Susan Sontag as Metaphor

On Hervé Guibert’s AIDS memoir

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Memoir is the coyest of literary loves. It comes on as more honest than fiction and more open than poetry, but at heart it’s as angled and cropped as a Grindr pic. Not flattering necessarily—the urge to confess is as likely predicated on a sense of sin as a need to boast, and castigation is the desired outcome as often as absolution—but always self-serving. It’s simultaneously a calculated, often brutal act of excision and a carefully staged magnification. On one hand the sculpture winnowed from stone; on the other a splinter of life invested with outsize significance, like the thorn in the fable about the elephant and the mouse. A thorn’s a tiny thing compared to an elephant, but when it’s in exactly the right (or wrong) spot it becomes your whole life, your whole universe even. “How small the cosmos,” Nabokov declares at the beginning of Speak, Memory, “how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” A profoundly humanist sentiment, but only if your notion of the human discounts civilizations, the species, in favor of individuals. Of a General Kuropatkin, who in 1904 used a handful of matchsticks to illustrate for five-year-old Vladimir the difference between calm and stormy seas, the writer adds this sequel:

At a certain point of my father’s flight from Bolshevik-held St. Petersburg to southern Russia he was accosted while crossing a bridge, by an old man who looked like a gray-bearded peasant in his sheepskin coat. He asked my father for a light. The next moment each recognized the other. I hope old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, but that is not the point. What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme . . . The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

That is not the point. This is as self- incriminating as memoir gets, but at least it’s honest about the elisions to come. Like “the kitchen and the servants’ hall . . . as far removed from [my mother’s] consciousness as if they were the corresponding quarters in a hotel,” the Communist revolution—its causes, its failures, its dead—exists only as a lacuna between the Russia of the young barin’s childhood and the exile of the adult writer. Oh, but just wait till he gets to the butterflies!

Our Lady of the Maladies

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

This, perhaps unexpectedly, is Susan Sontag at the beginning of Illness as Metaphor. That the author of “Against Interpretation” should begin her ruthless dissection of the way metaphors distort our understanding of disease with a conceit that extends to half a page is less a contradiction of what follows than a tacit acknowledgement of its limits, just as the famous dictum that closes “Against Interpretation” (“in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”) is less a new way of reading than a crucial, if not exactly seismic, shift in emphases. “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Can I get an amen?

Illness as Metaphor presents itself as an extended application of the ideas in “Against Interpretation,” exposing and disposing of criticism’s “shadow world of ‘meanings’” to reveal the material phenomena at the root of so much fevered glossing. But it isn’t simply a list of those concealments and distortions. It is, rather, an exploration of the social contexts behind them, the effects they had on sufferers, scientists, the general public. It’s exegesis, in other words, but of the Barthesian variety: exegesis as anthropology, as polemic, even as memoir (the book’s initials are IAM, after all). Sontag wasn’t given to overt autobiography; her faith in her critical acumen was such that she was content to use the world to tell readers what she wanted them to know about her. Here, then, is the five-year-old whose father died of tuberculosis and the forty-five-year-old who has cancer writing a history of the ways these diseases have been interpreted against their sufferers and used to interpret the world against itself. But it took another decade, in AIDS and its Metaphors, for Sontag to admit she wrote Illness as Metaphor “to calm the imagination, not to incite it. Not to confer meaning, which is the traditional purpose of literary endeavor, but to deprive something of meaning”—the “shadow world” denounced in “Against Interpretation.”

Yet appeals to the rational and empiric (perhaps especially by writers who insist on referring to themselves as novelists even though the bulk of their output is in the critical essay) are almost always irrational, precisely because they deny the importance of the irrational, the unconscious, in modern scientific life. For hovering over her exposé—or, rather, circumscribing it, per Sontag’s own metaphor—are those two kingdoms, of the well and the sick. In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag dismisses the “hectic flourish of metaphor” with which she opened its predecessor as “a mock exorcism of the seductiveness of metaphorical thinking.” Yet even in her dismissal, Sontag resorts to more metaphor, cast now not just as demon but demon lover; and after so many years I can’t help but read Illness as Metaphor as an expatriate memoir, written from the kingdom of the sick by someone for whom wellness was more central to her conception of self than nationality or religion or gender or sexuality. Only after returning to her native land could Sontag admit that Illness as Metaphor was a message in a bottle, written in a state of “anxiety about how much time [she] had left to do any living or writing.” But while she was writing it, I have no doubt she thought of it as her ticket home.

Kingdom of the Sick

Unlike Sontag, Hervé Guibert cops to the fantasy that underlies his writing right out of the gate: “I would become,” he tells us on page one of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, “one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady.” The year is 1988, the malady is AIDS, and the tense is the giveaway. This is a prediction from the past, not a declaration from the present. On page two, Guibert’s already rolling back expectations: once, he says, “I was able to believe myself saved.” Now he suspects his salvation of being a “decoy intended to soothe . . . a trap about to be sprung.” What Guibert calls a “decoy” and a “trap” Sontag calls “etiology” and “treatment”—in this case an HIV vaccine Jonas Salk was working on in the 1980s, which most readers of Guibert’s book would have recognized as the medical unicorn it was. No doubt Sontag would draw a distinction between experimental therapies concocted in laboratories and experimental therapies as the last ray of hope for a dying man. I can’t help but feel that Guibert is the more honest writer, though, about his stake in his subject for one thing but also about medicine, and science itself. In the modern world, where the technologies that feed us, connect us, and keep us healthy (or fail to) are beyond the ken of even well-educated people, “science” and “medicine” are no less talismanic words than “magic” and “religion.” His cure is a “miracle” he’s desperate to believe in, a “genuine science fiction adventure,” but one he’s not quite rational or irrational enough to surrender to. Thus “this book’s raison d’être lies only along this borderline of uncertainty, so familiar to sick people everywhere.”

Lest you think this “borderline” is the boundary between Sontag’s material kingdoms of the well and the sick, Guibert is quick to disabuse you. “AIDS isn’t really an illness, and to call it one is a simplification, for it’s a state of weakness and surrender that uncages the beast within, which I must give free rein to devour me.” AIDS and Its Metaphors came out in 1988, so it’s possible Guibert read it before writing his own memoir (technically autofiction, French for “don’t sue me”), but one thinks that if he had read it, he’d have taken a moment to spit on its attempts to proscribe an artist’s desire to add meaning to—to interpret—disease. AIDS, he tells us in a declaration that would have turned the rest of Sontag’s hair gray, is “my paradigm in my project of self-revelation and the expression of the inexpressible.” Still, he doesn’t (quite) reach Nabokovian levels of entitlement: if he insists on his own personal version of AIDS, he’s also able to see that he shares at least some aspects of the experience with other people. “We’re the poison hiding in the crowd,” he says of Ranieri, a junkie who receives treatment at a clinic Guibert visits. But when he runs into Ranieri on the street, the junkie “warded off my voice with a tiny gesture of his extended index finger.”

Flailing between pathos and effrontery, To the Friend is less an attempt to sum up a life than an attempt to act out a few of the possible lives that are rapidly slipping from its author’s grasp.

To the extent that To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life has a plot, it’s these rebuffed or failed connections unfurling over the course of the first decade of the epidemic. Usually it’s Guibert flipping the bird, betraying old friends willy-nilly, and going out of his way to give offense, at one point even suggesting that on some level gay men sought their deaths from HIV. When, in 1983, a friend returns from San Francisco “with a dry cough that was tearing his lungs out,” Guibert is surprised to discover that the bathhouses are still filled. “Don’t be silly,” the friend tells him. “The baths have never been so popular, and now they’re fantastic. The danger has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities. Before, no one ever said a word; now we talk to one another. We all know exactly why we’re there.” The betrayals are largely of dead people (or celebrities, who aren’t really people) and the offensiveness comes from a gay man with AIDS and the whole thing is an admitted imitation of Europe’s favorite misanthrope since Céline, Thomas Bernhard, who died the year Guibert began his book, so we would do well to take Guibert’s bile with a grain of sel: l’artiste as poète maudit-comma-mourant. Which might itself be the most offensive thing about the book, if it weren’t so tragic. For above all, now, thirty years after it was written, Guibert’s memoir reads as the work of a talented but dilettantish young writer whose time ran out before he could decide what kind of writer he wanted to be, or what kind of person. Flailing between pathos and effrontery, To the Friend is less an attempt to sum up a life than an attempt to act out a few of the possible lives that are rapidly slipping from its author’s grasp. If the poses feel transient, half-realized, or outright put-ons, it only adds to the pathos.

Diary of a Young Man

To the Friend earned Guibert immediate notoriety, not least because few public figures in France in 1990 were willing to admit they were HIV-positive. Guibert wasn’t exactly famous, but the people he hung out with were—chief among them Michel Foucault, who was one of those public figures who hid his HIV status, from his readers and possibly from his sexual partners as well (he was the bathhouse visitor, if “complicities” didn’t give it away). Foucault (called Muzil in the book) had been dead for six years by the time To the Friend came out, and the fact that he’d died of AIDS was in many circles an open secret. Nevertheless, the revelation of his final years was seen as a betrayal of confidence, and Guibert wants you to know he knows it: “Muzil would have been so hurt if he’d known I was writing reports of everything like a spy, like an adversary, all those degrading little things, in my diary, which was perhaps destined (that was the worst of it) to survive him, and to bear witness to a truth he would have liked to erase around the periphery of his life.” Guibert glosses over the idea that Foucault might have been having unsafe sex and takes no interest in how concealing his illness (an act of “generosity” that allows “friendships to live as lightly as air”) might have contributed to the stigma around HIV. He doesn’t conceive of his memoir as a political statement, only a literary one (“It was only natural to betray my secrets, since I’d always done that in all my books”), a series of masquerades or ventriloquisms: Proustian gossip, Genetian transgression, Rimbaudian dissolution, Bernhardian bile, with hints of Sadean debauchery lurking under the surface. (Edmund White’s incisive afterword to the new edition suggests that this was more than a passing predilection.) The influences hang so heavy that it’s possible Guibert didn’t think of his book as autobiographical at all, but a chance to use his life to make an artistic statement. Which is, of course, the purest of all autobiographical impulses: “like a pharaoh preparing the furnishings of his tomb, with his own image multiplied over and over to mark the entrance, or on the contrary to obscure it with detours, lies and simulacra.”

There are detours and simulacra in plenty as the book wanders through the bewildering first decade of the AIDS epidemic, but if there are lies they feel more like omissions than outright falsehoods. The through line is Guibert’s “love of death,” which exists as a precondition to the terror that permeates so much of these pages. After seeing Roger Corman’s Premature Burial as a child, “I constantly sought out the most spectacular attributes of death, begging my father to let me have the skull that had accompanied him through medical school.” He photographed children’s tombs, traveled to Palermo to see the Capuchin mummies, watched every horror movie he could track down. When he finally gets his positive test results, he admits that he felt “a kind of jubilation” and feels compelled to purify his search. “I began to disdain this bric-a-brac, put away the medical school skull, avoided cemeteries like the plague, for I’d reached another stage in the love of death, as though I were impregnated by death in my innermost being and no longer needed those trappings, but desired instead a closer intimacy with my idol, continually seeking the feelings it provoked, the most precious and hateful of all: fear and longing.” He dispenses with Foucault, who had, at any rate, only existed in the book as a name to drop (the one reference to Foucault’s work is to the History of Sexuality, which Guibert misidentifies as a history of “human behavior”), dispenses also with ex-friend Isabelle Adjani, who had largely been pilloried in absentia, and makes short, nasty work of Bill, the titular friend, whose failure to procure Salk’s failed vaccine for Guibert is revealed as the McGuffin it always was, if not for Guibert (though probably for Guibert), then for the reader. Which leaves him, finally, not with himself, but with his book:

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.

Who knows what Guibert’s friends thought, but I didn’t believe him, although I also don’t think this is one of the “lies” he mentions earlier. Just as we must finally recognize that sickness, in the opening flourish of Illness as Metaphor, is itself a screen for the death that Sontag didn’t want to give the solidity of a name, and wellness an illusory Eden where death is held in permanent abeyance, the metaphorical meanings of Guibert’s use of the words “book” and “life” precede the phenomena they name and elide. “In Bill’s eyes,” he tells us toward the end of his memoir, “I’m already dead,” but it’s Guibert who’s been telling us that all along—not because he wants to die, but because he wants death to be some kind of victory, rather than just another defeat. It’s Foucault who says from his hospital room, “You always think that in a certain kind of situation you’ll find something to say about it, and now it turns out there’s nothing to say after all” (which makes you wonder what, exactly, he was saying in the baths), but it’s Guibert who recognizes that his book can no more contain his life than it can escape the limitations of its writer’s flesh. “My muscles have melted away. At last my arms and legs are once again as slender as they were when I was a child.”

Ghost in the Machine

In the course of writing this essay, I have found myself for the first time feeling a bit of sympathy for Arlene Croce’s position in “Discussing the Undiscussable,” her infamous 1994 review of Bill T. Jones’s performance piece Still/Here, in which she declares that “victim art” is “beyond the reach of criticism,” and then again to John Leonard’s confession in a review of another critic’s collection (I’d call it a mea culpa but he doesn’t seem to think he did anything wrong) that he happily praised John Cheever’s lackluster final novel—he calls it a “thank-you note to a wonderful writer”—because the writer was dying at the time. (Sontag’s slyly modified quip about interpretation being “the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius” feels particularly salient here.) As a critic in these cases, you want not only to be able to discharge your duties by mouthing the hagiographical condolences but to be commended for doing so, so that you don’t have to feel guilty about hurting the feelings of a dying artist or praising mediocre work. Or you just want to bow out.

There’s a place for art that inserts itself as a shadow world between consciousness (itself a narrative construct, just as all language is fundamentally metaphor) and the illimitable horrors of the real world. It might be said that even art that manages to make “our own experience . . . more, rather than less, real to us” also performs this role. If “the conditions of modern life . . . conjoin to dull our sensory faculties,” as Sontag writes, then art that forces us “to see more, to hear more, to feel more” must by definition be one of her falsifying “duplicates,” however edifying its goals. Most art that reduces matters of great historical import to a few carefully arranged matchsticks does so unconsciously, and most audiences that consume it are equally, perhaps even willfully, oblivious. I wonder, in fact, if these were the people Croce was addressing in 1994, when “AIDS fatigue” had led some gay men to stop having safe sex and some writers to start crafting AIDS narratives from the same tired tropes nineteenth-century writers used for tuberculosis and twentieth-century writers repurposed for cancer: not the people who, like Croce, refused to see Jones’s piece, but the people who actually attended and nevertheless failed to see the dying bodies on stage, registering only their own revelatory or ennobling or terrifying fantasies about what AIDS “means.” That this wasn’t the entirety of the audience, let alone the choreographer’s intention, is not the point: there was nothing any critic could tell these viewers that they hadn’t already decided for themselves. Whereof one cannot speak . . .

I suppose what I’m really wondering is if time turns all of us into members of that audience. I read To the Friend when it was published in English in 1991, and as I reread it my memories of the book seemed mostly accurate. It’s dreamlike, overwritten, terrifying, often vacuous. I was frequently moved by it the first time around but found little to admire, aesthetically or politically; I was moved this time as well, yet still didn’t like it much. On both occasions I left the text with the particularly postmodern feeling that I understood the memoir but not the memoirist. I recognized the fact that the Sontagian lens I’d inserted between myself and the book was a defense mechanism as much as a critical perspective, but I was never quite sure if I was guarding against the memory of trauma or, without overstating the connection, the horror of the present day. I recognized, too, that the reappearance in my own prose of the (forgive me, Susan) clinical vocabulary of critical theory, which I pretty much abandoned twenty years ago, was an aestheticizing impulse on a par with Guibert’s, designed to redirect the imagination toward the abstract rather than the actual. When the real world’s too scary we take refuge in a version of it, one that’s less counterfeit or reflection than lens, excluding and magnifying. Not the truth but my truth, which we can only hope is close enough to the real thing that it leads us back there, in time. To wit: the reissue of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life coincides with a host of other memoirs of the early AIDS years, each of which has a point of view on the epidemic and a story to tell. But though all of them reminded me of things I’d done and people I’d known, only Guibert’s book made me remember how I felt. Only Guibert’s made me feel those feelings again. If the dying man at the center of Guibert’s story never quite achieves personhood, the embodied experience of dying—of a particular disease at a particular moment in time—is almost too real. The transference from the personal to the universal is how people finally, truly, die. But it’s how history lives.

The failure of Guibert’s book, if failure is the right word, is that it interprets the world rather than describes it, and passes that solipsism off as the real thing. The triumph (if that’s the right word) is that Guibert, at least, knew the score, whereas even the most brilliant of us, writer and reader alike, have a hard time accepting that every novel, every poem, every play, and not just the critical apparatus that seeks to explain them, is an act of interpretation resulting in a “shadow world.” I suspect Sontag was one of the few who did understand this, if only unconsciously, and I suspect also that she chose to deflect her misgivings onto criticism, because discounting all of literature as a put-up job, a bit of bad reasoning that flattens the vastness of the universe to the scale of a single subjectivity, flew in the face of what was, as she always maintained, a novelist’s sensibility, where novelist is code for selfish and dishonest, but also humanizing and transcendent. In my shadow version of the memoir Sontag never wrote she acknowledges that her early, arid fictions were an attempt to fight the innate sentimentality of the form, but she also acknowledges that it was a losing battle, which is why she put fiction aside for a decade, and why, when she returned, it was with the grand romances of The Volcano Lover and In America—derivative, often sloppy, yet vibrant novels that exist in counterpoint to most of what she wrote about interpretation and metaphor and the impulse to reduce the material world to personal, but also shared, symbols.

“I find it very difficult,” Sontag told an interviewer in 1999 (well, me actually), “when people tell me, oh, I saw a lot of you in this book, or a lot of you in this character. I cringe. I like saying memories are in the book, but I don’t like saying I’m in the book. But I am in the book. How could I not be?”

Dale Peck’s most recent books are the story collection What Burns and the novel Night Soil. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at the New School and edits the Evergreen Review.

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