Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 4)

2.  Today, January 4, 1989, I tell myself I’ve got only seven days, exactly seven days to tell the story of my illness [qu’il ne me reste exactement que sept jours pour retracer l’histoire de ma maladie], and of course I’ll never meet the deadline [delai], which is going to play havoc with my peace of mind, because I’m supposed to call Dr. Chandi on the afternoon of January 11 so that he can tell me over the phone the results of the tests I had to have on December 22…thus beginning a new phase of the illness…plus I’d hardly slept at all for fear of missing the appointment made a month earlier…and when I did get any sleep that night before those awful tests when they drew off an appalling amount of my blood, it was only to dream that I’d been prevented for various reasons from keeping this appointment that was so decisive for my survival…and I’m actually writing all this on the evening of January 3 [et ecrivant tout cela en realite le 3 janvier au soir] because I’m afraid I’ll collapse during the night, pressing on fiercely toward my goal and its incompletion….  [E 40; F 48; emphasis added]

In this instance – cited for brevity’s sake as elliptical fragments of a single agitated sentence that runs for three and a half pages in the English translation as in the French text – the initial date provided passes as “today,” the day that institutes Herve’s contract with himself (and with it a self-division in the grammatical subject), a vow to tell the story, retrace the history of his illness in the “seven days, exactly seven days” that remain before he is to receive the results of the blood tests for the antigen P24.  While seven days may be a resonant time frame for an author’s work of creation, this is a contract that he knows in advance will be broken, an effort that is bound to fall short.  He knows this as well as he knows even as he writes that “Today, January 4, 1989” is a fiction, tomorrow masquerading as today, and that he “actually” [en realite] has eight days to fail to keep his pact with himself.  What can be the reason for dissimulating the date, post-dating the provenance of “all this,” then confessing to the deception in the same sentence and thus disrupting the experience of reading the text, whether as work of fiction or as testimony?  Is it, as he claims, because he fears he will suffer the sort of disabling “collapse” that consigned his friend Muzil (the unmistakable figure for Foucault) to the hospital, and shortly thereafter (in June, 1984, another date provided, another referent linking the roman to a confirmed historical reality) to his death?

At a minimum, the dissimulation and confession bring to the experience of reading To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life the suspicion of a certain irresponsibility on Herve’s part, consistent with his willingness to enter into a contract, if only with himself, and make public a pact that he knows he cannot and will not honour.  Perhaps more fundamentally, “he could be suspected of the abuse of a fiction, that is, of a type of text whose author is not responsible, not responsible for what happens to the narrator or the characters of the narrative, not answerable before the law to the truthfulness of what he says.  One might insinuate that he is exploiting a certain irresponsibility of literary fiction in order to pass off, like contraband, an allegedly real testimony” (Derrida, Demeure, 55).  The integrity of the author’s implicit contract with his readership is likewise at stake.

The self-imposed deadline (the French delai, whose primary sense is the interval of time rather than its term or limit, derives from the older form deslaier, “differer”) set to coincide with the phone appointment with his physician thus assumes further significance with reference to a prior engagement at an earlier date:  December 22, the vexed occasion of the “decisive” blood tests.  On the previous day, he confers with Dr. Chandi:

‘Oh yes, your blood test.  Is it time for your appointment already?  Tomorrow, my God – how quickly time flies! [comme le temps passe vite!]”  Later [par  la suite] I wondered if he’d said that intentionally to remind me that my days were now numbered [mon temps etait desormais compte], that I shouldn’t waste them writing under or about another name [plume] than my own, and I remembered that other, almost ritual phrase he’d used a month before, when he’d studied all my latest blood analyses, noted the sudden inroads the virus had made, and asked me to have a new blood test to check for the presence of the antigen P24…so that we could set in motion the administrative procedure required to obtain the drug AZT, currently [a ce jour] the only treatment for full-blown AIDS.  “Now,” he remarked, “if we do nothing, it’s no longer a question of years, but of months.”  [E 44; F 52]

“How quickly time flies.”  The cliché will subsequently serve as a reminder (whether intentional or not) that his fleeting days are numbered, not simply “now,” as the translation has it, but henceforth:  “mon tempts etait desormais compte,” my time was henceforth counted, “which signifies ‘from now on and in the future,’ thus later, always later, the future always later, the permanent future”  (Derrida, Demeure, 102).  (Earlier in the narrative, Muzil learns that the days remaining to him are likewise numbered:  Realizing his days were numbered [Une fois le temps compte], he began to reorganize his book with absolute clarity [E 28; F 36].)  To be avoided, then, is the potential waste of precious time involved in “writing under or about another name than my own”:  writing pseudonymously, say, or penning novels in lieu of autobiography.  Later, too, the cliché about the rapidity of time’s passing will recall another, “almost ritual” formulation, offered “a month before,” about the henceforth counted time that remains to the patient.  Failing treatment with AZT (“currently [a ce jour, to date]  the only treatment for full-blown AIDS”:  another referent linking the roman to the history of the epidemic-turned-pandemic), it will be a question not of years but rather of months (as it has been throughout the narrative to this point:  “three months,” “several months,” “the months that followed,” “a month before”), in one of several cruel revisions of his life expectancy and its most suitable unit of measure that Herve eventually confronts:

3.  In December [1988], Dr. Chandi said, “At this point, it’s no longer a question of years, but of months.”  In February, he’d revised his estimate sharply, saying, “If we do nothing, we’re now talking about a few short months, or some longish weeks [c’est une affaire de grandes semaines ou de petits mois].  And he was very definite about the reprieve granted by AZT:  between twelve and fifteen months”…. On February 10 I picked up my capsules of AZT…but as of today, March 20, as I finish getting this book into shape [mais a ce jour, 20 mars, ou j’acheve la mise en propre de ce livre], I still haven’t touched a single capsule of AZT.  [E 205; F 223; emphasis added]

“Short months,” “longish weeks”:  these of course are fictive durations, in English as in French, figures of speech proper to literary language and not to the time of experience, however short-lived.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Reading and writing

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