Books Features

Blindingly Bright

Does beauty exist in the eye of the beholder or in the object he beholds?

— Hervé Guibert, Blindsight (Des aveugles, 1985) trans. James Kirkup, p. 24.


CYTOMEGALOVIRUS, THE BOOK, is a beautiful object. The intense red and royal blue of the cover art, taken from Ross Bleckner’s Inheritance, echo the paradoxical aesthetics of Hervé Guibert’s perspective on the clinic where, for instance, the catastrophic spray from a carelessly ruptured artery “could be very beautiful…, a deep red ‘blood-works,’ a blood bouquet” (45). The painted forms on the cover: are they flowers or erythrocytes? Or can we not help but see them as cytomegalovirions? There is, after all, some beauty in the name. Cytomegalovirus: say it aloud. Huge cell virus, because in replicating it massively enlarges the host cells until, bloated, they explode. I like that Guibert’s diary is named after AIDS’s grandiose opportunist. Cytomegalovirus, word and book, seem to embody Guibert’s resistance to the anti-aesthetics of the clinic.

He begins by describing a woman, unconscious on a stretcher, “with a very beautiful, made-up face.” He has us see her red lips and also “something on her uncovered neck” that looks like “a wound, as if someone had tried to cut her throat.” Then he adjusts what we see: the wound, he says, “apparently turned out to be a long smear of lipstick,” but the first impression is not erased, leaving a more tenacious double imprint of wound and lipstick, blood and paint, depth and surface. As readers, we see both, just as those gorgeous objects on the cover may (apparently) end up being, but will never be only, flowers.

This book made clear to me that to write is to make readers see without their eyes. All readers (that is, listeners to the voice of the text) are effectively blind, for they depend on the writer’s words to convey what he would have us see, in much the way a sighted person might describe things to someone who cannot see them (because they are in a different room, or they happened long ago, or because cytomegalovirus has destroyed the listener’s retinas). Guibert’s entire diary is, as Todd Meyers observes, premonitory, of death, blindness, and loss, but these dark futures also map backward onto CMV (and beyond it to HIV) just as Cytomegalovirus maps back on a younger Guibert, taking a job as volunteer reader at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles and writing a novel about blindness, in which the question “Does beauty exist in the eye of the beholder or in the object he beholds?” is itself a backward premonition. A philosophy teacher asks it because he always asks his blind pupils sight-related questions, “out of stupidity rather than cruelty” (24). Guibert works out this aesthetics now, perhaps cruelly, on himself and us. Seeing is displaced onto reading and writing, such that Guibert’s willful apprehension of beauty demolishes all that is inimical about the clinic, that “enemy territory” that David Caron admits expecting to be more hostile that it is (8). A smear of lipstick opens up to Guibert—and to us, though we cannot see—the possibility of seeing the beautiful blood vessels in that throat. It is in an act of anti-clinical description.

Compare: the clinicians see beauty in Guibert, no longer in his “beautiful eyes” but in excavating deeper layers. The nurses tell him “You have beautiful veins”; on ultrasound his abdominal interior leads to exclamations—“Look at how beautiful that is!”—and to jealous efforts at recording his “truly exceptional and very rare interior configuration. We are also going to take some pictures for ourselves” (30). They autopsy Guibert, seeing for themselves before his death.

Foucault observed of Laennec’s patho-anatomical description “the extraordinary formal beauty of the text,” of this “language in pursuit of perception” (BoC, 169). The aesthetic in the clinic, for Foucault, arises in writing the invisible into sight, in the “incisive, patient, eroding language” that “offers at last to common light what is visible for all,” a visualization wrought not by seeing but by “language and death” (170). For Foucault, it is not what the autoptic gaze sees that is beautiful, but the text itself, the form by which knowledge and body are beheld without being seen. I wonder about the nurses’ image specimens of Guibert’s interior configurations. Were they framed? Do they exhibit them somewhere still?

In his introduction, Caron deplores an-aesthetic hospital art, the “faux Georgia O’Keefe pastel crap on the walls” whose inoffensive tastefulness offends taste to the point of merciful invisibility. But there is also an active anti-aesthesia, the clinical vision that subsumes desire, disgust, pleasure, agony to the numb binary of comfort/discomfort as if the aesthetic passions, flattened by clinical light, might act as foils to objectivity and efficiency. So, I was surprised by Guibert’s choice against a softer light: “personally,” he writes, “I love this leaden, blinding white neon” (34).

The obvious and inadequate reason: Guibert is losing his sight, blindness is darkness, the more light the better. Perhaps any qualification of brightness now diminishes the quantity of visibility. But Guibert acknowledges that such light is itself blinding, as light always is when turned upon the eye itself, the beholder now beheld. Of course, Guibert seeks to be seen, through and into, if by seeing the virus in his eye the doctors can thwart it. What his hospitalization diary achieves is to continue to see by writing, and make us see, even under leaden, blinding clinical light.

Guibert sees portents: “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 a hole in the heating ducts” (51). Guibert doesn’t tell us whether he saw the spider before or after his diagnosis that day. Is it just a spider (more evidence of the hospital’s insouciant filth) that he retrospectively reads as premonitory, or is it an artifact, like the three black butterflies, of a field of vision newly inhabited by shadows? Cytomegalovirus opens a recursive abyss of foresight and retrospect right up to its not-end where, in the last sentence before he stops, Guibert presents a choice: between “putting an end to it”—to life? to writing? to sight?—and ending up in anticipation. Fear is always proleptic. The writing must end before the life can. So, what else is it to “end up fearing death” than a forward memory that is the mirror image of a backward premonition?

One of the last things Guibert shows us is the second figure in his pair of patients, a young man, “sitting naked on a cart, the bottom of his body hidden by a sheet, … covered in dried blood. A white bandage at the level of his spinal column. They must have given him a spinal tap. He doesn’t want to lie down, he resists…. Everything in that body is sublime: its power, its elegance, the joint linking the arm to the shoulder….” (69). Unlike the unconscious woman with the lipstick-slashed throat, this figure is tensely at odds. Together, the two patients, sculpted in words, conjure up for me Michelangelo’s so-called slaves. There is the dying one, his white bandage, though thoracic not lumbar, pulling him into the rock, one arm jointed upward in ecstatic agony, the other exquisitely fingering his bondage. And there is the rebellious slave, torso twisted against his restraints, “arms locked behind his body,” glaring his insistence on respect. But Guibert’s supine woman and resistant man are also illuminated with red/lipstick/blood.

Seeing beauty in them (his beauty or theirs?) revivifies Guibert: “When I rediscover an erotic emotion, it’s like finding a bit of life while drowning in this [bath] of death” (69). Clara Orban translates “bain de mort” as sea of death, but I prefer the less idiomatic “bath,” which avoids the vitality of the sea, even a sea of the dead, even a sea of busy decomposition. For the clinic is a chemical bath, immersion in a leaden kind of darkroom, where images are developed or halted or reversed. When Guibert closes one eye, “the object observed is erased slowly from the bottom up, until it becomes invisible, nonexistent” (70). As if, for the blind, the world does not exist at all. But words remain.


Catherine Belling is Associate Professor of Medical Education-Medical Humanities & Bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago. Her first book, A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria (Oxford UP, 2012), won the SLSA Kendrick Book Prize, and she is currently writing a monograph with the working title Morbid and Disturbing: Horror in Medicine. She edits the journal Literature and Medicine (Johns Hopkins UP).