The Nearness of Others
Searching for Tact and Contact in the Age of HIV
Publication Year: 2014
“Funny how a gay man’s hand resting heavily on your shoulder used to say let’s fuck but now means let’s not. Funny how ostensible nearness really betrays distance sometimes.” —from The Nearness of Others
In this radical, genre-bending narrative, David Caron tells the story of his 2006 HIV diagnosis and its aftermath. On one level, The Nearness of Others is a personal account of his struggle as a gay, HIV-positive man with the constant issue of if, how, and when to disclose his status. But searching for various forms of contact eventually leads to a profound reassessment of tact as a way to live and a way to think, with our bodies and with the bodies of others.
In a series of brief, compulsively readable sections that are by turns moving and witty, Caron recounts his wary yet curious exploration of an unfamiliar medical universe at once hostile and protective as he embarks on a new life of treatment without end. He describes what it is like to live with a disease that is no longer a death sentence but continues to terrify many people as if it were. In particular, living with HIV provides an unexpected opportunity to reflect on an age of terror and war, when fear and suspicion have become the order of the day. Most of all, Caron reminds us that disclosing HIV-positive status is still far from easy, least of all in one of the many states—such as his own—that have criminalized nondisclosure and/or exposure.
Going well beyond Caron’s personal experience, The Nearness of Others examines popular culture and politics as well as literary memoirs and film to ask deeper philosophical questions about our relationships with others. Ultimately, Caron eloquently demonstrates a form of disclosure, sharing, and contact that stands against the forces working to separate us.
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
Title Page, Copyright, Quote
I Got Slim
On Wednesday, May 24, 2006, at three o’clock in the afternoon and about two hours before I was supposed to fly to Montreal for a dissertation defense and a carefully orchestrated weekend of dirty fun, in a dreary medical examination room decorated (there’s got to be a better word really . . .) with images of body parts and admonitions to quit smoking before something...
Adam Mars-Jones was wondering what the literature of AIDS should look like: “Perhaps only a customized form of the novel could adequately represent both the reality of the virus and its irrelevance, its irrelevance even to those whose lives it threatens. Imagine for instance a story interrupted by...
RB on TB
Roland Barthes once wrote this caption above a photograph of himself taken after his recovery from tuberculosis: “Sudden mutation of the body (after leaving the sanatorium): changing (or appearing to change) from slender to plump. Ever since, perpetual struggle with this body to return it to its...
All AIDS, All the Time!
I had the terrible misfortune of testing positive for HIV on the eve of the epidemic’s silver jubilee. It was indeed in early summer 1981 that the first articles appeared, describing unusual clusters of rare diseases among gay men in New York and Los Angeles. A quarter of a century later, I found myself caught in the hoopla surrounding the anniversary. Every newspaper,...
It Is Tempting to Forget
2006. Twenty-five years of AIDS.
It is tempting to forget the morning rituals, when you inspected your body for lesions that might have appeared during the night and signal that it had started....
Depression Is Crazy
For an academic to admit to being clinically depressed can be tricky, because to disclose that your mind isn’t functioning as it should is to disqualify yourself, to risk rendering irrelevant everything you do or say as a professional thinker. Depression, in fact, often feels like being raped by thoughts, monstrous, deformed thoughts. They force themselves on your ...
Depression and Life
If Buddhism is correct and all life amounts to suffering, depression can become endemic only in cultures that do not have at their core a philosophy that takes this simple truth not only into account but as a foundation. What in lands far, far away from my house makes life so livable is the serene...
Depression and Metaphor
Given a choice, I’d pick HIV over depression any day. You can live with HIV. Depression, however, feels like such a complete denial of life that it becomes a challenge to even put it into words. Imagine chronic back pain so agonizing, so crippling that when it hits, you can no longer perform some of the most basic gestures required to function in the world around you....
I recognized early on that, in certain situations, it was better to keep the chaos in my mind safely hidden. In this I was helped by previous experiences of what you might call closetedness, or just discretion. Over the years, being gay, first, and now being HIV positive have given me the required skills with which to figure out when it is better to keep quiet and how to do it....
Depression and Incongruity
Depression kicked in when it occurred to me that not only was I HIV positive but I still had to do the laundry. Having entered the world of AIDS didn’t mean that I’d abandoned the world I inhabited before—the world in which someone’s got to do the dishes and light bulbs don’t just change themselves....
Call it mulling, call it ruminating, it is a strange way to think, and a mind in darkness often convinces itself that it sees with clarity. But even though your thoughts seem to be going around and around without aim or point, they are thoughts, they are going somewhere—only they’re not taking the straightest path to get there. Yet to think in circles and in excess, to ponder...
The amount of attention I lavished on my body in the days, weeks, and months that followed the diagnosis looks, in hindsight, completely unreasonable. There was nothing I could do other than take my medications and update my vaccinations. Looking better or giving my days a semblance of order by filling them up to the brim with activities of all kinds—gardening?...
As this book moves along, it will become clearer that my actual forays into the chaos of unreason provide opportunities to rethink the Enlightenment’s concept of reason and the social order this concept has grounded. I am far from being the first scholar to do so, of course. My thinking owes much to Michel Foucault’s early work, for example, and has found inspiration more...
Thinking of Bleeding
I’m doing the dishes. There’s this really sharp knife. I don’t know, perhaps I’ve had a bit too much to drink with dinner, perhaps I’m just too eager to show the friends who, as ever, have given me such loving and unquestioning hospitality that I’m trying to help out. Blood everywhere. All over the sink, the faucet, the dirty dishes—everywhere. I freak out, of course, but they...
Kids Say the Darndest Things
By and large, people were very nice to me when I was dead, but not everyone
was so tactful.
One friend said to me: “So it is true, then. The more you sleep around the more likely you are to get it.”
“Has this made you contemplate your own mortality? ” asked a guy who obviously had issues I was wise to keep at bay. (“No, it hasn’t,” I should have...
Negative Logic and a Positive Point of View
I once complained about this last point to a friend. He’s HIV negative, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I hastened to add, “Well, this may sound unreasonable of me, but I guess it’s what you could call poz logic.” “No,” he retorted in the next breath, “it’s not a logic, it’s a point of view.” Fair enough. The conversation took place in French, and I had used the phrase...
“How Can Plain Curiosity Be Unkind? ”
asks Hanif Kureishi in My Ear at His Heart, a book in which he dives into, and exposes, his family’s archives, weaves his own text with those of others—chief among them his father’s unpublished autobiographical novels—and wonders what right he has to do such things in the name of an exciting literary experimentation whose outcome remains by definition uncertain....
Towel Stories (I)
“Where’s the towel you gave me the other day? ”
“I threw it in the wash.”
“But I hardly used it at all. It wasn’t dirty.”
“C’mon, it had blood on it, remember? ”
His expression changed all of a sudden. He lowered his beautiful dark...
Diabetes? Cholesterol? Something Else?
Hoping to reassure myself, early on, I told the nurse at the hospital that in the long run I’d rather be HIV positive than have diabetes. I tried very hard not to wonder too much what her perturbed expression actually meant, but it has left me with an uncomfortable, lingering doubt ever since. Other people, too, tried their best to sound reassuring, although it wasn’t clear...
The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over
If the AIDS crisis were over, people wouldn’t still be dying of the disease in
such high numbers.
If the AIDS crisis were over, people who have been on various combination therapies for years wouldn’t be, as is increasingly the case, in such poor physical condition....
Speaking of HIV
I talk and talk about it, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m not really saying anything. I can tell people that I am HIV positive. I can do it in person, on the phone, through e-mail, anonymously or not. I can notify sexual partners and share the news with friends and sometimes they’re the same people. I can tell how I think it happened and with whom, although...
Old Friends, New Friends
Is my HIV-positive body the same body I always had, only with HIV in it? Early on, I did feel invaded, inhabited, but no longer. Now the experience is more akin to a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. Do I have a different body, then—a body with HIV that is somehow not the same as a body without HIV? Or perhaps HIV is a supplement to my body, in the Derridean sense...
Famous Last Words
No one ever did anger quite like Barbara Stanwyck. Whether young or old, she could reduce you to a quivering mess with her stare alone. And when she talked, she could make anyone who crossed her regret the day they were born. In one of her last appearances, in...
Tough as Nail Polish
That I have turned to dead stars for solace and inspiration shouldn’t come as a surprise, for, like the heavenly bodies after which they were named, they continue to shine down on us long after they have ceased to exist. I invoke camp, an outmoded, collective way of rereading obsolete forms, in order to reclaim, through the very act of mourning it, a gay sense of community...
A friend to whom I’d shown an early draft of this book’s first few pages believed that there ought to be something therapeutic in writing about all this. There isn’t. Not that there couldn’t be, I guess, but that’s not what I’m after, that’s all. I seek no relief, long for no well-being. This is not a comforting work of self-disclosure. It isn’t about inner life but, rather, about outer surfaces....
“For reasons that are well known to them.” With the awesome swiftness of a falling ax, Joan Crawford famously cut her first two adopted children, Christina and Christopher, out of her will. What an interesting turn of phrase! How, I wonder, can something be simultaneously known and left unspoken? How does one...
From Hervé Guibert’s Hospital Diary (I)
“I will ask and ask until they give it to me.”
“Hospital is hell.”
“You have to demand respect right away, it’s exhausting.”
“Allow me, Madam—or is it Miss?—to let you know that I think you...
I was angry. It had taken me far too long to get the first appointment at the infectious diseases clinic. (Actually, HIV patients go to the internal medicine department, where, I was told beforehand, no one in the waiting area would know why I was there. “Internal medicine” is a bit like the black plastic wrapper in which...
From Hervé Guibert’s Hospital Diary (II)
“There arises, at the moment when the doctor exerts an intense suffering upon the patient, a curious feeling of love and respect that I believe to be mutual. There is something sacred to suffering. The doctor who made the patient suffer and the patient who suffered become friends of sorts, accomplices perhaps—but there’s always modesty.”...
The excruciating and tantalizing succession of stages—my primary care physician; then the nurse and social worker at the hospital; finally the AIDS doctor opening the door—evokes, to me, the narrative layering that precedes and sets up a star entrance, when, say, Lana Turner first appears all dressed in white, pausing at the door frame, as a pure image, in...
Planning is everything. On my first visit to the AIDS clinic at the hospital, and right after I was told it would be extremely unlikely that I would ever die because of HIV, I was also urged to write my last will and testament, give a trusted person power of attorney over my affairs, register a living will, and so on. To expedite matters, I was handed a pile of forms and documents...
The Dream Sequence
The sticky residue of a night?s dreams often clings to mornings and days. This phenomenon? strange, vivid dreams? is one of the best known and most curious side effects of the meds I?m on and must take at bedtime, and it can be so persistent that I have found it easier and more beneficial to my peace of mind to accept, once and for all, that the boundary between sleep ...
I Died a Thousand Deaths (All of Them Gorgeous)
The sticky residue of a night’s dreams often clings to mornings and days. This phenomenon—strange, vivid dreams—is one of the best known and most curious side effects of the meds I’m on and must take at bedtime, and it can be so persistent that I have found it easier and more beneficial to my peace of mind to accept, once and for all, that the boundary between sleep...
The New World
I cannot date with any certainty the moment I became aware that I had entered another world. This new world exists in proximity to the old world, yours, where life continues to unfold as if nothing had happened. Mine isn’t a subterranean world, however, nor is it in any way invisible if one cares to look. Rather, old and new world exist in a neighborly relationship of nearness, discordance, and discomfort. Within arm’s reach or a stone’s throw—the metaphor isn’t mine to pick....
Three Thousand Deaths in One Day
It is easy to forget, given the torrent of stupid certainties and the idiotic fervor, unabated to this day, that have followed them, that the events of September 11, 2001, were very surprising. Her voice a mere mumble, the neighbor asked me for a cigarette as we were both standing on the sidewalk that sunny Tuesday morning, so clear and luminous—a reverse omen of...
So we waited. We waited for all the other planes still in the air to land and be accounted for. We waited for the second tower to fall. We waited for the president to come out of hiding and say something. We waited to know what the hell happened and whether a war had started. We waited for the moment when we wouldn’t have to be waiting anymore....
Nearness and Neighborliness
In her testimonial writings, Charlotte Delbo, a French Resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor, repeatedly uses a specific rhetorical strategy that several critics, including myself, have commented on. Hoping to establish a relation of proximity with her readers in order to be able to transmit...
Beckoning and Appealing
We were walking in a group, laughing loudly about something or other, when, without warning, a fire station sneaked up on us near Washington Square Park. The flowers, notes, and portraits of the dead firefighters stunned us all at once into a heavy silence. The conversation picked up again after we’d left the station behind us, but the laughter sounded more forced somehow, until it died down altogether....
The feeling of slight discomfort that often greets a stranger’s beckoning stems from a breach of boundaries, perhaps even of propriety. “Why are you calling me? I don’t know you.” But when a complete stranger beckons you, he or she ceases to be a complete stranger and becomes, if not exactly an acquaintance, at least an incomplete stranger. “You don’t know me completely...
“ The memory of friends is everywhere. It pervades the city. Buildings, skylines,
corners, have holes in them—gaps;
missing persons. And if the present
is a cemetery, the future is a minefield.”
These words were written about New York and appeared in Andrew Holleran’s book of collected essays...
“I’m Going to Die, Aren’t I?”
Several years after September 11, 2001, some recordings of phone calls made to 911 by people trapped in the towers above the points of impact were made public. A woman told the operator, “I’m going to die, aren’t I? ” As I began to ask a friend of mine who was with me in New York that day if he had heard the tapes, he interrupted me with a brisk arm gesture and a mumble that meant yes, he’d heard them too but that he wasn’t going to talk...
Happy Hour at the Cox
There was Hervé, who said, “Ever since Mom left . . .” (“Depuis que Maman est partie . . .”). And there was this guy, a friend of Hervé’s whom I had never met before, or since. He had recently arrived in Paris from Bordeaux. Gay life there had changed beyond recognition, he explained, and it was time for him to leave. He added, “And there were many passings” (“Et puis...
Naked Arab Bodies
Is it because young Arab men caught America so nakedly unprepared, like an emperor with no clothes, its vulnerability exposed for the whole world to see and gawk at, that our leaders and a sizable portion of the people felt the need, in turn, to bare and humiliate Arab bodies? Is it as payback for its humiliating defeat in Algeria that the French Republic thinks it has the...
S-21 is the name at once innocuous and chilling in its efficient administrative brevity given to what used to be Phnom Penh’s Tuol Svay Prey High School. The S stands for “Security prison.” There, between 1975 and 1978, under the Khmer Rouge regime, more than seventeen thousand Cambodians were imprisoned and tortured, and those who didn’t die were hauled...
The Modernity of Torture
Our modern, Western sense of self is a matter of abstraction. The universal Man has been severed from the materiality and contingencies of his body in order to make room for a new form of citizenship. Torture, however (and this is also true of rape or racism or pathologization), seeks to reassert the fundamental exteriority of others by defining them as and with their bodies,...
The E.R. Episode
Disgust often gives a person a sense of impenetrable wholeness, hence its central role in the fear of HIV and AIDS. Years ago, something horrible happened to me at the emergency room of the University of Michigan hospital. Although what brought me there was no big deal, I realized that day that my skin wasn’t as thick as I thought it was. The barely perceptible curl...
Truth and Torture
One of the most startling things to emerge from the debates on torture during the Bush era (other than the realization that torture was an object of debate) was that information obtained under so-called enhanced interrogation techniques is known to be unreliable, since prisoners will simply say anything to make their suffering stop. Of course, Montaigne argued that very point in the sixteenth century. Closer to us, Elaine Scarry showed that...
Dining with French People
For an American academic—and I am one—to study the controversies that have taken place in France over Muslim headscarves before and after 9/11 feels a bit like landing on a distant and mysterious planet or falling down the rabbit hole into a world where everything seems to have been turned upside down and stopped making any kind of sense. I must confess my...
Encountering the Strange
For non-Muslims, the very act of coming across people they can immediately identify as Muslim, right there on the streets or in some public administration, without expecting it, bursts with affect, often of the confusing kind. In other situations, perhaps other times, similar feelings of confusion have greeted encounters with people of color or gay men holding hands...
Times Square Lost
New York and its vanished landmarks have once again crept into my memory. Perhaps because of 9/11 or perhaps because of the idea of strange encounters, I’m thinking of the old, filthy Times Square as I discovered it in the summer of 1985, with its junkies and crazies and whores. “Want some company, honey?” asked the woman who came so close that her invitation sounded like a whisper in my ear over the cacophony of the city. Back then,...
In the City and Out
The notion of civility, like its near synonym urbanity, implies that a certain level of sophistication is to be found in cities. (A French equivalent of “civil” and “urbane” would be policé, a word with similar implications, this time from a Greek rather than Latin root.) If cities are defined partly by diversity and circulation, life together may be attained there thanks only to the careful management of differences and more or less tacit rules of etiquette....
From Public Schools to Public Pools
Soon it wasn’t just French schools anymore. If the management of some (privately owned) supermarket chain decides to sell halal products or, in neighborhoods with a large Muslim clientele, not to carry pork or alcohol at all, accusations of “Islamization” or “Talibanization” start flying and the blogosphere goes wild. There were outcries when some Muslim women asked for women-only hours at public swimming pools. Surely people had...
The fact that my own body so often feels problematic to me now makes me look elsewhere for comparisons. It would be absurd to claim that everyone is a racist or a homophobe or freaked out by those who are HIV positive. Many people simply don’t care or do not in any way see difference as worthy of judgment and social exclusion. But some people do, and, at my worst, so do I....
The Falling Man
There exist many famous photos of historical trauma and human suffering. We all know the one with the small Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto, walking with his hands up, as a German soldier points a rifle at him. We have seen Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl running naked down a dirt road, her body burned by napalm. And the Vietcong fighter grimacing a second before a South Vietnamese officer shoots him in the head in Eddie...
Towel Stories (II)
He had a strange habit. He had many strange habits, in fact, and he was seeing shrinks and taking meds for that. One habit consisted of showering before coming to bed but, somehow, never drying himself completely, so that he would sit on his heels for a while, naked and wet on top of the bed, until he felt he was dry enough to get his body under the covers. How odd...
One Drop of Blood
In 1995 the Olympic star diver Greg Louganis went on television with a book to sell and a story to tell. That evening, he didn’t just reveal that he was gay, which many people, few of whom were actual rocket scientists, had suspected long before he appeared at the 1994 Gay Games, but that he had AIDS. The news wasn’t very spectacular in itself. In the world of sports...
Shame and Experience
Like so many others, I first reacted to my diagnosis with shame, which had the advantage of allowing me to experience a wholly novel situation thanks to an affective framework already well-known to me. As the queer scholar Leo Bersani has noted, “A potential sexual shame is inherent in being HIV-positive. For the overwhelming majority of HIV-positive gay men...
The Doorstep of Shame
That time in the ER I recounted earlier (a short paragraph that took me days to write), that day when I found myself facing another person’s absolute, irreversible contempt for me, illustrates what a dehumanizing force shame can be. Being an object of disgust made me feel like less than a human being, but seeing myself with someone else’s eyes allowed me to double up into more...
Forget Your Health
When you’re HIV positive you also know what it feels like to be HIV negative. You remember it. This HIV-negative, healthy body that was once yours is still somehow with you or near you but no longer you, not really. In fact, not unlike a younger age, it appears sometimes as if it were incarnated by others. Rosalyn Diprose reminds us of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s...
Disclosures and Surfaces
To disclose something is a way of relating, both in the sense of telling a story and of establishing a relation with someone else. Either way, it is a mode of being with others and therefore has to do with contact, be it accepted or denied. Whether one longs for such contact or recoils from the mere idea of it, disclosures involve surfaces. We seem to bring out to the surface what had been hiding below it. When it is an illness that one discloses, or anything...
Obama’s Disclosures, Forever Deferred
The power of disclosure to prevent contact sometimes works by demanding that a disclosure be made and, at the same time, postponing it forever. Not unlike unveiling, disclosure is a mandate that cannot be fulfilled without undoing the power of those whose project it is to demand disclosure and transparency. Like any project, this one would cease to exist once completed....
I must have said something, because he sensed it. “poz?” he asked. I typed back “yup,” wondering whether this was the right context for a virtual Gary Cooper impression. “i’m not but it’s no big deal,” he replied. “like i said i lived in sf for years so hiv isn’t new or scary to me. comes with the territory.” I can only assume that HIV must have in fact been old and boring, because I never heard back from him and never made it to his territory....
Him: “it doesn’t mean we can’t chat”
Me: “it doesn’t mean we can’t fuck”
Him: “lol true”
The chat ended soon after that.
The fucking never started.
Adventures in Online Cruising
It is surely not a surprise if laws so often mandate that one’s HIV status be disclosed before engaging in certain sexual practices, for there is something in the very act of disclosing that, in the absence of concerted attempts to the contrary, makes it nearly impossible not to see the object of the disclosure in negative terms. This is the logic of the confession, with which our...
On the Question of Barebacking, Very Briefly
Barebacking is a topic that I feel both compelled and reluctant to discuss in these pages. Compelled because so much HIV scholarship has now turned to it that it would be a mistake to dodge the issue altogether in a book such as this one; reluctant simply because I have little to say about it in the end, my opinions on the matter being as fluid, so to speak, as the practice itself....
Coda to the Story of k***
I once presented and discussed some of what precedes and some of what follows to a group of graduate students in Chicago, whose work dealt with gender and sexuality topics. Of all the instances of HIV disclosure mentioned in the text they had read ahead of time, the ones they were almost exclusively interested in were, predictably, those that occurred in sexual contexts....
A fairly young guy hit me up once, and after our e-mail conversations confirmed our mutual interest, I told him. As he had recently settled in the area, he said he was definitely interested in making friends but that sex was now out of the question. I must have been feeling particularly touchy that day, because I sent him to hell. So he turned the tables on me, telling me that he...
Reason to Exclude
The exclusion of the infected must be forceful and resolute. It must appear to be based on objective knowledge and not irrational fear, because it needs to veil the fact that, by definition, the uninfected is vulnerable—to infection. In fact, every rejection will be a reminder of that defining vulnerability and, therefore, the more you reject people with HIV the more unsafe you’ll ...
The Stories of AIDS
To disclose that one is HIV positive, especially within the logic of confession, sheds retrospective light onto what now seems to have been a narrative all along; in fact, several narratives. This is true of every kind of disclosure, of course, but I’ll limit myself to the one we’re all here for. There is the narrative of the illness, from infection to suffering to death maybe, or perhaps endless deferral in the serialized stories of what is called chronic disease....
Today, in Western countries, where effective treatments are easily available to most who need them, to disclose one’s HIV-positive status is not as easy a proposition as some may think. If “HIV is no longer a death sentence,” as the ubiquitous phrase goes, what exactly am I disclosing when I say “I’m HIV positive”? How am I disclosing it, that is, what accompanying statements are necessary? What contexts, what situations, what timing, what...
A Brief History of HIV/AIDS Disclosure
If HIV and AIDS have a history, so, logically, does their disclosure. The hypothesis may sound absurd, but if AIDS had remained completely and consistently undisclosed it would not have a history. This suggests that we cannot separate the history of AIDS from that of its disclosure and that the latter is not simply a marginal detail in the epidemic. The HIV/AIDS coming out is a genre inscribed in a chain of other, preexisting genres—the...
Soon after starting this book and under the pretext of research, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done in ages: I devoured memoirs, poetry, and works of fiction written about AIDS in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s— the darkest years of the epidemic in the West. Some of them I had read before, at the time, but the whole thing had gotten too draining emotionally,...
Look Back in Anger (When AIDS Was All the Rage)
One of the things I miss the most about early AIDS activism is anger. Today, anger has become one of the most maligned emotions, singled out of proper sociability thanks to the usual alliance of stigmatization and pathologization. In a classic case of double bind, the “angry person” finds himself or herself accused of excess and lack at the same time, of expressing too much too loudly and, also, of failing to deal maturely with the so-called real...
Sociological studies of HIV disclosure in the United States reveal how difficult this act remains for many people living with the virus. And how complex a process. The authors of one such study were surprised to hear a New York man working “in an AIDS service agency” admit that, in sexual contexts, “I tell the truth only half the time.” And they add, “Other men and women as well, in discussing the experience of being infected with HIV, ...
Where’s the Police When You Need ’Em?
Why should I miss the identity categories performed into existence by the act of coming out? Surely not just out of campy fascination with obsolete forms and genres. Early AIDS theorists had read their Foucault. We know Foucault’s critique of confession. We also know of Rancière’s definition of the police as what produces and enforces radical distinctions for the purpose...
What I Said and How I Said It
The disclosure, as I made it to close friends immediately after my diagnosis, did more than transmit a basic piece of information. It also implied: You are my friends, I am your friend, we matter to each other, and I need your support right now. It hardly felt like a disclosure at all, really; this sort of friendship doesn’t police. The statement, at the time, didn’t need to be completed...
The Purloined Letter
My friend Michael is fond of letters. He likes to write them and to receive them, which never ceases to impress his mailman in Mexico City. It was only fitting that in this case I would want to tell Michael in writing that I had tested positive for HIV. Because of the campiness of the whole enterprise, which I found ideal for HIV disclosure to a fellow homo, I also wrote ...
So Am I
I’ll move on now to a more complex example of disclosure—that of the first time I knowingly said “it” to someone who was also HIV positive. For I’m not the first person to be HIV positive. I’m finagling with my argument a little here, since I didn’t say “I’m HIV positive” that time, but rather, “So am I.” My interlocutor and I were involved in a discussion about our adventures...
My first very public instance of disclosure was at an academic conference. It wasn’t around drinks, mind you, but as part of my presentation and in front of a sizable, if very friendly, audience. That evening, a bunch of us were smoking outside the hotel when one of the boys mentioned in passing something about “taking my meds,” just like that, in the middle of a story to which the detail had no meaningful narrative connection whatsoever. In ...
The Story of the Raconteurs
OK, I’ll give you one last story, one in which things went very wrong.
As is the case with every rock concert these days, you would get to see the Raconteurs at the Fillmore in Detroit only after waiting in gender-specific lines, at the end of which you were asked to show the contents of your pockets and agree to be patted down. I didn’t mind one bit. It hadn’t...
Modes of HIV transmission are so caught up in a web of cultural taboos and fantasies that sticking to objective facts, we are told, offers the best way to manage our fears, protect ourselves, and organize our social and sexual relations. I would like to focus on this now: not, however, to illustrate how we envision our relations with others on the basis of known facts but to ...
The Battlefield of the Body
What makes Annie Ernaux’s testimonial narrative Happening so eloquent in its engagement of the complex inside–outside dynamics of disclosure is that it involves an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion, specifically a clandestine abortion taking place at a time when the procedure was illegal, stigmatized, and often dangerous. As Ernaux reconstructs not just a past...
I have no particular interest in coining critical neologisms, but the discussion
of the two types of disclosure—confession
summed up more efficiently if I do.
Disclosing does not emancipate people anymore than unveiling does, and it does not produce equality. Take the well-known conundrum of open homosexuality. Yes, coming out is a necessary, liberating gesture, but one of ...
Towel Stories (III)
Some relationships have no future, but this doesn’t mean that they have to end. Maybe all they need to do to survive is exist in a never-ending present. I grew to love his contagious slowness. Even though it was for him the result and the source of painful anguish, I saw it as a perpetual deferral, a yet-to- come that never comes. Isn’t a person’s “shortcomings” always where contact...
Intimacy in Public
The stories in most of the old AIDS books that I read while writing this one take place in cities—the usual suspects: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, but also London and, to a lesser extent, Paris—and they tend to present a specific experience of the epidemic that was, back then, organically connected to urban social dynamics. The city, in other words, doesn’t...
Accounting for Taste
The concurrent and mutually reinforcing appearance of modern sciences, the Reformation, and the gradual empowerment of the merchant class led Western culture to give birth to a new kind of Man. By “Man” I do not mean “male” but, rather, the new, universal self that was to become the centerpiece of Enlightenment philosophy grounded in secular reason. But as we know full well, the body of Man was far from abstract and universal,...
Reembodiment and Discomfort
The triumph of reason in modern Western culture has thus relied, among other complex operations, on the becoming metaphoric of the sensory. In the eighteenth century, the metaphorization of taste from the gustatory to the aesthetic and of tact from the musical to the social was one of the rhetorical tricks that allowed the Enlightenment to produce the universal Man...
Reentering the Movie Theater
The modern dichotomization of subject and object—that is, the denial that they are effects of discourse—results from the metaphorical turn I just described and is a logical outcome of the mind–body dualism. If I may, though, I’ll venture this: the collective enjoyment of bodies, our own bodies as well the bodies of others, and the social relations that stem from such...
Moving in Queer Circles
The old cruisy theaters remain ingrained in the memories of those who have written books or made films about them as unique places brought about by social oppression but where, if only for an instant, it was possible to suspend that oppression and revel in pure desire, perhaps even love. Despite the complex mingling of memory and oblivion at play here, it would be easy...
Spaces, People, and Actions (I)
Another way in which these three movies figure alternatives to modern, exclusionary modes of viewership is by diffusing their focus onto the entire theaters. Modern viewership, inherited from the Renaissance, claims to result from the perspective of the individual viewer when, in reality, it produces the liberal concept of the autonomous individual as if it had always...
The Return of Tosca (Entr’acte)
Several gay friends with whom I talked about seeing a stage performance of Tosca told me some version of the same story, and I have the strong suspicion that it has made the rounds for a while. It goes something like this: in the famous final scene, Tosca jumps to her death from the prison castle’s walls, and, naturally, there isn’t a dry gay eye in the house. In this given...
Spaces, People, and Actions (II)
All three examples devote considerable screen time to squalor and poverty, to lobbies and restrooms, to cashiers and janitors and projectionists, providing a sort of peripheral vision that doesn’t redundantly emphasize the characters’ social marginality so much as inscribe their (sex) lives in the thick of social existence. Spaces, people, and actions keep intersecting in mutually...
Again, Where Are the Police?
A scene in La chatte à deux têtes depicts a raid, and a rather routine one, I might add, judging by the police’s obvious lack of enthusiasm and the patrons’ matter-of- fact reaction to it. Three cops enter the theater with flashlights and—not a big surprise if you’ve ever heard stories about the French police—start checking the papers of men of color, looking for ...
My Contact in the Underground
With its endless corridors and steep flights of stairs the Paris metro has little mercy on the weak. My father was in his early eighties then, and he was becoming very frail, as he had been for a while. It was clear that our urban strolls were taking an increasing toll on him and would soon be a thing of the past. That day, at the same time as my father and I were making our way...
Hostile Bodies (and the People Who Love Them)
To liken oneself to a very old person was once a common trope in AIDS writing. Hervé Guibert often described the feeling that his illness had erased the gap between him and his nonagenarian great-aunt, while Gilles Barbedette, another French writer who died of the disease, titled one of his books...
Sharing: From Disclosure to Tact
Aaron Shurin’s slim volume Unbound: A Book of AIDS, published in 1997, is a collection of short pieces, written in different genres over several very bad years. In a passage from 1988, Shurin, a gay man who lives in San Francisco and, in contrast to so many of his friends and acquaintances, is HIV negative, brings together several of the strands I too am trying to weave in...
Tact and Delicacy (I)
It is worth noting that the English “tact” is often used where French speakers would use “délicatesse.” I noticed this often in translated texts, for example. But what are the differences and similarities between the two? “Tact” is also a French word. Delicacy implies fragility and precariousness, much as in the English phrase “a delicate balance,” something that threatens to come undone at the slightest touch. As for the expression “a delicate situation,” it...
“How can you of all people be writing a book about tact? ” a friend once laughed. “You’re the most tactless person I know! ” I chose to ignore the fact that the remark wasn’t exactly tactful either and retorted instead that, by definition, one doesn’t research something one already knows. The truth, though, is that tactlessness may provide a way to throw a wrench in the system, to lay bare the hypocrisy of it all and unveil the mechanics of exclusion....
To feel as sincerely as I have that my personal experience of testing positive for HIV and living with the virus couldn’t be separated from the events of 9/11 and the wars that followed doesn’t mean that it was easy for me to put these feelings in writing in the hope that someone would read them and see pertinent connections. Have I crossed a line I shouldn’t have when I likened...
Tact and Delicacy (II)
There is a wonderful moment in François Truffaut’s film Stolen Kisses (Baisers volés). In the course of the story, a young Antoine Doinel falls under the charm of Fabienne Tabard, a fabulous older woman played by the no less fabulous Delphine Seyrig. Fabienne is not only phenomenally desirable, she also happens to be married to Antoine’s employer, a racist, sexist, paranoid...
The Shower Scene
Tact always teeters on the brink of its undoing. An excess of it can be just as devastating as the lack of it. There I was, alone in the gym’s shower room, showering, when a line of people, men of course, all of them fully dressed, began to walk right by me on their way to the pool in what I gathered was some sort of business tour of the facilities. Two? Five? Ten? How many...
Tact and Delicacy (III)
For all its power to articulate social relations and maintain power structures, tact often appears tainted by its gendered association with the delicate. Does tactful persons’ reliance on intuition and immediate, that is, nonanalytic, apprehension of human relations mark them as feminine somehow? And to pose the question bluntly and narrow it a bit, is there something...
Tact, Power, and the Police (I)
“Tact,” Benjamin Disraeli is said to have said, “is the intelligence of the heart.” In our modern era, tact, not unlike grace and taste (another one of its etymological kin), is often defined as a natural elegance of the mind, unteachable and elusive. You either possess it or you don’t. The teacher in Fabienne’s story does not teach what tact is and never actually defines it....
Tact, Power, and the Police (II)
In general, one needs to exercise tact when one’s interlocutor is, in one way or another, vulnerable, when that person has failed at something and is feeling touchy about it. To feel embarrassed or ashamed is a way to acknowledge our failure and to have it confirmed by others around us. As the sociologist Erving Goffman notes, “To appear flustered, in our society at least, is considered evidence of weakness, inferiority, low status, moral guilt, defeat, and...
Tact and Contamination
Were the Nazis tactful? The question is a little disconcerting, perhaps even disturbing, but so is the novel that made me think of it, Jonathan Littell’s Kindly Ones [Les bienveillantes], a long and absorbing book about the Holocaust as told from the perspective of its Nazi narrator. I am not trying to find out whether Nazis were capable of exercising tact—or showing a lack of it—in normal social situations, that is, in those situations similar to the...
Tact and Silence
Whereas tactlessness means saying the wrong thing, one is tactful when saying the right thing means saying the wrong thing on purpose and saying it right. Sometimes, though, it means saying nothing at all, and silence too may be a form of social policing. If the phrase “It isn’t done” signals politeness, what defines tact is more like “It isn’t said.” In both cases, though, the passive voice leaves the agent conveniently unspoken, giving the impression...
Tact and Failure
For something defined by what it doesn’t say, it is amazing how many forms tact may actually take: euphemisms and understatements, parables and fabulation, silences, even deflecting speech by speaking to a third party rather than directly to the intended recipient of the tactful gesture; tact’s obliqueness, circumventing or sidestepping its object, is what makes it difficult to define and imitate. But I am focusing here on the sort described in...
Tact and Unreason
The fear of contact is both a fear of death and a fear of life. To be touched is to acquire more than a sense of one’s corporeal limits; it gives a sense of one’s finitude and end—the stuff of life. To be touched is to begin a process of undoing close to putrefaction. Indeed, the Spanish word...
The Kindness of Strangers
Sometimes, strange things happen when you open a door or you forget to close it. A gentleman caller may inadvertently catch a glimpse of a naked woman, for example. For Blanche DuBois and her young husband the consequences were just terrible. “ There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t the least bit effeminate-looking— still— that thing was there.”...
Sunday in the Park with . . . ?
The small, wooded section of New York’s Central Park known as the Rambles is a notorious cruising spot and has been so for a very long time. This is where Andrew Holleran first met O. on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the 1970s. In 1985, O. has AIDS, and the city has become a very different place. Andrew is back in town and calls on O. How, Andrew wonders, can he properly express his friendship for O.?...
The Yellow Star
The yellow star may very well be the most violent form of disclosure ever designed. When, in the early years of the AIDS crisis, the right-wing author William F. Buckley (first) proposed that HIV-positive gay men be forced by law to have their serostatus tattooed on their buttocks, the parallel with Nazi anti-Semitism wasn’t lost on activists. It should come as no surprise, then, that once again I look a few decades back for ways to make do and for...
Tact as Social Music Making
Here’s another example, from Hervé Guibert’s AIDS memoir, The Compassion Protocol (Le protocole compassionnel). One day, the narrator enters a neighborhood café where he has been a regular customer for ten years, often having a cup of coffee at the counter, even though the waiters have always seemed hostile to him, presumably out of homophobia. Hervé, ill and extremely frail, trips on the doorstep and falls to his knees, unable to muster...
A Fart Joke from Proust
The character of Charlus, like Proust, who himself owes a lot to Balzac and Flaubert before him, can sometimes turn an unforgiving eye to the faults and lapses of other human beings—or literary creations. One day, for reasons having to do with his own unacknowledged shortcomings—desire, possessiveness, jealousy, and the like—Charlus becomes infuriated by the...
Touch and Other Senses
In classical Western thought, touch is often presented as the most basic of all senses, the fertile humus, the original indifferentiation from which the others may grow and separate themselves from the rest. Touch stands as the opposite of sight that way. If the former remains firmly on the ground, the latter flies way, way up there alongside the stars. Touch is of the body, sight of the soul....
Between June 1990 and March 1991, at the request of a television producer, Hervé Guibert filmed his daily life with a camcorder. The outcome was a film titled Modesty or Immodesty (La pudeur ou l’impudeur), one that, despite its author’s best efforts, was broadcast only after his death. The film is at once moving and disturbing in many ways, as the title intimates. What...
Reentering the Movie Theater’s Restroom
I know, I know, you’ve probably had your fill of such tasteless matters, but
it’ll only take a minute, I promise.
A scene in John Rechy’s Numbers evokes the link between the old, musical meaning of Takt and the possibility of contact in the present opened up thanks to the return of the past. It gives the impression that the quest for contact had led to the rediscovery of ancient meanings, unearthed alive,...
Tact and Intimation
When Guibert describes various physical interactions between patient and health care professionals, both in his film and in his books, he touches on the question of pleasure. I say “touches” because intimacy remains mostly intimated here. Tactile interactions provide Hervé with a degree of relief and well-being, and the erotic intimation brings an opportunity to critique...
Found Objects (I): Tact and Bearing Witness as Forms of Bricolage
A quick Internet search of “tact” once yielded a curious list of other terms attached to it. I noticed that qualities thought to be directly contiguous with tact roughly fell into two categories. Some referred to deep, somewhat intangible qualities, such as wisdom, forethought, or charisma, that pertain to the tactful person’s inner ability to evaluate the situation he or she is...
Tactfulness to the Dead
Describing a certain Taoist ritual in which the immortals go through a symbolic death and burial to avoid upsetting the world of the merely living, Barthes concludes: “Admirable concern for others, pure tact: to take on the appearance of being dead so as not to shock, hurt, disconcert those who die.” This is what he calls “consideration” in both senses of the word....
Found Objects (II): Some Beauty
Hervé is on the bus one day, and he notices that the young woman sitting opposite him seems particularly agitated, unnerved by his presence. The telltale sign is that she carefully avoids looking at him, “as if she were asking herself about whether she really had the right to undertake the step she was about to make, about whether it would be interpreted as tact [délicatesse]...
Leaving the Door Open
On Wednesday, May 24, 2006, at three o’clock in the afternoon, my life unexpectedly became a huge and shocking mess. Since then, it has gradually transformed into a small, slow-burning chaos. “You should write about this,” my friend Testuya suggested the day I told him. I laughed. “What’s there to write? I’m HIV positive. It sucks. Then what?” Thinking about a chronic disease, I now feel I have written a text that is itself ill, like a mad book about...
The Unexpected Coda: May 24, 2011
Osama bin Laden is still dead and I’m still HIV positive. Lucky me. As I’m completing the first draft of my manuscript, I’m looking back on five years. I, America, and many people around the world are heading toward the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and of the invasion of Afghanistan....
In many ways unplanned (I unexpectedly found myself forced to envisage a new life when I wasn’t done messing up the old one yet), this book makes do with what’s at hand, what’s near and free for the taking. So yes, I talk about myself a lot, it’s true, and I understand that some academics find this distasteful in our line of work, but how else, I wonder, may one reflect...
About the Author
Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2014
OCLC Number: 878263692
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Nearness of Others