Tag Archives: autobiography

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 9)

This partial, elliptical restoration of what remains inaudible and illegible in the lines scratched in the margins of “The First Part of the Second Half” yields the formidable task of reading Andrews reading Carson reading the scriptural account of Lazarus.  At every turn, the event in question – which is not represented but figured – is a resurrection, among whose incalculable effects is an unsettling in the order and the measure of time.  What Carson’s director of photography, translating and paraphrasing Rilke, terms “the flip-over moment” relegates chronological time – “Before and after” – to virtual irrelevance; hence this impossible documentary (“Our sequence”) purports to open and close with the time (“that moment”) of a singular upheaval. 

The radical disordering of the time of lived experience as well as that of narrative succession leaves us with discontinuous, heterogeneous moments, each exerting a certain “pressure,” each with an again incalculable bearing on us, now. 

We know the difference now 

(life or death). 

For an instant it parts our hearts.  [Carson, 95] 

The poem’s first-person plural here inscribes the reader in a claim to “know the difference” (the interposed parentheses that demarcate “life or death” signal an interruption in the unfolding of the utterance itself), a claim tied to a moment (“now”) that is of necessity itself different with every reading.  And because it is impossible to determine in strictly grammatical terms whether to assign “now” to “know” or to “difference,” the difference in question may also differ from one reading to the next.  For another “instant,” a time with no measurable duration, the difference “parts our hearts,” engendering a further difference, not between but within us, each of us.  The effect here is perhaps akin to the disturbance that Derrida locates in Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, which is also a remarkable (autobiographical, autothanatographical) reinscription of the Lazarus narrative. 

A disturbance in the measure of time and a paradox of these instants, which are so many heterogeneous times.  Neither synchrony nor diachrony, an anachrony of all instants…. There is not a single time, and since there is not a single time, since one instant has no common measure with any other because of death, by reason of death interposed, in the interruption of reason by death, so to speak, because of the cause of the death there can be no chronology or chronometry.  One cannot, even when one has recovered a sense of the real, measure time.  And thus the question returns, how many times:  how much time?  how much time?  how much time?   [Derrida, Demeure, 94] 

The pressing question posed (how many times?), though not answered, in and through the story of Lazarus and its allegorical reinscription (Blanchot’s, Carson’s, Andrews’) is quantitative, a matter of duration:  How much time?  How long a reprieve from a death that will be – when it comes to stay, as it surely will – premature?  In each instance, the uncertain response is figured and refigured as “a sort of tomorrow, a sort of postscript,” for “this remainder that remains…will have been but a short sequel of sorts, a fallout, a consequence”  (Derrida, Demeure, 94). 

Maurice Blanchot

"Men in the Off Hours"

"Self-Portrait as After Image," 2009

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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.”

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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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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 3)

1.  On this twenty-sixth day of December, 1988, as I begin this book, in Rome…several months after those three months when I was truly convinced I was lost, and after the months that followed when I was able to believe myself saved by the luckiest of chances [par ce hasard extraordinaire], wavering now between doubt and lucidity, having reached the limits of both hope and despair, I don’t know what to think about any of these crucial questions, about this alternation of certain death and sudden reprieve [cette alternative de la condemnation et de sa remission]…. [E 2; F 10; emphasis added]

Attesting to the origins of “this book” – the book we are now attempting to read, the roman or work of fiction signed by Herve Guibert – the narrative here refers the reader back to its first sentence and paragraph, specifically to “those three months” when “I had AIDS,” or more precisely when the first person (whom we will henceforth, following his cue, call Herve) believed that his fate, an imminent and premature death, was sealed, and to the ensuing months inaugurated by the extraordinary chance (hasard of course also signifies risk or danger, crucial senses in this context) that brought the promise of possible salvation.  We learn that he embarks on this book in the aftermath of the three months and the several months that followed, in a time of flux precipitated by his alternation between despair and hope, between the prospect of imminent death and the promise of reprieve.  Little wonder, then, that here and throughout the narrative temporal indications abound.

Despite the imprecision of “several months” and “the months that followed,” this uncertain time is given the strict demarcation of a date that both historicizes it in the context of the unfolding of the epidemic and locates it in the narrative sequence.  History and story, dovetailing in the French histoire, are intricated in a text that can be read as a partial historiography of AIDS, as chapters from Guibert’s autobiography, and as the work of fiction it styles itself:  for example when we read that Bill, the friend of the title to whom the book is addressed and dedicated, “was the first to tell me about this famous disease, it must have been sometime in 1981.  He’d just returned from the United States, were he’d come across the first clinical reports about this strange death and its specific provenance in a professional journal” – presumably the June 1, 1981 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which included the first published clinical account of the condition known only later as AIDS  [E 13; F 21].  With “it must have been,” the self-declared literary fiction binds itself to history, to one among several indelible events that serve here as referents.  With regard to the narrative sequence, which is irreducible to a chronology, part of the reader’s task in this instance will be to reckon in light of what follows that “this twenty sixth day of December, 1988” falls four days after the tests undergone on December 22 of that year to check for the presence in Herve’s blood of the antigen P24, sign of the active, no longer latent operation of the HIV virus.  For only subsequently are the tests and their dates explicitly noted.

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 2)

With the designation roman that twice punctuates the French title, Guibert’s text declares itself from the outset, before any further experience of reading, a work of literature, a narrative of a certain duration whose first person would not be the author, but rather a narrator not bound by any commitment to historiographical or autobiographical veracity, freed by author and reader alike from responsibility to what might actually have happened.  And for the most part it is indeed readable as such a fiction, according to what the first person will belatedly term a “novelistic logic” (the logique romanesque evidently posed no problem for the translator).  [Translation cited hereafter as E; French text cited hereafter as F.]  This is the case for the provocative opening sentence as well as its qualification in those that follow, adumbrating the plot and the central predicament of the narrative:

More precisely, for three months I believed I was condemned to die of that mortal illness called AIDS….  But after three months, something completely unexpected [un hasard extraordinaire] happened that convinced me I could and almost certainly would escape this disease, which everyone still claimed was always fatal….  That I was going to make it, that I would become, by an extraordinary stroke of luck [par ce hasard extraordinaire], one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady [cette maladie inexorable].  [E 1; F 9]

But at several telling junctures in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a fundamental law of the novelistic genre is transgressed when author and narrator converge to become indistinguishable.  These instances, at least six in number, prove to have two traits in common:  a reference to the work itself as it is being written, and an act or event of dating that demarcates its provenance.  The unsettling experience of reading these passages leads us to ask (among other things, certainly) what the co-presence of these traits inscribes in the relations between novel and autobiography, fiction and testimony.

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 1)

With this post, I return to my manuscript The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible for purposes of bringing to light a chapter that has not yet been published in print.  Entitled “Numbered Days,” it attempts a reading of Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (A l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauve la vie), which dates from the period – the early 1990s – in which Derek Jarman and Felix Gonzalez-Torres were likewise working under the cloud of  HIV/AIDS.  “Numbered Days” begins with an epigraph from Jacques Derrida’s Demeure:  Fiction and Testimony:

Before coming to writing, literature depends on reading and the right conferred on it by an experience of reading.  One can read the same text – which thus never exists “in itself” – as a testimony that is said to be serious and authentic, or as an archive, or as a document, or as a symptom – or as a work of literary fiction, indeed the work of a literary fiction that simulates all of the positions that we have just enumerated.  For literature can say anything, accept anything, receive anything, suffer anything, and simulate everything….  [29]

Herve Guibert

What right might an experience of reading confer on a text that, from its opening sentence (“I had AIDS for three months” [“J’ai eu le sida pendant trois mois”]), renders problematic its own referential and rhetorical modes, and with them the very experience of reading?  Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (A l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauve la vie), published in French in 1990, is a first-person account of a young writer’s confrontation with a range of physical, psychological and social effects of HIV, dating from 1980 to 1989 and thus spanning the decade in which the first clinical reports of what would provisionally be termed Gay-Related Immunodeficiency were made public, GRID yielded to AIDS as the rate of infection rapidly attained epidemic proportions, and the earliest generations of treatments were first heralded and then rapidly encountered the limits of their potency.  Within the narrative’s precisely delineated historical parameters – hence, crucially, in the absence of a vaccine as well as a treatment regime sufficiently effective to counter the virus over time – its introductory claim, uttered in the first person and the past tense, lends itself to understanding as fictive:  practically no “serious and authentic” testimony of the time could truthfully, rightfully include this sentence, for between 1980 and 1989 most anyone who had AIDS for three months, period, would likely be writing it on the far side of death.  And indeed, despite numerous overtly autobiographical elements (chief among them the young writer’s recurrent self-identification as “Herve” and “Guibert,” as well as the transparent figuring of the author’s friend Michel Foucault in the character called Muzil), the French edition declares its status on both cover and title page:  roman.

Curiously, the designation does not survive the text’s translation into English.  What appears in its stead, displaced to the fine print below the copyright, is an explicit caveat to the reader in language that would appear formulaic:  “This is a work of fiction.  Any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons, places or events is entirely coincidental.”  One may wonder why Guibert’s translator rejected the obvious (and economical) option of affixing “novel” to cover and title page.  But the caveat’s appeal to coincidence may help to make legible precisely what in the text guarantees its status not simply as fiction, but also, perhaps, as the fiction of a fiction.  As it turns out, this is not so much a matter of a dissimilarity or difference between the persons, places  or events rendered and some putative actuality, but rather of a necessary failure of coincidence, of contemporaneity, between the times inscribed in the text and the time of lived experience.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 2)

The gestation of the film that would eventually be realized as Blue was a lengthy one, traceable through notes and proposals dating from as early as 1987, as well as through the range of possible titles that Jarman considered at various stages, including Bliss, Blueprint, A Blueprint for Bliss, International Blue, Forget-Me-Not, Speedwell Eyes, Bruises, Blue protects white from innocence, 0, Into the Blue, My Blue Heaven and Blue is Poison.  In a proposal written in August 1987, preserved in the archive of his production company, Basilisk, Jarman adumbrates      

[a] fictional film exploring the world of the painter Yves Klein, inventor of the void, International Blue, the symphony monotone.  A film without compunction or narrative existing only for an idea.  In the cacophony of images Yves found the silence of the immaterial, expressed in a series of symbolic gestures performed in six short working years before his early death [in 1962] at 32.  Yves is mercurial, enigmatic…. a devotee of St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes…. The proposal is to develop a feature length film in 35 mm exploring further the juxtaposition of sound and image that exists in ‘The Last of England,’ but unlike this film to produce an atmosphere of calm and joy.  A world to which the refugees from that dark space might journey.      


In the aftermath of his HIV diagnosis, Jarman found fresh inspiration in the abbreviated career of Yves Klein, particularly in the latter’s pursuit of the immaterial in and through his monochromatic paintings rendered in the vibrant ultramarine that he would come to copyright as “International Klein Blue,” or IKB.  In Chroma, written in 1993, Jarman invokes “The great master of blue – the French painter Yves Klein.  No other painter is commanded by blue, though Cezanne painted more blues than most.”      

International Klein Blue

 Though Blue was initially conceived as an imageless homage to his predecessor, accompanied by a “sophisticated Dolby stereo soundtrack which would tell the Yves Klein story in sound and jazzy be-bop,” the obvious difficulty of funding such a project led Jarman to consider other, very different scenarios, including an elaborate masque dedicated to Klein that would involve a host of dramatis personae, historical pageantry and image montages.  Always, the soundtrack was integral to his plans for the film.  At one stage, Jarman “dreamed of recording the actor Matt Dillon’s heartbeat for the soundtrack:  ‘it would make a great first credit'”; at another point, he “thought the film might follow the sound of footsteps, a journey with the continuous murmur of lazy waves, sea breezes, thunder, and stormy growlers.”      

In the name of “the admirable austerity of the void,” however, the filmmaker would ultimately revert to his original conception of a blue screen devoid of images.  If for Caravaggio, the protagonist of an earlier feature released in 1986, the color had been “poison,” Jarman himself came to exploit the potential of blue as pharmakon:  simultaneously pathogen and remedy, and strictly neither, but a potent distillation of autobiography and historiography, “subjective memory and documentary reality,” in “a fragment of an immense work without limit.”

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