Tag Archives: “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life”

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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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 5)

4.  It was on the afternoon of December 22 that I decided, with Dr. Chandi, not to go to that appointment on January 11, which he would keep for me in order to obtain the anticipated medication, playing a role on both sides, if he had to, or making me think that this was the only way to get the drug, through this pretence of my presence [ce simulacre de ma presence], by using up the time assigned for our appointment to fool the monitoring committee.  I’m supposed to call him on the afternoon of January 11 to find out my test results, and that’s why I’m saying that as of today, January 4, I have only seven days left in which to retrace this history of my illness, because whatever Dr. Chandi will reveal to me on the afternoon of January 11, whether it’s good news or bad (although it can only be more or less bad, as he’s taken care to let me infer), might well threaten this book, risk crushing it right at the source, turning my meter [compteur] back to zero and erasing the fifty-seven pages already written before kicking my bucket for me.  [E 49; F 56-7, emphasis added]

In the throes of lingering uncertainty about the status of “today, January 4,” we are here given to understand that Herve’s deadline, the term of the dishonorable pact he makes with himself to recount the history of his illness, coincides with the simulacrum of an appointment, which is to say with another contract destined to be broken (this one recalling how his dying friend Muzil blithely dictated acceptances to invitations to lecture in far-flung locations for dates, often overlapping, that he would not live to see).  A scheduled meeting between doctor and patient yields to a conspiracy between them to obtain the “anticipated” AZT through this ruse that seeks, not to use the time assigned, but to use it up.

The complications accrue.  If his days are henceforth numbered, his time counted, so too are the pages of “this book” we are still attempting to read.  And counted, recounted more than once, certainly, with results that are bound to vary.  For if, on the fifty-seventh page of the French edition, we read that fifty-seven pages have already been written and are now threatened with erasure by the news he expects to receive over the phone on January 11, that number would have been different in the draft, the manuscript, and only subsequently revised to correspond to page proofs.  Moreover, the disjunction in the belated English translation, where we read about “the fifty-seven pages already written” on page forty-nine, serves as a reminder of these calculations and their disparate times and dates.

What follows Herve’s musing on the threat to his work-in-progress is an effort to provide a succinct chronology of his illness from 1980 to 1988, a narrative time-line that winds up calling the chronological model itself into question, whether as story or as history.

1988 brought the revelation of my illness, a sentence without possibility of appeal, followed three months later by that chance event [ce hasard] that managed to persuade me I could be saved.  In this chronology summing up and pinpointing the warning signs of the disease over a period of eight years, when we now know that its incubation period is between four and a half and eight years… the physiological accidents are no less decisive than the sexual encounters, the premonitions no less telling than the wishes that try to banish them.  That’s the chronology that becomes my outline, except [sauf] when I discover that progression springs from disorder.  [E 51; F 59]

Sauf,” whose grammatical function here is as preposition, in the manner of the English “except,” resonates powerfully in its adjectival sense [“Qui a echappe a un tres grave peril, qui est encoure vivant apres avoir failli mourir”], alluding to the “pas sauve” of the title.  That “disorder” – in temporal terms, a certain anachrony – proves the rule rather than the exception as Herve seeks to retrace the perilous history of his illness is by this point unmistakable.

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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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