An epistemology of the sick and dying body
An Epistemology of the Sick and Dying Body
Derek Jarman’s final film offers the singular image of its namesake. It offers a blue that holds the viewer; a blue that submerges us in the sight-robbing light of a Yves Klein sky. To withstand the experience of Blue is to go blind, to escape “the pandemonium of image.”1 With Jarman’s urgent and hallucinatory voice guiding us, we stumble into a frenzied soundscape. The sounds of manmade time—ticking clocks, bells, and horns—flutter against the noises of rainfall, belly-up cries, and angelic coos. Sorrowful notes on a piano are made fuzzy by synthetic hums. Brian Eno’s buzzing high notes shriek until they break into low groans. We hear the shuffling steps of frail bodies. We hear the deadening drip of DHPG. We hear the drone of inadequate medical machinery. We hear the roll of ocean tides. The blue bores into us for seventy-nine minutes. We blink at it, cherishing the occasional tremor of a dusty reel. The promise of film is obliterated. There are no pictures in motion. There is only a “blue [that] stretches, yawns and is awake.”2 This blue destroys the architecture of narrative. Such destruction arises from a sense of total absorption. Neither Jarman nor the viewer can escape the poetic grip of blue—the colored void that awaits the born and therefore dying body. Cytomegalovirus retinitis—the syndrome Jarman developed as a result of HIV—materializes in that void. The virus and its consequences are particularized and handed over. That is, Jarman gives us his blindness. His shade of blue becomes a stage on which the global AIDS crisis will be acted out. Blue asks us: What is the AIDS crisis in the absence of visual depictions? What is the AIDS crisis without pictures of protesting or lesioned bodies? What is genocide without statistical charts, without numbers, without the photographic proof of stacked corpses? What is death without an image?
To put it reductively, this is a film about HIV/AIDS that never shows its viewer what the virus looks like. We never see Jarman. We never see the hospital waiting rooms. We never see the faces of those already lost. However, we do see blue. And more importantly, we are blinded by the very vessel that carries the truth of Jarman’s subject. As a film that philosophizes, Blue sets the poetic in opposition to the self. It imagines poetry as a de-creative and autophagic use of language that enables us to come nearer to reality. The reality of the AIDS epidemic and the fact of a genocide are packaged in fragmentary poems and disparate sounds. The violence of self-identification (i.e. the trauma of assigning oneself to a legible grouping such as “gay” or “lesbian”) plays a mocking role. We hear accelerating voices chant out a call-and-response: “I am a Not Gay. He is a Not Gay. I am a Not Gay. He is a Not Gay.”3 We hear a distant crowd cheering as the chants surrender to a seething speaker: “I am a cock-sucking, straight-acting lesbian man!” The voices of Jarman’s delirium shout at the farce that is proclaiming to know who or what you are. They remind us that self-perception need not be rooted in the sensorial or the material body in order to stand in opposition to reality. That is, the thoughts that accompany Jarman’s illness come to challenge the reality thrust upon him by the heteronormative society in which he is dying. Healthy and well-behaved bodies pervert the truth of the virus. Jarman’s voice tells us so:
I shall not win the battle against the virus, in spite of the slogans like “Living with AIDS.” The virus was appropriated by the well—so we have to live with AIDS while they spread the quilt for the moths of Ithaca across the wine dark sea. Awareness is heightened by this, but something else is lost. A sense of reality drowned in theatre. Thinking blind, becoming blind.4
Here, Jarman makes an amendment to René Descartes’s compulsory thesis: “cogito, ergo sum.” If the physical state of Jarman’s body produces thought, do his thoughts promise his existence, or do they promise the existence of the virus? That is, if the blindness caused by the virus is itself a thinking thing, whose thoughts are we hearing? Once assailed by the virus, Jarman thinks on behalf of its existence. The sensory perceptions of the body still do not confer reality. Through Jarman, however, these perceptions come to think, speak, and be. In other words, it is only the infected body that says, “HIV thinks, therefore it is.”
Such a proposal recalibrates feminist epistemology by suggesting that certain marginalized voices speak in the language of what ails them. In other words, the perspective of the subjugated is informed not by their distance or exclusion from the dominant culture, but from their proximity to death, which is a consequence of their dehumanized status. In her writings on the relationship between knowledge and affect, philosopher Alison Jaggar writes in a 1989 essay, “the perspective on reality that is available from the standpoint of the subordinated . . . is a perspective that offers a less partial and distorted and therefore more reliable view.”5 When laid atop the poetic logic of Blue, Jaggar’s assertion appears insufficient. Perhaps the thirst for reliability is self-defeating. If the only certainty of the film is blue itself, what epistemological value do the film’s unreliable voices have? Rather than use the marginalized perspective as compasses to point hegemonic society in the right direction, Blue moves toward the very partiality and distortion that is believed to threaten the project of epistemology. Beyond assuming that the personal is political, Blue claims that the knowledge of the virus ought to work exactly like the virus itself. That is, because the virus distorts reality and strips it bare, the knowledge of the virus must do the same. If the virus blinds its host, then so must the film. If the virus is treated with needles and endless handfuls of bitter pills, then the film must dole the same cruel list of dosages. Like distortion, partiality also becomes a mechanism for delivering knowledge. The blue of the screen belongs to Jarman. It is Jarman’s blindness that the viewer assumes. And yet, this blue is universal. To say it belongs to anyone seems unjust, if not altogether impossible. It would be like claiming property rights over a patch of sky or a square-foot of the sea.
It could be argued that Blue foregrounds what Jaggar calls “outlaw emotions.”6 An outlaw emotion is one that is not conducive to the perpetuation of the status quo. Jaggar writes:
Conventionally unexpected or inappropriate emotions may precede our conscious recognition that accepted descriptions and justifications often conceal as much as they reveal the prevailing state of affairs. Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger or fear may we bring to consciousness our “gut-level” awareness that we are in a situation of coercion, cruelty, injustice, or danger.7
Jaggar claims that such emotions are plentiful among marginalized people. It seems, however, that the fact of an HIV-infected body poses a threat to conventional values no matter what emotions are expressed by it. Blue contradicts Jaggar’s assumption of latent awareness by suggesting that the HIV-positive gay man cannot be ignorant of the injustice of his situation because that injustice is killing him. The bodily awareness that Jaggar posits as an epistemological conclusion is in fact only the beginning. The danger of the situation is obvious and visceral. Nevertheless, Jarman does as Jaggar urges: he reflects. What is happening to Jarman’s body becomes the film. That is, the “gut-level awareness’” of the virus is not landed on so much as it is translated. Jarman’s voice asks a question: “What need of so much news from abroad while all that concerns either life or death is all transacting and at work within me.”8. And yet, Jarman leaves his material body behind, dissembling its blindness and its groans into shards of poetry. Although the problem of self-perception remains, Jarman’s truth is that he is dying a particular death. This is perhaps another function of the blue screen. It stands for the infinite end of self that Jarman must blindly face. Within this infinite blue there is a promise of release—release from the body; release from the monotonous terror of illness; release from image itself. Jarman calls this transcendence “bliss in [his] ghostly eye.”9 He also calls it blue.
A voice begs for kisses: “Kiss me again. Kiss me. Kiss me again. And again. Kiss me. Never enough. Greedy lips.”10 It is uncertain who is making the requests, and even more uncertain who is being asked to do the kissing. Perhaps these ambiguities make for an outlaw emotion; however, the voice’s want for kisses is only as subversive as the viewer imagines it to be. Such descriptions of bodily desire bloom into eulogies of bodily pain. There is no shortage of suffering. There is no absence of longing. Still, Blue is ambivalent about the senses: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, well then everything would be seen as it is.” 11 For Descartes, this is an approachable discursive problem. But for Jarman, this is a chance—an opportunity to become blind to the enslaving fact of his pain and the statistics that guarantee its continuation. To accept that the senses cannot promise reality is a relief that only a lost cause can know. Jarman’s voice echoes again:
Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause. The saint of all who are at their wit’s end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world. These facts, detached from cause, trapped the blue-eyed boy in a system of unreality. Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath? For accustomed to believing in image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence: Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page. From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.12
As a prayer whispered into the blue void, this scene does the work that Descartes’ philosophical essays could not. The mind is no haven from the “system of unreality” that is produced by sensorial information. Rather, the mind is a hopeful and religiously inclined thing that cannot completely think its way out of what the body has taught it. The mind can affirm itself, as Descartes suggests, but once it has done so and the pain of the body persists regardless, the mind can also relieve itself by imagining its own transcendence. That is, the mind can proclaim that it is real and in the same moment beg for its death. The viewer stares into the blue and from it comes a voice to remind us of Descartes’s assertion “that even bodies are not properly speaking known by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by the understanding only, and since they are not known from the fact that they are seen or touched, but only because they are understood.”13 We receive this message as blindness sets it; blue is filling our page. If it is true “that there is nothing which is easier for [us] to know than [our] mind,” why does the mind so often breed impossibly fixed images of the self?14 Blue suggests to us that our ability to know ourselves as thinking and therefore real things is only as enlightening as our willingness to relinquish this knowledge. That is, knowing you are real is no use unless you know how to give up. To think and be is worthless unless it helps you to transcend beyond the image you have of yourself. “The image,” Jarman says, “is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world.”15
The virus radically exteriorizes Jarman’s innermost thoughts. The cold “unreality” of his physical pain gives the voices of the film permission—permission to sing, to lament, to self-flagellate, to dream in list-form, to fragment. Jarman’s suffering does not produce truth so much as it catalyzes the surrender of any calculated, well-mannered persona. But as is true of any Jarman film, Blue performs a magic trick. Pain, however foregrounded, goes unfetishized; suffering is denied the charm of a body. If the mind is all a man can know, Blue suggests that illness and its poisonous haze is no enemy to that knowing. In fact, the sick mind that thinks, and therefore is has an epistemology of its own. That is, the virus and its induction of delirium does not hijack the fact of mind so much as lay it bare. This strip-tease, Jarman suggests, requires poetry and an acceptance of sightlessness. Like Jarman, the viewer is fated to go blind, to lose sight of image, to get absorbed in that awesome blue. While Descartes identifies the body as an understandable lie, Jarman reminds us that the facts presented by the body infect the very “I” that the mind thinks into existence. Self-image is a collection of images. Without the body, the mind’s “I” goes blind, fulfilling a Shakespearean wish:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God! O God!16
Transcending the material body is identified as a de-creative process in which the boundaries of the skin dissolve. Transcending the body requires liquefaction—a melting down as opposed to a soaring up. The blue screen does this work, but in doing it, the viewer cannot rid themselves of the fact of AIDS. Like Jarman, we can only pray into the blue for a heaven-bound release: “O Blue come forth. O Blue arise. O Blue ascend. O Blue come in.”17
If we accept humanist philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s thesis “that to philosophize is to learn to die,” we can say that Blue philosophizes in that it does the work of de-creation.18 Blue teaches us to let go by teaching itself the same. The film dies over a recognition of impermanence:
Our name will be forgotten in time. No one will remember our work. Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud. And be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun. For our time is the passing of a shadow. And our lives will run like sparks through the stubble.19
Here, Jarman confirms Jaggar’s epistemological claim that “[t]he reconstruction of knowledge is inseparable from the reconstruction of ourselves.”20 But of course, Jarman makes a slight and necessary modification: The reconstruction of knowledge is inseparable from the deconstruction of ourselves. We must unlearn what the body has required of the mind. And that great unlearning is a perpetual death unto itself. “I resign myself,” whispers Jarman, “to fate. Blind fate.”21 From the viewer’s cushioned chair, we take Jarman’s blue hand in ours, stumbling with him into the sightless bliss of knowing that the “I” that we most certainly are will soon kiss the blue and die.
- Blue, directed by Derek Jarman (Zeitgeist Films, 1993), 0:24:45).
- Blue, 0:21:37.
- Blue, 0:54:39.
- Blue, 0:16:47.
- Alison Jagger, “Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” in Socrates to Cinema: An Introduction to Philosophy, by Jeffrey R. Di Leo (McGraw-Hill Education, 2006), 195.
- Jagger, “Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” 194.
- Jagger, “Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” 195.
- Blue, 0:03:48
- Blue, 1:12:23.
- Blue, 0:49:50.
- Blue, 0:27:38.
- Blue, 0:36:02.
- René Descartes, “Meditation II,” The Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. 1, translated by E. Haldane and G. Ross (Cambridge University Press, 1967), 137.
- Descartes, “Meditation II,” 137.
- Blue, 0:37:04.
- Willaim Shakespeare, Hamlet, Edited by Roma Gill (Oxford University Press, 2009), 1.2.129-132.
- Blue, 0:02:27.
- Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, translated by Donald M. Frame (Everyman’s Library, 2003), 67.
- Blue, 1:12:23.
- Jagger, “Emotion in Feminist Epistimology,” 196.
- Blue, 0:19:22.