Document:AIDS as Metaphor

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AIDS as Metaphor
by Celia Farber

Impression magazine
November 1998


It is not the HIV retrovirus that has changed our world so indelibly. It is the idea that physical contact and intimacy can kill you. The mass hysteria has invaded our homes and schools and even influenced the Clinton-Lewinsky crisis.

Ideas, as we know, have consequences. A simple idea can alter the behavior of millions, as the turn-of-the-century book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds so brilliantly demonstrates. Did you know that there was a time (the early 1600s) when wealthy Europeans became so consumed with certain tulip bulbs as status symbols that they sunk vast fortunes into acquiring them? "Tulipomania," as it came to be known, ended as arbitrarily and suddenly as it began, presumably when people realized that tulips were rather ordinary flowers, and hardly worth all this hysteria – but this return to rational thinking caused a near-collapse in the economy of several European countries, which had rested heavily on the tulip trade. The same bulbs that had previously been so talismanic, so coveted, that had inspired such passion and been bought for such fortunes, now lay rotting in warehouses. The entire change had occurred in people's minds, while the objective reality – the tulips – remained the same.

I think about this phenomenon when I think about AIDS – and I've been thinking about AIDS for thirteen years, which is much too long. In AIDS, I see everything that the modern world is really about, so I use it as a microcosm. As a study in mass hysteria, there exists no richer example than HIV-AIDS. It is not the "deadly virus" but the idea of it that has changed our world so indelibly. It is an idea we cannot shake.

The cutting edge of AIDS dissent has moved, in recent years, from the question of whether the retrovirus HIV causes AIDS to a far more mind-boggling question posed by a group of scientists in Australia: Does HIV exist? In other words: Is there really a biological entity, ubiquitously known as HIV, that is unique, distinct from all others, and distinct from all unnamed retroviral debris, that can with utter certainty be claimed as a virus with a name and a genetic purpose – that is itself and no other – and that is the entity held up as the cause of AIDS at Robert Gallo's fateful 1984 press conference?

Of course it exists, you think, I've even seen it! You know, that knobby, colorful sphere-like thing that has ominously appeared on so many magazine covers since the mid-'80s. The virus that we've come to know over the years as "ingenious," "deceptive," "cunning," and, of course, "deadly." (I almost forgot "non-discriminating.")

No, the quiet team of Australian scientists argue, HIV was never isolated, never proven to exist as an exogenous, unique retrovirus.

I have been content to follow this one from the sidelines, as my more mentally intrepid dissident colleagues rolled up their sleeves and got into it. It's fascinating. I asked Peter Duesberg – the Sakharov of the AIDS dissidents, infamous for his long-standing case against HIV as the cause of AIDS – whether he thought HIV "existed." "Yes, I do," he said, "but I still don't think it causes AIDS."

He paused and then added with a slight laugh: "I guess that makes me a moderate dissident now."


In Geneva, at the recent International AIDS Conference, dissidents flew in from all over the world. We slept, to our great amusement, inside an actual nuclear bunker, which two lovely male Swissair flight attendants and dissidents (if you can imagine such a thing) rented on our behalf from the Swiss Army. (Every Swiss house or building has a nuclear bunker beneath it.) In the evenings, we gathered at long tables at outdoor cafés, and talked and argued and drank. One night, the topic arose as to whether or not the debate about viral isolation should take precedence over all else. I said no. Because, I argued: What is true in the mind is far more potent than any external reality, and it is true in the minds of millions of people that HIV is a deadly virus. That, therefore, must be tackled first.

We passed between us this weird black thing somebody had picked up at the conference. We were laughing and fingering it. What was it? It looked like the severed wing of a bat and smelled like cinnamon; it was a dental dam. A political statement. A totem of progressiveness, and a totem of madness. There are, at most, two alleged cases of HIV transmission from woman to woman. But no doubt some screaming mimi from the AIDS establishment has trumpeted that figure as a 100 percent increase (double!) from the days when there was only one.


I doubt whether any single idea has had such a meteoric impact on the global human psyche as the 1984 announcement by Robert Gallo that the "probable cause of AIDS" had been found, that it was a virus, and that it was spreading sexually. To equate sex, which begets life, with death, was to turn humanity on itself, to give it a formula with which to drive itself mad. The waves of terror that would radiate from that inexplicably mysterious press conference are too awesome to document. Nothing would ever quell that original volcano of AIDS panic. Instead, it would become the most defining psychic characteristic of the end of the century.

The characteristic does not always manifest as fear of AIDS, but rather, as a generalized fear of contact, of intimacy. I see it everywhere, perhaps because I'm looking for it. I see it on Seinfeld, where the characters are totally phobic of germs, of contact. I see it in parents who won't touch their own children, camp counselors who are not allowed to even comfort a crying child, high school students who shower with their clothes on, not to mention cybersex, phone sex, and no sex.

A sex therapist I know in New York told me several of her male clients have actually developed a psychosis about AIDS to the point where many of them are celibate. One has such a morbid fear of AIDS that he hasn't had sex in eight years.

I trace the Clinton-Lewinsky crisis, even, back to AIDS, back to that 1984 press conference. Why? Because on that day, sex itself was rendered murderous. This in turn led to the widely accepted notion that sexual advances in the workplace are criminal offenses. Desire itself was more or less criminalized. This idea is electromagnetic, not visible, but it is why Clinton must burn, even though we don't really know exactly what he did, or what it means.


I was having lunch with a friend recently, a young, single man, who every year attends the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert – the annual gathering that is supposed to be the place where young people go to take drugs, release their inhibitions, ignite their creativity, and, finally, set fire to some gigantic wooden statue of a man (or something like that). Sounds perfectly awful, but this friend of mine goes each year, and loves it. This year, he really had a story for me. He had met and become infatuated with, a young woman who worked as a stripper. They went back to his tent. She asked him to massage her. They were both on ecstasy. And what does she do?

"She insisted I put on a pair of rubber gloves before I could touch her," my friend said.

I lurched forward. "You are kidding."

"I kid you not."


"I don't know. She thought I might give her some disease or something."

"Just by massaging her?"


"But where did she get the gloves from?"

"She had a whole box of them."

"A box? In the middle of the desert?"


© 1998 by Celia Farber
Originally published in Impression magazine