Sunday, August 21, 2022

Living through Cookie

I’m shamefully late to the writing of Cookie Mueller. I’m not a John Waters devotee, though I love his work, so I was unaware of Mueller’s maverick career in indie films and the stage. She died of AIDS-related complications at age 40, leaving behind decades worth of writings that ran the gamut from memoir, travelogue, and personal essays to fables, art criticism, and advice columns. The common thread through it all is an incredibly cool, nearly affectless voice describing an uninhibited life of drug excess, worldwide traveling (of the seat-of-her-pants, bohemian, graced-by-luck variety), and living on the margins peopled with crazy, beautiful, talented individuals. I hear Emily Hahn, Jim Carroll, Lucy Sante, and others in her voice, but Mueller was a true, cool original, never bitter nor overly cynical, eminently quotable, a fierce feminist and major partier. I think I would’ve loved to have known her. 

In 2014 artist, actress, and filmmaker Chloé Griffin published Edgewise, an essential oral biography of Mueller, and maintains a lively site devoted to it. And this year, Semiotext(e) published an expanded editon of Mueller's Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, originally published in 1990, adding more than two dozen pieces, many previously unpublished. “What comes off these pages now is in no way anesthetized or anhedonic," writes Olivia Laing in her introduction,
but rather a deep relish for adventure, a powerful, vibrating pleasure at the oddness of people, and the capacity of language to freeze even the most plainly terrifying or distressing material, to make it something that can be appreciated and shared, a communal pleasure rather than a private humiliation. It goes without saying that this is not the dominant style right now, which for this reader at least makes it all the more desirable.
Between the material gathered in Clear Water, YouTube, and online remembrances (I recommend photographer Nan Goldin's 2001 piece in ASX), there's a lot of access to Cookie's extraordinary life and work, thankfully. 


Here are some of my favorite passages from Walking Through Clear Water:
I was always leaving. Every time I left I had a different hair color and I would be standing on the porch saying goodbye to the older couple in the living room. I didn't have anything in common with them except that we shared a few inherited chromosomes, the identical last name, and the same bathroom. ("Alien, 1965")

Next on the street I noticed a gathering of women. I thought this was a little odd since this was long before the days when women felt it their duty to exclude men from their conversations. As I got closer, I realized the blond in the center of the group was extolling the virtues of Jimi Hendrix, after having fucked him the night before. I walked on by. It seemed silly. I'd fucked him the night before she had. ("Haight-Ashbury—San Fransisco, 1967")

Happiness is a fictitious feeling. It was created by imaginative storytellers for the purpose of plot building or story resolution. Fortunately most people don’t know this. They think the lives they are living are actual screenplays or theater pieces. In earlier times people were convinced their lives were the fantastic tales told at the fireside. Because of this, I have seen people stop in their tracks for a moment and wonder where the plot is, but mostly they just forge on blindly. 
        .... Being a human being isn’t easy, what with all these insatiable physical, emotional, and intellectual desires.
        If the ultimate goal in life is to be happy, then you have to admit that one-celled creatures have it all over us. Little germs are probably always happy. They are superior, they don't sing the blues. Think about that the next time you bring out the disinfectant bottle and start scrubbing them away. ("Fleeting Happiness")

“Oh, I never did much, Cookie, I mean in the way of big success and things like that,” she lit a cigarette and brought the other knee to her chin. She reminded me of a giraffe. This is what future women will look like, I thought. Ethereal, long, lean, able to see the scope of things from a higher altitude, ready to lope away when danger threatens. ("Out of the Bottle and into a Danish Remedy")

Each friend I’ve lost was an extraordinary person, not just to me, but to hundreds of people who knew their work and their a fight. These were the kind of people who lifted the quality of all our lives, their war was against ignorance, the bankruptcy of beauty, and the truancy of culture. They were people who hated and scorned pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness, and spiritual myopia; the blindness that makes life hollow and insipid was unacceptable. They tried to make us see. ("A Last Letter")

The next time you find yourself climbing out on a ledge, give me a call. I can recommend a travel agent. ("Manhattan: The First Nine Years, the Dog Years")

There is a great art to handling losses with nonchalance. ("Brenda Losing")

Top photo of Mueller by Nan Goldin

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