My Problem with Time
I first became aware of my problem while watching a television documentary about Coney Island amusement park. Footage going back to around 1910 had been located and was notably featured. The film was black and white, of course, but of high enough quality that one could see everything in some detail. Besides the daytime and -- really quite wondrous -- filmed nighttime views of fabled Lunar Park, we were also seeing people on the beach, distanced by us because of the old fashioned bathing outfits they were wearing. They were mostly males, younger men, in close-fitting swim suits -- made of some Jerseylike material -- that came down to their elbows and knees.
It was one of those early "Look at me!" films. So, the young men approached the camera, one after the other, sometimes coming quite close to the lens, doing anything active to show the "movingness" of these newfangled moving pictures. This usually resulted in something athletic: hand stands, head stands, making a bicep muscle, arm wrestling. Some young men looked very contemporary. Not a handlebar mustache among them. A few were beautiful. One was very beautiful and as is usually the case, he knew it. Like all beautiful young men, he was clearly the center of his little group. After he'd done his backflip in the sand for the camera, his pals surrounded him, they clasped him, they shook his hand and slapped his back. They all touched each other a great deal, smiling and laughing.
To my astonishment, I found myself stricken with something very much like lust for this beautiful young man. And I found myself jealous of the pals who got to be with him, to slap his back, to hear his voice, to have that beautiful face and body close enough to be touched. In fact I found I was envious of them, all of those young men: so young, so healthy, having such a good time in the clean air and clean water of their less chemically polluted age. They seemed so innocent of the complicated mental contortions that have accrued around men touching another, so free of the censoring of this and that kind of sexuality of our allegedly "more enlightened" time.
Those young men in their early twenties in 1910 would have been born sometime around 1890. They would be about the age of my grandfathers. By the time I was born, they were in their sixties. By the time I was sexually active with men, they were in their eighties -- those that were still alive. Yet here they were, young, active in front of me, through the "wonder" of film.
I can understand that. In the same way I understand photography, i.e., an image formed by light on a certain surface covered with particular chemicals. It's chemistry and physics. Not magic. In the same way I understanding recordings from that era as grooves electronically etched into wax or vinyl or metallic tape or now laser-embedded in CDs. Seeing those now surely mostly vanished young men is not magic. As hearing Enrico Caruso sing Vesti la giubba or Teddy Roosevelt fulminate about the sinking of the battleship Maine is not magic. No, my problem isn't "how" I can see them, "how" I can hear them -- it's how can I relate to them.
Wait! You're thinking. They're dead and gone. They're "other." Without the film being in existence, without the documentary being aired, I would have never known of their existence. As I could never have had aural substantiation of the great Italian tenor without hearing him. How can I dream of having "feelings" for one of these men, never mind a strong a feeling as lust, envy, jealousy?
Twentieth century inventions, especially vocal recording and the motion picture (and its corollary, videotape), inventions and processes that we all take so much for granted, are responsible for shattering any previous concepts we may have had of the integrity of time. They are unique manners by which we seek to salvage what has been previously unsalvageable.
It may turn out to be that that compulsion to remember and to reproduce those memories -- and not language, which we're now discovering is in some form available to other species -- is what ultimately distinguishes us a species.
And I wonder if that's a good thing. Certainly for me it's not without its downside.
Let's look at the matter of time, and the various dangers in recording it, in another way. I've been keeping journals since the year 1970. Actually I began in 1969 or so, but didn't get serious about journal-keeping until a year later. It was then I determined to transform myself into a writer and toward that end, I began to train myself, to discipline myself. One way to do so was to sit down and write: physically to sit down and physically to write every day for a certain period of time.
Given my active, energetic, nervous temperament when younger (yes, I peeked at my teacher's medical and psych evaluations in my school reports) this practice was very much needed if I were to have any kind of writing career. I needed the exercise for other reasons too: I had to unlearn how I'd been taught to write through sixteen years of American public school. I had to learn how to write as an original, an individual -- a goal somehow ignored, when not actively discouraged, by our education system. Naturally this drill required some time, and it actually remains an ongoing process.
However, it worked I suppose, and according to other people's values, I more or less succeeded. As a result, I now have some twenty-seven years of journals, in addition to a slew of books and manuscripts. And I still possess the seven or so most recent of these journals. Those up through the year 1989 are gone, filed away in the archives of the Beinecke Rare Books and MS Library of American Literature at Yale University, part of their Violet Quill Club Collection. Several years back, a writer/editor/critic of the group excerpted some twenty five pages of my journals for an anthology on the writing group. More recently, a publisher suggested an entire volume of these journals might be selected, annotated and made ready for publication. Because I was fortunate enough to have been located near the center of those heady early days of gay writing and publishing, the journals I kept -- for entirely other, and quite selfish, reasons -- are now deemed "historical" and thus worthy of this honor.
So it happens that I'm subtly coerced into reading over these journals, which you may recall were never intended to be reread by anyone, myself included; but merely to be written. As a result, I am reading what I wrote about my life as it happened twenty, twenty-five, thirty years ago: about people I met, parties I attended, men I slept with, men I fell in love with, poems and stories I wrote or that I never got around to writing, ideas that never quite transformed themselves into books or actions, not to mention the many contortions and contradictions involved in being in the middle of a swirling mass of so many strong male egos as myself, my friends, lovers, and enemies.
It is historical and incontrovertibly real. Or rather, it was real, at one time. My problem is... how do I phrase this exactly?... if it was real then, does that mean it is really real now?
What I mean is, these journals are proof of the past. And despite getting things incorrect because of half truths, or my own stupidity and partial knowledge or laziness or because I was lying to myself, these journals are fairly incontrovertible proof that a certain past (and not some other equally viable past) occurred. Even though most of the people I write of are now dead. Even though many of the institutions -- dance clubs, bars, bathhouses, art galleries, theatres, publications, bookstores, arts centers, etc. -- so crucial to us all at the time are gone or so altered they're as good as gone. These journals stand as the only proof I have that any of this actually happened. My memories, our memories those of the few of us who were alive at that time and experienced all this, are -- as facts -- notoriously off, bad, poor, unreliable. These journals are supposedly the evidence.
They're simply not enough. Even placed next to those movies of guys leaping about on a Coney Island Beach, they seem, well... insufficient.
I'll probably need photos when these journals are published. And since I was a published author at age thirty-one, that means that I've got a quarter century of photos of myself as author. Not many. But at least photos of myself and of several colleagues and pals. Looking over what I've managed to hold onto of these photos, I face another variation of my problem with the past, my problem with time.
Take three specific photos from 1977. The photo session these three came from was supposed to be for the back jacket of my third novel, The Mesmerist. However, these photos were not part of "official" photo session, set up and paid for by Delacorte Press, my publisher at the time. I remember that photo session well: Kenn Duncan's seven-room studio on the top floor of a big, old building on Fifty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue. And how casually, almost brusquely, he treated me once I was dressed, my hair brushed, all ready for the shoot. He was used to photographing Nureyev and Burt Reynolds, Capote and other celebrities of the day, compared to whom I was nobody (despite a few best-selling books). Ergo his noblesse oblige. Duncan took my arm and wandered with me in and out of various rooms, each differently decorated or differently hung with background set-ups. We were followed around his studio by a throng of Duncan's minions -- the lighting man, the makeup woman, one apprentice holding a dozen lenses, another with a dozen cameras wrapped around his body, a younger woman who spoke sotto voce on the telephone the entire time I was there, but who would periodically lean over and whisper in Duncan's ear. A gypsy caravan, we trooped from chamber to chamber, setting to setting, until the photographer at last settled for a room and background to shoot me in. I felt pushed and pulled and bored beyond belief, buoyed only by the knowledge that I would soon change and join Bob Lowe across the street at the Stage Delicatessen, home of immense bread-and-butter pickles and gargantuan pastrami sandwiches.
After the "official" shoot was at last over and as I was changing into my street clothes, the photographer flew into changing room. Before I'd gotten a shirt on, but just as I was pulling up my jeans, he locked the door, fell onto his knees in front of me, as David Hemmings had done to Verushka in Antonioni's film, Blow-Up and began shooting -- at the same time going on and on, saying the most provocative things about my body, my face, my sensuality, what he wanted me to do for him, and all the while suggesting, indeed demanding poses, angles, and looks from me, assuring me that absolutely no one would lay eyes on these photos -- until he had shot another entire roll of film. Before he'd begun snapping I'd just managed to get my red, zipper-front, hooded-sweatshirt onto my shoulders if not zipped up, so what he was shooting wasn't pornographic, it wasn't even soft core porn, but it was unquestionably erotic, and for him clearly some kind of necessary erotic supplement to the official photo session.
This happened despite the fact that I've never been a more than moderately good looking man in my early thirties at the time and Duncan was then the most famous photographer of models, dancers, and celebrities in the country. I was surprised by the event, and also amused, and -- as with virtually any new experience or adventure -- I found myself whole-heartedly throwing myself into that second, illegitimate, completely private photo session, in a way completely contrary my indifferent attitude toward the official session.
Only now, some twenty-odd years later, looking at the blow-ups that arrived later on in the mail, can I actually arrive at some concept of what about me it was that Kenn Duncan saw, what he was aiming for in that illicit session: I was thirty-three and a half years old, and I can now understand that I'd just then hit the apex of whatever physical glamour I would ever possess. With the visual intuition of someone daily surrounded by the visual, the attractive, and absolutely fascinated with physical beauty, Duncan somehow intuited it in me that day, and he wanted it caught on film. The result is three of the best photos anyone has ever taken of me. In one shot, I am imperious, aloof: I give off male confidence and at the same time that mysterious "ice-princess" quality Bob Lowe insisted kept me both equal to and competitive with the far more beautiful gay men of our A-list era on the New York City / Fire Island Pines circuit. In a second shot, I'm friendly, open, witty, with an easy come-on, asking you to share the fun. In the third I'm again masculinely confident yet somehow hot too, challenging, sexy, responsive, just waiting for you to try something.
Now here's my problem with these photos: I vividly remember both photo-sessions. What I cannot for the life of me remember at all is -- myself at the time. Who is that man? Can two decades of loss and death as a result of AIDS, accident and other illnesses have so utterly wiped this confident, handsome young man off the face of the earth? And if not, then where is he? Is he hidden inside me? Is he integrated into me? I don't think so. I don't feel so.
So, my problem with these photos, as with my journals, as with that documentary movie, is what I'm forced to call my problem with time. Being able to see the past, it's not enough, how does one having recaptured the past in some solid form (photo, video, recording) truly "recapture" the people portrayed.
Much of our contemporary art seems to address this problem, or rather much of our art seems to be about our relation to time, whether it is a popular film set in the 50's like LA Confidential or in the 70's like Boogie Nights, or whether it is novels like my own The Lure and Like People In History, written sixteen years apart in actual years yet inhering somehow together in time, especially, say, for the person first reading them in tandem (not to mention my three memoirs, and my journals when they're at last published).
Looking back on all I've written as compared to what I've lived, I sometimes feel I'm some kind of deranged temporal spider, weaving and reweaving a complex web of words in and about time intended to do something, to create something -- what exactly, I'm not at all certain.
Am I supposed to be making of my life a work of art? Is that it? Is it intended -- unintentionally -- to be paradigm? A model for some future person?
"Time is not an enemy," reads Helmut Wilhelm's commentary on the ancient Chinese I Ching, The Book of Changes, "time is material to be worked with." I have followed that teaching and thought I believed it. I have certainly tried to "utilize" time, to harness it for practical use in my life... with admittedly limited success.
But I have these continued, seemingly unanswerable questions: It's clear that the future isn't real. Mostly, the future consists of hopes and fears, i.e. fantasies. But, on the other hand, does that necessarily mean that the past must be real? Or can only the present, this very second as I'm living it -- keyboarding it, in fact -- be real? And if that really is the case, and I'm willing to believe it is, then what exactly is the past?
Unlike the future, it has left indications of its presence: scars, stains, fractures, tears, wrinkles -- visible, tactile evidence of its existence, proof we can hold and look at and listen to. Especially as we get older, I notice how the past begins to seem far more real to many of us than the less interesting, less intense, less active present.
How am I to understand this paradox?
And am I the only one having this particular problem with time?