Anticipation: II. Present, Tense
Time moves differently for the sick, moves differently if it moves at all. When I have a cold, I sometimes convince myself that my health will never improve. My runny nose and my raspy throat cease to be symptoms. Instead, they become bodily facts, permanent side effects of life itself. Because it always hovers in the background, illness smooths over the arythmias of the everyday. No longer heterogeneous, moments slide into one another. The present, this present, persists endlessly.
Oscar Wilde describes prison in similar terms. Writing from the Reading Gaol, he observes in “De Profundis,” “Suffering is one moment. We cannot divide it by seasons.” For the penitent Wilde, it is precisely the regularity of his situation that annuls temporal difference. Much the same is true for the ill, living as they do according to a stable schedule of medications and treatments. Wilde, however, imagines an end to his imprisonment. He spends long sections of “De Profundis” imagining what his life will be like after he is released, often indulging in reveries more Romantic than Victorian. One is only a prisoner so long as one is imprisoned. When the gates open, time resumes its ordinary erratic course. Cancer, by contrast, refuses to let us go. Must our time remain cancer’s time, our present cancer’s perpetual now?
I heard from my doctor four weeks ago today. Four weeks with cancer, twenty eight days, a February’s worth of disease. Four weeks with cancer, but it hardly seems that time is passing. Unmet obligations surprise me each day. Apologizing, I beg distraction, but the truth is that I do not notice the hours slipping past. Only the act of writing clearly differentiates one day from the next. I contest cancer’s time not with the whir of my watch, but with the whisper of my pencil on the page.
While writing offers some relief, it allows no absolute release. When I describe the past month, I inevitably do so in the present tense. In my prose, last weekend and the weekend before unfold as if they were simultaneous, as do yesterday and today. All experience has become experience of cancer, so all of it plays out in the same register. The effect is so totalizing that I worry I may annihilate myself in and through my own temporal syntax. Where the act of writing retextures time, the way I write threatens to sand it down once again.
There is another possibility: Perhaps the present tense is a way of reclaiming my power, reclaiming it in relation to cancer. When I teach my students to write critically, I encourage them to discuss the texts they are analyzing in the present tense. They should not write that the Wilde of “De Profundis” “bemoaned” his conditions, but rather that he “bemoans” them. No arbitrary rule, this principle reminds us that our critical objects act every time we engage with them. They do whatever it is they do in the unending now of watching, looking, reading. The present tense acknowledges that art becomes meaningful through our interactions with it, not from some originary instance of creative invention.
I would like to think that I narrate this month as I do in order to engage with my disease. When I began, I imagined that cancer and criticism could sit side by side. But as I write, I find that cancer – my experience of cancer – has become my critical object. In the pages of my notebook, cancer and I make time together.
Questions linger: What tense will I employ after my surgery? What time will it be when I wake?