Les instants de mes morts, After Blanchot[1]

Ralph Carl Wushke

In Montréal in the spring of 1987, I remember a boy—neither young nor old—flushed with the delight of a night on the town, (un)aware of the imminent dangers of the body and its pleasures also. The night was heady with excitement: the thrill of a national political convention, an exuberant dinner in a very gay restaurant and a pub-crawl through the Gay Village. The evening ended in a smoky leather bar, the frisson of expectation in the air. Finally, at the end of the night, the sought after tryst: rough trade, black leather jacket, faded jeans on a tight body. It was a short hike to a three-story walk-up, rue Amherst, just off rue Sainte Catharine.

No formalities preceded the rush to get naked and into bed in a room lit only by streetlights. They kissed, and explored each other with rapid-fire touch and short embrace, quickly moving toward the climax of the night.

As-tu un condom?’ (Have you got a condom?) the boy asked tentatively, not wanting to kill the mood.

Bin, peut-être,’ (Eh, maybe) the trick grumbled, rustling through a bedside table.

Even more tentatively, ‘Have you got any lube?’

Bin, non,’ an irritated reply.

‘Oh no! The condom broke. Fuck!’

‘This is it. This is the night,’ he said to himself, ‘if I die of AIDS, this is the night.’ He rushes to the toilet and washes himself, hoping against hope that he can wash the cum away.

A fitful sleep. ‘Morning already? Finally! Gotta get back to the convention… Don’t want to miss Ed Broadbent.’

‘Have some jus d’orange? I’m gonna douche,’ the host mumbles.

‘Okay,’ the boy says, looking around the dreary flat for his clothes and nametag. He checks his wallet—you never know about these tricks. ‘I should remember this guy’s name just in case,’ he says to himself. ‘…. Maybe there, on that envelope? Ah. “Luc Vincent, 1259, rue Amherst, Montréal (QC)”’ He writes the fateful name on the back of his nametag. He makes a mental note to remember the date: Saturday, 14 March 1987.

Still in a daze and hungover, back at the convention, the boy confides his story to a friend, who had also been out on the pub-crawl. ‘Oh. Dear…’ an abnormally muted response from his otherwise up-beat friend.

In the weeks that follow the boy lives in fear. Three weeks later, at home in Ottawa-Hull, feverish and aching everywhere, he pours out the story of the night in Montréal to his doctor. ‘It’s not AIDS,’ she says, ‘it takes years for AIDS to develop. But, after what you’ve told me, I would be guilty of malpractice if I didn’t tell you to take the test.’

Three more weeks of waiting. Holy Week, Good Friday, Easter. ‘Is this the beginning of my passion’ he wonders. Finally. The results come back. Negative. The first instant of his death annulled, or so it seemed.


Saskatchewan, three years later, August 1990, after months of exhaustion and extensive blood tests his doctor says, ‘You know, there’s a little flag here in your immuno-globulin levels. It’s probably nothing… I know you’ve already tested negative, but sometimes it’s a sign of HIV seropositivity. Do you want to have the test again?’

Adrenalin racing, heart pounding, ‘Yes,’ he replies. Death looms once more.

The boy goes off to Gay Games III, a weeklong extravaganza in Vancouver. Fun! Fun! Fun! But the boy cannot put one question out of his mind. ‘Is this the last hurrah? Will I look back on this as the end of my AIDS-free life? Reminders of HIV everywhere: tributes to those who have already died in the opening ceremonies. AIDS activists in the Pride March. Themes of AIDS, death and loss in the choral works. He confides the truth of his vigil to his travelling companions.

Back home in Saskatchewan, three weeks have elapsed. ‘No, the results are not back yet,’ the receptionist says for the third time. ‘Maybe Tuesday.’

Tuesday, 4 September 1990. The boy presents himself at the Lakeshore Medical Clinic in Regina, unannounced, bracing for the test results. ‘Step into my office, please.’ The door closes behind them, doctor and patient. ‘The results aren’t back yet, but I’ll call the lab to see what I can find out.’ The boy waits, fidgeting. ‘Dr. Michael here, looking for the results for an HIV Elisa test from August…’ Pause. Silence. Breathing. Sweating. Trying to stay calm. ‘Oh. Yes. I see. The Elisa is positive? So do you have results from the Western Blot? Can you transfer me?’ Waiting. Silence. The doctor looks at the flushed patient. ‘Don’t worry yet. There’s often a false positive from the Elisa. Let’s not jump to conclusions until we get the results of the Western Blot.’ Waiting. Breathing. Pregnant silence. ‘Yes, that’s the patient. Oh. The Western Blot is positive too. I see. There’s no doubt? All right. Thank you.’ The doctor looks at the boy. ‘This is the first time I’ve had to give someone an HIV positive test result. Um. I’m not sure what to say. Um. We’ll need to have some more tests. Um. I’ll refer you to the University Hospital so we can find out when the clock starts ticking, as it were.’

‘Clock? Ticking?’ The boy is numbed but manages a joke. ‘That’s not a great image, Dr. Michael.’ Gallows humor.

‘Oh! I’m sorry. You’re right. Of course! What am I saying? Clock? Ticking! Um. I’m sorry. Maybe you’d like to read something. The research is very hopeful. They may find something. Really, it’s not the end,’ as if he’s convincing himself. ‘I’ve got a lot of literature here that you could read.’

‘I don’t think this is the time for literature’ says the boy, ‘could you just give me a hug?’

‘A hug! Of course. Human contact! Why didn’t I think of that?’ The doctor and patient embrace. ‘Would you like some time alone? You can stay in this office for a few minutes if you like.’

‘Yes, I think I do. I should call someone…’ The boy’s voice trails off as he tries to absorb the magnitude of a death sentence disguised as a medical result.
Dr. Williams’s hand written prognosis of Ralph Wushke for the Canada Pension Plan, Medical Report, 18 July 1995.

Dr. Williams’s hand written prognosis of Ralph Wushke for the Canada Pension Plan, Medical Report, 18 July 1995.

Five years later at Royal University Hospital, Saskatoon, a medical specialist puts the next instant of his death in writing. [Excerpt from Medical Report Form ISP 2519 (06-94), Income Security Programs, Canada Pension Plan]:

Prognosis of the main medical condition of this patient –
‘The patient appears to have entered an accelerated phase of his disease, shows progression and continuing to shows prognostic signs suggesting further progression. His condition is unlikely to improve and the natural course of his disease will be inexorable worsening until he dies.’ [Signed] Dr. Kurt E. Williams, [Dated] 18 July 1995

The boy is dying and living, living and dying. Each day he wonders which memory to cherish, which memory to pass on. How long will he demeure?

A few months later his doctor invites the patient to a seminar he is presenting called ‘The Dawn of the Golden Age of Anti-retrovirals’ and labouriously explains the effect of new drug combinations on the HIV. The boy is in disbelief. ‘You mean I might have to make all my mortgage payments?’ he asks incredulously. Another reprieve. The instant of his death, it seems, has been postponed once more.


In the decade that marked the unrelenting advance of HIV/AIDS the analogy of war was common. Those of us with HIV/AIDS felt we were fighting for our lives, and with each passing month more comrades would fall, after valiant struggles to live with HIV/AIDS. For many, a grim sense of fatalism prevailed. As we watched our friends die, and attended their funerals and memorial services, we did mental calculations based on the length of time we had known them to be HIV+, compared to ourselves, in order to estimate how much time we had left.

For an attestation to the tenor of that time, I turn to Reports from the Holocaust, by Larry Kramer,[2] who captures, and witnesses to the tragedy and rage of that decade.

I hesitate to state that over the past seven years I have lost some five hundred acquaintances and friends to AIDS. I realize that putting a figure to this loss is both gruesomely macabre and too Madison Avenue. It makes me sound weird: that I have for over seven years kept a record of these names. It also sounds vaguely opportunistic: trafficking in dead bodies to make a morbid point.

I certainly don’t know what it was like to witness six million die. When I say that I have lost five hundred acquaintances and friends over the past seven years, I have been told point-blank by straight Jewish people that ‘their’ extermination is the only ‘holy’ one; ours by contract, is piddling. Evidently I must not get so upset, because my deaths are less than their deaths.

With all due respect, it doesn’t appear piddling to me to place my five hundred dead friends on the altar of history, and to posit the possibility that, at the rate we are going, we are now in a situation historically equivalent to, say, the German Jews circa 1938–1940. And there will be millions of gay men dead before our holocaust is over. How can everyone avoid seeing this?[3]

Reading Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, and Demeure: Fiction and Testimony,[4] Jacques Derrida’s extended epigraph on Blanchot’s short story, has been an invitation to review (revoir) those years through the lens of my own experience.

How many times did we face our death? After reading the Blanchot and Derrida texts, supplemented by some brief encounters with Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille, a rhizome of connections slowly grew in my mind.

In an interview with Derek Attridge in 1989,[5] Derrida reflects on the ‘adolescent desire’[6] to write something that is neither literature nor philosophy, for which ‘“Autobiography” is perhaps the least inadequate name.’[7] He describes an ‘obsessive desire to save in uninterrupted inscription, in the form of a memory, what happens—or fails to happen’[8] and a ‘moment of narcissistic adolescence and “autobiographical” dream’[9] filled with unanswered questions: ‘(“Who am I? Who is me? What’s happening?”)’[10]

This is one of many times when Derrida talks about ‘that dangerous supplement’—writing, and its exacting demands, paralleled only by the exacting demands of reading—tasks of which he is the consummate practitioner.

In an eloquent contrasting of Gadamerian and Derridean hermeneutics, John D. Caputo talks about noetic finitude and the noematic infinity of the text.[11] A noetic hermeneutic of finitude is proscribed by the facticity (Faktizität) of Heidegger’s Dasein. The noematic hermeneutic, in contrast, is unlimited by the Hegelian notion of ‘non-definiteveness’ (Unabschließbarkeit). Caputo suggests that Gadamer’s hermeneutic holds these two dimensions in dynamic tension; our historical experience is both ‘jealous of its meaning’[12] and at the same time ‘has a fullness of meaning, which is never fully unfolded. It is an excess…’[13]

To the limited horizons within which the act of understanding must function there corresponds the inexhaustible depth of the historical material. There is a richness of meaning in historical events which just keeps unfolding, which is certainly not grasped by the original protagonists, which gradually unfolds over the course of time, and which is in principle never fully unfolded.[14]

Caputo expresses something of the spirit of the exercise Blanchot/Derrida undertake in L’Instant de ma mort and Demeure, and something of the exercise I am permitting myself here. My (re)readings of Blanchot and Derrida confirm the notion that for any text, ‘[Its] essence (fullness, meaning) does not yield itself up at once, but rather its being is its becoming.’[15]

In Demeure, Derrida, inspired by Blanchot, uses text to lead us to that impossibility, of trying to ‘maintain the distinction between the inside and the outside,’ as they explore the indistinguishability of autobiography, fiction and testimony.[16] It is the richness of these themes of testimony and writing, autobiography and fiction, dying and remaining that draw me to this text, and invite me to create my own.

Before going to my own exercise with a death that has not come, I would like to draw a few lines into a constellation[17] with some contemporaries of Blanchot and Derrida.

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,[18] and his 1971 essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ Michel Foucault explores the notion of the body as a site of history, knowledge and power.

The body—and everything that touches it: diet, climate, and soil—is the domain of the Herkunft [descent]. The body manifests the stigmata of past experience and also gives rise to desires, failings, and errors.(…)
The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas…) [Genealogy’s] task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.[19]

This is significant here because any exploration of HIV/AIDS—and the inseparable nexus of the personal/political—necessarily involves attention to the body and its passions, as a vector of disease and death, as well as resistance and hope.

The final point in this constellation is Georges Bataille, whose short essay, ‘The Practice of Joy Before Death’ is an example of Bataille’s mysticism of the sacred, and his conviction that the ‘unifying element in society is the sacred.’[20] In his writing about the ‘little death’ of orgasm, some key mysteries of human experience—sex, death, pleasure and the sacred—are held in dynamic tension, and are an eerie foreshadowing of Blanchot’s short story, Derrida’s midrashic commentary, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A short excerpt illustrates Bataille’s pathos.

I AM joy before death.
Joy before death carries me.
Joy before death hurls me down.
Joy before death annihilates me.[21]

As a circular, therapeutic, spiritual and autobiographical work, it began with a Blanchot inspired account of another death, which in turn is (re)read using Derrida’s extended gloss on L’Instant de ma mort.


 Demeure, Jacques Derrida[22]  Fiction and Testimony, Ralph Carl Wushke
 ‘Dichtung is often mistakenly translated as ‘fiction.’ I myself have yielded to this bad habit at least once, more than ten years ago, …—to which I will return in another way today—the context of the relations between fiction and autobiographical truth. Which is to say, between literature and death.’ (15) Literature, death, autobiographical truth and fiction. Les instants de mes morts is my autobiographical confession. Written in the foreshadow of a death which is always coming and never comes, I am (re)creating moments of my own past. Are they fictionalized moments of truth? Can these lifeless words testify?
‘Funerary speech and writing would not follow upon death; they work on life in what we call autobiography. And this takes place between fiction and truth, Dichtung and Wahrheit.’ (16)  Les Instants is between composition and confession, Dichtung and Wahrheit. When I die, I want the story to be known. It is written text: the voice of an AIDS testimony reduced to silence, yet filled with excess.
‘If, always in irreverent homage to Goethe, truth becomes testimony here, it is perhaps because, as in Dichtung and Wahrheit, it will often be a question today of lies and truth: more precisely, of the biographical or autobiographical truthfulness of a witness who speaks of himself and claims to be recounting not only his life but death, his quasi-resurrection, a sort of Passion—at the limits of literature.’ (16–17) ‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked, around the time of Passion. As I (re)create this Passion of my own, I discover more resurrections than one should ever expect to have.
‘Everything that I put forward will also be magnetized by a history of the European wars between France and Germany, more precisely and closely related to a certain episode at the end of the last world war and the Nazi Occupation, which still resonates with us today.’ (17) Everything that I put forward is magnetized by the history of the AIDS pandemic, and the Anglo-North American experience of that crisis. All around me comrades and friends were dying. Now it seems like another world, and yet traces of that war are all around us, and in our bodies.
‘If one were to unravel the line of force that semantically traverse the word “passion,” one would discover at least seven knotted trajectories, which we will have to describe elliptically and at a telegraphic pace.’ (25) If I were to unravel the lines of force that semantically traverse the word ‘passion’ I wonder what I would discover. What is the passion of Ralph? Is it the body of AIDS? Is it the passion of a demonstration, a ‘die-in’ with a hundred thousand others on Yonge Street? Is it the passion poured out at a hundred soul-less, disembodied meetings? Is it the passion of yet another death—me singing/grieving/crying for another death—and my own—at my piano?
‘I do not know whether this text belongs purely and properly and strictly and rigorously speaking, to the space of literature, whether it is a fiction or a testimony, and, above all, to what extent it calls these distinctions into question or causes them all to tremble.’ (26) Do I remember these events as others do? Am I the only one who remembers them? Am I now re/creating, re/writing my past? What response will these written memories evoke from the reader(s)?
‘When he testifies the martyr does not tell a story, he offers himself. He testifies to his faith by offering himself or offering his life or his body, and this act of testimony is not only an engagement but his passion does not refer to anything other than its present moment.’ (38) Here, behold, a testimony, excerpts of a death and a life, revealed for any to read. A testimony to the present moment, trying to live again, to be conscious of the gift of time. Destined to be a martyr ‘not in will but in deed,’ now I am neither.
‘A witness and a testimony must always be exemplary. They must first be singular, whence the necessity of the instant: I am the only one to have seen the unique thing, the only one to have heard or been put in the presence of this or that, at a determinate, indivisible instant; and you must believe me because you must believe me—this is the difference, essential to testimony, between belief and proof—you must believe me because I am irreplaceable. When I testify, I am unique and irreplaceable. And at the very tip of this irreplaceability, this unicity, once again, there is the instant.’ (40-1) Hundreds of thousands lived moments like these, but no one lived these moments except the one who testifies to this singular experience. The rarity of these singular instants is alarming. Why that night? Why that man? Why the broken condom? But one cannot ask, ‘Why wasn’t it otherwise?’Only I have lived these instants of death. Others witnessed, and witness still, while I testify.
‘To write one’s autobiography, in order either to confess or to engage in self-analysis or in order to expose oneself to the gaze of all, in the manner of a work of art, is perhaps to seek to survive, but through a perpetual suicide—te – total insofar as fragmentary death.’ (44) Life—and death—as art? Art as life—and death? I remember designing my death, while dying, with a certain maudlin artistry. ‘Here,’ I said to myself, ‘is the perfect room: two windows facing the Easter(n) Sun. The bed will go there, and next to it the IV pole. The flowers they bring can go on a table there. The bathroom is at the end of the hall. They’ll bring my meals up those stairs from the kitchen. A perfect place to die.’
‘At this instant The Instant of My Death thus promises us a narrative or a testimony—signed by someone who tells us in many ways and according to every possible tense: I am dead, or I will be dead in an instant, or an instant ago I was going to be dead. Someone intends to speak, to speak to us, not only of his death, but of his death in the sense of the Latin de, in the sense of from his death: not aus meinen Leben as in Dichtung und Wahrheit, of my life from my life, but on the contrary, one might say, from my death, from the place and from the taking-place, better yet, from the having –taken-place, already, of my death.’ (45) There is a point of entrance to this life and death in the performance of AIDS and death. The ‘community representative’ on the government’s HIV/AIDS advisory committee makes his appearance. Life with a virus is performed for an audience of bureaucrats and epidemiologists.He introduces himself as ‘a Person Living with HIV/AIDS,’ (although everyone knows he is already dead, or dying.)
‘I am the only one who can testify to my death—on the condition that I survive it.’ (45) In HIV/AIDS death and passion unify a desiring machine in an assemblage of ceaseless connections drawing lines of segmentarity in many directions.
‘But what can an instant in abeyance [un instant en instance] be then? Yet here is the last word of the text before us: “The instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance [en instance].”’ (46) The viral rhizome/map/body/text always has multiple entryways, and multiple lines of connectivity traversing its surfaces and other surfaces.
‘Dying means: you are already dead already, in an immemorial past, by a death that was not your own, which you have thus neither known nor lived, but under the threat of which you believe you are called to live; you await it henceforth in the future, constructing a future to make it possible at last, possible as something that will take place and will belong to the realm of experience.’ (51) There is a line connecting passion to death. The French refer to sexual orgasm as ‘the little death.’ In this instance sex is both the death of the anti-climax on the night of 14 March 1987 and the death announcement of 18 July 1995 in Saskatoon—a death that is still to come, not finally mapped.
‘Aside from the presumed author, there are two, and number, two instances: the narrator declaring that he remembers another, and the other: until the end, the story announces itself as the narrative of what happened to a third person, as what happens to him, ‘he’ the third party.’ (53) In a corner of the rhizome/map: stoicism/acceptance. Dying is an unavoidable, and at the same time peaceful moment. There is nothing to be afraid of. He often announces his acceptance of death.
‘Death happened to him-them, it arrived to divide the subject of this story in some sense: it arrived at this division, but it did not arrive except insofar as it arrived (managed) thus to divide the subject.’ (54) On this map, the edge is demarcated by my fear—fear of being/dying alone, fear of not/never being held/touched by a lover again. The edge of the map is also demarcated by love and care.
‘From dying, he is prevented by death itself. This singular division is the true theme of a testimony that will testify, in sum to an “unexperienced experience”: being “prevented from dying by death itself – and perhaps an error of injustice.”’ (54) An unrequited love covers the map to the very edges, and even overflows. My knight in shining armour comes and never comes completely. Tears of longing and desire for a love that cannot become what it longs to be. The virus kills once more.
‘If one wanted to speak here of resurrection through the experience of a Christlike passion (the Germans would be the Romans this time), there would be no Christology, no speculative Good Friday, no truth of religion in the absolute knowledge of Hegel, whose spectral shadow will not be long in passing. But all of this—the Passion, the Resurrection, absolute Knowledge—is mimicked, repeated, and displaced.’ (63) One can draw a line to a tryst, when a virus made a line from one desiring machine to another. A rhizome is formed between the virus and my body, between my body and other bodies. This line connects innumerable desiring machines, whose only ‘sin’ was to seek connection.
‘“At the moment of my attestation I am no longer the same as the witness who lived that and who remains irreplaceable?” The signature of the narrator is thus dated.’ (65) Easter, 2004. Who is this witness to a certain death? Is an AIDS survivor a resurrection of himself, or someone else?
‘The young man was a witness to the death that came at him [venait sur lui]. The witness to this witness, who is the same, fifty years later, cannot replace the witness of who he testifies. Consequently, he cannot analyze what he himself felt, the other himself, at that moment, an odd experience, but at the same time very banal. Every one of us can say at every instant: really, I don’t remember what I felt; I can’t describe what I felt at that moment; it’s impossible, and I can’t analyze it in any case. What was me is no longer me.’ (66) There is a line on a map drawn from a late night tryst in Montréal to a hospital clinic in Saskatoon via doctors’ offices and medical laboratories in Ottawa and Regina. Later the line was drawn to Toronto, where il demeure for the moment. Now he can only conjure up memories of past deaths and bring them into the present with the conditional, ‘If I would have died…’
‘The two die but he is dead, I survive, he survived, I am dead. If both die, which one remains to survive to say it? “He was perhaps suddenly invincible.”’ (66) This ‘desiring machine’ was drawn to another ‘desiring machine’ in a carnal moment and the lines transverse the years preceding and following. The prognosis of imminent death adds intensity to its inevitability.
‘No, it is in death that immortality yields to an “unexperienced experience,” in the instant of death, when death arrives, where one is not yet dead in order to be already dead, at the same instant. At the same instant, but the tip of the instant is divided here: I am not dead and I am dead. At that instant, I am immortal because I am dead: death can no longer happen to me. It is prohibited.’ (67-8) Having already died, having had his Passion, his Gethsemane, his Last Supper, his Crucifixion, the boy is nevertheless alive. Is he then, immortal?
‘Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.’ (69) ‘Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you. Last September I tested positive for HIV. That’s the virus that causes AIDS.’
‘A friendship for death. Friendship assumes the experience of death; it is a matter of the friendship with death. He comes to love this death. There is an alliance—“bound to death,” he says—a contract, a familiarity, a collusion with death and for always.’ (70) ‘You’re our son. No matter what happens we’ll love you.’‘Maybe it’s better not to tell the rest of the family. There’s no reason they need to know. You’re not sick now. When you get sick we can tell them.’
‘“At that instant, an abrupt return to the world…” Death had already taken place. It had arrived from the moment the young man began to wait for “the final order,” the “Fire” of the lieutenant.  He had thus left the world, dying before dying, not for another world, but for a non-world life… the moment gunfire suddenly explodes in the vicinity. Another “fire,” a counterfire.’ (70–1) ‘Mom, Dad,’ he said, ‘We have to talk about these plans—the will, the funeral.’
‘Well, we can talk about it if you want to. But you shouldn’t give up hope. Maybe they’ll find something—a cure.’
‘They’re not going to find anything. We can’t be in denial about what’s happening.’
‘The passion of this instant of my death is a story of salvation, a passion as salvation, but of a salvation that has come from someone who salutes the other and saves him by saying, “Save yourself.” Without apparent Christian soteriology… The young man…did not try to flee but advanced slowly, in an almost priestly manner.’ (76) O God. Dear Jesus. The boy eats the bread and drinks the cup. The Saviour comes and never comes. ‘Jesus, Remember Me, When You Come Into Your Kingdom.’ Crying, he communed—tears of self pity, overwhelming sadness and anticipatory grief.
‘I think he moved away, still with the feeling of lightness, until he found himself in a distant forest, named the “Bois des bruyères,” where he remained [demeura] sheltered by trees he knew well.’ (76–7) Finally, the reminders of his death and the unrequited love were so intense, he moved away, to a much larger city, untainted by memories of his death, where he remained.
‘There remained however [Demeurait cependant], at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate….’  (79) The others died. Norm, Cam, David, Jon, Bryan, whose only fault was their location in the line of fire. ‘Two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.’ (Matthew 24: 40, Revised Standard Version, 1952.)
‘Everywhere fires, a continuous succession of fires; all the farms were burning. A little later, he learned that three young men, sons of farmers—truly strangers to all combat, whose only fault was their youth—had been slaughtered.’ (80) Every time another death was announced he sat at his piano, playing and singing to himself, for the dead and dying, and again, somehow, for himself.
‘Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps [again the perhaps] already the step beyond.’ (90) Now, he continues to live, his life only lightly touched by the (fore)shadow of death.
But this attestation both secret and public, fictional and real, literary and non-literary—we can only judge it to be readable, if it is, insofar as a reader can understand it, even if no such thing has ever ‘really’ happened to him, to the reader.’ (93) When he walks down a street, rides his bike, goes to the gym, preaches a sermon, he wonders who he is, and who he is seen to be. Is he still marked as one of the dying, or is he marked as one who remains (qui demeure) after death?
‘I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence.’ (94) Life is never quite the same as it was before: almost, but the lightness of death continues to permeate the heaviness of life.
‘“As if the death outside of him”: the death that came at him [venait sur lui] waits for Blanchot, who is still living in the same demourance. This death could only encounter a death—so much more ancient—already at work in him, from the instant it has already happened to him. As if one only had to wait now for the encounter, in him, like him, of these two deaths.’ (94–5) Every so often I wonder, about the converging horizons of death. Will the dying I am now living one day converge with the death, long past? Will they meet in my body, like two old, familiar friends?
‘Two deaths, one outside, the other inside. Which call each other back to one another. “I am alive. No, you are dead.”’ (96) ‘Even as we live each day, death our life embraces.’ (Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, 350.)
‘One of the two, One of the Two, says to the Other, “I am alive,” and would thus be the one who has survived. But it is the other who has survived, who responds to him: “No, you are dead.” And this is the colloquium, this is the dialogue between the two witnesses, who are, moreover [au demeurant], the same, alive and dead, living-dead, and both of whom in abidance. [en demourance] claim or allege that one is alive, the other dead, as if life went only to an I and death to you. Always according to the same compassion of passion.’ (97) ‘That very day two of them were going to a village…While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near…And he said to them “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still looking sad. The one of them named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the thing that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?”’ (Luke 24:13–19a, passim, Revised Standard Version, 1952.)
‘Later, having returned to Paris, he met Malraux, who told him that he had been taken prisoner (without being recognized) and that he had succeeded in escaping, losing a manuscript in the process.’ (99) Later, having returned to Saskatoon, he met his old doctor, the one who had written the death sentence. They hugged each other and laughed together, about the unexpected joy of making mortgage payments.
‘When two great French writers survive the war and the Occupation and meet up at Gallimard, what do they say to each other? What kind of news do they exchange?’ (99) Now, we meet, old friends, who once shared a battle line. We look each other in the eye scanning each other’s faces and bodies, marked with the scars of survivors. What should we possibly say to each other?
‘C’est désormais assez discouru sur ce point [Henceforth, enough has been said on this point].’ (103) This exercise is testimony—connected to many other testimonies—that it is not ‘all over.’


Lent – Week of the Passion – Easter, 2004

Revised – Re/membered – Pride, 2016

[1] Blanchot, Maurice. The Instant of My Death (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). In this autobiographical short story, Blanchot describes the near execution of a French youth—possibly a member of the Resistance—who escapes death by the interruption of a Russian soldier of the Vlassov army, a story that is recounted 50 years after the fact.

[2] Kramer, Larry. Reports from the Holocaust: the Making of an AIDS Activist (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).

[3] Ibid.,218, 263, 270.

[4] Derrida, Jacques. Demeure: Fiction and Testimony (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[5] Derrida, Jacques. ‘An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, in Derek Attridge (ed.). Acts of Literature (New York: Routledge, 1992), 33–75.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Caputo, John D., More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), 47.

[12] Ibid., 46.

[13] Ibid., 47.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 48.

[16] Derrida, 2000, 41.

[17] I am indebted to Marsha Hewitt for pointing out this important concept in the thought of Frankfurt School critical theorist Walter Benjamin, in her book, Critical Theory of Religion: A Feminist Analysis, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 4, 152. As Caputo points out, Benjamin has also had a significant impact on Derrida. See The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 117, 122.

[18] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House-Vintage Books, 1995).

[19] Foucault, Michel ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in Rabinow, Paul (ed.). The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 83.

[20] Macey, David. ‘Bataille’, in The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Thought (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 32.

[21] Bataille, Georges. ‘The Practice of Joy Before Death’, in Stoekl et al (eds.).Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 237.

[22] Quotes taken variously from Derrida, 2000 and Blanchot, 2000. All emphases in original texts.

Ralph Carl Wushke was raised in Saskatchewan. He received a BA from Luther College, University of Regina, an M. Div. from the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, and BA in Journalism from Carleton University, Ottawa. His Master of Theology (2004 Toronto School of Theology, Emmanuel College) focused on queer theory, philosophical hermeneutics and sexuality ethics. He has been Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Toronto since 2004, and minister of Bathurst Street United Church, Toronto since 2000. An activist for LGBTQ in church and society, and HIV/AIDS, he founded Qu(e)erying Religion at the University of Toronto in 2005. He has lived in Toronto since 1996 and is a homemaker and gardener with his partner David Vereschagin.