- Haunted LivesAIDS and the Future of Our Past
When I read Alan Hollinghurst’s recent novel, The Line of Beauty, I was struck by its final page. The protagonist, knowing he has AIDS, asks himself if, after he has passed away, he will live on in his friends’ memories. He envisions these friends waking in the morning, a ghostly image of his face briefly crossing their minds, as they prepare to throw themselves into their daily routine; or he imagines them reading a recently published book, bemoaning, with a sadness that fades as the years pass, the fact that he did not live long enough to be able to discover its contents. The hallucinated visions of this young man who confronts the imminence of his own death while projecting into the future the presence of his own absence taught me an obvious truth about myself that perhaps had never before been so apparent to me: up to the present—alas, for a good twenty-five years, or maybe more—I have found and continue to find myself in the very situation in which the young protagonist envisions his friends as he wonders if they will remember him once he is gone. Of course, insomuch as I belong to a generation of gays who were stricken by AIDS at the very beginning of the epidemic, before we even knew its nature or how to protect ourselves or others from it, I have long considered myself to be a survivor, someone [End Page 309] who is fortunate enough to have escaped infection. Here, then, is what I take from Hollinghurst’s book, or at least what his book has helped me to formulate: my life is haunted by those whom the disease took away—by those, more precisely, whom I managed to survive. When I think about those who have passed away and who were writers, I often dream about what they would have published. I try to guess what path their work might have taken. One of my very first books, published twenty years ago, was a biography of Michel Foucault that allowed me to pay tribute to a friend who had disappeared, to his work so abruptly interrupted—and here we must think of his daunting project on the History of Sexuality, which, in a cruel twist of fate, he did not have time to complete.
Yet this goes for all those I have known—whatever their age, profession, social standing, or the degree of intimacy we shared may have been, I can affirm that they are still here with me, a part of my being, even if their faces or names come to my mind only intermittently. Gilles Deleuze liked to say that there are always several persons in each of us. It is true that one’s self is constituted by encounters, friendships, dislikes, conversations . . . and that makes for a crowded space. And it also demonstrates the fact that the self is constituted by that which the deceased have deposited in us.
I realize that what I am describing is not specific to AIDS. Such is the case with all mourning—that is to say, mourning is interminable in the strictest sense. This is how the deceased continue on in our lives. It is especially the case when a great loss involves a large number of people who had comprised the world we used to inhabit. Merleau-Ponty, in a text written immediately after the Second World War (“The War Took Place” in Sense and Non-Sense), queries what life will be like in the absence of all those who disappeared during the conflict. Not only during the brief period of feeling the pain of their disappearance but in knowing that our lives will be haunted by what all of these individuals could have been and done, and by what they will never be and never do.
I am sure, however, that there is a certain gay specificity in the community of the dead that was created by the disease whose ravages began spreading in the early 1980s, and this community of the dead haunts gay subjectivity today as well...