- Without us all told":Paul Monette's Vigilant Witnessing to the AIDS Crisis
On October 22, 1986, Paul Monette's lover, Roger Horwitz, died of AIDS. "That is the only real date anymore," Monette writes, "casting its ice shadow over all the secular holidays lovers mark their calendars by."1 In the year following Roger's death, Monette, himself HIV positive and up until then known (or not known as the case may be) as a writer of rather banal novels, earnest poetry, and film novelizations, would write two works, Love Alone and Borrowed Time, that bear both personal and public witness to the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.2 Before his own death of AIDS on February 10, 1995, Monette would write two autobiographical works, Becoming a Man (1992), which describes his torturous coming-out, and Last Watch of the Night (1994), a collection of "essays too personal and otherwise," that chronicle his continued witnessing to AIDS.3 It is no small irony that AIDS both gave Monette his voice and mortally wounded him; his voice and his wound are inextricably bound to each other "as the condition of the possibility of telling" his story and the stories of others.4
The voice that emerges in Monette's writings on AIDS is an ethical voice; it is a voice of witness connected intimately to his experiences of loss, love, and mortality (his own and others). "I buy time with another story," Audre Lorde writes, but Monette understands that time cannot be bought but merely borrowed, implying a debt that casts its shadow on the future.5 Borrowed Time opens with the jarring statement, "I don't know if I will live to finish this." Monette continues:
Doubtless there's a streak of self-importance in such an assertion, but who's counting? Maybe it's just that I've watched too many sicken in a month and die by Christmas, so that a fatal sort of realism comforts me more than magic. All I know is this: The virus ticks in [End Page 112] me. And it doesn't care a whit about our categories—when is full-blown, what's AIDS-related, what is just sick and tired? No one has solved the puzzle of its timing. I take my drug from Tijuana twice a day. The very friends who tell me how vigorous I look, how well I seem, are the first to assure me of the imminent medical breakthrough. What they don't seem to understand is, I used up all my optimism keeping my friend alive. Now that he's gone, the cup of my own health is neither half full nor half empty. Just half.(1-2)
Monette did live to finish the book, but is there something more, beyond the book, that he senses he will not live to finish, that cannot be finished in language, that cannot be fully told? When he writes that, "the cup of my own health is neither half full nor half empty. Just half," Monette attempts to explain his predicament. The "just half," in Monette's formulation, resists any easy interpretation which would reduce this to a story of hope ("half full") or a story of hopelessness ("half empty"). Monette's work is about the absolute necessity of telling of death (the death of Roger in the past, the death of Paul himself in the future, and the epidemic of deaths from AIDS in the past, present, and future) as well as the impossibility of comprehending the meaning of death. In order to show the magnitude of both a single death and countless deaths, Monette returns again and again to personal and political scenes of loss, but also, importantly, to personal and political scenes of love. He explores different genres—memoir, poetry, essay, and fable—in order to find a suitable form.6 What he discovers in this exploration of form, and the reader discovers in reading his work, however, is that there is no form particularly suited to what he urgently needs to say. Rather, his work achieves its emotional poignancy through the conflict between the urgency of...