A novel caught between two scourges
Towards the end of his short life, French photographer and writer Hervé Guibert was deprived: dying of a virus that had killed or was killing many of his closest friends and lovers, without access to the social and economic capital that could save his life. life, and exiled from his great fucking love. He couldn’t even kill himself properly: “I can’t get rid of myself,” he notes in his diaries. One wonders which self he was referring to: the materially decaying house of the body; the metaphysical position of the subject which we could call “consciousness”; or maybe the writer’s legacy which he hastily secures with his final texts.
Guibert’s obsessive documentation of the AIDS pandemic, especially when it infiltrated his own body and ravaged her once astonishing beauty – as Edmund White called her, her “hyacinthine” beauty – is surely his great contribution. literary. White remarked that Guibert saw AIDS as “his fate and his subject, one that would bring together his hatred of his own body, his taste for the grotesque and his infatuation with death.”
Having been so violently brought to grips with the crisis points of our collective vulnerabilities during our pandemic year, I have been distracted lately by the question of how to write a book of the body in a sea of sorrow – a book of the body that takes care of its materiality and emphasizes that it is the thing through which the writing moves. As the narrator of Kate Zambreno’s hectic new hybrid text, Write as if already dead, considers: “A chronology of the body is not linear. And it is especially true – we know, after taking into account the fundamental limitations of our bodies for a year in which a virus has pitted countless bodies against themselves – that trauma and grief disorient our senses of mind. time and reason, blurring the story.
It is indisputable that we have experienced our present condition under disparate circumstances, but death will come for all of us; it is, as this book reminds us, the great leveler. This shared truth is more crucially subordinate to capitalism and becomes a question of how well we are given comfort, compassion and care during our limited time here. As Judith Butler inquires in Precarious life: “What counts as a livable life and a distressing death?” Who has the right to be important? What world accumulates meaning? How to narrate this processual experience leading to the inexorable end?
In Write as if already dead, the author-narrator (known only and now as Kate) attempts to complete a commissioned study on Guibert’s controversial ‘novel’ disease, To the friend who didn’t save my life. As Kate goes through Guibert’s past – her stages of illness, which intervene in her race to complete several books before her body gives way – she simultaneously documents her own precariousness: the instability of auxiliary work, her varying relationships with coverage. insurance and health care, and a slew of illnesses during a difficult and medically designated second pregnancy (she is 42) at the height of the pandemic closure in Brooklyn last summer.
I remember the figurative fiber compositions of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, which she imagined as a material representation of the Tibetan Buddhist principle of bardo—The place between the states of being — in particular the bardo to die; as she wrote, “the space between contracting a terminal illness and death itself”. Sedgwick’s theoretical work often encountered this space in her examinations and calculations with cancer, which ultimately killed her, and the AIDS crisis, which she witnessed intimately, having arisen in the 1980s and 1990 in gay and queer circles disproportionately affected by the virus.
To this preoccupation, the tactility of his sculptural work situates Sedgwick’s sense of bardo in the material and sensual experience of living inside a body that will falter and eventually fail. It is this in-between that haunts To write. Navigate against AIDS, cancer, Covid and other vulnerabilities, To write seeks a mode of resistance to the way in which these deadly phenomena infect the psychic life of our art. Sedgwick and writers Kathy Acker and Susan Sontag (both also dejected by cancer) are key interlocutors in To write, literary ancestors in a micro-cannon of the sick body which seeks to account for the sick ego.
Keating sometimes seems to thrive in the physical remoteness of suffering, just like Guibert, mobilized by his specter to create art. “Alienation spurs me on,” Kate remarks, tossing a novel to a publisher friend, though the scene leaves us suspecting her faith in that statement. In his journals, Guibert reflects: “Impression that my books are alive while dead myself I have read them all my life.” Kate, again: “I have to write [this study] now… I have to push it through my body. We do our body books, To write bet, not because we can, but because we must; or, more disturbing, because we are only shells in which the spirit of writing comes alive.
When Kate confirms her pregnancy, she must (like Guibert) submit to the incessant procession of health professionals and visits to the doctor, fearing, as the pandemic intensifies, of having to give birth in the makeshift hospital in Javits. Center. Pregnancy is, she thinks, a kind of death in itself: “You don’t exist as a pregnant person until you go through the first month or the first two months on your own. “And once you’re a legibly pregnant person, you become fetal-bumped:”[The doctors] I don’t care if I die. I’m supposed to protect this fetus, but who’s protecting me? I am just a ship…. I’m just supposed to stay alive.
For Guibert, the possibility of “staying alive” as a person with AIDS before antiretroviral therapy was almost impossible, a kind of “speculative fiction”, Kate thinks. But each is in a race to meet a deadline, respectively birth and death. To write is imbued with the terror of passing time. The coherences made between AIDS and the pregnant body in distress (and between AIDS and Covid) would, in the hands of a less competent artist, obscure their differences. But these comparisons are never made at the expense of particularity or insensitive to the conceptual failures of their own approximations. After all, Kate considers that “no one can ever really know the experience of your body. ”
Indeed, by situating these two particular bodies (that of Kate and that of Guibert) in a global continuity of historical plagues, Zambreno easily questions how the traumatic specificities of the sick body individually signal and dialogue with a broader disease of the body politic. His examination of the consequences of structural violence in our intimate lives – powerfully punctuated by recursive anxieties about living as an uninsured or otherwise “politically indispensable” person in a world that will easily shirk the responsibility of such people. and of these bodies – underlines (in a sentence recently recited endlessly) that cruelty is point.
This expansion of narrative scope marks a fascinating shift in Zambreno’s corpus towards exteriority and a kind of communitarianism. His writing has always been deeply interior, using personal (or author’s) experience to explore the past, whether it be on the madmen of modernism or on French New Wave cinema. Which sets To write apart from his past work could be the urgency with which he is delivered, knitting the years of Guibert’s plague into our immediate and exploitable present.
Writing about the simultaneity of trauma caused by AIDS and Covid in global and individual contexts, Zambreno explains how negligent governing bodies militarize and demarcate certain categories of people as pollutants in the moralizing paradigm of ‘the plague’. (All of this, of course, while silencing the victimizations of these people by the state.) This process of abjecting the other works in tandem with capitalist logic to install a “fear of others, of being infected.” , of any privacy with the outside, ”as Kate comments on how Covid-19 has helped ignite discriminatory discourse. In other words, the ruling class pits marginalized people against each other to improve the functioning of its own apparatus.
Despite the righteous rage that permeates the text, it would be a mistake to call To write controversy ; it’s more of a sort of culmination towards which Zambreno’s writing has worked. Her treatment of two plagues and the protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020, as well as an account of pregnancy and childcare under medical and economic duress, find Zambreno at his most political point – as well as perhaps the most optimistic.
To write is a song of two particular bodies in suffering, in their individualized grotesques, but also a call to imagine the ways in which suffering can radically divert desire and pleasure towards new generating paths. Kate remembers Kathy Acker’s proclamation that “I am what happens after death, which is the writing!” The experience of the body may be private, but our attempts to account for it repudiate the ways in which history and the medical establishment depersonalize us, turning the human into clinical knowledge.
In this, writing becomes a disavowal of the anonymity of death; it is, Kate notes, “a way to mark an ‘I’ before it goes out.” Just as crucially, writing becomes a way of connecting with the other’s particular “me” and a way of exerting a sense of togetherness. In this recognition of the fundamental vulnerability that we collectively share – the mutual obedience of ourselves to each other and the other to ourselves – lies the possibility. If writing can sometimes function as a betrayal, it can also be the space in which we make places of common feeling.