Monday, July 13, 2009

Reading Queer

When I finally went for a short time to a actual university, my expectations were entirely too high. I'd watched reruns of the first few episodes of "Bridehead Revisited" far too often, gone mad for all things Oxbridge, and fancied my future filled with fresh flowers, plovers' eggs, and aristocratic blonds trailing their teddy bears through the dew. I imagined stern tutors, fascinating lectures, ivy covered dons, the lot. I'd already pissed away a year, academically, attending a theater school, though not the reputable one up the road, into which I did not get. Resolved, sophomorically, to leave well behind me the sweaty damp of dressing rooms, dance-belts drying on the radiators, and the endless practice of imagining a mimed orange, etc., (not so glamorous as it sounds, you must trust me,) I had determined to to transfer for some more intellectually reputable establishment. I'd met a wonderful old queen, a classicist and professor of "Speech & Rhetoric," at a very gay party, and been encouraged. When I entered next into higher education, I did not find the atmosphere I'd fantasized, or anything remotely like. Having come from nothing, educationally, I was ill prepared for huge lecture halls, the sleepy TAs, the functional illiteracy of my fellow undergraduates, and the urban enormity of the vast city campus. I was lost. I did not last.

In theater at least, I'd had my feet under me. In an actual college, I was left largely to list dangerously and despair. I did not know how to navigate a course schedule, write papers, take notes. I lacked the fundamentals of study, the vocabulary of scholarship, the wherewithal to feed myself without money, or find a job, or function. I enjoyed a few of my classes, almost in spite of my instructors. I enjoyed myself -- lest you think this narrative too grim -- despite everything and an unrequited love, but not so much that I did not happily leave when time and opportunity, and quite a few abandoned classes, necessitated a move.

I found myself, or rather was rescued by, a gentleman, with whom I still live. I was disowned, temporarily, and went back to hard work I understood, and from which, eventually, I went on to work I liked. Happy endings all 'round, see?

I've never regretted any of my mistakes, my initial romantic misalliances, or the decisions that led me to now. My lack of education I regret, still, if only for my purse, but college had no more use for me than I had for it.

However, that said, I do regret never having had the chance to read literature, modern and modernist literature specially, under the instruction of decent teachers. To undertake such a thing on one's own was not altogether wise. I have tried, but my efforts, through the years, to read Joyce, for example, have been less than fruitful. I can't help but feel I might have done better with some books in a classroom.

I'd put off reading this month's selection for the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club, not for the usual reasons and distractions, but from a vague dread of being inadequite to the task. We are reading William S. Burroughs' novel Queer. I never finish Burroughs.

The Beats, so called, at least in prose, have always suffered I think from a dull rhythm. More boxers than dancers, it is that punchy, tough guy beat of jab, jab, jab, whatever the violent, weird or lyric nature of the line, the hipster, Hemingway-influenced, rat-ta-ta-tat of declarative sentences, that bores. Now drained of the speed and shock that must once have seemed so new, what remains of a writer like Kerouac or Burroughs seems, to me at least, a rather dull and perpetually adolescent pose; the skid-row boulevardier, the flophouse bard, the chatty junky and the half-hard barfly. The absence in Burroughs of any variety other than the rote alternation of sketch and exhaustion, however ingenious and bitterly funny the shtick, and however earned the ennui, is as wearisome, when read at any length, as the company of any nodding junky. Burroughs does not change.

Perhaps I have, at least a little though, because reading Queer, admittedly a short and early book, I was not so frustrated as I remember having been. He is genuinely funny. I find myself reading from one sketch to the next, only really bored when he drops the vaudeville.

Reading William Burroughs now, I rather wish I had some educated soul, better versed in influences and theories, some wise professor -- and here I picture Burroughs in devastating imitation of all such authority -- to elaborate the technique, fill in the biography, to credit, so that I don't have to, the lazy paranoia and half-assed mystic quest with all the seriousness of academic consideration. I begin to suspect, the old boy deserves such attentions.

I'm amazed to admit that what Burroughs my have been wanting for me, back in the day, was just a better foil, a context and a classroom. If I still can't quite take him seriously, I'm pretty sure of those that do. Reactive, as opposed to creative literature, needs an audience perhaps of more than one, needs a history, a school. Maybe Burroughs needs teaching. Evidently I still do.

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