AIDS Culture: The Next Wave

Creating the Space to Explore Feelings That Can’t Be Expressed by Acting Up

Perhaps that's why Rorem also practices the plainsong of prose. In his diaries, which chronicle more than three decades in the cultural fast lane and its broad intersection with gay life, Rorem has never shied away from feeling. Nor has he evaded AIDS. Previous diaries documented the deaths of some two dozen friends. But in the latest volume, Rorem deals with the epidemic's intrusion into the marrow of his life, as Jim Holmes, his lover of 30 years, slips away. His dying hovers over the cultural judgments, the gossip, and the aperçus. "What you learn from this experience is that death has no meaning," says Rorem. Yet, as with the poetry he sets to music, there is meaning in the text.

Like White, Rorem conveys the weight of dying in a relentless accretion of precise details. The model here is the realist novel, but the insistence on representing emotion in all its physicality seems altogether gay. This palpability of feeling is present in the dances of Bill T. Jones, the painting of David Wojnarowicz, the theater of Tony Kushner, the poetry of Mark Doty (set by Rorem). It's there when Doty hears the virus humming in his lover Wally's chest "like a refrigerator." It's so unpostmodern, this aching tangibility, so easy to dismiss as "victim art." The difference between sincerity and sentimentality is hard to detect in a casually ironic time. But that distinction is the most enduring legacy of art about AIDS.


Edmund White (left) and Ned Rorem, the authors of two recent works about losing a lover: Along with devotion there is resentment, terror, and guilt, emotions that can’t be sewn into a quilt.
photo: Robin Holland
Edmund White (left) and Ned Rorem, the authors of two recent works about losing a lover: Along with devotion there is resentment, terror, and guilt, emotions that can’t be sewn into a quilt.

Thursday's panel on the cultural impact of AIDS will be held at the New-York Historical Society, 2 West 77th Street, at 7 p.m. For reservations, call 212-873-3400.

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