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(Review) How to Survive a Plague (2012), Dir. David France

 

howtosurviveaplagueIn November 2016, Knopf published David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. While I certainly intend to read the book, my nightstand is currently overflowing with volumes. In the meantime, I opted to watch France’s documentary by the same title, which preceded the book by four years and inspired its publication.

The documentary covers the period from 1987-1995. As we progress in time, a counter records the number of worldwide AIDS-related deaths from year to year:

1987: 500,000
1988: 800,000
1989: 1.2 million
1990: 1.7 million
1991: 2.4 million
1992: 3.3 million
1993: 4.7 million
1994: 6.2 million
1995: 8.2 million

It was, as Larry Kramer shouts out during an argument with fellow activists, a modern plague. AIDS remains the most deadly pandemic since the 1918 outbreak of the H1N1 “Spanish” flu, which killed up to 5 percent of the world’s population.

How to Survive a Plague tells the story of the trials and triumphs of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). In 1987, NYC Mayor Ed Koch decried the group’s “fascist” tactics (e.g., sit-ins, blocking traffic, barricading themselves at government agencies). By 1989, the group’s disruptive methods had yielded institutional recognition, given a speaking position at the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and subsequently allowed to sit on NIH research committees.

The film, which is composed primarily of archival VCR footage with no voice-overs and only occasional contemporary interviews, immerses the viewer in the events on screen. We feel the same outrage as activists when in 1989 the Catholic Church takes a doctrinaire position against the use of condoms. We feel the same sense of hopelessness when the two most common drugs for treating AIDS are proved ineffectual in 1993. A prescription for one of the bunk drugs, AZT* (a highly toxic medication that had been abandoned as a cancer treatment due to high fatality rates), had cost as much as $10,000 per year—the most expensive drug in history. Burroughs Wellcome, the manufacturer of AZT, was pulling in profits of $230 million in the late 80s.

As events proceed, a regrettably common story line for minority civil rights organizations begins to take shape: buckling under mounting frustrations over set-backs and failures, the group’s anger turns inward. In the case of ACT UP, some members felt that the group’s Treatment and Data Committee (D&T) had become too cozy with the FDA, NIH, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. They called for a six month moratorium on meetings with drug companies, which, to the members of D&T, was tantamount to quickening death. Inevitably, the group split, with the D&T becoming TAG (Treatment Action Group).

The film tells a complicated story about how best to bring about change in the face of overwhelming structural opposition. While the civil disobedience that marked the early years of ACT UP brought widespread public recognition to the plight of AIDS victims, it was when the group traded in their characteristic black t-shirts and vests for suits and parleys with those in power that demands were translated into action. ACT UP’s activism brought about accelerated FDA approval of new medications, and by giving those infected with the virus a voice in clinical trials and research committees, researchers were able to produce drugs that would halt the replication of HIV by 1996. In so doing, HIV became a chronic condition akin diabetes, one that could not be cured but effectively managed. That such a treatment could be developed in the span of 15 years stands as one of the major victories of modern medical science.

And yet, one can only wonder how many lives might have been saved had organizations like ACT UP not had to force the U.S. government to take action in the first place. Given that Ronald Reagan continues to be lionized with increasing fervor by conservatives with each passing election cycle, it seems unlikely that widespread pubic opinion will ever pass judgment on the inhumanity he showed to AIDS victims. In the minds of many among the “Moral Majority,” all the right people were dying.

*To read the shameful history of AZT, I recommend Celia Farber’s 1989 exposé for SPIN Magazine.

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Review: Alexis (1929) by Marguerite Yourcenar (Tr. Walter Kaiser)

alexisSuffering turns us into egotists, for it absorbs us completely: it is later, in the form of memory, that it teaches us compassion.

Alexis, or the Treatise of Vain Struggle, published in 1929, was Marguerite Yourcenar’s first novel. The book was not published in English translation until 1984, well after the success of Memoirs of Hadrian. It seems safe to assume this work is now largely forgotten, with copies being produced by FSG on demand (the last page indicates that my copy was printed on 29 November 2016—the date I ordered it).

In more accurate terms, the book is an epistolary novella, taking the form of an extended letter written by the title character to his estranged wife, Monique. The letter is a confession in which Alexis recounts his lifelong struggle to accept his homosexuality. The internal world that Alexis describes is one of fundamental binary oppositions (instinct vs intellect, pleasure vs. suffering, body vs. soul), making the novel an optimal text for structuralist analysis.

One fundamental question that preoccupies Alexis continues to fuel most modern debates on homosexuality: are his urges the result of nature or “external influences”? In support of the latter, he notes an unhealthy attachment to his mother and sisters in adolescence, which led to a “veneration” of women that made it impossible to love them. These conditions, he writes, certainly influenced his temptations, “yet I see clearly that one should always go back to much more intimate explanations, much more obscure ones, which we understand imperfectly because they are hidden within us.” Thus Alexis interprets his instincts as conditioned behavior, compounded by subconscious forces. In her 1963 preface, Yourcenar writes that she no longer remembers whether or not she subscribed to Alexis’s environmental view of homosexuality at the time of writing, but that she has since rejected any interpretation that situates sexual orientation within the “psychological methodology of our age.”

Any reader shocked that a book of such forthright (albeit abstract) inquiry into the nature of same-sex attraction could be published in 1929 should recall that André Gide published the last of his Corydon dialogues in 1920 (the subtitle of Alexis alludes to an earlier lyrical work of Gide, La tentative amoureuse, ou le traité du vain désirThe Attempt at Love, or the Treatise of Vain Desire). By the interwar period, homosexuality was a topic of open conversation and debate, and Yourcenar was writing in the freest atmosphere for exploring such questions since the capitulation of the Greco-Roman world to monotheism. Yourcenar writes that not only was the subject “in the air at the moment,” but that it was also in the “fabric of a life”—that is, her own life. Here one draws a comparison with the British historical novelist Mary Renault. Not only did both women feel the allure of antiquity, but each shared her life with a female partner, and each wrote a modernist novel (in Renault’s case, The Charioteer) exploring homosexuality through the eyes of a male subject.

Yourcenar herself described the prose of Alexis as “decanted language.” This austere delivery, which so perfectly channeled the voice of a fading Emperor Hadrian, feels slightly overdone in the case of Alexis. That said, the asceticism of the novel is in keeping with the essence of Yourcenar’s oeuvre: a world of melancholy stoicism in which characters express themselves not through dialog, but intense introspection. With subsequent readings, this characteristic formality does not impede emotional response, but rather enhances it. We find in Yourcenar’s philosophic prose reverence for the durability of corporeal man in the face of spiritual despair. Alexis, for his part, embraces the lessons of suffering, and praises his body, “which cured me from having a soul.”