writes about the many different layers of rage and grief that are born from repressive American social structures and the joy in transcending them by experiencing beauty, pleasure, and a kind of sacred profane.
In Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz follows individual and intimate acts of ignorance and cruelty back to their sources. He is able to "X-ray" the body of the single oppressor and find his skeleton, which carries the distinct marks of the state: a history of violence, intolerance, and homogenizing control.
Each public disclosure of a private reality becomes something of a magnet that can attract others with a similar frame of reference; thus each public disclosure of a private reality serves as a dismantling tool against the illusion of the ONE TRIBE NATION.
While the book's title refers specifically to a bull — being taunted and eventually killed in a ritual of power by a matador, the metaphor is extenuated throughout the book as the narrator is driven by grief and rage, compelled, close to committing violence and close to having violence done to him. This is illustrated in a passage in which the author describes the transcendent pleasure of having sex with a man he picked up at a truck stop. The intensity of his emotional and sexual feelings are mixed with the fear and paranoia of being discovered and beaten by the police. He makes clear his drive to kill rooted in an instinct to protect the deepest needs of his individual humanity and existence as an animal.
I'm listening to my soul speak in sign language or barely perceptible whisperings and I'm lost in the idea that at the exact moment of the kill the owl's eyes are always closed and I feel his tongue burning down my throat....Had a cop car pulled up in that moment and had I possession of a gun I'd have not thought twice about opening fire.
This passage also illustrates the central theme of the book: that the individual — in so many ways formed by the state — is pitted against the state. This intimate duality is explicitly dealt with throughout the book.
First there is the world, then there is the other world...the world of the stop light, the no smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space, choice or movement. The bought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies.
Close to the Knives is a phrase that describes both victim and perpetrator. And Wojnarowicz gives us this victim/perpetrator in various forms: his friend Dakota, an outlier in the world who murders a drug dealer; the bull in the ring as the ultimate vessel of animal masculinity driven and enraged so it can react and be destroyed in a choreographed display of masculine control; and, of course, the body containing the AIDS virus — a body taking itself out.
AIDS becomes more than a disease. It becomes a signifier of the horrors of the state. This point is made in bold, in capitals: "WHEN I WAS TOLD I'D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I'D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL."
Here Wojnarowicz gives us the state as a thing that infiltrates your individual being, as a part of the body in which you live. He talks plainly about wanting to murder the politicians and preachers and those in the "organized social structure that would kill you spiritually or physically every chance it has." He gives us the political body as hypocrisy, contradiction, and evil intention, discussing the specifics of the Reagan administration's AIDS policies and their impact on creating a public health crisis.
The memoir ends with a chapter in which individual scenes of intimate violence and loving intimacy experienced by the author, his friends, and family, are intercut with a description of a bullfight, giving the sense that all violence is at once intimate, enculturated, choreographed. And he makes clear that experiences of pleasure are to be protected and exhalted, minor beauties that lead to greater transcendence, that carry the seed of freedom in them just as minor cruelties are impregnated with authoritarian meaning. It is pleasure that fortifies us against homogenizing control — the things that set us up, then cut us up and make us interchangeable and invisible.
Wojnarowicz addresses this in the book's final sentences describing the processing of dead bulls. I quote some of these lines in So Much Pretty and I carry them in my heart.
So little has been quartered that I could almost recognize which animal was which...as we stop to witness the bulls disappearing piece by piece, behind us far over the walls of the arena the vague notes of the band begin again and float like banners across the hot sky. Meat. Blood. Memory. War. We rise to greet the State, to confront the State. Smell the flowers while you can."
What Close to the Knives achieves is a kind of compassionate and self-reflexive understanding of how we acquiesce to and are formed by pain and rage and desire, and how the personal and concrete ("Meat") is tied to the economic, political, philosophical, and structural ("War").