LOLA home                        HOME        CURRENT ISSUE 

A Letter to My Dead Friend Gilbert Adair about Blindness    

Alexander García Düttmann


When after your death I am in your flat and look for a book that I may like to keep, I come across a white oblong envelope on which you have scribbled a few notes. One note reads: ‘to foresee one’s own blindness’.


Is this a phrase that can only be written after the fact, once one has understood that it is too late, even though you may have formulated it when you were still ignorant of what would happen to you? Or does the note demonstrate that you were actually able to foresee your fate, the fact of going blind, at least partially, and of being unable to see with the other’s eyes? If you could foresee anything at all, what else could it have been if not your own blindness? By foreseeing your own blindness, you did not prevent its destructive future effects, you did not avoid your fate, the only fate that must always be one’s fate. Did you seek to let it happen instead of remaining blindly exposed to it? Maybe you left the note on purpose so that even your death would be pregnant with slippery meaning. Was this the writer’s last prank? Maybe you wanted the note to appear significant by making it appear casual, a note jotted down between unreadable und unrelated scrawls, fragments such as ‘your life tell me’, memos like ‘categories of fashion: the modish and the outmoded’, and a silly aphorism that I manage to decipher: ‘I’d rather have my prick fingered than my anger pricked.’ Is it a coincidence that the note is almost invisible because you wrote it on the inside of the envelope after ripping it up, turning it into a page with two surfaces, recto and verso, and then folding it back into its original form?


In the end of your novel Love And Death On Long Island, the ageing writer foresees the way in which a letter he has just sent will affect the young actor on whom he has had a perplexing crush. This is how he figures the spell that the letter, a confession, will cast upon the boy in the years to come: ‘And because he would not destroy it, it would end by utterly destroying him.’ The novel’s last sentence confronts the reader with an impossible decision. Only he, the reader, can make this decision. And it is only in the course of his as yet unlived life that he will perhaps recognise how blind or how clear-headed he was at the time he read the last sentence of Love And Death On Long Island. Has infatuation made the writer go utterly mad or has it allowed him to be more lucid than ever before? Your note puts me, and whoever cares about you, in the young actor’s position as imagined by the old man: ‘He would return to it often, read it again and again over the years, then no longer have to read what he would have come to know by heart but cherish it against the insentient world as a source of pride both possessive and possessed.’


Your friends want you to have foreseen your own blindness for they want you to have had a coherent and meaningful life. Is this what makes them your friends, what proves their friendship beyond your death? Since they had to contact your brothers after your first stroke, a family reunion is planned. It does not take place because you die. But in the months that preceded your second and fatal stroke, they convinced you that you should make up with the brothers you had not wished to see for twenty or thirty years. It seems that your brothers are impressed with your achievements of which they knew very little. When a celebration of your life, as they call it, is organised and your friends gather in a cinema, one of the brothers is the first person to speak. He wonders how your voice acquired the posh accent that dissimulates your origins. The audience laughs. He means well. I ask myself why it is so difficult for your friends to understand that you had broken with your family so that you could become, or be, Gilbert Adair. Perhaps because some of them formed another family into which you were admitted and of which you were fond.


The format your friends choose for the celebration reminds me of the television show This Is Your Life, only that in your case you are dead when the programme devoted to you is produced. There is a host, a fine radio speaker who reads the script fluently, there are special guests, and there are clips from films and interviews arranged in chronological order. In the end there is even a series of short home movies I have never seen and extracts from a portrait made by German television. They filmed you as you were coming out of your house in your long white mackintosh (Maurice Chevalier in your beloved Gigi), walking along Portobello Road and looking, as if for the sake of doing so, at the window of a well known bookstore that has since closed down. When we see you, a much younger Gilbert with curly blond hair, in the private environments of a townhouse and a cottage, we listen to Charles Trenet singing ‘Que reste-t-il de nos amours?’ It works and people have tears in their eyes. You have morphed into a holy innocent. Is this another way of turning your life into a coherent and meaningful whole with a beginning and an ending? Afterwards everybody agrees that this was wonderful and moving. And that you would have liked it very much. I think they are right. Your friends have been allowed to use the cinema for two hours only, so each time one of the guests who comes onto the stage and talks about you, or reads something you wrote, goes on for too long, someone in the back flashes a light. Time to move on.


It is past midday when the Famous Director is wheeled in to address the audience. I don’t think that he has prepared what he says but some of your friends cannot resist getting their phones out and record his words with the small built-in camera. He resorts to kitchen psychology and suggests in passing that it was your fear of going blind which made you go blind eventually, as if a strange desire had been fulfilled. I think of a passage in Beyond the Pleasure Principle about the idea that we always die a death of our own because we do not die unless we want to do so. Freud takes this idea seriously and rejects it. Did you die because you allowed yourself to be afraid of something? I conclude that this is another way of transforming your life into a coherent and meaningful whole, though in this case the meaning is a more perverse one.


A group of fogs, as your friends call themselves with a sense of humour that is not unworthy of you, for they all concur that you spent your life compartmentalising them, comes up with yet another way of providing you with a coherent and meaningful life. These friends emphasise that in the last months an eager, ambitious, intelligent young man with good manners and a pleasing face came into your life and let you fall in love with him as you taught him how to do the things you did best. The unexpectedness of a late passion was the reward for enduring death and the pain of a life diminished by blindness.


I do not forget that you yourself indulged the idea of life as a coherent and meaningful whole. Each time you threatened with committing suicide you pointed out that it would have been much better for you if you had died after your first stroke. Had you not been dead already for a minute or two when the men from the emergency medical service found you in your flat? Not to be brought back to life would have been preferable because you felt that at that point your life would have had a certain coherence to it, and that continuing to live with impaired sight did not make any sense. You had done what you had wanted to do. Now you could no longer do anything meaningful.


Some of your friends do not want you to say such things. For them it is during the months that follow your first stroke that you cease to be the difficult man you were and become a much kinder person. This is because you recognise the kindness in others, especially in the nurses and therapists who attend to your mind and body in the different hospitals where you are treated. Did you not state repeatedly that, in order to express your gratitude, you wished to write a book about your experiences as a patient? From this perspective, the months before your second death are crucial for your life to prove coherent and meaningful. Discount the end and it all collapses.


I am uncertain whether you are the Gilbert I knew. This is why I ask you whether you feel that you are the same person you were in the past. You answer that this is the very question you address to yourself every day. I have three other friends who have a serious condition, one in France, one in Switzerland and one in Germany, and I propose to do a book consisting of conversations with each one of you. It would be called Four Sick Friends. My starting point would be an observation. While you are all much closer to life than the so-called healthy people because you are much more dependent on help and support from others, you are also much more removed from life and look at it from a distance that keeps me at bay. You are not sure about the title and its ambiguity but you like the idea and say that you will do it. When will we start? I have second thoughts. Now you seem to tolerate anyone willing to pay attention to you. There are those who feel just as lonely as you do and find comfort in being solicitous. It is true, I am not always as good a friend as they are. I am impatient and intolerant.


Who is having the real Gilbert? In Raúl Ruiz’s film The Territory, for which you co-wrote the script, the characters eat the flesh of someone called Gilbert. As they keep chewing, they compare notes. Each one claims to be the one who has sunken his teeth into the man himself. It took you thirty years to become Gilbert Adair. But despite your efforts and your fears you did not foresee your blindness. The world, precisely because it is ‘insentient’, is a closed book. It moved on more quickly and overtook you before you noticed. What had required so much time to be achieved, vanished in no time. Suddenly you were told that you would no longer get an advance for a novel you had devised in your mind. Who wants to read a demanding, uncompromising novel like the last one you wrote? You realised that newspapers were no longer willing, or able, to pay a fee that would have allowed you to keep on going for part of the month. Who looks for a serious and idiosyncratic piece about a film or a book in a newspaper? You had to admit to yourself that selling a film script is a task that could not be accomplished within the delays you had been forced to set for yourself. Saying that this was Gilbert Adair calling was not enough for the world to recall. Maybe we have never been the contemporaries of the world we inhabit but today this is even more true than in the past and when it is not silence or death, the price we pay for such asynchronicity is barbarism, the blindness of the ones who let themselves be carried away by the world. Could you not foresee your own blindness because it was shot through with the blindness of others, my own included?


from Issue 2: Devils


© Alexander García Düttmann May 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.