Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 9)

But the modality of the “perhaps” is also inscribed in the “something completely unexpected,” the hasard extraordinaire invoked in the first paragraph and repeatedly thereafter, that punctuates the fictional three months when Herve “had AIDS.”  It inhabits the possibility of a reprieve from his death sentence afforded by an experimental vaccine that, by an extraordinary chance, Herve’s friend Bill has a hand in developing.  On that fateful March 18, 1988 comes the news flash:  “[Bill] tells us right off the bat that in America they’ve just come up with an effective vaccine against AIDS, well not really a vaccine, since in principle a vaccine is preventive, so let’s call it a curative vaccine, obtained from the HIV virus and given to patients who are seropositive but don’t display any symptoms of the disease…to block the virus and keep it from beginning its destructive process….” [E 156; F 173].  In no time, the constative content of the unexpected bulletin is translated into the performativity of a promise, albeit one that is never issued as such, according to the linguistic laws that govern speech acts.  Bill’s unspoken promise is nothing less than a pledge to save the life of his dying friend by providing access to the experimental treatment (whose still unproven efficacy as a “curative vaccine” would come belatedly, after the fact of infection, since it is not properly preventive).  And the force of this implicit performative exceeds the limits that might be ascribed to the text’s self-declared genre, in keeping with the circumscription in some speech act theory of the gravity and consequence of fictional utterances.  For Bill’s tacit offer, sustained over a year and a half as Herve’s health suffers a precipitous decline, allegorizes, as part of a “work of fiction,” the very real promise of more effective treatment and, in the event, a cure for HIV/AIDS that has underwritten the history of the pandemic over nearly three decades.  It is the intervention of time into the configuration of the promise and its redemption that invites the perhaps, and with it the risk that time will run out before redemption can take place.

As we are now in a position to recognize, Herve’s terrible ambivalence as he enters the “new phase” inaugurated by Bill’s announcement prefigures the effect on many PLWAs of the advent of more promising treatment options, and specifically the new generation of combination therapies including protease inhibitors that became selectively available in and after 1996, transplanting death’s near horizon to a newly uncertain distance.

…I was afraid this new pact with fate might upset the slow advance – which was rather soothing actually – of inevitable death…. For though it was certainly an inexorable illness, it wasn’t immediately catastrophic, it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship.  It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life [c’etait une maladie qui donnait le temps de mourir, et qui donnait a la mort le temps de vivre, le temps de decouvrir le temps et de decouvrir enfin la vie]….  And unhappiness, once you were completely sunk in it, was a lot more livable than the presentiment of unhappiness, a lot less cruel, in fact, than one would have thought.  If life was nothing but the presentiment of death and the constant torture of wondering when the axe would fall, then AIDS, by setting an official limit to our life span – six years of seropositivity, plus two years with AZT in the best of cases, or a few months without it – made us men who were fully conscious of our lives, and freed us from our ignorance.  If Bill were to file an appeal against my death sentence with his vaccine, he’d plunge me back into my former state of ignorance.  [E 164-5; F 181-2]

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

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