even the most pithy and sincere, needs to be followed by a retraction. Did the Oedipus complex arrive, in The Interpretation of Dreams, in a single sentence, or did it slowly drape its wares over a whole chapter?
I seem to recall that it takes Freud a few hundred pages to arrive, in his oneiric tome, at the Oedipus complex, but when that formula enters from stage left, it does so in a flurry of italics and trumpets, with a sense that dear Sigmund, though at the time only 44 years old, has reached the pinnacle of his promise. Because Freud invented the concept of Nachträglichkeit, or afterwardness, which destroys the tidy relation of before and after, his announcement of the Oedipus complex happens helter-skelter, a limb at a time, even when it seems to land in one clean moment. Did Freud ever apologize for the Oedipus complex? Is the incoherence of its arrival the apology? And why might it matter to you whether or not Freud apologized, or was incoherent, or was 44 years old?
I took a break from writing this commencement speech to look at Instagram, where I saw that a man in London, whom I’d drawn nude, during a Zoom session last week, posted the seven drawings I’d sent him from our session, and had tagged me. I was pleased to see that my model—whose screen name is AA, which are, I believe, his initials, and not an allusion to Alcoholic’s Anonymous—had disseminated the drawings, because then other people who follow his account might look at my Instagram feed, with its many drawings of nude men, and feel prompted to send me a DM, and offer to pose. Such offers come to me more often than you might imagine, and I usually say yes.
Before returning to the computer to continue writing this valedictory address, I scrolled through the list of people who had “liked” the nude drawings that AA had posted on his feed, to see if I might wish to visit some of those “feeds,” in a search for new models. During the pandemic, I have devoted many hours to drawing “live” models, in Zoom sessions, sometimes convened by organizations (such as the Renaissance Workshop, Bare Life Art, Chicago Gay Drink & Draw, the East London Drawing Group, or Doable Guys), and sometimes in private sessions I arrange with men who’ve joined me in the courtship gavotte, the out-of-the-blue exchange of DMs. I always apologize, before the session, to the models, and tell them that my drawings will be rudimentary: expressionist, colorful, but not realistic. I’m untrained, I tell my subjects, which is not exactly true; but I don’t want them to be disappointed when they see that I’ve messed up their proportions. And so I seek shelter under the protective shade of the “I’m untutored” tree.
In writing I’m perhaps too tutored, so in drawing I like to advertise my untutored innocence. And yet did anyone teach me how to write? Teachers (and my peers) showed me how to cast a cold eye on what I’d produced; this cold eye comes in handy. I spend much of my writing life impersonating the cold eye, becoming the cold eye so thoroughly that there is no “Wayne” left, only cold eye, only grammar, diction, taste, rhythm, allusion, referent, connotation, oxymoron, peripeteia, assonance, continuity, spondee. What no one taught me is that to write I must sink away from one form of conscious navigation and surrender to what language decrees. I must dwell firmly enough within the language-net to feel that my experiences in the moment of writing are a consequence of the words and not simply their catalyst.
Fiction writers often say that they listen to what the characters tell them. Not entirely a fiction writer, I listen to what language tells me; I instigate the process, but once the language commences its relentless hum, punctuated by doldrum and silence and distraction and Instagram and anxiety, then I occupy the position of the cook who has been given the lamb and the milk and the lettuce but didn’t create them. Even if I planted the romaine and watered it and harvested it, I am not its originator. I don’t mint, or coin, or engender the words, though I twist and pervert them. Language—its codes and leanings—surrounds me, and I try to make myself as inconspicuous as possible so that language can have its way with me; though I seem, in my I-centered prose and poetry, to be naked, I am in fact half-hidden, behind the shrubbery of this prepositional phrase, which wields its barricade of leaf and bud according to natural laws. I can’t make myself known to you without this rule-governed armature, whose wendings and reprisals must take precedence over my ideas, even if language’s caparisoned marauders need the mulch of my ideation in order to have a ground to trample.
I arrived here, at this peroration, in order to be trampled by language; coddled, too, and stimulated, and ignored. Does language give me suck, or does it turn away? A few weeks ago I dreamt I wrote that phrase (“does language give me suck”); when I woke, I remembered that Adrienne Rich had used the expression “give suck to” in a poem I often revisit, “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff”:
I love waking in my studio, seeing my pictures
come alive in the light. Sometimes I feel
it is myself that kicks inside me,
myself I must give suck to, love…
When I use the archaic phrase “give suck” I am reinhabiting this poem by Rich, in which she imagines occupying the voice of artist Clara Westhoff, who later married Rilke. No word I use is untainted by my sometimes conscious memories of how I have heard or read that word used in the past by specific and general voices. When I use the word “general” I am shadowed by a line from James Joyce’s “The Dead”: “Snow was general all over Ireland.” When I’m weighing my words or being weighed by them, I’m handling goods loaded with all I’ve seen them undergo. I write in order to rehearse the drama again with them, to be Delmore Schwartz or his narrator in the movie theater, an observer powerless to arrest or alter the unfolding tragedy. And now I remember the word I love most in Schwartz’s story: lip. The windowsill, when he wakes, has a “lip of snow,” a phrase that reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “Right of Frost” or “Hour of Lead.” Lip of snow, to notice you and to kiss you (to be frozen by you, to be ignored by you, and to vanquish your indifference through my compensatory acts of precise attention) are the reasons I read and write. Was that sentence too complicated? Try again. Schwartz gave me the lip of snow. I memorized it. I’m fed by it. Lip of snow gives me suck. Lip of snow is language’s lip, because lip, the word, is louder, more pronounced, more generous, than any other moment in the story, and maybe more than any moment in our interpersonal life. Has any one showered you with a precision, a benediction-of-frost (it can be a blessing to grow insensible), more pointed and eviscerating than Schwartz’s lip of snow, or than what the lip, in its metaphoric obliquity, seems to promise? Lip of snow, the phrase, will keep its promise. Sixth grade will arrive, and you will graduate from grammar school, and say good morning to the mature midnight of linguistic trickery.
The whole time I was growing up in San Jose, it never snowed, or it snowed but once, as they might have said in the 19th century. The day it snowed, I was sick, deemed too ill to leave my bed, step outside, and see the snow. Doubtless there was not much to see. The snow must have melted the instant it landed on the sidewalk and the lawn, the pachysandra and the pyracantha, the lava rocks and the fence, the gutter and the Rambler station wagon, the 1955 green Chevy and what I now make, in retrospect, of the gutter, what I demand of the lava rocks and the Rambler. I don’t ask them to explain what they symbolize. I don’t ask what brings them together on this snowy afternoon in spring. I simply say thank you to them for being nouns, for being objects I remember, things with recognizable though vacillating identities, presences that will never cease to beckon as thresholds of the marvelous, even if the marvels die out and disappoint, even if the fence breaks and the gutter overflows.