‘Til Human Voices Wake Us: Dale Peck’s ‘Visions and Revisions’ in the Age of AIDS

bookcoverVisions and Revisions, the title of Dale Peck’s new memoir about coming of age as a writer — as a person — during the AIDS crisis, might seem like a strange one from a novelist, critic, and essayist who once maligned literary modernism and its descendants. Only it isn’t. The title comes, as many readers will know, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” perhaps the 20th century’s greatest literary work devoted to sexual indecision. This is fitting for Peck, whose memoir is embroidered with the sexual indecisions brought about by the AIDS crisis, which, the book reminds us, was a matryoshka doll of other crises, both public and private, theoretical and practical, cultural and political — all of which threatened to overwhelm the writer. The subtitle of the first section: “And in short I was afraid.”

But the line “visions and revisions” also describes the book’s form, as well as Peck’s dextrous, dialectical style, one that contrasts his often brutish mode as a critic. The memoir is suitably collagist in the way it pieces together, not seamlessly but almost so, Peck’s reportage and essays from the crisis period with editorial hindsight. It is composed, literally, of visions and revisions. And Peck wastes little time defining the nature of his visions in that tumultuous period:

Because this was how it worked: before I could have sex with a man I had to believe I could love him — forever. This wasn’t just fantasy, it was foreplay. The particular way a man looked and the first few words he said provided me with more than enough material to manufacture a life together. These visions, depending on the length of acquaintance, could be revised or abandoned; sometimes they turned into journal entries, sometimes stories; usually they were forgotten after I came.

Peck’s visions, his first-order experience of the crisis, likewise twist and turn; they move through the romantic fantasies — ruined or nourished — of the young writer, as well as what you might call the facticity of sexual frankness. What results is a synthesis of opposites that is, at its best, unsettlingly literary. As when, for example, Peck notes that Michael Cunningham’s eulogy at the memorial service for Mark Fisher in 1992 filled him with a hope that was immediately shattered by “Mark Fisher’s face beneath the clear top of his coffin.” Or, more prosaically, when he smartly notes the exchange between activism and theory:

The particularly dense jargon favored by cultural critics…would have lacked urgency without its link to ACT UP’s realpolitik, while ACT UP would have been just another group of headline-clambering discontents, morally justified but intellectually bankrupt, without the foundation provided by Crimp, Bersani, and Watney, among many others — above all Michel Foucault…

Although a relatively short memoir, Visions and Revisions comes to contain an indispensable mini-canon of cultural theory, essay, and reportage from the crisis. But that’s just a bland, aloof way of stating that, in almost every moment, Peck’s book asserts itself as a bold yet considered act of militant nostalgia — the filmmaker Thom Andersen’s term for intervening in the past in order to open up new possibilities for the future. Peck is revising our understanding of the crisis as much as reading its history aloud.

This leads to a run of necessary revisions, as when Peck illustrates how the serial violence against and murder of gay men in the 1980s and ’90s was concomitant with the perception of gay life and gay bodies under the cruel charge of the crisis. Or how the decline of the HIV infection rate aligned with the rise of sex parties and sex clubs. Or, again, when Peck knowingly points to how an epidemic can grow because of the public ignorance brought about by relatively new media, new visions, as when America collectively switched away from the AIDS crisis through television. “AIDS wasn’t their problem,” Peck writes, “but the problem of people who lived and died somewhere else and only entered their consciousness through their televisions, at which point they hurriedly changed the channel.”

Peck’s enduring negotiation of the crisis, both as an activist, writer, and epistemic source for journalism, is what allows him to distinguish the well-meant from the wise. In this mode, Peck writes that despite Susan Sontag’s caution against conveying the crisis in terms of war analogies,

[W]e knew we were fighting a war: against HIV, against the AIDS epidemic, and against the political and social forces whose genocidal negligence led to the deaths of first hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people. What we didn’t know was that we would win, or that victory would be scant consolation for all those who shouldn’t have died in the first place.

Scott Mclemee once noted, in a piece contra-Peck, the word critic shares its root with the word crisis, which the Greeks originally used to describe a patient teetering between life and dead — a patient, Eliot would say in “Prufrock,” who is “etherized upon a table.” It seems fitting, even just, that Peck would redeem his role as a critic, one other writers have tried to take from him in the past, in a book devoted to the crises of so many other patients, other lives. It’s fitting, too, that in the book’s final section, “Thirteen Ecstasies of the Soul,” written for Gordon Armstrong, it becomes a wholly capacious and dialectical thing. “I’ll show you what AIDS has shown me, if you’ll show me what AIDS has shown you,” Peck writes. That is to say that Visions and Revisions, whether memoir, criticism, narrative, or collage, becomes a letter — one that wakes us with human voices.