The medieval alchemical notion of the self is a homunculus seated in the mind’s throne peering out into the world, able to apprehend external reality at a safe distance through phantasms, which travel up the viscous bodily system and are re-articulated as images. This notion of the homunculus is enticing because it locates the self securely as an entity that inhabits and controls the psyche.
When I imagine the homunculus, it feels stable to me as a form that cannot be
undone. Maybe that’s a misinterpretation but right now I feel estranged from myself. I’m no longer a child, but not quite the adult I had expected to be. Or the expectations I had are no longer serving the purposeful defense they held as stationary endpoints of becoming. Everywhere, I’m coming to a sudden realization of the world as though I had been blind my whole life. Before: ideas, memories, futures, and people seemed finite and graspable. Very little of what I had held as real or as truth has remained. I’m changing. That’s why an idea of the self as a small thing inside my head seems comforting—but only right now, as a soothing, self-lulling image.
Late summer. I am running on Twelfth Avenue by the piers at night. I hear
the sibilant lapping of the Hudson River against the piers, merging with traffic. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, David Wojnarowicz would cruise other men here with a glance, and speak to them, and love them, and feel their bodies joining with his. His book The Waterfront Journals is a collection of short stories: fictionalized and re-imagined accounts of his interactions with strangers—prostitutes, runaways, hitchhikers. They are erotic psychic connections. As a reader you enter each person’s mind—a dark, fleshy domain of fear, violence, and longing. Wojnarowicz makes you aware of the speaker’s consciousness, the tangled palpability of his or her thoughts. In the short story “From the
Diaries of a Wolf Boy,” he writes:
“Sometimes I wonder what planet I got dropped off from; what foreign
belly did I get birthed from. This shit is painful, it’s like being on a raft way
out in the middle of a sea completely alone. I wave my hands in front of
me, I know I’m not invisible, why are my thoughts so fucking loud? I’m
lost in a world that’s left all its mythologies behind in the onward crush of
wars and civilization, my body traveling independent of brushes with life
and death, no longer knowing what either means anymore. I’m so tired of
feeling weary and alien, even my dreams look stupid to me. They belong
to another world, another century, maybe another gender that fits the
codes of all this shit.”
This passage encapsulates a kind of malaise I sometimes feel. I know others
share this estrangement from oneself—a hyperawareness of one’s own thoughts and desires which makes one feel disembodied.
In his writing, photographs, videos, and paintings, Wojnarowicz was deeply
conscious of the conjoined nature of the body and mind. He believed that their splitting was something learned, something taught by government and religious institutions. In his Untitled (One day this kid…), a Photostat print from 1991, an image of the artist as a young child is framed by a foreboding text that spells out his future. He will awaken to his own desires and must consequently endure the deadly ignorance of a homophobic society, which will threaten to harm, ostracize, and “compel him to commit suicide or submit to danger in hopes of being murdered or submit to silence and invisibility.”
© David Wojnarowicz
In “Diaries of a Wolf Boy,” the speaker describes himself as a “wolf child,”
someone raised in the “remote jungles or forests” and dragged into “this schizo-culture, snarling and spitting and walking around on curled knuckles.” Wojnarowicz speaks through him, as he does through each character—or they through him. ”And what of becoming? Becoming beside oneself, is not to be identified with imitating, reproducing, splitting or doubling oneself; or identifying with, assimilating, or incorporating something into oneself; or being reborn; though it can couple with or be traversed by all these. It is rather a form of atemporal change, becoming party to a condition of de-singularity in which, by acceding to an aboriginal multiplicity, one becomes not one.”
This is an excerpt from Brian Rotman’s enlightening and troubling essay, “Becoming Beside Oneself”—an unraveling into multiplicity. The foundational idea of subject as separate from the general mass is threatened. I like it. The individual is a social being. On the one hand, I feel like receding into my head and eloping with the homunculus in regressive narcosis; on the other, there’s an excitement in being entangled with other… consciousnesses? Rotman describes this multiplicity as aboriginal, mirroring the Marxist concept of the human as, first and foremost, a member of society.
Wojnarowicz’s The Waterfront Journals is an entanglement of multiple
selves—a multivocal web. Call it psychic cruising or community, it feels right to be with others, to socialize and be considered, and to consider others as a sensuous presence in our minds: as thoughts and as real people we can feel.