My first op-ed for Al Jazeera appeared this week. A shout-out to their editorial team, and especially to Naz, for a seamless experience.
Tag Archives: experience
Thinking out loud in response to John’s last e-mail:
The analogy between the AIDS crisis and the Nazi holocaust was once very common in AIDS discourse in North America. I have, for a long time now, doubted the usefulness of analogies between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust (and by the term Holocaust I understand that to refer to the Nazi Holocaust) because through analogy we lose our ability to grasp the crisis at hand in its specificity. The use of analogy is somewhat useful to gain immediate attention and it’s perhaps useful as a shorthand for ethical criteria established through the experience of the Holocaust. However, we gain little through the analogy because we foreclose on the possibility of new outcomes when we resort to historical analogies. In other words, what we attempt to change and avoid through the use of analogy, we can doom to repetition in our analysis. Through analogy we risk closing our minds to current options and possibilities.
I do not accept the old adage that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Rather, I believe that those who fail to grasp the present, in all its complexity and specificity, are doomed to repetition. A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history.
Regarding the problem of doing something “here,” from the vantage of the privileged north, that will help “there,” in the disadvantaged south: I have been preoccupied with this problem ever since I returned to Chicago from Durban in July 2000. Initially, after returning from the Durban conference, I found receptive audiences for consciousness raising and fundraising, specifically about AIDS in Africa and the efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign. These efforts were supported and amplified by the established press. Papers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave a great amount of coverage to AIDS in the “third world” and the battles over pharmaceutical drug company patents.
The success of the efforts I have been involved with – fundraising, lecturing and the production of advocate video work – has reached a limit for a number of interesting reasons. Discussions here and in the U.S. about AIDS in the resource-poor world inevitably, and perhaps rightly, lead back to discussions about AIDS in our country [the U.S.]. When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S., all illusions of progress disintegrate. Sure, there are a large number of people on life-saving drugs, far larger proportionately than in the resource-poor world, BUT there are many other things to consider. Over half of the million people in the U.S. who have HIV don’t know it. Among those who do know it, the number of those who have access to drugs and adequate medical treatment is small AND may get smaller. The government is now attacking and seriously threatening to dismantle the benefit system AIDS activists fought hard to establish. ADAP (the AIDS drug assistance program) is currently under attack. Plus, the Bush administration is also quietly going about the business of undermining and discrediting already compromised and underfunded prevention programs.
The needs of people in the resource-poor world are far greater in scale than the needs of people in wealthy countries. There remain a great many unsolved inequities in wealthy nations. How do the needs of people with AIDS in poor countries and the needs of the poor in rich countries become separate and competing problems in the minds of those who think about AIDS? Given the shortage of resources to fight AIDS here or abroad, how do AIDS activists choose effective courses of action?
There is a crisis of community among those hardest hit in the U.S. A kind of complacency has set in about AIDS. The reasons for this are very complex and will have to be thoroughly considered in a following e-mail. For the moment, let us recognize that the negative effects of privatization, the suffocation of the public sphere through capitalist incorporation and instrumentalization of all organic community structures has stymied and arrested those hardest hit by AIDS. Though things are getting bad, in ways that feel very much the same as the late eighties, the communities hardest hit do not seem to have the wherewithal to fight back. And it is hard to rally people simply by referring them back to the late eighties. Again the problem with analogy.
In the past two weeks, I have learned of two friends, gay men, who after a decade or more of remaining HIV negative, have now seroconverted. This is by now a common experience for many of us, witnessing the seroconversion of our friends. And we have developed an ethical response to the experience. No judgment. We must immediately make ourselves available to our friends, support them, love them, help them to make appropriate treatment decisions, and help them get access to treatment. That may sound odd to others. Of course you should respond that way! It took some of us a while to get past our anger and frustration, to develop a complex understanding of the role of the unconscious and the limits of safer sex, to be able to respond ethically, with love and not anger or resentment, to recent seroconversions. The complexity of all this preoccupies me now.
More later. XOXO Gregg
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).
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.”
“That instant” [ce moment], which precedes the receipt of the results of the seropositivity test that should itself precede “the blood analyses that are done after a seropositive result,” would seem to mark the onset of the three-month period invoked in the first sentence when Herve “had AIDS,” or “more precisely” believed he “was condemned to die of that mortal illness called AIDS.” But a more exact reckoning, a recounting of his now and henceforth numbered days, renders the opening sentence and what follows newly problematic.
I’ve re-counted the days on my calendar: between January 23 , when I’d received my death-sentence at the little clinic on the Rue du Jura, and this March 18, when I’d received another news flash that might prove decisive in sweeping away what I’d been officially told was irreversible, fifty-six days had gone by. I’d lived for fifty-six days, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes in despair, alternating between sweet forgetfulness and ferocious obsession, trying to get used to my impending doom. Now I was entering a new phase, a limbo of hope and uncertainty, that was perhaps [peut-etre] more terrible to live through than the one before. [E 159-60; F 176-7]
Not three months, then, but fifty-six days: the belated recount gives the lie to, or rather fictionalizes the claim, uttered in the first person and the past tense, that opens the narrative of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a claim about Herve’s lived experience. The “perhaps” that surfaces in this tacit confession turns out to inform the entire text, from first to last. This is the case most obviously where the word makes an appearance, as it does here and in the passage, already cited, that recounts how, in October 1983, “I told myself that we both had AIDS. In an instant, this certainty changed everything…. I had perhaps finally achieved my end” [E 30-31; F 39]. “Perhaps” plays a role, too, in the translation of Herve’s justification for arriving late at Muzil’s funeral, thereby practically missing another appointment and courting further suspicion of irresponsibility: “Perhaps it was a partial transportation strike that kept me from arriving on time on the morning of the brief funeral service” [E 99] (“Le matin de la levee du corps…fut-ce une greve partielle des transports qui m’empecha d’arriver a l’heure….” [F 112]). In each instance of its occurrence, the “perhaps” “unleashes a trembling in the assertion, in the certainty, a trembling that leaves its mark and its essential modality on the entire discourse of the possible perhaps” [Derrida, Demeure, 68], and on the experience of reading To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.
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 , 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.