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I didn’t bring my camera

“The day I learned that it was cytomegalovirus that had attacked my eye, alone in the outpatient room, I saw a huge black spider come out of hole in the heating ducts.”[1] The hospital scenes described by Hervé Guibert often hinge on disquieting details like this, piercing minutiae that hover between the absurdly mundane and surreally existential. Although his “hospitalization diary” spans the course of only some 22 days—September 17th to October 8th—Guibert’s rendering of those weeks feels expansively saturated with the tedious and delirious details of dying. He describes an epic clinical world populated with “heroes and villains, just like in fairy tales,” medical carts with wheels that squeak like birds in the hallways, cries of pain at night from adjacent rooms, sleeping pills that seem like amphetamines, gestures of strain and intimacy in friend’s visits and erratic phone calls and peculiar gifts (“a boxing monkey with a tender yet menacing expression”[2]), meticulous observations of the sky and changing moon from the window that opens up and closes off his hospital room from anything beyond it. “And, in the distance, Paris.”[3]

Although Guibert is often best remembered as a writer and photographer who helped give public voice to a rising HIV/AIDS epidemic in France and beyond, the title of this book marks a particular swerve. Cytomegalovirus—the sudden primacy of a secondary complication, the indignity of indirect assault, the encroaching comorbidity that unleashes a cascade of iatrogenic complications. But perhaps most jarring, for a longtime photographer and visual critic, is what it means for him to struggle with a virus that causes loss of eyesight. “Backward premonition” is the name Guibert gives to the strange fact he had long had an “obsession with eyes”[4]– not only in making images, but also in his fiction writing.

Almost a decade before Cytomegalovirus, Guibert wrote Des Aveugles, a novel loosely inspired by time he spent as a volunteer reader at the national institute for blind youth. The book was translated into English as Blindsight, the phenomenon through which blind people at times can perceive visual information that science cannot fully explain (“mysteries of the body,” [5] Guibert writes elsewhere). Its chapters feature scenes such as a visiting photographer bringing blind students into contact with cameras, leading Guibert to pen questions like “Should they not rather graft on these machines in place of their eyes?”[6] The fact that his lifelong fixation with blindness foreshadows Guibert’s onset of visual symptoms is an uncanny puzzle he keeps returning to in sorting through their significance. He even gives a copy of his earlier book to his new eye doctor in the hospital, inscribed with the dedication “Explanation of an obsession?”[7]

Blindsight is dedicated to “a dead friend,” widely thought to be Michel Foucault. Foucault also haunts Guibert’s hospitalization diary as “M,” lingering in images: “When M. was in the ICU, a few weeks before he died, they had to put a guard in front of his door even though it was closed because they caught a photographer slipping into the room to take pictures of M., unconscious.”[8] After years of himself controversially wanting to photograph others “as close to death as possible,”[9] Guibert seems in a very different place by the time he recalls this affront, proximity to mortal loss perhaps texturing an increasingly modest gravity in his descriptions. “I have the impression that there are writers who do good…and those who do evil,” he writes. “Now I’d rather belong to the first group.”[10]

Trapped in a clinical world all too much like the degrading ones he once imagined for his blind characters, appearances become central to Guibert’s ongoing fight against the hospital’s many humiliations. (And, as the moving Introduction and Afterword to this edition note, these demands of dignity have an embattled political force that manifests on the miniature scale: routine struggles against paper pillowcases, quests for real cloth towels and fresh fruit, an insistence on wearing his blue hat that the hospital staff finds superfluously stylish.) These humanizing particulars—desires that gain force precisely where they exceed mere medical survival—occasionally also spill closer to the deliberately startling sensuality that Guibert was long known for. “When I rediscover an erotic emotion, it’s like finding a bit of life while drowning in this sea of death.”[11] At times, the aesthetic sensibility that flashes through these pages feels uneasily gendered, always on edge. It’s a tension that begins even on the book’s first page, when Guibert mistakes a smear of lipstick for a wound. “They used to tell me, ‘You have beautiful eyes’ or ‘You have beautiful lips’; now, nurses tell me, “You have beautiful veins.’”[12] The embroilment of violence and beauty that Guibert spent his life exploring often permeates how he inhabits the hospital’s contradictions and lethal dangers, aesthetics taut with unresolved tension and pain. “A bursting vein could be very beautiful.”[13]

At one point, Guibert envisions a last portrait of himself: “I can picture myself in a white neck brace, a black patch over one eye if it’s done for, with a great hat. In that case, I would again agree to be photographed.”[14] When he asks his ophthalmologist whether blindness caused by cytomegalovirus will be “partial or total,” there is a photographic resonance in his original phrasing blanche, ou noire[15] – will this blindness be white or black? (It will keep changing as the condition advances, she says.) Guibert refuses a treatment that would literally depend on keeping his eyes open to meet the needle, yet there is a similar mood flickering in his writing as blindness looms (like another backward premonition, this time of death). Because the final photograph of Guibert never seems to be taken, the images we get through his eyes during this time are all the more haunting. “I see three black butterflies pass across the light source,” [16] he writes. “Silence, eyes closed. Unbearable radio. I didn’t bring my camera.”[17]

 

Notes

[1] Hervé Guibert, Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 51.

[2] Ibid, 70.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] Ibid, 39.

[5] Ibid, 61.

[6] Hervé Guibert, Blindsight (London: Quartet Books, 1995), 53.

[7] Cytomegalovirus, 67.

[8] Ibid, 58-9.

[9] Hervé Guibert, Ghost Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 139.

[10] Cytomegalovirus, 44-5.

[11] Ibid, 69.

[12] Ibid, 30.

[13] Ibid, 45.

[14] Ibid, 62.

[15] Ibid, 67.

[16] Ibid, 51.

[17] Ibid, 71.

 

Amy Moran-Thomas is a cultural and medical anthropologist, interested in questions of environmental change and specializing in ethnographic studies of science, technology, and medicine. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at MIT.


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