Taking leave

Mark Edmundson

  • Borrowed Time by Paul Monette
    Collins Harvill, 342 pp, £12.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 00 271057 9

Walking now in certain parts of large American cities, you encounter a common sight, a group of men, obviously gay, moving in a sort of protective cluster through the crowd. In the middle of the group is one man who is obviously very, very sick. His friends will not let anyone get too close, but not because he presents an immediate danger to the passers-by. It is the man with Aids who is actually imperilled in a crowd. Catching a simple cold, or any of dozens of other infections the healthy body shrugs off, can kill him.

Aids has been a part of gay life in America since 1981 (it now appears that intravenous drug-users were dying of diseases related to the syndrome in the mid-Seventies, though no one much noticed), and the epidemic has transformed every major city’s gay district. Many of the bars and bathhouses are closed; the restaurants have begun to cater to members of what the Government, in its communiqués on Aids, has taken to calling ‘the general population’; fewer men are out cruising for likely strangers. These districts used to have the feel of thriving ethnic neighbourhoods. Those who remain in them seem more subdued, almost assimilated. But as one reads through the now copious gay writing on Aids, it becomes apparent that it’s not only the outer life that’s changed. The Aids epidemic and the way ‘mainstream’ America has responded to it have provoked a mixture of dread, anger and grief in many, if not most, gay people.

Borrowed Time is Paul Monette’s elegy for his lover, Roger Horwitz, who died of illnesses stemming from Aids on 22 October 1986, and though the book contains its complement of anger and fear, it is chiefly a labour of grief. Monette pursues a pair of related objectives. He struggles, first, to record every critical moment of his lover’s illness and of the life they shared before Roger became ill. The human wish behind this activity is paradoxical, both to preserve and to distance the past. And, like every elegy, Borrowed Time is about the search for a language that is adequate to the particular loss.

When Monette and Horwitz met in Boston in 1974, important changes were taking place in gay life in America. Both men were born in the Forties, and grew up in a culture that was virulently homophobic: America seemed unwilling to accept men who deviated more than a little from the box-shouldered heterosexual norm. Perhaps the events of the Sixties made society more receptive to human difference, though it’s hard to imagine many members of the ‘counter-culture’ subscribing, for example, to the gay shibboleth that we’re all perpetually dressed in drag. (That is, we use clothes and manner to fabricate a conventional gender identity that’s inconsistent with the shifting, unconventional nature of our individual desires.) What did matter was the political power gays acquired in cities like New York and San Francisco. By 1977, the Castro district of San Francisco had chosen Harvey Milk for the City Board of Supervisors, making him the country’s first openly gay elected official. When a State Senator named John Briggs introduced an amendment that would have prevented gays from teaching in the California public schools, a grass-roots movement, led by Milk, rose and defeated the Bill by a two-to-one majority. Gay power was at its high-water mark. It was around that time that Monette and Horwitz moved west, to Los Angeles, where gays had won a measure of respect – if never quite benevolent acceptance – for themselves. The two men succeeded professionally: Roger opened up a private law practice; Paul sold his novels and wrote screenplays for the major studios. In the midst of numerous distractions and threats, they kept their relationship intact.

In February of 1985, Roger got sick. He had flu that wouldn’t disappear – fevers, congestion, sweats. The gay community in Los Angeles was far behind San Francisco and New York in what it knew about Aids, and most of the available evidence met, as Monette frequently says, with vigorous forms of denial. Gays in America, as in England, have had the responsibility of educating themselves: though various official sources continually remind us that Aids is ‘the gay disease’, no government education programmes for young people have been aimed at the gay audience in either country. It is said that brochures about Aids had to be smuggled into England from America in diplomatic pouches, so that they would not be confiscated as pornography.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is the result of infection by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a virus which attacks the T-4 or T-Helper cells. The function of these cells is not directly to fight infection, but to convey information to other cells, allowing them to create the appropriate antibodies to resist the threat at hand. When the T-4 cells stop working, the body becomes easy prey to a variety of opportunistic infections, the most common of which, in Western nations, are Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer of the skin, and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. HIV is infectious, rather than contagious: it can be transmitted only through the reception of infected bodily fluids and not through everyday or ‘casual’ contact. Since 1985, it’s been possible to detect the presence of HIV antibodies in blood, so, in the rich Western nations at least, there is no longer a large danger of contracting Aids from transfusion. HIV can persist in the body for a long time – up to nine years is the current estimate – before Aids develops. There is, though, no proof so far that everyone who is HIV positive will necessarily acquire the syndrome. Still, the long latency period means that even though people have begun to change their behaviour rather dramatically, new cases are still appearing daily. By the time Roger got his tenacious flu in 1985, Aids was already an epidemic in New York and San Francisco, and things have only grown worse with time.

Even at this rather early moment in its progress, Aids – or the ways that Aids has been publically represented – has already had some disconcerting political effects. There has been a tendency, even in some ‘enlightened’ accounts, to talk, not about high-risk acts, but about high-risk groups: gays, drug-users, prostitutes. On the other side, and in the vast majority, there lies an entity called ‘the general population’, the essential identity of whose members is supposed to put them beyond risk, at least for now. This ‘general public’ is rather diverse, but the language of Aid-speak has for some time encouraged a conception of a homogeneous mass, a pure ‘us’ against a threatening ‘them’.

Five years of subtly pervasive, us-them Aids rhetoric probably made Americans more susceptible than they would have been to a Presidential campaign that was limited, almost obsessively, to issues that directly affected the ‘general population’. The only issues that seemed to count were economic and ‘symbolic’ ones concerning the material welfare and peace of mind of the middle class: trade policies and the pledge of allegiance, yes, but not the Iran arms sale or our behaviour in Central America. Nor did the living conditions of blacks, Hispanics and the homeless end up mattering very much. Aids propaganda may have contributed something to allowing George Bush to punctuate his paeans to Reagan-era prosperity with the sickening refrain: ‘And we’re not going to let them take it away from you.’ ‘Them’ didn’t only refer to the Democrats: it also signified all of those ‘high-risk groups’, at home and abroad, who are a threat to business as usual.

What was most disturbing about the Bush-Dukakis race wasn’t so much the ‘negative campaigning’, but the ease with which American voters allowed every matter associated with persons who weren’t ‘one of us’ simply to disappear. This policy of wilful blindness has even gained some impressive judicial support. In 1986, the US Justice Department ruled that an employer may get away with firing a person with Aids if the employer can prove that he was ignorant of the medical facts, quoted in the ruling itself, which indicate that there is no known danger from Aids in the workplace. The ignorance of the powerful qualifies, in some contexts, as a form of truth.

The necessity to educate people about Aids has given the guardians of sexual morality a chance to disseminate some truths of their own. Take, for example, the Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoon depicting a man and woman in bed; over each is a thought cloud that says: ‘I hope he [she] doesn’t have Aids.’ And below the cartoon, which is quite common in the New York City subways, there’s the line: ‘You can’t live on hope.’ Aids activists like to slap a sticker on this poster that says: ‘What’s the big secret? You can protect yourself from Aids.’ Rather than dispensing information, the poster spreads fear, fear of Aids and fear of sex. The syndrome that develops from too much exposure to the official line on Aids has been dubbed ‘ADS: Acquired Dread of Sex’.

But even honourable efforts to represent the disease encounter difficulties. In Borrowed Time Monette habitually describes the Aids crisis in terms of a war, with those who have Aids and their lovers and friends cast as a group of determined and continually depleted guerrilla fighters. Two influential dramas, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William Hoffman’s As Is, compared people with Aids to the Jews suffering Nazi persecution. This comparison has the virtue of rather brutally illuminating the moral condition of those who watch the catastrophe with detachment. Yet the metaphors of combat and persecution seem to me finally to be inadequate. They personify the adversary too much, as though the virus might have motives, might feel pain or fear. Such figurations imply that ‘fighting’ the disease is a matter of the patient’s power of will, which could in turn induce unjust guilt for his ‘failure’ to hold his own. Aids is so threatening in part because there probably are no acceptable anthropomorphic images which could dramatise the danger, and thus turn humanity’s obligatory encounter with the syndrome into a heroic narrative of some sort.

One constituency that has had no trouble in representing Aids to its own satisfaction is the extreme right wing, and particularly the religious Right. Pat Buchanan, an editorial writer who enjoyed high favour in the Reagan White House, achieved some notoriety from his assertion that the ‘homosexuals’ were now reaping the reward for spilling their seed on barren ground. Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, who delivered the benediction for the session of the 1984 Republican Convention at which Reagan was re-nominated, said on one occasion that ‘when you violate moral, health and hygiene laws, you reap the whirlwind. You cannot shake your fist in God’s face and get by with it.’ The seed-spilling/unnatural act topos has been fully developed by the nation’s televangelists, a couple of whom, as recent scandals have revealed, had seed-spillings of their own to explain. Some Medieval theologians thought that one of the pleasures of paradise would be that of looking down at the damned writhing in eternal torment; and in the Age of Reason, a Sunday afternoon on the balcony of the local lunatic asylum occasionally qualified as good entertainment. The homophobic zealots can refer back to a long tradition of sanctified sadism. But it is unlikely that even the more devoted could read about the sufferings Monette chronicles in Borrowed Time with unbroken approval for the acts of their vengeful god.

Almost every infection the Immune Deficiency precipitates is itself treatable, so that Roger is incapacitated many times, only to recover to the point where he can once again go out for a walk, have dinner with friends, see a movie or a play. But then a new infection arrives, and his body, depleted from past sickness, is worn further down. The cruel rhythms of Aids derange much of our received wisdom about death from protracted illness. Usually a degenerative sickness, despite the sufferings it imposes, allows a person to take gradual leave of the world, and lets his friends and family prepare for the loss. But Aids continually makes partial restitution. Thus it compounds the sorrow of people who have learned from childhood that a sane and dignified death follows the patterns of closure they encounter in well-wrought poems or musical compositions, with their serenely contoured and allusive trailings-off into silence.

Despite all that is unprecedented about the Aids affliction, Monette and Horwitz still manage to summon large energies to fight it. They’re continually struggling: researching possible new cures; trading information with friends; pressing every doctor they know for fresh data; hustling to get into treatment programmes. Roger improves, but then a fresh infection comes on, or the side-effects from AZT (azidothymidine), the one drug that does palpably slow the progress of Aids, send him into a relapse. There is – Kafka’s epigram is brutally apt – no end of hope: Roger recovers almost completely from a case of pneumonia; he returns to his law office; he hears reports from a friend whose condition has stabilised: but every hope eventually comes to nothing. Part of Monette’s achievement in Borrowed Time lies in his making each moment in his lover’s illness a distinct one. He remembers exactly the joy they felt on the day that Roger recovered 30 per cent of his vision, or on the afternoon late in the illness when they could take a quiet swim together. And of course every loss is just as emphatically scored on the text. But the book is as affecting as it is partly because each event isn’t cast in the sombre tones of Roger’s eventual death. One experiences, though at a remove, what Monette did – vast suffering, but also isolated moments of grace and happiness.

Some assumptions about gay life would be undermined if Borrowed Time got the wide reading it deserves. The standard mythology that pictures gays as pouty, shallow and self-obsessed doesn’t come close to applying here. Two things happen to most of the gay men in the book: they contract Aids and suffer horribly from it, or they devote themselves to a friend or to friends with the syndrome. They visit, give presents, cook and clean, change dripping sheets, move bedpans, administer injections, extend comfort where they can, share sorrow when comfort would be obscene.

Monette’s portraits of friends and acquaintances seem candid, but there’s another side of the story about which he’s puzzlingly reticent. Part of what’s frightening about Aids is the expense involved in treating it. The hospital care required can, in America, which has no national health insurance, wipe out an average life’s savings in a few months. But Monette is never entirely forthright about where he and Roger find the money for treatment. Occasionally Paul does express gratitude for being upper-middle-class and having the right connections to get Roger sophisticated care. But he never pushes that perception to the point where he can reflect on the overall social and economic issues (and injustices) that are involved. Downplaying financial matters puts emphasis on the book’s ‘human drama’: it makes the story seem more ‘universal’ and ‘spiritual’, and less determined by a particular social and economic context. This ‘spiritualising technique’ is in one sense good for the book: it makes it easier for middle-class, heterosexual readers to respond to a story about gays. What’s lost in the process is the opportunity for political reflection.

Monette’s depictions of the members of the medical community are frequently as affecting as his portraits of the friends who go to such lengths to help. There are a few iced-over medical technocrats and some freshly groomed interns from the heights of the Ivy League who don’t want to get too close. But one thinks also of the nurse who rather casually tells a group of her colleagues that medical care now means dealing with Aids patients, and that anyone who can’t handle that should find a new job. There’s also Roger’s doctor Dennis Cope, to whom the book is dedicated. Cope seems to be one of those rare physicians with both technical expertise and a capacious heart. He’s capable of some acute diagnostic work, but also of crying out in grief when Roger calls and tells him that he’s lost his sight.

Yet the American medical establishment at large comes in for far less credit than do individuals like Cope. Randy Shilts’s comprehensive account of the Aids crisis, And the band played on,[*] persuasively argues that the Government, the mass media and the national medical community were slow to respond to the situation, and for the simple reason that it was gays, drug addicts and prostitutes-marginal social types – who were suffering. Aids only counted as newsworthy in the early Eighties, when the story involved risks to heterosexuals. When seven people died in 1982 from taking cyanide-laced capsules of Tylenol, a common aspirin substitute, there was an explosion of media interest. The New York Times published a story a day on the ‘Tylenol scare’ for a full month. Government agencies worked in swift concert, changing regulations, clearing the shelves of potentially contaminated drugs, chasing down the perpetrators. At the same point in time, 260 Americans had died of Aids. The Times wrote three stories on the epidemic in all of 1982: this when some doctors were predicting that Aids would wipe out tens of thousands. Speaking in front of the White House, Arthur Bennett, a person with Aids, said: ‘I think in the beginning of this whole syndrome, that they, over there, and a lot of other people said: “Let the faggots die. They’re expendable.” I wonder if it would have been 1500 Boy Scouts, what would have been done.’

Borrowed Time rarely concerns itself directly with the larger political issues that Shilts’s history engages. Monette’s book is in many ways a private meditation, a pained remembrance that the reader overhears. And yet it does have a public effect, which is to make very particular and graphic the loss entailed in the addition of one number more to the rising sum. Of all the array of persons one meets in Borrowed Time – the cast must exceed a hundred – one surely admires Horwitz most. His perseverance and stoical resolve throughout the ordeal are astonishing; it is frequently he who has to prop up Monette. At one point we find Roger – and the image is, I think, the most representative in the book – late in his illness, pulling himself out of bed and fastening on a tie, so that he can deliver on a promise and do free legal work for the Homeless Women’s Shelter.

But the subtler evidence of the dimensions of the loss perhaps derives from Monette, who seems to have been changed through the writing of the book. The prose in the first half of Borrowed Time is frequently embarrassing: people suffer ‘stabs’ of pain, they ‘bristle’ with anger, ‘bristle’ with pride. Monette can be glib and silly: ‘If laughter was therapeutic, there were days we could have cured the common cold.’ Self-indulgent: ‘Narcissus and I are not unacquainted.’ And over-dramatic: ‘You fight tough, you fight dirty, but you cannot fight dirtier than it.’ But as the book evolves, Monette comes closer and closer to a language that’s adequate to his grief. Here he describes his feelings on changing the dressing over Roger’s afflicted eye:

Finally something to do. And when you do this part you come to see there’s something nearly sacred – a word I can’t get the God out of, I know – about being a wound dresser. To be that intimate with flesh and blood, so close to the body’s ache to heal, you learn how little to take for granted, defying death in the bargain. You are an instrument and your engine is concentration. There’s not a lot of room for ego when you’re swabbing the open wound of an eye.

The stance here is humbler, more impersonal, and more honestly vulnerable to mystery, than it was earlier in the book. Only the grandiloquent ‘defying death in the bargain’ remains as a residue. Freud describes the work of mourning as the unfathomable process by which we both separate ourselves from, and change so as to resemble, the one that we have lost. At moments in its last hundred or so pages, Borrowed Time reaches the state to which every elegy aspires: it compels the reader to imagine that it’s been co-authored.

[*] And the band played on: Politics, People and the Aids Epidemic (Penguin, 1988).