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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 746-750

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Review Essay

Writing and Witnessing in the Age of AIDS

Lawrence R. Schehr

Ross Chambers. Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998. xii +145 pp.
Ralph Sarkonak. Angelic Echoes: Hervé Guibert and Company. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000. xiv + 311 pp.

In AIDS narratives, Ross Chambers tells us in his poignant and powerful analysis, the "whole crux" (2) of the narrative is that "I am dying" eventually, really, truly means "I am dead." The tell-tale text religiously and inexorably beats a tattoo—adumbrated by Donne, Hemingway, and Derrida—as we know that the author is, or is about to be dead. Any reader of an AIDS narrative might well ask if this will be the last chapter of the narrative? Will there be another? We are invariably, in such narratives, always on the penultimate page, a page that gets its narrative authority from the truth and sincerity of the situation, but also, and more radically, from "the actual death of an actual author—an event on which the transformation of 'I am dying' into "'I" is dead' hinges" (4). Indeed, authority cannot be challenged in such cases as AIDS narratives are like "last 'wills' and 'testaments'" (4) or the famous deathbed confessions on which so many lesser narratives often hinge. [End Page 746]

AIDS narratives are a specific and singular kind of witnessing narrative that "challenge some conventional understandings of both the diary form and the genre of autobiography." Since such diaries, Chambers points out, are "explicitly and openly conceived with a view to publication" the traditional divide between public and private discourses is not simply altered but put into question. As far as the autobiographical genre is concerned, the AIDS narrative makes more of the witnessing than "the memorializing function" (5).Chambers immediately recognizes the rhetoric of inscription of the self within the textual form here, for he questions a perspective that depends on classic examples of the genre, such the autobiographies of Augustine or Rousseau. While AIDS narratives produce changes in the genre of autobiography, they also, Chambers reminds us, are themselves inscribed in a political context. Most AIDS narratives have "middle-class, white, gay males" (18) as their authors, implying that the rhetorical author and subject are also members of that set. There are examples, of course, of subjects who do not, for one reason or another, fit into that category: Chambers mentions here David Wojnarowicz, who made the nightmare of "underdevelopment, poverty, prejudice, moralism, and homophobia [. . .] his literary territory" (17-18). Yet the generalizing function that happens through the publication of most of these narratives, cannot fail to have an effect on readers. The latter are lulled, perhaps, into believing who is and who is not a witness. Simultaneously, that same generalizing function feeds into a receptive attitude on the part of what Chambers calls "the homophobic and indifferent majority" (21).

Chambers's book is an incredibly wealthy one. He theorizes the AIDS diary in general and considers the consequences of that theorization. In addition, he provides three cogent, elegant, subtle readings. Chambers first examines what one might call the performative rhetoric of Hervé Guibert's film La Pudeur ou l'impudeur [Shame and Shamelessness], what Chambers calls a "video AIDS diary" (35). Guibert made the film during the same relatively short period toward the end of his life during which he produced his various AIDS diaries, narratives, and autofictions, the best known of which is A l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie [To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life]. Chambers's reading focuses on the rhetoric of the inscribed image and the ways in which images both magnify and impoverish the situation of witnessing. Chambers also [End Page 747] devotes a chapter to Silverlake Life: The View from Here, Tom Joslin's 1993 video documenting his own final struggles in living with and dying from AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses. For Chambers, this video marks...


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