Tag Archives: Herve Guibert

“Cc…: CCC,” part 1

As I wind down the project of making most of the manuscript of The Brevity of Life public in the form of a series of blog posts, in preparation for some research and writing in a different vein, I feel compelled to add to the chapters already reproduced a final postscript of sorts, which is arguably the most valuable part of the book in its historiographic function.  It takes the form of an e-mail exchange that took place between July and September of 2002, initiated by me and made possible by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas, who generously agreed to take part.  I will record it in this and the next several posts, under the title “Cc…:  CCC.”  The “Cc” is self-evidently grounded in the structure and operation of a group e-mail exchange.  “CCC” is an acronym for “complex continuing care,” the parlance commonly used in North American tertiary care centers to designate a relative level of medical intervention (relative to “acute care,” for example, or “sub-acute care”).  The process of designating such levels of care involves “RIW,” short for “relative intensity weighting,” and is intimately associated with resource allocation.  In the Canadian public health care system, level-of-care designations derive from an assessment of the clinical and medical supports required to treat a particular “case mix.”

The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.    

 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever:  A Freudian Impression, 1995, 18

Chiefly on the basis of the five exemplary instances they analyze [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Derek Jarman, Herve Guibert, Aaron Shurin and Stephen Andrews], the foregoing posts make the case that in order to read what HIV/AIDS makes legible we must first of all and among other things recognize the differential temporalities inscribed in the virus and the epidemic-turned-pandemic, and likewise in their artifactual remains.  The wager that underwrites The Brevity of Life is that only a labour of reading attentive to the multiple specific structures and operations of time enables a responsible reconsideration, now and henceforth, of the grave challenges with which the global crisis persists in confronting us.

In making public the exchange transcribed in the following posts, the participants ask the reader to take account of the complex temporalities that traverse it.  Derek Jarman’s reflections on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film may help make legible here a fundamental incommensurability between the multiple temporalities of a pandemic that continues to outstrip our best efforts to make sense of what is occurring today (and what it may portend for the future) and a mode of production – in this case, electronic mail – whose impact over time remains, for us, an open question.  As Derrida observes in Archive Fever,

Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal.  It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term:  at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations.  [17]

With much at stake – psychically, socially, politically – the participants in this exchange accepted the risks entailed in the terms of a tacit contract struck first of all among themselves, but in effect with their eventual readers as well.  The willingness of Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas to take part, in the knowledge that these virtual communications circulated initially among a handful of trusted friends and comrades in the spirit of a conversation would be transcribed and subsequently consigned to the public sphere bespeaks an extraordinary generosity, a readiness to assume the attendant burdens (among them, perhaps,a sense of vulnerability, an unaccustomed hesitancy, an unanticipated resistance to the format) for the sake of the matter at hand.

“I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not.”  Jarman’s musing in the journal entry that serves as the epigraph to “Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s Blue, Part 1), brought to bear on e-mail communications, might translate as a kind of optimism according to which we typically assume that the electronic script on which we are increasingly reliant is invariably ephemeral, short-lived, impermanent, never fully realized – indeed, that it is bound to disappear, sooner rather than later, that it is in the process of disappearing even as we hit “Send.”  Our utilization of a postal technology that seems to court oblivion opens up a certain freedom to muse, to hypothesize, to risk the kinds of formulations that may or may not stand the test of time, and do not pretend otherwise.

The participants can only hope, then, that readers of their exchange will respect the terms of the contract on which it rests, however uneasily:  that the latter will assume responsibility for discerning and seeking to negotiate the variable temporalities and rhythms involved, and honour the spirit in which this joint venture was undertaken.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 1)

In the context of the preceding posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible,  I am tempted to engage another example, one more instance of an artifactual remnant of the pandemic to date in yet another medium, and within it a genre, whose impact and longevity seem destined to be of the slightest.

In an episode of the television series The West Wing, broadcast by NBC in October, 2000 under the title “In this White House” [season 2, episode 4], one of the multiple subplots evoked some of the medical, economic and geopolitical stakes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.  Particularly telling were two scenes organized around a meeting in which the White House communications director (Toby) and the assistant chief of staff (Josh) sought to broker an agreement between the president of a fictitious African nation and the heads of several major pharmaceutical corporations.  In each of the scenes, the tense conversation around the table was further unsettled by the ongoing, not-quite-simultaneous two-way translation provided by the president’s aide.

Josh:  How much would it cost for you to provide free drugs to the Sealese Republic, Kenya and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu?

Pharmaceutical executive:  I have no idea.

Josh:  Why not?  We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills three times a day, every day.  What’s the x factor?

Executive:  We don’t know how long they’ll live.

Toby:  We know where.

In this equation, whose stakes are nothing short of life and death, the crucial variable proves to be time:  specifically, time as duration, as the “how long” inscribed in the life expectancies of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of lives that, painfully and shamefully, depend on the outcome of such conversations around such tables.

(Writing late in October 2002 under the title “Where Are We?”, John Berger provides an eloquent analysis of the pain and the shame in question, which saturate and perhaps exceed the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativize it.  All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativize the pain suffered on earth.  So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment.  Likewise the discovery of sacrifice.  And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness.  One could argue that philosophy began with the question:  why pain?

Yet when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.  Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against.  This is the logical basis for the ideology’s pitilessness.

I write in the night, although it is daytime.  A day in early October 2002….  I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt.  Shame, as I am coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead.  We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.

People everywhere under very different conditions are asking themselves:  Where are we?  The question is historical not geographical.  What are we living through?  Where are we being taken?  What have we lost?  How to continue without a plausible vision of the future?  Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?….

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken.  There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don’t have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day?  That was a question posed by the director-general of the World Health Organization last July [2002].  She was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next eighteen years.  I’m talking about the pain of living in the present world. [John Berger, “Where Are We?”, Harper’s March 2003, 13-14, emphasis added])

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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 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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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 8)

“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 [1988], 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.

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 7)

It is five years and several months later that, not yet having achieved his end, he notes “in a passing remark” that

6.  (…today on the twenty-second of January, 1989, which means it’s taken me ten days to bring myself to admit it, to decide thereby to put an end to the suspense I’d created, because on January 12 Dr. Chandi told me over the phone that my T4 count had dropped to 291, from 368 to 291 in one month, which suggests that in another month, the HIV virus will have ground my T4 count down to – I’m doing the subtraction at the bottom of the page – 214, thereby placing me…close to the catastrophic threshold that’s supposed to be staved off by AZT, if I choose to go with that instead of the Digitaline….)   [E 197-8; F 215-6; emphasis added]

The passage, whose English translation first adds, then subtracts a set of parentheses to and from the French text, itself enacts “a sort of parenthesis of time that recalls the parenthesis:  namely, that time passes without passing, like a parenthesis, in parentheses, the measure of time remaining here an absolutely heterogeneous measure….  What will happen will have opened another time.  Absolute anachrony of a time out of joint”  [Derrida, Demeure, 61].  Moreover, the disjointed narrative here links the disclosure that the January 11 deadline was not met to the prospect of suicide (“the Digitaline”), which holds out the seduction of an agency that could determine the limit of its own life expectancy, choosing the day of death’s arrival.  This ultimate self-imposed deadline is likewise deferred – that decision, if it comes, will come later, always later.  As his physician reminds him when Herve broaches the question of suicide, “each person’s relationship with his illness changes constantly in the course of this illness, and…it’s impossible to know beforehand how you’ll feel about these things when the time comes (et qu’on ne pouvait prejuger des mutations vitales de sa volonte)”  [E 137; F 152].  For the time being, Herve continues counting days (“it’s taken me ten days”) and T4 cells (“I’m doing the subtraction at the bottom of the page,” cette page) – adding and subtracting with survival itself at stake.

The unsettling passages on the antigen tests and their devastating results have as their pretext the account of what happened a year earlier, in January 1988, on the occasion of another set of blood tests, these for seropositivity.  That account, which arrives belatedly in the sovereign disorder of the narrative sequence, emphasizes the agonizing wait for the results, another parenthesis of time dictated by the non-coincidence of the procedures themselves and the diagnostic knowledge they eventually yield.

After we’d had our blood samples taken…we saw one boy come out again absolutely in shock…paralyzed at the news written all over his face…. It was a terrifying vision for Jules and me, which projected us one week into the future, and at the same time relieved us by showing us the worst that could happen, as though we were living it at the same time, precipitously, second-hand…. Suspecting [prevoyant] that our results would be bad and wishing to speed up the process…Dr. Chandi had already sent us to the Institute Alfred-Fournier for the blood analyses that are done after a seropositive result, specifically to ascertain the progress of the HIV virus in the body…. Looking over my lab slip, the nurse asked me, “How long have you known that you’re seropositive?”  I was so surprised I couldn’t answer her.  The results of the blood analysis were to be sent to us in about ten days, before the results of the seropositivity test would be known, in that precise interval of uncertainty [d’incertitude ou de feinte incertitude]…. [On the morning we went to find out the results of the seropositivity tests] he told me my blood workup wasn’t good; that they’d already seen the bad news [le signe fatal] there even without knowing the results of the other test.  At that instant [a ce moment] I understood that a calamity had hit us, that we were beginning a period of rampant misfortune from which there would be no escape.  I was like that poor boy devastated by his test results.    [E 130-32; F 145-47]

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 6)

5.  As a matter of fact, I haven’t done a stitch of work on this book these last few days, at the crucial moment for the deadline [delai] I’ve given myself for telling the story of my illness [pour raconter l’histoire de ma maladie]; I’ve been passing the time unhappily, waiting for this new verdict or this semblance [simulacre] of a verdict…but today, January 11, which should have been the day of the verdict, I’m biting my nails down to the quick, having been left entirely in the dark about something that is perfectly clear to me [sur ce que je sais deja], because I tried calling Dr. Chandi at his office, but couldn’t reach him…. So here I am tonight without the results, upset at not knowing them on the evening of January 11 the way I’ve been expecting to ever since December 22, having spent last night, I might add, dreaming that I wouldn’t have them….  [E 59; F 68-9; emphasis added]

Even “at the crucial moment,” chronology yields to radical temporal disorder.  Not only does the scheduled simulacrum of an appointment that is to deliver the simulacrum of a verdict fail to take place; not only does his dream prophesy that failure before the fact; but we are reminded that Herve knows already [deja] what he is supposed to find out “today, January 11.”  Indeed, he has perhaps known it for years, as we have already read thirty pages earlier, where he attests that in October 1983 “I told myself that we both had AIDS.  In an instant [en un instant], this certainty changed everything, turned everything upside down, even the landscape, and this both paralyzed and liberated me, sapped my strength while at the same time increasing it tenfold; I was afraid and light-headed, calm as well as terrified.  I had perhaps finally achieved my end”  [E 30-31; F 39].

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