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“Cc…: CCC,” part 2

Dear Gregg, John, Jack and Kendall,

I hope this message finds each of you well, wherever and whenever it reaches you.  I hope, too, that it will serve to initiate an e-mail exchange about the virus and the pandemic that will appear at the conclusion of my recently completed The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible.  The manuscript, parts of which some of you may already have had a chance to read, and others surely not as yet, includes as the volume’s proposed frontispiece a photograph of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), dated 1987-1990, an installation that features two apparently identical clocks hung side by side, barely touching one another, and synchronized such that both read “2:43:58” (or “14:43:58”).

 

My hope was that Gonzalez-Torres’ work, photographed in situ, would resonate with a citation I was considering as an epigraph for the book:  Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), writing in his “Foreword” to the Encyclopedia of AIDS that “the worldwide AIDS epidemic has become a permanent challenge to human integrity and solidarity.  Given the scale of suffering, given the proven effectiveness of several approaches, and given the prospect of furthering other human goals through the fight against AIDS, an expanded response makes ethical and practical sense.  Instead of letting AIDS turn back the clock, let us use our response to the epidemic to turn humanity’s clock ahead.”

Now John, who was kind enough to take the time recently to read the manuscript and to respond with characteristic generosity and insight, wondered in an e-mail to me whether Piot’s language in this instance set a tone in keeping with the chapters that follow.  I take the liberty of citing from John’s message:  “Peter Piot [citation]:  for me it set the wrong tone, starting your book like that – I’m sure I’m carrying around too much baggage vis a vis UNAIDS and that very mainstream don’t really rock the boat agenda…. Couldn’t you start with Seneca – maybe juxtaposed with Ben and his phone card?” **

John’s thoughtful and wide-ranging response reached me on July 15, as I was reading the Report on the global epidemic  just released by UNAIDS.  Writing in the report’s preface, Piot notes that “In 2001, the world marked 20 years of AIDS.  It was an occasion to lament the fact that the epidemic has turned out to be far worse than predicted, saying ‘if only we knew then what we know now.’  But we do know now.  We know that the epidemic is still in its early stages, that effective responses are possible but only when they are politically backed and full-scale, and that unless more is done today and tomorrow, the epidemic will continue to grow….  The time has come to put all the pieces together.  Plans have been made.  Needs are clear.  Solutions are available.  Now act!”

With your permission, I would like to take Piot’s language in the preface to the UNAIDS report as a provisional point of departure for our exchange.  In what context or contexts do you place this brief exercise in historiography on Piot’s part?  More specifically, perhaps, how do you read and respond to its concluding imperative?

With my thanks in advance, and warm regards,

Deborah

** John here alludes to one of the epigraphs to the prologue, which cites Ben, a long-time seropositive man who tells the New York Times that he feels like someone with a phone card who knows that at some point he will hear the inevitable “you have two minutes left.”

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 8)

The viewer of “Untitled” who consults the source text for this inscrutable sequence encounters an unsettling reinscription of the New Testament narrative in the guise of a prospective film – a documentary destined for television – whose resonance with the predicament of the seropositive in our own time is unmistakable.  Carson presents the poem in three parts, the first of which, “DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY:  VOICEOVER,” begins with an acknowledgment of the problematic nature of the project:    

Yes I admit a degree of unease about my    

motives in making    

this documentary.    

Mere prurience of a kind that is all too common nowadays    

in public catastrophes….    

But you can see    

how the pull is irresistible.  The pull to handle horrors    

and to have a theory of them.  [Carson, 87]    

The language of justification here figures the irresistible force – which cannot be seen – at the heart of the wrenching prior narrative.  Subsequently, the voiceover details her “theory” (or his, for the question of gender remains indeterminate here) of the Lazarus story:    

                    But then you get    

someone like Lazarus, a man of no    

particular importance,    

on whom God bestows    

the ultimate benevolence, without explanation, then abandons    

him again to his nonentity.    

We are left wondering, Why Lazarus?    

My theory is    

God wants us to wonder this.    

After all, if there were some quality that Lazarus possessed,    

some criterion of excellence    

by which he was chosen to be called    

back    

from death,    

then we would all start competing to achieve this.    

But if    

God’s gift is simply random, well    

for one thing    

it makes a more interesting TV show.  God’s choice can be seen emerging    

from the dark side of reason    

like a new planet.  No use being historical    

about this planet,    

it is just an imitation.    

As Lazarus is an imitation of Christ.  As TV is an imitation of    

Lazarus.  As you and I are an imitation of    

TV.  [Carson, 88-89]    

Rembrandt

The hypothesis that “the ultimate benevolence,” the unanticipated “gift” of more time, of survival beyond one’s appointed term, is bestowed randomly and unreasonably extends to the scandal of the clinical drug trials, and further to the uneven availability and accessibility of emerging therapies based on economic and geopolitical contingencies.  The mimetic relationships enumerated here (“No use being historical / about this planet, / it is just an imitation. / As Lazarus is an imitation of Christ.  As TV is an imitation of / Lazarus.  As you and I are an imitation of / TV”), which are predicated on the temporal disjunction of allegory, recall Andrews’ earlier endeavors, and in particular Facsimile, whose multiple mediations exploit what is lost in translation, the degradation that accompanies the attenuated reproduction of images that are never the same from one generation to the next.    

Van Gogh

Carson’s voiceover goes on to specify what in the narrative of Lazarus remains exemplary for us, here and now.    

          But my bond with Lazarus goes deeper, indeed    

nausea overtakes me when faced with    

the prospect of something simply beginning all over again.    

….    

Repetition is horrible.  Poor Lazarus cannot have known    

he was an    

imitation Christ,    

but no doubt he realized, soon after being ripped out of his    

warm little bed in the ground,    

his own epoch of repetition just beginning….    

          Or maybe my pity    

is misplaced.  Some people think Lazarus lucky,    

like Samuel Beckett who calls him “Happy Larry” or Rilke    

who speaks of    

that moment in a game    

when “the pure too-little flips over into the empty too-much.”    

Well now I am explaining why my documentary    

focuses entirely on this moment, the flip-over moment.    

Before and after    

don’t interest me.    

You won’t be seeing any clips from home videos of Lazarus    

in short pants racing his sisters up a hill.    

No footage of Mary and Martha side by side on the sofa    

discussing how they manage    

at home    

with a dead one sitting down to dinner.  No panel of experts    

debating who was really the victim here.    

Our sequence begins and ends with that moment of complete    

innocence    

and sport –    

when Lazarus licks the first drop of afterlife off the nipple    

of his own old death.  [Carson, 89-91]    

In the poem’s central section, subtitled “LAZARUS STANDUP:  SHOOTING SCRIPT,” the language is no longer assigned to the director of photography, but rather to the implicit and anonymous screeenwriter:    

Lazarus    

(someone is calling his name) – his name!    

And at the name (which he knew)    

not just a roar of darkness    

the whole skeletal freight    

of him    

took pressure,    

crushing him backward into the rut where he lay    

like a damp    

petal    

under a pile of furniture.    

And the second fact of his humanity began….  [Carson, 93]

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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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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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