The Times as It Knows Us
"Find in grief the abandon you used to find in love." (Barnett, 1990 p.106)
av Audun Westermann Ryeng
"The Times as It Knows us" is a short story by Allen Barnett, which is included in the only volume of short stories he published before he tragically died of AIDS. However, The Body and Its Dangers and Other Stories is perhaps one of the best reading experiences I have had in my pursuit of understanding my history as a member of the gay community. In this essay I will unpack why, with special regards to the multifaceted meaning of the novel's title, and its relation to the novel's themes.
The story of "The Times as It Knows Us " is set in July 1947 on Fire Island, New York. The novella is narrated from the perspective of Clark, who is sharing a house with six other men: Perry, Horst, Enzo, Nils, Noah and Joe. "The story centers on two collective, and consecutive scenes of reading in which the housemates discuss the contents of the New York Times." (Lee, 2013. p.157) The first reading introduces the reader to themes of misrepresentation and self-representation, as the group have an argument about an article in the Times that takes a night with the household and an interview with Perry as its source to explain how the entire gay community deals with the epidemic. (Ibid.) In the prologue of the novella, the reader learns that Clark has lost his partner, Samuel, prior to the time of the main plot, and that he is in a process of grief. Grief and its relation to time becomes a central theme, and the reader learns that the characters deal with grief very differently. "The Times as It Knows Us " is a novella that makes a reader consider how the AIDS epidemic affects the relationships between these men; It makes one consider the ways in which they experience anxiety, grief and neglect as they attempt to piece together all the information they can get on the epidemic. More importantly the novella is a successful attempt at retrospectively narrating and illuminating history that has been overlooked and undermined, even in the very process of writing it, such as with the Times.
"I always expect insight and consequence in their articles, and I'm disappointed when they write on our issues and don't report more than what we already know ... And sometimes I assume that there is a language to describe what we're going through, and that they would use it if there was." (Barnett, 1990 p.84)
The title of the novella, "The Times as It Knows Us " is multifaceted. The most apparent of all meanings is, arguably, that the title is referring to the New York Times. Clark, among other members of the Fire Island household, are conflicted by the Times' inability to represent them authentically and produce the language to describe the grief and neglect they are all experiencing;
""What I resent," Joe said, newspaper in hand, "is when she writes, 'They arrive at the house on a Friday night to escape the city. When everyone is gathered, the bad news is shared: A friend died that morning. They are silent while a weekend guest, a man with AIDS, weeps for a few moments. But grief does not stop the party. [...]'" (Ibid. p.64)
Joe is worried that the Times article will trivialize the urgency and complexity of what the household, as well as the entire gay community is going through:
Joe said, "I don't like the way she implies that death has become so mundane for us, we don't feel it anymore: Paul died today. Oh, that's too bad; what's for dinner? Why couldn't you tell her that we're learning to accommodate grief." (Ibid.)
This scene of collective reading of the Times article establishes that there is a dissonance in how the crisis has become, according to Perry, "a lifestyle," although the times fails to portray the profundity of the crisis and the grief it entails: "How we represent ourselves is never the way the Times does."(Ibid. p. 65), Clark argues, explicitly mentioning and introducing the theme of representation. An important conflict in "The Times as It Knows Us " is the undermining effect of being misrepresented, as opposed to being able to self-represent and find empathy. This conflict of contrast is embodied by the relationship between Clark and Perry: "Clark recognizes the value of self-representation as a strategy to counter mainstream media's misinterpretations of AIDS in gay culture." (Lee, 2013 p. 160) Both Clark and Perry are gay readers of the Times article, yet they read it very differently. Perry argues that the newspaper "officially started using the word gay in that article," and that "I thought we were the best house on the island to illustrate how the crisis had turned into a lifestyle." the exchange between these different ways of reading conveys the fact that people of the same minority can interpret and react differently in public cultural debates. Moreover, the contrast between Perry and Clark illustrates issues of representation, and how the media as the eye of the public is looking through a keyhole at a complicated crisis:
"The Times would eventually report more on the subject and still get things wrong. Not journalism as the first draft of history, but as a rough draft, awkward and splintered and rude and premeditated. [...] How does one write about a battle and not give name to the dead, even if they are your enemy?" (Barnett, 1990 p.115)
An important conflict in "The Times as It Knows Us " is the undermining effect of being misrepresented, as opposed to being able to self-represent and find empathy.
Another important aspect of the conflict of representation is that journalism provides greatly to the writing of history. Here, Clark is aware, that in the writing of history, many are overlooked and forgotten: "In addition to the people we know who are dying, or have died, or will, there are the many people who are never spoken of. How could we say that the question of AIDS is not also a question of who gets represented and who does not?" argues Stuart Hall. (Lee, 2013 p.163) Here, the aspect of time: past, present and future is implied, something which is present throughout the entire novella.
Another interpretation of the title is revolving around time, or rather "The Times" as a theme of the novella. In the epigraph, Barnett has quoted W.H. Auden's poem, "If I could Tell You": "Time will say nothing but I told you so/Time only knows the price we have to pay." Interestingly, the epigraph leaves out the final line of the poem's first stanza: "If I could tell you I would let you know." (Poetry Foundation, 2020) This line's absence is significant to an interpretation of the title in its relation to central themes. The personification of time as an onlooker to humankind with untold wisdom, emphasises an uncertainty of the future and life as ephemeral. The price to be paid is arguably death, yet the speaker of the poem is uncertain, promising "If I could tell you, I would let you know." The poem expresses a wish to be able to tell what time will give, and what time will take. This is something which, to an implied reader, will resonate with the character of Clark:
"There is something beyond understanding, and I do not know what it is [...] The time being seeps in through the senses [...] The stretch of time and the vortex that spins around, thinning and thickening like taffy, hold these pleasures, these grace notes, these connections to others, to what is humanly possible to do." (Barnett, 1990 p. 117)
There is a thematic exchange occurring between Clark as a character and the voice in Auden's poem, both being uncertain about what time will bring, and both being unable to articulate anything of certainty in relation to time. This uncertainty about time and what price there is to be paid echoes throughout the entire novella, and emphasises the anxiety of the AIDS crisis; how life becomes so fleeting in an epidemic where so many people you know suddenly contract the virus and cannot be cured. W.H. Auden's poem and the themes of time, death and loss conveyed by it have allegorical effects on the entirety of the novella.
"I felt as if I had been spun out of time, like a kite that remains aloft over the ocean even after its string breaks. I felt awkward, out of time and out of place, like not being able to find the beat to music, which Samuel used to say that even the deaf could feel surging through the dance floor. Robert's funeral service was being held at that very moment." (Ibid. p. 72)
The meaning of the title in relation to the central theme of 'time' can also be explained with regards to how important time is in Barnett's depiction of Clark's process of grief. As the narrator of the novella, Clark tells his story both in present tense and retrospectively. In the prologue, he remembers Samuel in health, sickness and death, which contributes to setting the stage of the main plot of the novella, yet also establishes the importance of time and the past in relation to the theme of grief and loss. To Clark, the effect of grief is disorienting in terms of his notion of time, which becomes underscored in the second collective reading in the novella, which is of the obituaries in the newspaper. The household have learnt to deduce the daily AIDS casualties by looking at the ages, occupations and marital statuses of the deceased. When Clark learns that Robert, a former lieutenant who he had visited, has died, he experiences a strong dissociation with time. The breaking down of Clark's temporal perception extends on the theme of grief, as well as the themes discussed previously in relation to the epigraph of the novella.
Although Clark experiences a dissociation with time as a result of loss, throughout the novel the reader will see that he learns how to grieve in order to let go: "The others sat looking at me as I stood there and wept. [...] They were waiting for a cue from me, some hint as to what I needed from them."(Ibid. pp. 71-72) One can notice that although Clark experiences dissociation and ambivalence, his grief is manifested in tears. Clark has the ability to indulge in his own grief. The retrospective narration of Clark's relationship to Samuel enhances the themes of the novella, and the plot that is set in the present of the summer of 1987. "The Times As They Know Us" illustrates grief as something complex and individual. Although characters are critical to one another's way of dealing with grief, an implied reader becomes empathetic and cognisant of grief in its many forms. These themes contribute to they way in which "The Times As They Know Us" appears to rewrite the history represented by the fictional, yet realistic New York Times article, making the story of the AIDS epidemic a human history, that is profound and demands to be felt.
"The Times As They Know Us" appears to rewrite the history represented by the fictional, yet realistic New York Times article, making the story of the AIDS epidemic a human history, that is profound and demands to be felt.
A third interpretation of the novella's title is that time is a reference to history; One can argue that Barnett underscores the fact that the AIDS epidemic has altered the gay community both in terms of culture, and its members' relationship to time and history. The 'Us' in "The Times as It Knows Us " evokes a sense of community, a shared identity.
"Since the deaths began, the certified social workers have quoted Shakespeare at us: 'Give sorrow words." But the words we used now reek of old air in churches, taste of the dust that has gathered in the crevices of the Nativity and the Passion. Our condolences are arid as leaves. We are actors who have over-rehearsed our lines." (Ibid. p.115)
One can argue that "The Times as It Knows Us " expresses an intention to find new words to describe the human experience within the health crisis, as the old words "reek of old air." While the novella evokes a sense that the language to describe such a complicated phenomenon as the grief of an entire generation and community is nonexistent, it also addresses the fact that journalism is even more insufficient in this pursuit. Arguably, this is what motivated authors to write these narratives of love, loss and grief; to be able to represent oneself and create a community as a way of survival. In a contemporary reading an implied reader will detect that with the distance of four decades between themselves and the time of the epidemic, the literature has a clear historical role in terms of describing the human experience of that particular time.
Lee argues that the AIDS epidemic introduced the creation of what he calls 'AIDS literacy', the "subject's dynamic capacity to cognitively assimilate and emotionally employ different bodies of knowledge, from health and biomedical discourse to high- and popular-cultural texts and frames of reference."(Lee, 2013 p. 147) In other words, AIDS literacy employed knowledge from the many sources that have constituted the historical perspective on the AIDS crisis, especially from a "post--AIDS" reader's perspective. Lee further argues that the AIDS crisis has "prevented gay men from creating and sustaining a viable intergenerational culture." (Ibid. p. 142) From a "post-AIDS" perspective, it is valuable to revisit authors such as Barnett in order to repair the damage that has been made to gay culture and gay history. One of the purposes presented by AIDS literacy, from a contemporary reading, is that i establishes a history of gay writing and reading, which contributed to evoking a sense of a past and a history. From this perspective, the title "The Times as It Knows Us " becomes very significant, as the novella situates itself as a historical relic, a surviving memorial.
"We could have been almost everywhere, dancing in the sad but safe aftermath of some other tragedy, say the Kennedy assassinations, the airlift from Saigon, the bombing of a Belfast funeral." (Barnett, 1990 p.166) Here one can see that references to historical tragedies is an attempt to locate the AIDS epidemic in history, and to connect it with history that is recognized and remembered. Again, the novella situates itself in history, and as a work of fiction has the means to write a history of the human experience:
"Give sorrow occasion and let it go, or your heart will imprison you in constant February, a chain-link fence around frozen soil, where your dead will stack in towers past the point of grieving. Let your tears fall for the dead, and as one who is suffering begin the lament... do not neglect his burial. [...] Let you weeping be bitter and your wailing fervent; then be comforted for your sorrow. Find in grief the abandon you used to find in love; grieve the way you used to fuck." (Ibid. p.106)
Here, the narrator responds to the social workers recommendations to 'give sorrow words.' Instead of choosing the words of Shakespeare, the narrator alludes to the Book of Sirach, instructing the readers to find abandon in grief in order to move on. This makes "The Times as It Knows Us " an emotional plea to its intended audience, who are affected by the epidemic. Moreover, the decision to choose new words, a new language, extends on the theme of self-representation, and actualises the novella as portrait of mourning in the age of the HIV epidemic. The representation Barnett has produced from this novella is moving away from empty words in news articles, towards depicting profound themes of love and mourning in a community that is overlooked by society.
Audun Westermann Ryeng går lektorprogrammet og tar en master i engelsk. Han planlegger å studere litterær teori med en spesialisering i litterær oversetting & drømmer om å publisere en egen diktsamling. @audun_ryeng på instagram.
- Allen Barnett, "The Times as It Knows Us" (1990) St. Martin's Press. New York.
- Lee, R. H.(2013). "Reading and AIDS Literacy in Allen Barnett's Short Fiction" Literature and Medicine. [ebook] Project Muse, pp.142-173.
Available at: https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.uio.no/article/523378 [Accessed 10 Dec. 2019].
- Poetryfoundation.org (2020) "If I could Tell You - Audio Poem of the Day" @:https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/77028/if-i-could-tell-you
- British Journal of Photography (2017). John and his partner kiss in the hospital bed. The acceptance of such intimacy was one of the more unusual aspects of this ward. From The Ward © Gideon Mendel. [image] Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/in-the-ward-gideon-mendel-started-his-c areer-spanning-battle-against-the-stigma-of-hivaids/ [Accessed 11 Dec. 2019].