Books Features

The Devastation of Normalcy

Guibert’s Cytomegalovirus stands alone. Soon after it was first published and subsequently translated into English, the text became trusted as the artful encapsulation of a particular time of AIDS. When Guibert died in 1991 his experience spoke of the Western generation hit hardest by an immunodeficiency which was then still an indisputable and untreatable death sentence. But Guibert’s writing was always more than just reportage from the trenches of a dark age, more than a captivating portrait of a bygone epidemic in Europe and the USA. It is a text that bears witness to the skillful way Guibert arranged his own illness within and against the genre of the hospital diary. Guibert’s articulated awareness of the historicity of his own experience leaps into the text’s contemporary present to ask us what kind of AIDS history we want to tell, and how we will enable voices, taken by the epidemic, to participate in its narration today.

This excellent new edition clearly marks the lasting significance of Guibert’s writing. Its publication is timely, as the persistent relevance of this ‘history of the present’ has last week acquired a new urgency. We find ourselves at the beginning of an American government whose policies might turn out all too reminiscent of Reagan’s, if not worse. In such a climate of uncertainty, AIDS history gains a renewed compulsion.

The old ACTUP slogan ‘Silence=Death’ bears witness to the pervasive effects of ignorance, silencing and formation of an unseen crisis within the governmental maintenance of a normalized status quo. But expressing pain and making suffering visible was far from Guibert’s agenda. He aimed instead to forcefully inhabit the experience of hospitalization as himself, and to assert his persona against becoming a patient. Not just a case, not merely the vessel of a disease, his voice rejects pity as much as it demands acknowledgement. He achieves this not merely through glimpses of his bodily predicament but we observe an encounter between his shameless writing ego and the disastrous, complex epidemic of AIDS. Never a victim, he wrote elsewhere of AIDS as “a disease that gave death time to live and it’s victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life” (To the friend who did not save my life, 1990).

Cytomegalovirus earns much of its brilliance through Guibert’s winding commentary of tedious procedures, his fragmented description of the medical administration of his body through nursing-as-governance, and his obsession with the technical details of vein-saving necessities such as the ‘hep-lock’ and the ‘port-a-cath.’ His meticulous attention to detail sets the text apart from raw confessional of the generic patient account, revealing instead a struggle about identity, subjectivity and historical legacy that occurred within the spatial and technical coordinates of his treatment.

This virus — the book’s title — is not forthcoming about what awaits. Combining the name of a common but nowadays rarely mentioned pathogen with the diarized report of a hospitalization does not suggest to the naïve reader — such as the clueless student Caron mentions in his foreword — a story of AIDS. Here, the text is perhaps most committed to the peculiarities of its time. 80% of the world’s population has this virus, and so such cases of hospitalization lay bare the capacity of AIDS to corrupt normalcy into devastation. Today, these opportunistic infections in cases of AIDS, such as the common cold ‘s transformation into fatality, have been relegated to the (medical) history books. Cytomegalovirus has probably returned to being a medical curiosity for many, a cousin of herpes, a familiar inhabitant of our bodies, predominantly harmless, and usually as invisible as it is insignificant.

But Guibert’s staccato description of clinical subjectification (or as M. would have said, “subjectivation”) — leaves us blind to the clinical mechanics, the medical vocabulary and the underlying details of a medical condition. His words deliberately remain on the surface of the procedures he underwent and treatment he received, which asks the reader to accept a signification of cytomegalovirus through his self-observing account. Guibert forces on readers a narrative of partiality, ignorant to diagnostics, prognostics and into a ruthlessly partisan observation of his own condition. His text has appropriated the semantic space of the opportunistic virus, building nothing short of a monument to the intruder that dared to threaten his sight and his life with AIDS.

Never just a diary, nor a confession of the patient of AIDS, resistant to the medical frame of the case study, the text seeks to define cytomegalovirus purely through impressions of protocols, technologies, practices, routines, anxieties and fatigue. Like Thomas Bernhard, with whom Guibert hoped to share an elusive “doing good” (we should not expect a tale of noble illness) when writing on the experience of disease, Guibert claimed his disease and illness as his own. He identified as a person with AIDS; he owned cytomegalovirus.

This new edition of Guibert’s seminal text is a rich contribution to this queer piece of the AIDS archive. It allows the text to resonate between a time of AIDS and the epidemic’s imagined contemporary aftermath. Fore- and afterword grant Guibert his semantic weight and raise the question, after this text has been encountered, can cytomegalovirus ever return to seem like the inconspicuous and harmless virus it once was? Or will medical definitions fail to revive a cleansed pathological object freed from its past impact and the haunting writing of Guibert?


Lukas Engelmann is a post-doctoral research associate at CRASSH, working on the visual representations of plague in North and South America. His PhD focussed on the position of AIDS in a visual history of science and medicine. His current research focuses on digital epidemiology, bubonic plague mappings, the history of fumigation in early global health and the historical comparison of the plague-driven enforcement of bacteriology in public health reasoning in North and South America.