Actually, as a matter of fact, always that: as if I were as one dead.
(Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary 108)
- 1 The French term autofiction, attributed to Serge Doubrovsky, implies more forcefully that the life (...)
1This article compares two instances of life writing by gay men, one American, the other French, in an attempt to elucidate some differences in their articulations of the experience of AIDS. Hervé Guibert’s autofiction – his autobiographical novel – À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990) is focused primarily on the writer’s own illness due to AIDS, from which he passed away in 1991.1 Mark Thompson’s memoir Gay Body. A Journey through Shadow to Self (1997, 1999) describes AIDS claiming former lovers, friends, and a family member, even as the writer fears that he, too, would soon become its victim. As he puts it in the preface to the 1999 Stonewall Inn Edition, “With ebbing hope and T-cells, I retired from a long career of journalistic activism, built a Zen garden in my front yard, and began to sort through and preserve what I thought were the most important aspects of my life to date.” (vii) Intended as a summing up of the writer’s life in the face of impending calamity, Gay Body, in Tompkins’s own words, “could be regarded as an AIDS book, another document passionately issued from the plague years.” (vii)
2The differences between À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie and Gay Body include their authors’ disparate nationalities: French and American; geographic locations: Paris and Monterey (and other parts of the US); the times of their writing, with Thompson’s memoir begun some five years after Guibert’s autofiction was already published (a hiatus which likely seemed like eons at a time when researchers were still getting their bearings on the causes and the treatment of AIDS); the generic disparity between the writings, as Guibert’s account is ostensibly fictionalized; and the dramatic disparity, more readily apparent ex post factum, in their personal situation vis-à-vis AIDS. The list of differences is supplemented with yet another mark of distance, that of the strikingly divergent discursive frameworks used by these writers. Guibert’s account embraces his deteriorating physical condition by situating it in the framework of his paradoxical recognition that self-identity is not expressible as substantive content. Thompson’s memoir adopts the contrary strategy, approximating the cumulative logic of the Bildungsroman. Guibert’s acceptance of his wasting away, physical but also broadly existential and Thompson’s determination to speak about AIDS-related experience as contributing to his personal growth, which he describes with the Jungian notions of individuation and encountering one’s shadow, are diametrically opposed. Guibert’s rhetorical strategy hinges on a paradoxical self-awareness which depends on a surrender of substantive concepts of self-identity, whereas Thompson performs a variation on the theme of coming out, especially as the term suggests an overcoming of one’s limitations, by making his experience of AIDS parallel to some other negative experiences, such as his youthful shame about being queer: “Old shadows continue to haunt us. Ever new ones—like AIDS—emerge to challenge,” as he generalizes in his preface. (ix)
3Thompson’s search for a narrative content that would express his sense of himself produces a moralizing insistence on the possibility, and the necessity, of learning from personal experience. This is evident in his reliance on elements of Jung’s theory of the psyche and in his unexplained use of gothic aesthetic in the opening and final parts, even though this aesthetic seems out of place in an overtly autobiographical work. Guibert insists on emptying out as opposed to accumulation, and his rhetoric is designed to contradict any claim of narrative authority over experience, including his own. Its sole quasi-gothic moment occurs when the narrator, who is gravely ill, catches a mirror reflection of his pale and gaunt face, and thinks it belongs to someone already deceased. But then, in an astonishing turn-around, he finds his own gruesomeness oddly appealing. The episode is consistent with the novel’s overall theme of embracing the loss of one’s self. It puts forth a model of love—specifically of self-love—as linked to a project of witnessing that is based in interest.
4This comparison between Guibert and Thompson draws on Paul de Man’s discussion of autobiography as prosopopeia, but the main focus is on the category mise en abîme. The gothic (and quasi-gothic) scenes in both texts are read as instances of the mise en abîme, with this characteristic difference: whereas Guivert deploys this figure in order to indicate that self-examination may result in embracing the recognition of an absence of substantive content, Thompson’s use of the mise en abîme seems accidental rather than intended, and is consequently readable as a symptomatic manifestation of an unconscious motivation. It speaks of a conflicted relationship between the author and his brother, who was an AIDS victim.
- 2 Robinson’s examples are Andrew Tobias’ The Best Little Boy in the World (1973, published under the (...)
- 3 For an extended discussion of Robinson’s thesis see the chapter “Beyond Coming Out” in my Exposures(...)
5Mark Thompson is the author of numerous books on gay spirituality, including Gay Spirit. Myth and Meaning (1987), the edited volume Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice (1991), and a collection of interviews titled Gay Soul. Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature with Sixteen Writers, Healers, Teachers, and Visionaries (1994). While his autobiographic Gay Body. A Journey Through Shadow to Self (1997) does not literally adopt the narrative format of the coming-out story, an emphasis on personal growth achieved by confronting and overcoming one’s negative experience, including the experience of shame induced by the society’s stigmatization of homosexuality, make this memoir similar to the exemplary autobiographies by contemporary American gay men which Paul Robinson examines as coming-out narratives in Gay Lives (1999).2 Narratives of coming out rely on a lucid, conversion-like distinction between the time before one’s coming out and the time after it, where the latter is often suffused with a sense of beatific plenitude and is contrasted with the emotionally ravaging years spent in the closet. Robinson’s tongue-in-cheek comment on American gay male writers’ allegiance to the coming-out format is that these Americans are “fundamentalists even in their perversity.” (xix) Unlike some European gay men whose autobiographies Robinson also discusses, he claims that Americans are less able to live with a sense of ambiguity, and prefer to assert their gay identity in unequivocal terms. This insight, however selectively it may in fact apply to the broad range of life writing by American gay men, is much à propos of Thompson’s work.3
6Thompson’s Gay Body begins with an introduction in which he describes his younger gay brother Kirk’s suicide. Kirk has AIDS and his physical condition has seriously deteriorated when he asks Mark to deliver on the promise that he would be there when the time came for Kirk to die. Mark duly makes his way up to Monterey, where they both grew up—becoming teenage lovers at Kirk’s initiative, as a subsequent chapter of Gay Body reveals—and where Kirk continues to reside. Mark sits by Kirk’s bedside and holds his “brother’s hand until it was as cold as ice.” (7) Mark provides companionship, not practical assistance, which in any case is not required. (Possibly for legal reasons, Mark briefly leaves the room as Kirk is about to swallow the pills he had been hoarding for the purpose of ending his life.)
7For a writer whose spiritual journey took him, in his own words, “from what is generically called New Age to time-honored traditions of both East and West” before settling “on the language of Carl Jung, [who] [m]ore than any other man in our modern era…created a vocabulary about the human soul” (12), Thompson’s description of Kirk’s death surprises with its use of a gothic aesthetic, which it alternately deploys and disavows. Indeed, his introduction falls neatly into two parts: the first recounts the events of the fateful night, occasionally engaging a gothic aesthetic, while the second, more essayistic part, dissertates on the Jungian language of archetypes as it may apply to gay male experience, elaborating in particular the importance of encountering one’s shadow as a step toward individuation. But the gothic aesthetic used in the narrative account is not explained in terms of Jungian theory, making Thompson’s position seem incongruent. The imbalance stems in part from Thompson’s reductive reading of Jung, whom he examines superficially and through the lenses of ego psychology, as though psychoanalytic theory were readable as a self-help manual. A similar imbalance occurs also in the epilogue, where an occultist, gothic episode is again only tenuously connected to the book’s intellectual claims.
8As the introduction opens, Thompson’s autobiographical narrator has barely presented Kirk as an accomplished gardener when an allegation is made about Kirk’s deficient spirituality: “deep down, he didn’t really know the value of his own considerable worth. Not being properly seen as a boy meant that he could not fully see himself as a man.” (1) While this negative assessment fits the book’s overall argument about the urgent need for gay men to engage with cultural archetypes, the assessment itself remains unsubstantiated, nor is it reiterated with respect to Kirk. At other moments, Mark treats Kirk as an equal instead of sitting in judgment: “Kirk and I spent the next couple of hours talking about our triumphs and failures, what we had learned about life—if anything.” (3) But then, as Kirk goes off to take his final bath, a distinctly gothic mood sets in. First Mark decides to create an appropriately spiritual ambiance for Kirk’s final rite of passage. He begins “to dim lights and light candles. There must be a right container for all passages of life, especially death, and it was my task to transform this modest space into a sanctuary.” (5) As he goes about this task, which makes him seem part decorator, part sacerdotal, he becomes aware of something evil looming about:
I had just stepped back to survey the scene when a sudden violent force entered the room. It came barreling through the front door: malevolent and greedy. Whatever it was and wanted I did not know. But it scared me. The hairs on the back of my head stood upright. I could feel my heart pounding.
“Go away, get out of here!” I shouted, making dismissive motions toward the door. The presence felt evil. I needed to chase it away.
Perhaps it was only my own inner turmoil being whipped into some kind of projective fantasy—I will never know. (5)
9That Mark feels queasily strange getting ready to witness his brother’s self-induced end is understandable, but the gothic, occultist bend of this description seems to call for an explanation that is not provided.
10Also unexplained is Mark’s apparent oscillation between a desire to be like his brother and the opposite desire to mark the distance between them, a contradictory stance which seems to underlie Mark’s repeated attempts to impose an interpretation on the events in progress, and thus symbolically to appropriate a scene in which Kirk should be occupying center-stage. These contradictory motivations suggest that Mark is engaged in a Girardean competition with Kirk that is never openly articulated, though it is occasionally signaled in Gay Body. For example, Mark remembers Kirk as “the rebellious one” (48), because unafraid that their incestuous teenage sex might be exposed, a term possibly suggesting Mark is feeling envious of Kirk’s capacity for reckless abandon. Although Thompson’s memoir does not articulate this idea, Kirk’s free-spiritedness might have been presented as dissolution, a character trait potentially contributing to his becoming infected. To his credit, Mark does not blame Kirk for falling ill, but he does harbor feelings of disappointment with the way Kirk has lived his life. It is not difficult to see how such feelings may be motivated by Mark’s poor self-image, however scantily examined this motivation is in the memoir. For example, Mark regretfully recalls being unable to answer Kirk’s question about their parents’ incessant fighting even though “[o]lder brothers were supposed to have answers.” (48) His subsequent application of Jungian categories to sum up Kirk’s life is readable as an attempt to ameliorate such youthful inadequacies that may continue to rankle, and to set the score in respect of ancient sibling rivalry between himself and his brother. Caught between his admiration for Kirk and an irresistible urge to criticize him, Mark inevitably sees Kirk and himself as competing.
11Mark’s self-contradictory attitude, which he largely leaves unexamined, is voiced, however indirectly, in the narrative’s unexpected deployment of gothic aesthetic. This aesthetic in turn vies for precedence with the Jungian terms with which Mark attempts to re-signify Kirk’s suicide in terms of his more general discussion about the need to encounter one’s shadow. This rivalry is succinctly illustrated in the scene of the looming presence, which recasts Kirk’s meeting his death as Mark’s encounter with his shadow, although the narrator fails to note the apparent analogy to Jungian theory. The word ‘shadow’—the Jungian term used throughout Gay Body—is missing from this scene. The possibility that Mark’s strange experience is a “projective fantasy” of his “inner turmoil,” though remarked upon, is dismissed as promptly as the mysterious troubling thing itself: “I will never know.” While seemingly admitting the possibility that he is deluded by his own mind, Mark does not investigate what may have provoked his gothic fantasy, or what a “force… malevolent and greedy” and a “presence [that] felt evil” may imply about his attitude toward Kirk.
12And yet, his account does suggest that the mysterious and troubling presence somehow corresponds to Kirk, who has left the room just before this gothic encounter. It is as though the mysterious presence were identical to Kirk, at the same time as it was Mark’s projection. The epithet “greedy” implies that the “force” is trying to wrest away from Mark something he does not wish to yield. But once the episode is read as Mark’s projective fantasy, as he suggests, the quality of greediness must be ascribed to him and pertain to his effort to grasp, and thereby control, the meaning of Kirk’s dying. Mark’s struggle to exert such control, evinced in the gothic scene of shooing away the shadowy presence, is thus readable as an unacknowledged, and hence failed, encounter with his shadow, which is readable in turn as his unacknowledged rivalry with Kirk.
13Because the gothic apparition can be grasped as representing Mark’s shadow, the scene is also readable as a mise en abîme for Thompson’s focus on the importance of encountering one’s shadow. However, because the autobiographical narrator of Gay Body ignores this possibility, this mise en abîme is reduced, in the narrative’s logic, to the status of a symptom, an unwitting manifestation of an unconscious urge, instead of becoming a sign of lucid self-knowledge. The alternate deployment and disavowal of the gothic scene in Mark’s account of Kirk’s death thus comes across as akin to slumming: it is as though the narrative momentarily stooped to the use of gothic aesthetic to communicate a sense of queasiness, whose origins it neglects to examine, only to reemerge, sanitized, as an account of a deeply felt spiritual experience, whose meaning hinges on Mark’s wielding of Jungian categories. Mark’s sense of superiority—a certain intellectual haughtiness even—thus emerges in a clear and disturbing, though apparently unintended, way.
14Soon after the evil-seeming presence has been dismissed, Kirk returns from his bath. Just then the clock strikes one, a circumstance which fleetingly alludes to the gothic mystery of the previous scene. Kirk asks again if Mark is willing to stay, and Mark responds in the affirmative. From this point, Kirk’s self-euthanasia progresses without interruption. Perhaps because death comes to Kirk in his sleep, it is unnoticed by Mark:
He had stopped breathing at some point during the night—when exactly I couldn’t say. Maybe when the rain let up. The passing hours had been sacred, scary, and sublime. But I was at a loss to explain what had exactly happened other than the fulfillment of an awesome mystery. Kirk was dead. And with him, a part of me. (7)
15In a manner which reiterates his confusion in the face of the mysterious evil presence, Mark is unable to interpret the night’s central event: “when exactly I couldn’t say…. I was at a loss to explain….” But the state of being at a loss for words passes quickly as reference is made to “an awesome mystery” that has been fulfilled. Words of spiritual wisdom are again contaminated with gothic elements in this brief diatribe: a mystery fulfilled—reminiscent of a sacrament—is described as “awesome,” while waiting for it has been both “sacred” and “scary”, and ultimately “sublime.” It is almost as though something that could be known only as a mystery, one that is moreover connoted as gothic with such words as “evil,” “awesome” and “scary,” were vying for dominance with an unequivocally “sacred” spirituality which Mark expects Kirk’s somewhat ritualized self-euthanasia to connote. The scene is thus marked by multiple liminalities: as Kirk is moving from life to death, the meaning of his passage, as articulated by Mark, shuttles back and forth between the spiritual and the gothic, as though it occupied an intermediate third space indicated with the term “sublime.”
16In summary of these remarks on Thompson’s introduction, it is understandable that the night is marked by liminality owing to the circumstance of Kirk’s dying. And yet a motif of competitiveness, however liminal its articulation, is detectable in Mark’s simultaneous proximity to Kirk and his attempts to mark an intellectual and spiritual distance between. The contradiction invites another reading of liminality, one focused on their identities partly merging in Mark’s account. This liminality, whose subtext is rivalry, is revealed in the narrative’s oscillation between words connoting spirituality, including such terms as the Jungian shadow, and those connoting a sense of the gothic. Mark’s fantasy of a menacing visitation—his “projective fantasy”—which occurs shortly before Kirk’s death and during his brief absence from the room, seems grounded in Mark’s implied association of the mysterious evil force with Kirk. The scene suggests that Mark meets, and misses, his own shadow: his unacknowledged rivalry with Kirk. Although Mark appears to resist his account’s partial equation of Kirk with the mysterious presence, which he describes as his own projection, he nevertheless remarks that Kirk’s death is somehow also his partial death and an irrevocable turning point for him. The next morning, Mark notes that “in helping [Kirk] to die some line was finally crossed within myself.” (7) The statement reaffirms the liminal nature of the experience of assisting at his brother’s demise and, moreover, reiterates Mark’s paradoxical relationship to Kirk, which is both that of their near-identity and of a rivalry between them. Inevitably, Mark comes across as someone trying to upstage Kirk, interposing himself and occasionally blurring the boundary between himself and his brother. Assisting at Kirk’s death and being placed in a mostly testimonial function represent a missed opportunity for Mark to abandon his obsession with intellectual mastery—evidenced in his indiscriminating use of Jungian categories—because they invite him to refocus his attention on Kirk. However, he fails to make use of the occasion, as he resorts to regurgitating Jungian terms to superficially comment on Kirk’s life.
17By the memoir’s end, Mark’s apparent inability to see that he has lost not only Kirk but also an opportunity for overcoming the limiting relationship between himself and Kirk becomes a quasi-melancholic state in which Mark’s uneasy, and apparently unconscious, identification with Kirk continues. In “How We Die,” the epilogue to Gay Body, Thompson describes two further events connected to Kirk: a memorial ceremony during which Kirk’s ashes are scattered at his favorite spot above Carmel Valley, and another occasion when Mark unexpectedly hears the now-deceased Kirk’s voice calling out his name: “Mark!” This latter visitation helps Mark regain control while he is performing a potentially dangerous maintenance chore and has pointlessly put himself in danger of falling off a ladder because he is “practically steaming with discontent about the world and my own life.” (242)
18On both occasions, as in the earlier sequence describing Kirk’s death, the narrative focuses on the particular meaning which Mark gives to the events in progress. In the ash-scattering scene, Mark decides that a dynamic projection of Kirk’s remains is more appropriate to his brother’s character than their more peaceful laying on the ground would be:
With an impetuous swing of my arm, I threw the ashes high into the air. They made a beautiful plume, glistening white in the shafts of light penetrating the thick canopy above. The solemnity of the occasion was lifted by my abrupt action…. It was closure, for sure, and just as he would have wanted it. (241)
19Mark’s emphasis on closure reiterates his earlier efforts to determine the meaning of Kirk’s life and death. The claim that the gesture is what Kirk “would have wanted” is readable as another projective fantasy, similar to the earlier such projection in the account of Kirk’s death. Because this funeral scene involves a literal projection of Kirk’s ashes by Mark, it again seems to present itself as a mise en abîme for the rhetorical procedure based in part on mental projection. Like the earlier scene of the gothic visitation, this funereal scene also comes across as an unintentional mise en abîme, a symptom indicative of unacknowledged motivations of sibling rivalry underlying Thompson’s rhetoric, rather than a lucid moment of self-reflection.
20In the subsequent episode in which Mark is precariously positioned on a ladder as he attempts, rake in hand, to clear the rooftop of the house from debris that has collected between the tiles, he suddenly hears a word, his name—“Mark!”—mysteriously called out. Immediately he identifies the disembodied voice as Kirk’s and, moreover, hears a very specific message in the succinct communication: “’Let go, my brother,’ he seemed to be saying with the utterance of a single word. ‘Don’t hang on so tight. Trust in life. What you need and want will come in time.” (243)
21That Mark does not discuss Kirk’s post mortem speech only as a calling out of his name suggests a polysemic reading; the exclamation of a proper name (Mark!) is read as an injunction to look after himself (Watch out!), and to take in the world around him (Behold!). But as the narrator proceeds to discuss the message as pertinent to his autobiographical project: “Letting go of the past—not as a way to escape it, but to accept it—is why I have told my story here” (243), the possibility of a polysemic reading is foreclosed. Contrary to the polysemic structure of what he regards as a message to himself from Kirk, Mark’s effort is focused on finding a key to his existence, as he tries to uncover a logic that would allow him to accept the past by grasping its particular significance.
22There is a certain dogged optimism in the project, in line with the reassurance he gets from what he regards as Kirk’s message. Nonetheless, Mark is contradicting that message in another way by insisting on some cumulative meaning of his experience, as though the various incidents of a life could be given a coherent shape, and as though such work of interpretation were both manageable and necessary for individuation. This attempt at intellectual and spiritual closure is ostensibly steeped in Jung’s theory, on which Mark relies to give meaning to experience. And yet, Mark’s Jungian approach comes across as somewhat doctrinaire because the writing privileges an abstract discussion of a narrow range of theoretical categories rather than give precedence to individual self-discovery. Thompson seems tone-deaf to this effect, which takes away at least some of his work’s credibility as life writing.
- 4 See Paul de Man, “Autobiography as Defacement.” For a discussion of de Man’s position on avowal, se (...)
23Paul de Man discusses autobiography as relying on prosopopeia, or, the fiction of address.4 The episode in which Mark hears Kirk’s disembodied voice and reads the single-word utterance as informing his own autobiographical project dramatizes de Man’s point because Mark ostensibly listens to a voice addressing him from behind the grave. Similarly, in the earlier scene of the night of Kirk’s death, in which Mark addresses a mysterious presence he detects in the room, that presence is virtually indistinguishable from absence because it does not manifest itself other than inwardly.
24Neither the possibly fantastic presence nor the overheard voice calling out Mark’s name are given simply as originating with Mark himself, and yet a partial identity is implied between either of them and Mark: the mysterious presence is discussed as Mark’s “projective fantasy,” and Kirk’s utterance is seen as informing Mark’s (rather than Kirk’s) autobiographical project. These episodes, readable as fictions of Mark being addressed, point up the fiction of the memoir addressing the reader. Moreover, because Thompson’s unexplained use of gothic aesthetic contradicts his emphasis on the clarity of vision requisite for individuation, those gothic and quasi-gothic moments are readable as mise en abîmes for Gay Body because they put in question its central message. To be sure, they are a paradoxical instance of the mise en abîme because they seem unintended.
25Thompson’s paradoxical mise en abîme seems ironic without being self-ironic because of his overwhelming desire for a particular content of his self. This desire ultimately underpins the difficulty of locating that content in a satisfactory manner. Notions such as the mise en abîme and prosopopeia, which point to the paradoxes of polysemy inherent in writing itself, seem utterly foreign to Thompson’s end-oriented approach. He is convinced that his past experience represents an accumulation that must be interpreted as a particular content, and appears to neglect those aspects of his experience, like the ongoing sibling rivalry, that could frustrate this imaginary sense of erecting a self over time.
- 5 For example, Katarzyna Więckowska writes in an unpublished manuscript in which she cites Eve Kosofs (...)
26The tension which Thompson’s approach unwittingly produces as he attempts to harness writing, which is inherently polysemic, and the end-oriented task to which he puts it, accounts for his deployment of gothic aesthetic. Critics have argued that the gothic style is typically structured by a secret that cannot be divulged, and that may be altogether absent.5 The particular pull of desire which sets a gothic narrative in motion depends on a secret being withheld, so that the account can proceed toward its always imaginary end. The logic of desire means that the object toward which the desiring subject orients itself is indicative of its desire for subjectivity, which is to say that it indicates the subject’s desire to possess a content that can be thematized and thus given substance. The subject desires to become identical with its proper subject-matter through the procedure of divulging a secret, albeit always imaginary, which is supposed to reside at the heart of the subject’s self. Such thematization, which both calls into being and is called into being by the alleged secret in need of discovery, lends the illusion of substance to the desiring subject, rhetorically constituting it as subject, which is also to say, constituting it as a particular subject-matter. Thompson’s desire to possess a self—a subjectivity—turns him into a gothic character because the procedure he deploys, as he is acting on this desire, involves gesturing at the hidden secret of his self (a secret only implicitly thematized as intense sibling rivalry) and the simultaneous adamant refusal to expose that secret or even tackle it, other than by oblique allusion, at the peril of losing sight of the clarity of his imagined self. He is thus both taking advantage of the polysemic character of writing to hide something and denying this polysemy to assert a particular content of his self.
27Hervé Guibert, the French writer and photographer who died from AIDS in 1991, gave a fictionalized account of his illness in À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), translated into the English by Linda Coverdale as To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1991). Guibert’s autobiographical novel, narrated in the first person, depicts the protagonist’s friendship with Muzil, his elder, an eminent philosopher and another homosexual man, who dies from AIDS. In the manner of roman à clef, Muzil’s character is based on Michel Foucault, Guibert’s friend, who indeed passed away from AIDS in 1984. (Other characters based on actual people include Melvil Mockney, modeled on Jonas Salk, who created the polio vaccine, and Marine, modeled on the French actress and singer Isabelle Adjani.) Diametrically different from Thompson’s Gay Body in more than one respect, Guibert’s autofiction deploys the figure of the mise en abîme to suggest the limitation inherent in any attempt to deliver subjectivity as content, whether in giving testimony to one’s self or to another.
28Guibert’s narrator is linked to Muzil by friendship and by what he describes as “the same fate in death.” (To the Friend… 91) Unbeknownst to Muzil, bedridden and no longer able to work, the narrator is keeping notes on their final encounters. He recognizes that his activity is potentially threatening to Muzil because it might “witness to a truth” which Muzil prefers to contain like an enclosed “black diamond—gleaming and impenetrable,” while the narrator’s account risks to become a riddle spiked with inexactitudes, “a real conundrum chock-full of errors from end to end”:
… 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, to leave only the well-polished bare bones enclosing the black diamond—gleaming and impenetrable, closely guarding its secrets—that seemed to form his biography, a real conundrum chock-full of errors from end to end. (To the Friend… 87-88)
- 6 Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time. An AIDS Memoir (1988) is an especially powerful testimony to the diff (...)
29The reference here is to Foucault remaining silent, to his dying day, about the exact nature of his illness, quite unlike Guibert, whose public revelation of his own condition, in the form of the autobiographical novel from which I am quoting, won him public recognition. Guibert and Foucault may have shared “the same fate in death” but the manner of this sharing, especially as concerns “witness(ing) to a truth,” was rather different. It is possible that the distance of a generation and, no less, the gap of six years between the times of their deaths, go a long way toward explaining Foucault’s reticence: numerous personal accounts of the epidemic’s early years testify to the difficulty of announcing then that one had AIDS, often for reasons immanently practical, yet connected to the widespread phobia surrounding AIDS.6 Arguably, Guibert’s writing about Foucault’s dying days strives to “witness to a truth” that Foucault could not, or would not, witness to himself.
- 7 Yourcenar’s 1968 novel is titled L’Œuvre au noir, referencing the first of three stages (nigredo) i (...)
- 8 Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, 97-98.
30Guibert’s choice of metaphor is nevertheless paradoxical and possibly ironic: the image of the perfect black diamond, which makes the messy details of a life impenetrable by focusing instead on the life’s work—analogous to the alchemist’s œuvre au noir, to call on Marguerite Yourcenar’s title7—brings to mind Foucault’s use of a similar metaphor in a series of lectures on parrhesia, a Greek term translatable as ‘speaking truthfully’, or, indeed, as ‘witnessing to a truth’. In one of these lectures, Foucault brings up the notion of the alchemist’s transformative work, whose object was the discovery of basanos, the philosopher’s stone, alleged to be black in color.8
31A black diamond sounds like an oxymoron because diamonds are prototypically transparent. Black diamonds, called carbonados, are relatively anomalous, and their genesis is a matter of debate. Although they are often luminescent, black diamonds are known to be more porous than other kinds of diamonds, and their pores often contain crustal inclusions. Black diamonds are thus deeply ambiguous objects suggestive of both darkness and light, and of purity as well as contamination.
32With the image of the polished black diamond, Guibert appears to invoke Foucault’s own metaphor for speaking truthfully and to reflect it back at his friend in an apparent attempt to justify the betrayal of trust which consists in his clandestine note-keeping on Foucault’s final days. At the same time, in recognition of Foucault’s objections to, and seeming abjection of, self-avowal, Guibert is apologetic about the inevitable inadequacies of a biographical account, whose inclusion of incidental detail inevitably mars the impression of perfection contained in the figure of the polished black diamond. The perfect diamond’s blackness is also readable as a void, suggesting that there may be no secret lurking within, and nothing to be uncovered, so that any attempts at elucidation, such as by supplying biographical details, are merely a nuisance, and bear no significant relation to the object being investigated.
33Guibert’s position is paradoxical, as he simultaneously advocates the need to provide a truthful account of one’s life, or of another’s life, in the sense of giving testimony, and yet puts the validity of such testimony in question by noting that to speak truthfully about a life is necessarily to speak in a riddle spiked with inexactitudes, “a real conundrum chock-full of errors from end to end.” He thus points to an epistemological limitation frustrating the desire to deploy and to receive testimony at face value, and suggests that this desire depends on its own forgetfulness about the discourse of testimony as inevitably ambiguous. The tension between the demand for testimony as a discourse of avowal and the acknowledgement of testimony’s unavoidable inadequacy parallels de Man’s deconstructionist discussion of autobiography as relying on the figure of prosopopeia, which exposes the writing’s fiction of address, and hence its implication of avowal, as an effect of linguistic troping.
34In Guibert’s reflection on the need for testimony and the simultaneous distrust of its epistemological efficacy, the perfect black diamond, enclosed and impenetrable, evokes a death mask whose beauty lies in its expression of imperturbable calm, suffused as it seems with the authority of the completed work, biographical or otherwise. But there is also the little matter of “witnessing to a truth,” which disrupts the diamond’s perfection by reintroducing the comparative messiness of what transpired, or more precisely, what is recalled by the witness. This disruptive testimonial impulse is like noting a fault, a crack perhaps, defacing the diamond’s surface which, however minor, alters the appearance of the whole and diminishes the sense of its perfection. Such biographical detail, imagined here as threatening because of its disruptive potential, must be seen as an instance of the mise en abîme, the figure in which a part that is otherwise of little significance—a mere crack on the work’s surface—is capable of shedding a new light on the work and seems even to contain the work’s meaning, which it pretends to thematize.
35The mise en abîme and the prosopopeia share a connection in the realm of life writing, which hinges on bringing an air of authenticity to a narrative whose coherence depends on making a more or less clearly articulated point about a life. The problem is that whatever produces the effect of an account’s authenticity will likely be pitted against its coherence. In other words, the feeling of the authentic is often produced through a disruption of some expectation that the narrative has already formed, in particular about the narrative voice. Under this logic, Thompson’s gothic scenes have an authentic flavor because they spin out of control of his stencilizing Jungian approach, and seem revelatory by virtue of the intellectual discrepancy which they introduce. The irony, of course, is that Thompson seems unaware of this disruption to his train of thought. And yet, these gothic scenes are places in which a crack on the surface of his narrative allows us a glimpse of a central subject-matter which that narrative fails explicitly to address. They result in a disruption of the coherence of the whole and this disruption offers up an alternative prospect, making it apparent how the narrative possesses more than one order of coherence; these disparate orders might be dubbed the conscious one and the unconscious one. Thompson’s gothic scenes, discussed above as symptomatic, are thus readable as his account’s mise en abîme.
36They also illustrate the logic of prosopopeia, wherein the fiction of address—the fiction of an actual voice addressing the reader—is revealed to be an effect of linguistic troping: Thompson speaks to us not only where he knows he does, but also where he does not know. These latter parts—the gothic parts in which his unconscious speech spills out—enable us to see both the artifice and the limitation inherent in the former. In such fashion, divergent tropes of truth-telling come to be at odds with one another, creating what Guibert calls a veritable riddle that is typical of a biographical account, and which is synonymous with the mise en abîme because both entail the interruption of a deceptively coherent whole by a detail capable of twisting the work’s meaning and thereby exposing the troping artifice used to produce the effect of this coherence. This is also to say that de Man’s discussion of prosopopeia is closely related to the mise en abîme because it puts forth an analogous logic wherein the coherence characteristic of the fiction of address—with its implication of avowal, and hence of the authentic voice—is disrupted by a rhetorical detail which exposes the address as fictional, that is, a product of linguistic troping.
37Guibert’s choice of genre—his use of the autobiographical novel, or autofiction—corresponds to his focus on the manner in which linguistic troping is an inseparable aspect of avowal. Compared with Thompson’s Gay Body, the instances of the mise en abîme and of prosopopeia in À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie are better integrated into the work’s logic: they illustrate its composition rather than symptomatically indicate its hidden motives. Indeed, much in Guibert’s novel supports the assumption of a deconstructionist intent, implied by the ostensible deployment of the mise en abîme and prosopopeia. Guibert puts in place a constellation of positions that are mutually antagonistic, which pertain to candidness, biographical accuracy, and the very possibility of giving an account of one’s self. These positions are embodied by a range of characters. Thus, Muzil’s unwillingness to have his biographical details broadcast, including especially that his terminal illness was AIDS, represents a conflicted position vis-à-vis witnessing to a truth about oneself. Bill, another friend of the narrator’s, embodies a position that demands to be critically read as heroic. This position comes up short of the expectation it sets up as Bill lures the narrator with the prospect, which turns out to be unfounded, of enrolling him in an experimental drug trial that would provide access to effective AIDS medication. Bill’s failed promise of a cure for AIDS is based in his wish to dole this cure out to others so as to win their admiration and collect tokens of gratitude in return.
38The narrator’s final disillusionment with Bill is articulated as a comment about their different views on what constitutes a truth about oneself:
Just as AIDS will have been my paradigm in my project of self-revelation and the expression of the inexpressible, AIDS will prove to be the perfect model for the secret of Bill’s entire life. (To the Friend… 228)
39On the one hand, the narrator sees AIDS as a “paradigm in [his] project of self-revelation,” which he takes to be a project of self-divestment (“dévoilement de soi”, Guibert 264), leading not to the revelation of a secret but to a paradoxical “expression of the inexpressible.” On the other, Bill’s heroic stance causes him to mistake AIDS for the paragon (“parangon,” Guibert 264), i.e., “the perfect model,” of the secret of his life. Bill’s position is thus closest to Thompson’s investment in a gothic-like secret that needs uncovering, while it also calls to mind the hypothesized perfection implied by the image of a flawless stone. The distinction made here between paradigm and paragon (paradigme / parangon), emphasized by these words’ para-homophony, corresponds to the two-tiered logic of prosopopeia and of the mise en abîme. The illusory effect of the completed image and of vocal control which suggests address are dismantled because a detail thematizing these effects simultaneously gives away the illusion, as parangon slips into paradigme. Explicit articulation of the alternative—its thematization—reveals the constructed character of the discourse of completeness. By the same token, the mise en abîme (the instance in which the work’s compositional logic is thematized) emerges as a figure of deconstructionist reading: both a paragon of the work’s imaginary completeness and a paradigm in the project of its self-divestiture.
40In a striking scene in which the narrator glimpses a mirror reflection of his face, emaciated and skeleton-like, which nonetheless looks beautiful to him, he comprehends his self-recognition as analogous to reading insofar as it depends on adopting a particular paradigm, or protocol, of seeing.
I saw myself at that moment in a mirror, and thought I looked extraordinarily handsome, when for months I’d been seeing nothing more in my reflection than a skeleton. I’d just discovered something : in the end, I would’ve had to get used to this cadaverous face that the mirror invariably shows me, as it already belongs no longer to me but to my corpse, and I would’ve had to succeed, as the height or the renunciation of narcissism, in loving it. (To the Friend… 223)
41Guibert’s autobiographical narrator appears to be attracted to his self-reflection because, in his view, the image contains a hint of his own decomposition, a process accelerated by his illness. But this is also to say that the image, in reflecting the narrator’s desultory condition, points to its own transitory and precarious status. By thus emphasizing the always already progressing decomposition of body and image, the image signals that it has been assembled in a particular way, and that it relies on this composition for its integrity, not unlike the body to which it refers.
42By a reverse logic, the image may be de-composed, or taken apart, in an act of perception, even if the glimpsed body’s physical state were to remain intact. In effect, looking at his mirror reflection—his momentary death portrait—Guibert’s narrator recognizes that decomposition is always present in life’s representation because it is an aspect of the artifice which goes into the making of a portrait. Artifice is intrinsic to image-making, as it creates the illusion of one’s appearance and is therefore a necessary condition of being rendered visible. But because it, too, is visible, artifice entails its own inevitable undoing, and so the art of portraiture puts forth death in the midst of life. The logic is analogous to the earlier discussion of prosopopeia and of the mise en abîme. The manner of composing portraiture—including only in the mind’s eye, as in the scene of the mirror reflection—is also a manner of the image’s speculative decomposition, much like troping underlies prosopopeia’s fiction of address. Explicit thematization of this effect in the scene of the narrator gazing at his mirror reflection makes that scene a mise en abîme for the novel’s concern with representing decay due to rapidly progressing illness; the scene points to Guibert’s protocol of describing the intertwining of life and death.
43Recognition of the intrinsic connection between death, gaze, and writing by Guibert’s fictionalized autobiographical narrator (and by Guibert the writer) does not imply an investment in intellectual stasis, such as might be manifested by proposing substantive answers to questions about the self. The difference in this respect is notable between À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie and Gay Body because in the latter case the Jungian categories, however descriptive of a processual model of the psyche, are deployed to lend intellectual stability to the changes portrayed. Thompson’s autobiographical self knows what he is headed for, or at least he thinks he does. He may be undergoing change, but that change is presumed to follow a predetermined course, and this suggests existential, as well as intellectual, stasis. Guibert’s narrator may know that he is headed for death, particularly in the scene in which he glimpses his pale, emaciated face in a mirror, but he does not keep in mind some ideal key with which to unlock the presumed mystery of his life and death. On the contrary, he thinks that such a key is likely to be a sham, as his disapproval of Bill’s heroics makes apparent.
44Guibert’s narrator’s awareness of the constructed nature of his self-perception is not a merely intellectual point. It has powerful emotional ramifications that hinge on the relationship, implicit in the scene of the mirror reflection, between shame’s proximity to death and interested self-regard’s proximity to love. In particular, shame is analogous to death because it entails a threat to the self. The gaze, also when directed at oneself, is capable of producing a reaction of shame, especially when it is read as communicating disapproval. The loss of face which occurs in an instance of shame is death-like because the self experiences itself as both unworthy and incapable of going on, as though it were already dead. By contrast, looking at oneself or at another with interest—especially with erotic interest, as the narrator looks at himself—is the exact opposite of the gaze that shames, and is therefore a powerful counter to the shame-inducing power of the gaze. Guibert’s narrator recognizes this power of erotic interest to check, and perhaps resignify, the shaming gaze. In acknowledging that his mirror reflection indexes his physical decomposition, he recognizes that the effect is a matter of a particular composition of his self-image, one potentially colored by the stigmatization of AIDS and its shame-inducing powers, and is consequently able to re-compose this self-image with the gesture of finding himself interesting, and even erotically appealing.
45His paradoxical self-recognition does not diminish his sense of being immersed in the realities of his life, nor does it produce an anesthetic effect, except perhaps as an antidote to some pangs of nostalgia over his own wasting away—a nostalgia to which he refuses to succumb—because his sobering gaze in the mirror leads him to embrace his own decomposition as unexpectedly erotic. The narrator becomes emotionally engaged when gazing at himself in the mirror because his gaze is an exercise in self-love. He comprehends that seeing his own face as though it belonged to one already dead, that is, to himself as already deceased, is “the height or the renunciation of narcissism.” Whereas Thompson requires a theoretical lens through which to see both himself and Kirk, Guibert’s narrator eschews such stencilizing props, replacing them, on the one hand, with interest in himself and in his friends, who are also affected by AIDS, and on the other, with a readiness to embrace an intellectually paradoxical stance. His open-minded interest refuses narrowing schemata and bespeaks a readiness to think about himself and others without a generalizing hypothesis.
46In Guibert’s book, looking at another with interest is a form of love, and that love is tantamount to witnessing. His narrator deploys this very logic in his regard of Muzil, whose witness he becomes, attempting to weigh the power of his own witnessing gaze to express his interest in his dying friend versus its power to inadvertently embarrass that friend’s legacy by too much prying. The narrator adopts the witnessing gaze also in his regard of himself, motivated by an erotic self-interest. Witnessing and love are thus synonymous, and they are both motivated by interest, whose connotations for Guibert are erotic, in however broad a sense. One could say that his self-interest is erotic because it is audacious, and that it is audacious because it goes against the grain of some common expectation of what self-interest should be, such as the heroic self-image entertained by Bill. It is audacious also because it effectively counters the shaming gaze of censure, to which Muzil may have succumbed, by addressing the circumstance of AIDS.
- 9 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity. Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” A revised versio (...)
47In Silvan Tomkins’s writings on shame and in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s discussion of this affect, shame is experienced as an interruption of another, pleasurable affect. The prototypical situation for the shame mechanism is the infant’s mistaking of its caretaker’s averted gaze for an expression of a break in the love that was being communicated to the infant. When this interruption occurs, shame encompasses the whole of one’s self—different in this respect from guilt, which pertains to a particular transgression—and feels, however momentarily, before another affective process can take over, as if the very self were dead. As Sedgwick argues in her essay on Henry James and shame performativity, an expression of interest, whether in another person or in oneself, including in one’s own younger self, is a way of coping with shame.9 Recognition of the shamed self interrupts the experience of shame because it directs interest at that self, making it feel that it is worthy of interest after all. Although the affect shame is thus conceptualized as universal rather than pertaining to any one stigmatized group, it is clear that stigmatization, as in the case of both homophobia and AIDS-phobia, can multiply the occasions on which one is exposed to the shaming words and the shaming gaze of others.
48Although Guibert does not engage questions of shame and stigmatization—what Thompson refers to as the shadow—quite so explicitly as Thompson does, they play a key part in his novel, especially in the range of reactions to AIDS he puts forth, including Muzil’s, Bill’s, and his own. It is clear that Thompson and Guibert adopt divergent strategies of coping with the shaming gaze of others and with the internalized gaze of shame, always easily provoked by the acts of introspection and self-exposure which life writing implies. Thompson, on the one hand, relies on Jungian language to speak about the shadow, and advocates confronting it. However, his narrative slides from the clarity of his recommendation to the relative opacity with which his personal experience is described. In particular, his expectation of a substantive answer to the postulated riddle of self-identity appears to conjure up occultist and even gothic moments which pass unrecognized as such in his narrative. They are consequently readable as manifestations of his writerly unconscious. Guibert, on the other hand, adopts a protocol based on witnessing that is readable as a form of love, including self-love, and which demands to be seen as a counter to the shaming gaze of others and to one’s own censuring self-regard. His writing is driven not by a substantive goal but by an open-ended protocol based in broadly erotic interest.
49Guibert’s autobiographical novel ends with a refutation of Bill’s controlling friendship and, by extension, of the promise of a heroic resolution to the problem of identity. The narrator allows himself to be driven by his interest instead. He concludes that he has sunk sufficiently deep into somberness and merde to have rediscovered, in the weakness of his ailing muscles, that his legs and arms are those of a child—this after having professed both his love of youth and his conviction that adolescence is a form of sickness: “Adolescence is a sickness…. I adore youth.” (To the Friend… 202) His self-interest is thus based on an apparent contradiction, eschewing the possibility of a unifying intellectual framework other than one rooted in paradox. The tension between these discordant declarations about youth as an object of fascination and youth as abject weakness—which the narrator appears to associate with his own physical deterioration, even as he finds this condition strangely alluring—restages the paradox of witnessing in which interest, a form of love, battles against revulsion and shame.
50These contradictions in Guibert’s fictionalized self-account demand to be read as a specifically writerly mode of recognizing that self-revelation through life writing is a project of witnessing that needs to be grasped in terms of discursive protocols governed by erotic interest rather than oriented toward a final epiphany. The key metaphor on the book’s last page is the self-reflexive one of the mise en abîme: “La mise en abîme de mon livre se referme sur moi” (Guibert, 284) / “My book is closing in on me” (To the Friend… 246). Guibert’s self-referential coda, itself a mise en abîme for his autofiction’s manner of identifying the writing with the man and of simultaneously putting that identification in question, points to the two-way logic of prosopopeia as the fiction of address. The coda is also readable as a moment of extreme and apparently unpleasant self-awareness, which has the effect of pushing the narrator back into a childlike state. It is, in other words, readable as the shame of self-absorption, implicit also in the earlier hesitation between “the height or the renunciation of narcissism.” Such self-absorption is intimately linked to a project of self-witnessing in which Guibert is engaged. Looking at oneself is both a potential cause for shame, a form of nombrilisme, or navel gazing, that might appear odious to an outside observer and even to oneself, and a potential antidote to shame because it substitutes interest for the more likely reaction of turning away in revulsion.
51By writing about this two-way logic, Guibert extends the potential circle of witnesses, reminding his readers that we all share “the same fate in death,” not least by the experiences of shame and stigmatization, which means in turn that we can be one another’s witnesses. Although this reading arguably marks À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie as at least somewhat didactic, its pedagogy is noticeably different from Thompson’s in Gay Body. While Thompson’s solution to mental pain, which he sees as caused by shame and stigmatization, is a prescriptive application of Jungian teachings about facing one’s shadow, Guibert’s solution is the more paradoxical one of following a protocol of self-divestment based on intuitive interest, as he demurs from adopting an overall theoretical frame. Moreover, contrasted with Guibert’s adoption of erotic self-interest as a protocol deployed vis-à-vis the possibility of revulsion and shame, Thompson’s treatment of shame as Jungian shadow remains unconvincing because he fails to examine the most specific site for his own feelings of unease, which are connected to his sibling rivalry with Kirk.
52Both strategies are formally reflected in the writings themselves. However, Thompson and Guibert differ once again in the manner in which this self-reflection occurs in their work. In Thompson’s Gay Body, the occasional use of gothic aesthetic, vaguely linked to occultism, reads as an unconscious manifestation of the author’s unacknowledged encounter with his shadow. Although these moments in the narrative assume the function of the mise en abîme, their deployment seems unintended. In À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, the mise en abîme occupies a more central position. Its paradoxical status underlines Guibert’s distrust of a theoretical solution to questions posed in life writing and elucidates the adoption of a writerly protocol governed by interest rather than by a specific end point.