‘An Epidemic of Unknowing: Historicisation and Forgetfulness in Contemporary HIV/AIDS Popular Discourse’. Professor Richard Canning English and Creative Writing, University of Northampton Tuesday 11 th February 2014, Keele University.
‘An Epidemic of Unknowing: Historicisation and Forgetfulness in Contemporary HIV/AIDS Popular Discourse’
Professor Richard Canning
English and Creative Writing, University of Northampton
Tuesday 11th February 2014, Keele University
An exhibition last year reported startlingly similar forms of health awareness and advice three decades ago, but then again, the viral agent was, of course, only suspected in 1983:
‘“I was told not to use the Laundromat,” reports one woman... “Who cuts your hair?”, another was asked by her doctor. In June 1983, the executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association urged members to adopt a 60-day moratorium on embalming AIDS victims.’
[Edward Rothstein, ‘Five Plague Years’, New York Times, 6 June 2013]).
“I’m not happy to be HIV positive. I don’t understand why some kids git a good school and mother and father and some don’t. But Rita say forgit the WHY ME shit and git on to what’s next... One year? Five? Ten years? Maybe more if I take care of myself. Maybe a cure. Who knows, who is working on shit like that?”
I’m still in the Valley of the Shadow – as Mama would put it – but at least it’s a bigger valley these days, and the scenery has improved considerably. In my best moments I’m filled with a curious peace, an almost passable impersonation of how it used to be. Then my T cells drop suddenly or I spout a violent rash on my back or shit my best corduroys while waiting in line at the DMV, and I’m once again reminded how tenuous it all is. My life, whatever its duration, is still a lurching, lopsided contraption held together by chewing gum and baling wire.
And here’s the kicker: the longer you survive the virus, the closer you get to dying the regular way… There are plenty of ironies in this, lessons to be learned about fate and the fickleness of death and getting on with life while the getting is good but you won’t read them here. I’ve had enough lessons from this disease.
“The world before protease inhibitors is clearly The Past, emotionally for me now… It has ceased to be a continuum.”
[‘Through the looking glass’, in Edmund White (ed.), Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS (Madison, WI: Univ. Wisconsin Press, 2001), p.14]
The so-called golden era of gay life is usually said to have occurred during the 1970s, that decade of unbridled sex, set to a soundtrack of disco music; the decade leading up to AIDS, or perhaps leading down to AIDS, like a long set of steps. It is an era we have designated in retrospect, and we must ask ourselves: were the men who were part of this era aware of all their gold?
The era is said to have ended with the first case of AIDS in 1981.
However, when I gaze into my disco-mirror ball, I see that we have been looking the wrong way. The golden era actually begins in 1981, and then, not confined to the space of a decade, stretches backward like a long gold streak, far away from us, far away from disco, all the way back to antiquity. [p.6]
JEFFREY: You want to reach as many people as possible with the universal human... truth about these two characters. One of whom is a Person With Aids...
Now: Don’t. Say. Anything. Until – Okay:
Hold all my calls. Most. Americans. Hate. Gay people. They hear it’s about gay people, they won’t go.
ROBERT: What about Philadelphia?
JEFFREY: Philadelphia is a movie about a man who hates gay people, period. And it’s been done. To get people into the movie theatre, they have to think it’s going to be fun, or sensational, or some kind of – make them feel fantastic about themselves. No one. Goes to the movies. To have a bad time. Or to learn anything... No one. Is going to see. The Dying Gaul...
... Now if we make Maurice a woman with AIDS, and let’s face it, heterosexuals are getting AIDS in disastrous numbers - ... we’ll give you one million dollars for your script. With which you can go out and write four hundred new screenplays about gay men with AIDS, without, whatever is the most important to you.
[Craig Lucas, ‘The Dying Gaul’, in his The Dying Gaul and Other Screenplays (New York: Alyson, 2008), pp.19-20]
“We talked about it from the beginning,” says Poust. “But this was the first time there was going to be a gay male lead on TV. We wanted him to be healthy and happy.” While the characters often talked about safe sex, they only mentioned HIV once, when Grace went in for a test. The virus itself never made an entrance. “In real life, they would have been around HIV for 20 years, but we decided that Will and Grace should live in a fantasy world,” says Poust.
[Lucile Scott, ‘A Will & Grace-full Exit?’, Poz magazine, no.123 (May 2006)]
“... the actor, now winning plaudits in the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, explained the background to a condition that was thought to be nearly fatal when diagnosed three years ago. Asked whether he now regretted his years of smoking and drinking, usually thought to be the cause of the disease, Douglas replied: ‘No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.’ Douglas... continued: "I did worry if the stress caused by my son's incarceration didn't help trigger it. But yeah, it's a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it...”
[‘Michael Douglas on Liberace, Cannes, cancer and cunnilingus’, The Guardian, Saturday 1st June 2013]
It was around this time [June 1982] that rumors began on Castro Street about a strange guy at the Eighth and Howard bathhouse, a blond with a French accent. He would have sex with you, turn up the lights in the cubicle, and point out his Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions.
“I've got gay cancer," he'd say. "I'm going to die and so are you."
In this notorious and often critiqued essay, White turned on the use of humour in portrayals of HIV/AIDS IN sweeping terms:
“If art is to confront AIDS more honestly than the media have done, it must begin in tact, avoid humor, and end in anger.
Avoid humor because humor seems grotesquely inappropriate to the occasion. Humor puts the public (indifferent when not uneasy) on cozy terms with what is an unspeakable scandal: death. Humor domesticates terror, lays to rest misgivings that should be intensified...
... Humor suggests that AIDS is just another calamity to befall Mother Camp, whereas in truth AIDS is not one more item in a sequence, but a rupture in meaning itself. Humor, like melodrama, is an assertion of bourgeois values; it falsely suggests that AIDS is all in the family.”