Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 662-664
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AIDS in French Culture: Social Ills, Literary Cures. By David Caron. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001. Pp. ix + 204. $49.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
France has the highest incidence of AIDS in Europe and, according to David Caron, has displayed a notoriously inadequate response to the epidemic. Press reports frequently assert that the government still does not gather statistics specifically on the illness. Caron undertakes the delicate and worthy task of assessing France's attitudes to AIDS victims by analyzing literary, medical, and political discourses. Though to my mind his strands of analysis do not exactly cohere into one argument, he has fascinating points to make that render his book important and well worth reading.
Caron opens with the sensational proposition that Emile Zola might be responsible for the AIDS epidemic, though he immediately dismisses it as "a slight overstatement" (15). What Caron has in mind is the eminently reasonable proposal that the ideological and rhetorical framework through which the epidemic has become known arose about a century earlier in a Third Republic filled with contention, self-doubt, and anxiety about national decline. The ubiquitous ideas about degeneracy at that time made many illnesses not simply a personal affliction but also a national problem. The author hypothesizes that the metaphorical understanding of the late-twentieth-century epidemic, structured by a concern for the cohesion of the nation and the need to reinforce cultural borders, follows a well-worn discursive pattern. [End Page 662]
This theme is pursued with vigor. However, when Caron turns to the most distinctively "French" response to AIDS and also to the cultural blinders most responsible for a tardy and halfhearted mobilization against the illness, the sociomedical discourses of the fin de siècle are not truly at the heart of his thesis. Instead, he focuses on the ways that French republican universalism has inhibited the state from recognizing communities within the nation. The contested right to be different, so much discussed in terms of North Africans who want to practice their religion in public, also plagued—literally—the gay community, according to Caron. He claims that France has not been able to identify AIDS as the scourge of gay Frenchmen because the victims had no existence as a category. Hence, the government did not get help where or when it was needed and failed to inform the public in a timely manner about the sort of dangers it was facing. The late-nineteenth-century theorists of degeneracy cannot be blamed for this failing since every republican constitution since 1791 has declared the nation "one and indivisible." Caron also notes how the gay community has reinforced widespread anxieties about globalization and Americanization—as with the charge that French gays derive too many of their symbols and behaviors from New York and San Francisco. In this way, Caron shows that the AIDS epidemic does, indeed, touch on core values of French republicanism and challenges the French to rethink their categories of perception.
The literary criticism that occupies at least half of this volume is interesting in its own right but, to my mind, does not add a great deal to the investigation of the metaphors and images through which the French came to understand (or misunderstand) AIDS. Caron first treats Zola's La Débâcle (1892) as an emblematic text. The discussion is structured around the contrast Caron finds between the Zola's quest for a masculine, scientific, and therapeutic literary style and an inadvertent "homosexual drift" (59) in the novel, as exemplified in the characters of Maurice and Jean. The author wishes to explore by this means the relation between homosexuality and modernity ("radical homosexualization [is] always already contained within modernity itself as well as modernity's built-in potential for self-destruction"). The work of Jean Genet interests Caron because this author claims the role of the infectious agent as his own. The AIDS novels of Hervé Guibert illustrate how the epidemic has contributed to the unraveling of...