After The Plague

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday January 24, 1997


WHEN the pestilence abates, if we heed Camus's warning in The Plague, we should expect not just rapture and relief, but also depression, rage and boredom - diversity, as he says, "to the point of incoherence". At the Key West writers' conference, it seems, something approaching this kind of multiplicity of reactions was indeed what we got.

Is the AIDS plague abating? It seems to be for most middle-class gay males in wealthy societies, at least in the crude sense that being diagnosed with HIV is suddenly no longer tantamount to being sentenced to death, although a Zambian truck driver, an Albanian farm worker and a host of Americans shut out of the health care system might take a bleaker view. Yet what is good news for people with massive viral loads is a mixed blessing for most of the writers at the Key West conference. Special conditions, so to speak, may no longer apply. Nor, for that matter, as some American commentators have pointed out, may they apply in society in general any more - the partial truce between heterosexuals and homosexuals may now be called off. If nature has stopped culling homosexuals, and they start behaving in that cocky, cliquish, contemptuous way of theirs again, then some men may just have to start doing all over again what some men must do.

At root, though, this conference does not appear to have deeply concerned itself with these sorts of social issues. As a literary conference it seems to have been more properly concerned with the maintenance of value when the bottom drops out of the market - with what Edmund White poetically calls "unforgettability". What everyone here wants to know is: have I written a timeless masterpiece like Ibsen's Ghosts or just one more accomplished evocation of a time and a place and way of dying? In other words (this being America) have I got a future? ("AIDS literature", whatever that might be, presumably has much the same sort of shelf-life as malaria literature, cholera literature and osteomyelitis literature - shortish as such.)

The answer is not a mystery, surely. Does anyone really need a conference to work it out? Consider for a moment Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, now nearly 100 years old. It's an old-fashioned, realistic work, with slightly creaky joints. Although it's full of characters with strong views on all sorts of social and philosophical issues - education, the environment, women, religion, the point of living, sexual morality, even a typhus epidemic - it's set in a context which ceased to exist generations ago. Yet, unpredictably, the play is in its heyday. Films have been made of it, even in Australia, and it's pulling in the crowds in theatres all over the world. Why? Because in it Chekhov has allowed us to creatively re-imagine and re-evaluate our own lives through his characters' words every time we see the play, whether or not we know or care anything about Russia's social problems in the 1890s. The fact that these problems, unresolved, produced one of this century's most cataclysmic events is irrelevant to our pleasure in watching the play. We don't go to the theatre in order to learn, although learning may be part of our enjoyment.

Has the AIDS epidemic produced any Chekhovs? Both Kramer and Kushner might be seen as contenders - their established reputations in a mass market gave them a flying start. Ultimately, of course, whether or not Normal Heart or Angels in America is "inescapable, ineradicable, unforgettable" is something no-one, not even Edmund White, can possibly predict. Perhaps like one or two of Chekhov's other works they will end up esteemed museum pieces. There are worse fates. One wonders to whom it really matters.

The works of some other writers, such as White, Armistead Maupin and David Leavitt, may well survive for the simple reason that they avoided the twin perils confronting any writer whose work has dying from a disease as a central motif: on the one hand, the turning of diseases into overwhelmingly medical discourses, and, on the other, the recruitment of artists to worthy political causes.

A few years ago Susan Sontag wrote two provocative polemics against the "lurid metaphors" crowding the "kingdom of the ill": Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. In the real world, she wrote, all those metaphors of cursing, rotting, invasion and embattlement befuddle and kill people, diverting their attention from the real causes and meanings of their disease. In some cases Sontag was undoubtedly right, but what she calls "reality" and "truth" others have seen, rightly or wrongly, as just another discourse - the biomedical one this time. It's certainly proved good for viral loads, but not so good for art.

For a start, a narrative line which is dictated by the pathology of AIDS will be more or less inflexible. Whether it arches down, as it always used to, or up, as it may now, the problem for the artist is the same. Art, awkwardly, can't exist without metaphor, not to mention ambiguity - without assigning a multitude of new meanings to simple things, without crossing one reality with another and taking pleasure in the hybrid that results. So what Thomas Mann or Turgenev could do with tuberculosis, we can rarely do with AIDS or cancer in the late 20th century. As White points out, what we're all too often left with is documenting the distressing "fatal trajectory". This is presumably the reason for the "overwhelmingly autobiographical form" in writing on AIDS - at least this leaves a little room for the kind of interpretation Susan Sontag was keen to crush.

If you're unswayed by Sontag's arguments, you may fall under the spell of the opposing argument - that it's a war zone out there, the Battle of the Discourses is under way, and, since the need for radical social action to save lives is urgent, your first duty is to turn out artistically designed messages, T-shirt art, some of it funny, some shocking, simply in order to get something done. Play the game all corporate America is playing, in other words, but win. There's nothing wrong with advertising or agitprop as such - the great museums of the world all have representative collections - it's just that, if you want to write a Death In Venice or a Death of Ivan Ilyich, not to mention a Ghosts, if you want to produce "inescapable, ineradicable, unforgettable" art, unless you're famous already, this approach probably won't work.

In the mid-'80s, to be frank, before medicine and political organisation did what they had to do, AIDS seemed to have all the right ingredients for an explosion of artistic comment on issues central to Western culture: invasion from a Dark Continent, plague, vampirism, hubris, the body as metaphor, the revenge of Nature, urban corruption, the death/sex nexus and, above all, our obsession with the victim/perpetrator problem in a world of moral uncertainty. And the narrative thrust was so operatic. Perhaps these connections between AIDS and our cultural preoccupations will outlast the epidemiological moment, as The Magic Mountain has outlasted our fascination with tuberculosis. But it's difficult to be too optimistic.

Attempts to hold onto something vivifying and enriching in art growing out of the AIDS epidemic are understandable, especially at moments such as this, but what the culture holds onto over decades will not be decided by fine feelings. Nor will honourable campaign medals guarantee longevity. Nor will a flair for language or plot. What does turn a theatrical work, a poem or a short story into an ineradicable literary landmark has at least something to do with what the culture considers "good writing". But that isn't a gay issue and doesn't seem to have been high on the Key West agenda.

In Act I of Uncle Vanya, Dr Astrov describes a horrifying week working with people dying from typhus - the filth, the stench, his own exhaustion, the kinds of living conditions which made the epidemic possible - and, after a Chekhovian pause, he asks: "Will those who come after us in one or two hundred years, those for whom we are now laying the path, will they have a good word to say about us? No, they won't." The old nanny he's talking to says: "People may not, but God will." "Thank you," Astrov replies, "that was well said."

If Nanny had spoken up at Key West in this way, she would, I'm sure, have been put firmly in her place. God, after all, neither hands out royalty cheques nor arranges residencies at tertiary institutions. Still, translated into the idiom of the 1990s, her point was not so different from the closing remark in the report from the conference: you're part of history - what more do you want? And it's worth mulling over why, although Astrov's epidemic is totally forgotten, along with all the essays and books and stories and poems that grew out of it and its thousands of real-life Astrovs, Uncle Vanya has survived, gloriously. Astrov's name is still on people's lips a hundred years after the plague. And about Chekhov, of course, they still have very good words to say indeed.

Robert Dessaix's Night Letters (Macmillan) is now in its third printing. He will speak on the panel The Australian Male: Struggling Out at the Sydney Writers' Festival today at 1.30 pm in the Mitchell Galleries at the State Library.

© 1997 Sydney Morning Herald

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