Tag Archives: testament

‘what history teaches,’ part 3

If Unbound is “weighted toward witness,” this attribute of the text attests to its author’s “cursed rare privilege” – his chance to have been the intimate observer of, and at times actor in, or party to, the experiences he commemorates, and further to have survived them.  For by definition, one testifies only when one has (so far) outlived what has come to pass.  The work’s status as the testament of a survivor opens its reflexive poetics onto, turns it into, historiography.  But this history-writing itself takes specific forms in language that make their own non-negotiable demand on writer as well as reader:  “to pay attention – poetics – as if one’s life depended on it.”  As we read in “Notes from Under,” “So, a cloud of attendant issues and their griefs.  Among friends – dead, dying, or scared, the sorrowful healthy – testimony:  what I have seen that you must now know, see, for I have been surrounded and among my friends in adversity creating a life, their rising and falling beauties, death and tests and imagined fulfilled acts that have unleashed instructions upon us, the uninitiated” (14-15).  The address that inscribes a prior address, bearing the word allegorically for, to and from the other (“I let them speak” [35]), delivers in the first instance not meaning, but the force of a testimony whose I/thou structure Shurin locates in the ubiquitous obituaries of the time (“and it’s hard to be impersonal when people are calling each other sweetie across that gulf” [15]), and that is for him the “only proper usage; what signifies is that the form functions while including the dead” (15).  And that testimony’s imperative mode – “what I have seen that you must now know, see” – recalls the pivotal demand, or command, addressed by the I to the you in the second line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “And what I assume you shall assume.”

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 11)

Neither does Blue spare us the related task of accounting for the other crucial incommensurability it renders:  that between the time of its recorded testimony and the time of the experience to which it testifies, with which it cannot coincide.  Blue‘s blind address to the blind summons us to hear the difference as the spoken soundtrack reverts to the past tense:

The virus rages fierce.  I have no friends now who are not dead or dying.  Like a blue frost it caught them.  At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches.  In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest.  It started with sweats in the night and swollen glands.  Then the black cancers spread across their faces – as they fought for breath TB and pneumonia hammered at the lungs, and Toxo at the brain.  Reflexes scrambled – sweat poured through hair matted like lianas in the tropical forest.  Voices slurred – and then were lost forever.  My pen chased this story across the page tossed this way and that in the storm. [Blue, 7-8]

It calls us as well to register the prophetic cadences of the outraged witness:

How did my friends cross the cobalt river, with what did they pay the ferryman?  As they set out for the indigo shore under this jet-black sky – some died on their feet with a backward glance – did they see Death with the hell hounds pulling a dark chariot, bruised blue-black, growing dark in the absence of light, did they hear the blast of trumpets?  David ran home panicked on the train from Waterloo, brought back exhausted and unconscious to die that night.  Terry who mumbled incoherently into his incontinent tears.  Others faded like flowers cut by the scythe of the Blue Bearded Reaper, parched as the waters of life receded.  Howard turned slowly to stone, petrified day by day, his mind imprisoned in a concrete fortress until all we could hear were his groans on the telephone circling the globe. [Blue, 16]

Or again,

We all contemplated suicide

We hoped for euthanasia

We were lulled into believing

Morphine dispelled pain

Rather than making it tangible

Like a mad Disney cartoon

Transforming itself into

Every conceivable nightmare  [Blue, 17]

In a journal entry dated August 1993, written contemporaneously with preparations for the release of Blue, Jarman alludes to the temporal asymmetry between perception and attestation in experiential rather than conceptual terms:  “The stinging eyedrops are in, the reading chart which has a flaw – as if you read with your good eye first you can remember the letters, to whose benefit?  My illusions…. Eleven o’clock and still waiting for the dragging minutes to pass…. I feel less and less like fighting, giving up, giving in.  Writing blind now…. Yawning void”  (Smiling, 224).  For the blinded Jarman, of course, visual perception belongs to recollection, as the editor’s preface to the posthumously published Smiling in Slow Motion confirms:  “In the final diary he wrote without vision, his semi-legible scrawl only possible from his memory of the scratch of nib on paper” (Smiling, np). 

(In his Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida poses “a thoughtful question:  what would a journal of the blind be like?  A newspaper or daily of the blind?  Or else the more personal kind of journal, a diary or day-book?  And what about the day, then, the rhythms of the days and nights without day or light, the dates and calendars that scan memories and memoirs?  How would the memoirs of the blind be written?” [33].  Smiling in Slow Motion answers Derrida’s questions by and for example, in chronicling the rhythms of Jarman’s final days and nights without day or light.)

In his journal of the blind, as in his film without images, Jarman attests that he has finally seen enough.  “The blind man thus becomes the best witness, a chosen witness.  In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind.  Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception.  The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time, and the interest of the attestation, like that of the testament, stems from this dissociation.  No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable witness sees, or rather, has seen and now keeps in memory” (Memoirs of the Blind, 104).  Nearing the end of his journey without direction, with no prospect of an afterlife beyond the horizon, Jarman finds that no image can show in the present what he has seen and now keeps in memory.  In place of the “pandemonium of image,” he bequeaths to his viewers an imageless archive:  one that preserves a time that was “all awry,” along with its own fundamental incommensurability, as testimony, with the awful devastation of AIDS.

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