Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 10)

In these terms, living with AIDS is an apprenticeship, or more precisely a series of unique apprenticeships, instructing us in what we know already but are too apt to ignore:  that our days are numbered, our time counted.  If AIDS takes time, subtracting it from life expectancy, it also gives time – time dedicated to living and dying freed from the amnesia that plagues us, that plagues Herve, for example, as he recollects the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1987:

It’s strange to wish someone Happy New Year when you know the person might not live all the way through it:  there’s no situation more outrageous than that, and to handle it you need simple, unaffected courage, the ambiguous freedom of things left unsaid, a secret understanding braced with a smile and sealed with a laugh, so in that instant your New Year’s wish has a crucial but not weighty solemnity.  [E 125; F 139]

In truth, this situation is neither strange nor outrageous, or rather only as strange and outrageous as our mortality.  For we always know – though we are liable to forget – that the friend to whom we offer the wish may not live long enough to see its fulfillment, with which it can never coincide.  (In Seneca’s stark reminder in “The Brevity of Life,” “You are living as if destined to live forever…though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.”)  To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life is a labour of writing dedicated to making that knowledge freshly legible, reminding Herve and his readers alike that human life is the presentiment of a death that, whenever it comes, will arrive prematurely.

To this extent, Guibert’s text “is but a gloss, a justification and expansion of a title that speaks of itself and for itself”  (Derrida, Demeure, 53).  As Roland Barthes has observed, “‘To dedicate’ is…’performative’..[the] meaning merges with the very act of enouncing… ‘I dedicate’ has no other meaning than the actual gesture by which I present what I have done (my work) to someone I love or admire…[through] the act of giving…and this modicum of writing necessary to express it” (“Sagesse de l’art” in Cy Twombly:  Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 12).

Like its first sentence, the work’s title adopts the first person (“my life”) and the past tense (“did not”), signaling in advance what the narrative finally spells out:  that in the end Bill failed to make good on “his promises, which he’d been making for a year and a half now but had never honored…. Bill told me he’d sensed all this, admitting that my reproaches were justified, that he’d misjudged the timing involved [qu’il n’avait pas bien mesure le temps]  [E 220; F 240].  The time that Bill misjudged, his friend’s henceforth counted time, eventually runs out.  And in the dedicatory title, the titular dedication, the friend he did not save addresses him as if from beyond the grave, through a rhetorical structure proper to fiction rather than autobiography or testimony, in the text’s first and ultimate instance of a non-coincidence, an impossibility of coincidence between the time inscribed in the text and the time of lived experience.  To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, the dedication that arrives as if from the far side of a death that came too soon, already guarantees the work’s status as fiction, a full 257 pages before the narrative, nearing its end, glosses the generic stamp roman:

I’ve decided to be calm, to follow to the end this novelistic logic that so hypnotizes me, at the expense of all idea of survival.  Yes, I can write it, and that’s undoubtedly what my madness is – I care more for my book than for my life, I won’t give up my book to save my life, and that’s what’s going to be the most difficult thing to make people believe and understand.  [E 237; F 257]

More than his life, it is his book that counts.  Hence the difficulty will be to convey this madness to the reader, through an experience of reading that does not yield knowledge of what right to confer on a text that, not only from its first sentence but from its very title, renders problematic an effort to secure its referential and rhetorical modes once and for all, to ascertain what remains as permanently elusive as the “perhaps.”

When I learned I was going to die, I’d suddenly been seized with the desire to write every possible book – all the ones I hadn’t written yet, at the risk of writing them badly:  a funny, nasty book, then a philosophical one – and to devour these books almost simultaneously, in the reduced amount of time available [dans la marge retrecie du temps], and to write not only the books of my anticipated maturity but also, with the speed of light, the slowly ripened books of my old age.  [E 61-2; F 70]

Hastened by HIV/AIDS into the category of the books of a young writer’s premature old age, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life emerges, if not as “every possible book,” then at least as one readable by turns as a testimony, as an archive, as a document, as a symptom, and indeed as a work of literary fiction that simulates all of these, “almost” (but not quite) “simultaneously.”

Leave a comment

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s