Earlier this summer I wrote a story, “Disappearance,” inspired by To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, about a friend who I once knew online, where I wondered about whether I have betrayed my friend by writing about her. Writing this story about my friend didn’t satisfy my desire to write a study of Hervé Guibert’s novel. It didn’t satisfy me philosophically and, probably most importantly, it didn’t satisfy the contract I had signed to write a study of Hervé Guibert’s novel. So I must begin again, when I only have months left to write it.
THE LAST DAYS OF MUZIL
The question at the center of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life: Was it a betrayal to write about his friend in his most private moments—the moment of his disintegration and death? Guibert writes an extended portrait of his friend’s last days, like the Jacques-Louis David painting The Death of Socrates: The Last Days of Muzil. In the hospital room, the Guibert narrator is disturbed by Muzil’s naked muscled torso, like Socrates’s in the painting. A young companion gives Socrates the chalice of hemlock, looking away either in shame or already in mourning. How vulnerable Muzil appears, in the hospital room smelling of fried fish, without his trademark glasses, with that tender detail of the bit of dried blood on the back of his head from the fall that landed him in the hospital, with his exhaustion and wracking cough, with his fright at an upcoming spinal tap. The Muzil sections overdetermined the book for contemporary French readers and resulted in the scandal that would make the book famous. There was a trial in the media, first in the papers, who were already vulturous for details of Michel Foucault’s death, and then Guibert himself appearing on the talk show Apostrophes, on March 16, 1990. I watch the interview on YouTube. My student Philo, a native of Paris, has translated it for me, although I can make out phrases and also tone, which feels scolding or accusatory on the part of the interviewer, Bernard Pivot, stern and defensive on the part of Guibert. Guibert is obviously extremely sick. His blazer is huge on him, the floppy collar of his bright blue shirt. His huge head covered barely by thinning hair (that once-beautiful hair, still the sandy color). Those rimmed eyes. He speaks at first of the premonitory atmosphere of AIDS, how he wished not to have it follow him. The interviewer asks him (this is all so Pontius Pilate, this circling around cruelty and ethics and privacy): “There is the recurring question: do you have the right to narrate the agony and the death of Michel Foucault who was a friend of yours?” He doesn’t know, he says. But does this death belong to anyone? he then answers. All he knows is that he was put on trial in the papers by those who hadn’t read the book, who had already formed their own opinions as to his betrayal.
CANDY DARLING ON HER DEATHBED
I keep on going back to Guibert saying that it felt more like a betrayal when he photographed his friends than when he wrote about them. But his writing of Foucault disintegrating on his deathbed is not unlike a form of photography. Isn’t this what David Wojnarowicz does so elegiacally on film and in his series of 23 photographs of his love and mentor Peter Hujar, recorded moments after his death, the almost religious panning of his hands and his feet? And what Peter Hujar did in his portraits of Candy Darling in her hospital bed and others? Although Hujar still keeps Candy Darling beautiful, there is nothing of death to the photograph, she arranges herself, the folds of her hospital sheets like a gown. The rawness of Guibert’s portrait in prose of his friend’s frailty in conflict with the polish of Foucault’s body, head, books. Foucault’s desire to have only the monuments exist, “the well-polished bare bones.”
I compare the translated transcript of the talk show to his confession in the novel itself. He never says this isn’t a betrayal, only that he feels the desire to write these scenes of a hospital room, a premonition of his future. In the novel he documents the steps taken for the privacy of this famous patient, his name obscured and falsified from the paper trail, screening visitors out of the worry “some vulture” would take a picture of him. Protecting these scenes from future biographers, from the media. His friend is there by his side, holding his hand, kissing his hand, and then documenting going home and washing his lips out of shame and revulsion, a parallel scene to washing his lips when he is kissed in Mexico on the dancefloor. The shame of writing in the book of washing his lips, the need to write or exorcise this shame and fear. “It is awful to write this,” the interviewer says of that scene. “Yes it’s awful but it’s the truth,” Guibert replies. Truth has its cruelty and its delicacy, its delicacy and barbarism, as Guibert has written of Sade. For he also writes a scene of the narrator and Muzil holding hands, the way they would when on Muzil’s white couch, after having supper in his kitchen. Every time he came home from the hospital, he writes reports in his journal. “I was writing intolerable things. I think I was doing this in order to forget those things because when I write, all of what I write, once it is written, it is forgotten.” To write so as to forget, to cleanse oneself, not to remember. Still when he writes this report in the novel five years later, he cannot consult his journal, it is too much to go back. He knows that Foucault would have felt betrayed, that this was in fact a betrayal. “I knew that Muzil would have been so hurt if he’d known I was writing reports of everything like a spy, like an adversary, all these degrading little things, in my diary.” So what gives him the right to this? we ask when reading this. Guibert asks himself. The interviewer, Bernard Pivot, asks him also. It is his shame he is writing about, his degradation. How he washes the kiss away, that gesture, how he must get out his diary and write, another gesture.
Perhaps he can write because he knows he is dying. That’s why there’s no betrayal. He is already a ghost.
THE YEAR WITHOUT NAMES
The closeting and taboo of writing about this illness Guibert lays bare. To write the shame, the fear, the specter of death circling his friend group. For it is really his agony he is forecasting, his own imagined illness and death. What is it to witness such a terrible death? It was his to witness. It was his then to write. The story is of a friendship, the time period the length of the incubation of the mysterious illness that he suspects he has carried along with him all of this time, like a secret narrative. The slow growth of friendship mirrors the slow growth of the disease. First he witnesses his mentor’s death and then he pays witness to his own. An AIDS diagnosis at this time, especially in French bourgeois society, was supposed to be private and anonymous, and throughout Guibert refers to the discretion and confidentiality of personal physicians. When Muzil dies, his conservative sister wishes for his cause of death to be struck from the registrar: “The sister had demanded that they cross this out, that they blacken it completely, or scratch it out if they had to, or even better, tear out the page and redo it, for while these records are of course confidential, still, you never know, perhaps in ten or twenty years some muckracking biographer will come and Xerox the entry, or X-ray the impression still faintly legible on the page.” No one claimed to know that Muzil had AIDS, everyone is supposed to remain cheerful around him, but there was a veil over the entire proceedings—they knew but they didn’t want to disclose, because the disclosure was seen as impure. AIDS was clouded in secrecy and privacy because of the aura of shame surrounding it, because it was, as Sontag writes in AIDS and Its Metaphors, a plague, which was seen as moral punishment, a disgrace. The Institut Alfred-Fournier, where Guibert goes for blood work in Paris, was originally a syphilis hospital, and Sontag contextualizes the sense of contagion and repulsion attached to AIDS as closest to the diagnosis of syphilis, as “punishment for a person’s transgression.” A polluting person is always wrong, Sontag cites Mary Douglas in her analysis on concepts of pollution and taboo. Guibert is seen as wrong, because AIDS was seen as a horrible pollution. And so was gossip about it. This is an impure, outing, bitchy book, whose shock around its apparent transgressions (outing, gossiping, but also contracting AIDS in the first place) reveals intense moral hypocrisy and puritanism. More than anything, his soul of indiscretion is counter to polite bourgeois French society. The question throughout these pages—how much did Foucault know about his diagnosis, and what did his doctors and secretary keep from him, a practice of cloistering information from the patient that Foucault himself wrote about? This can be read as crossing a boundary—outing his yearly sojourns to the San Francisco bath-houses despite having some knowledge of how AIDS was communicated, even celebrating the radical intimacy and openness taking place there, that the danger of the disease has created “new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities,” which seems to suggest that even though statuses weren’t disclosed, everyone was operating with the knowledge that they could transmit AIDS to one other. A double layer to this betrayal—Foucault’s own obsession with privacy (a “closet queen,” as Guibert says of him in an interview.) Throughout this continuum of being tested in the novel, Guibert relies, as others did, on a system of pseudonyms, on the anonymity of the disease, while having moments of revelation that a secret is not going to protect him from the inevitable. The nurse “calling out the names written there, and then they called out mine, but there’s a stage in this sickness when keeping it secret just doesn’t matter anymore, it even becomes hateful and burdensome.” When he is supposed to be getting the blood work that hangs over the narrative of most of the book, his doctor realizes it’s been a year since he’s been seeing him, saying something about how quickly time flies. “Later I wondered if he’d said that intentionally to remind me that my days were now numbered, that I shouldn’t waste them writing under or about another name than my own.” Perhaps he can write this because he knows he is dying. That’s why there’s no betrayal. He is already a ghost. He cannot hide his illness from his friends or his readers as his mentor did, he cannot keep it from haunting his friendships. The book is also a confession. “Like Muzil, I would have liked to have had the strength, the insane pride, as well as the generosity, to tell no one, allowing friendships to live as lightly as air, carefree and eternal.” A premonition: The autoportrait taken in 1986 at rue du Moulin-Vert. The author on a massage bed with white covers drawn up at the center of a living room, like a staged morgue, his head peeking out. Even before he was to find out the results of his blood work, “I felt death approaching in the mirror, gazing back at me from my own reflection…”
How time freezes and then speeds up. The winter of 2020, once my classes begin, I cannot work anymore on the Guibert study. I do not have the time anymore, and also I am overwhelmed by the extreme labor of my nausea, which I attempt to mitigate with all of the recommended remedies—forcing a hard-boiled egg first thing in the morning, ginger candy, the sweaty pinch of my acupressure wristbands. A prescription allows me a faint swell of appetite, enough to eat a single Shake Shack burger, in the car when John drives me the hour or two to my classes, which I then struggle to keep down. On my days off I nap on and off all day. I try to read Virginia Woolf on illness. The desire to be productive when ill—in this other space. The space of confinement as a site of knowledge, of productiveness, despite cramped and limited time, the foreclosure of a fragile body. How one can see in a different way.
Excerpted from Kate Zambreno’s To Write As If Already Dead, Columbia University Press, 2022.