30 July 2012


I awoke last night (not evening) to the sounds of crickets chirping. Like the ever-present whine of the distant traffic on the macadamized roads, the seasonal song of the crickets acts as some foundation for the world of sound. These steady melodies seem to be those over which the noisy functionings of the world runs. But because they are so present, I often do not hear them.
I like the sound at night of the crickets during these summer months: they support the world when it does not know it needs support. I think that when I first go to sleep there is too much noise to even hear the crickets, though they do not care. There is the detritus of the day shutting down, the busy-ness of the preparations for sleep, the doors and drawers opening and closing, the swish of waters in sink and toilet, the brushing of hair and teeth, the clatter of the day’s unfinished business that will soon become the stuff of my dreams. I am at this time too preoccupied to consider the existence of the world outside; I do not then even look outside the windows, obsessed as I have become with shutting out the world beyond them. But when I awaken in the earlier morning hours, when in most places outside New York City the world has retired at day’s end, on this steamy summer evening there is no sound but the chirping of the crickets. And they recall to me that the world goes on without my awareness and that while the crickets chirp all remains well with them and they very much unconcerned with me.
In the Fall the crickets will fall into silence, and then only the wheels on the road will support the world. 

24 July 2012

Memoir and Novel

But what if The Liar’s Club were a novel? Had I acquired it as a piece of fiction rather than as a memoir then I would have approached the book with a different set of expectations and would have read it with a different set of strategies. It would have become a wholly different book. And I think I might have understood it differently and appreciated it more.As a memoir, Karr’s work narrates the events that comprised several years of her life that she learns had established the frame for the whole of it.  As in any good psychoanalytic session, the narrated story that makes up The Liar’s Club reveals the secrets in which Karr’s family has functioned and, those secrets, now revealed, explains the behaviors that then puzzled and terrified the eight year old and her slightly older sister, Lecia.  Unlike in a good psychoanalytic session, however, here Karr already knew the outcome before she set out to write: here her task was to construct the narrative appropriately so as to lead to the revelatory moment. In this memoir, the deus ex machina (that I’ve learned is an artificial, weak and unsatisfying technique to effect some resolution to a conflict) occurs with Karr’s mother’s story concerning the loss of her first two children to explain her resulting irrational, often bizarre even dangerous behavior throughout Karr’s life. In this memoir that actually takes place in not much more than several years, Karr intends in this revelation to offer rational explanation for what to the child at the time seemed irrational. The ultimate disclosurea lie of omission more than one of commissionserves as a comfort to Karr, and offers to her life the discovery that her life had actually been lived within the liar’s club, a club to which she thought she was not a member. Her narrative, constructed after the fact, offers a sane explanation for an insane life and replaces lies with truth.  
But, the movement of the book toward revelation is hardly revelatory: the rewriting of a life in light of discovered truths represents a commonplace in our present culture, and the discovery that we lie as much by omission as by overt (albeit false) declaration is hardly insightful. Indeed, I wonder if simply and conveniently editing a narrative can be considered lying at all. And if no story can ever be told truthfully in full, then aren’t all our narratives in a sense lies? Don’t we all live in the liar’s club? Every family lives by its secrets: they are formative even as they are summative. Isn’t it all fiction, then? Karr’s story finally is about the particular lies with which she has lived, and they are not my lies. Nor would I discover my lies in any way similar to the manner of Karr’s discoveries. This memoir has nothing to do with me because it is a memoir!!
Were The Liar’s Club a novel, then as I read it I would have participated in it differently than I did when I considered it a memoir. Then I would have attended to plot and story, to tropes and settings as more than attempts at explanation but as part of the constructed mise en scene. This memoir has a theme, of course, but it is particular to Mary Karr: I am not relevant to this life. But the novel The Liar’s Club facilitates my entrance because it is exactly about me who reads the book. But if it is really a novel, why not just call it one and enable the strategies I have practiced to read it.
Ironically, if I consider The Liar’s Club as a novel, I think that the ending contradicts the substance. The revelation Karr experiences at the novel’s end ‘explains’ the events she has been narrating; it is to this conclusion that the story has been directed. And Karr reflects that this truth should have ‘filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters.” Despite the tortured grammar of the sentence of whose meaning I am still not clear, I think Karr suggests here that the revelations she has participated in should have been like “the cool tunnel of white light the spirit might fly into at death . . .” But I would have thought that the revelations would have led not to death but to life, not into but out of the liar’s club. The lie that she asserts that she can live with is the lie that somewhere there awaits some truth that would permit some blinding peace “till all your beloveds hover before you, their arms held out in welcome.” But if the lie is known as such, then what power does it possess? The revelation that offers Karr her explanation assumes the form of a lie: in a novel this insight might have been ground for serious thought. I think of the lives of Isabel Archer or Nathan Zuckerman. But in Karr’s memoir, her insight has little to do with me because the substance and details of the book have not been constructed to have anything to do with me. I can at times participate in life with Isabel Archer or Nathan Zuckerman or even Ishmael or Leopold Bloom. The Compsons can be my difficult neighbors, but I cannot share existence with the Mary Karr of The Liar’s Club. It is her memoir: the truths and the lies are hers. 

19 July 2012

On the Difference Between Autobiographies and Memoirs

I’ve been considering the difference between autobiography’ and ‘memoir.’ I’m reading Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Interesting enough, but certainly not an autobiography. I have in fact read a great many autobiographies: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Henry Adams, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein (?), Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton, The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt. I offer a class for teachers in autobiography. Teachers tell a lot of stories.
On the one hand, the autobiographies seem to be life story of individuals who have achieved some significant accomplishment in their lives other than the writing of their autobiographies. Henry Adams, of course, rises to the occasion as a member of an illustrious family that includes John, John Quincy, Abigail, and Charles Francis, each a significant figure in American history. I think that McCourt began his writing career with his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, and with its success continued to write until he had completed an autobiography with the publication of ‘Tis and Teacher Man. Merton’s autobiography offered a portrait of a life that had become fulfilled in spirituality and his move to the position of the hermit. Augustine wrote a great deal more than his confessions and was renowned for his work before its publication, and Franklin and Stein are famous figures.
I have chosen obvious examples, but there are others. I have read the autobiographies of the African-American historian John Hope Franklin (Mirror to America); the literary critics Wayne Booth (My Many Selves), and Terry Eagleton (The Gatekeeper), which he refers to as a memoir; the autobiography of philosopher Stanley Cavell (Little Did I Know); and the musician, Bob Dylan (Chronicles). The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fictional narrative that recounts through the life of an exemplar the history of the African-American experience from the Emancipation to the Civil Rights movement. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written with the significant assistance of Alex Haley.
For the most part the autobiographies told the story of an entire life, or at least one that has not as yet ended in death. Of course, one cannot write about one’s death except in imaginary terms. And the life told recounts the careers and thoughts of illustrious people: the autobiographies might be understood as exemplars or cautionary narratives told by people of some renown. By the social/historical position achieved as a result of their accomplishments, the autobiographers have something of their learning and wisdom yet to offer. I think that from the recounting of their lives in their autobiographies, I come to understand not only their lives and times but my own as well.
There are a flood of what are referred to as tell-all autobiographies by actors and performers who are prepared to reveal many of the sordid details of their lives to a) exact some revenge on those who have somehow slighted them; b) reveal how they have overcome great hardship to achieve great wealth and fame; and, c) to glamorize themselves and their achievement. For the most part these autobiographies give substance to the person where none before existed: an actor does not have a life worth telling simply because they played someone else’s life for a great deal of money. This present spate of ‘autobiographies’ seems to me mere products of vanity; often they are not even written by the subject himself.
A memoir seems to be an account not of a whole life but only of a portion of it, and the writer of a memoir becomes famous for having written it and not for having lived a life worth writing about. That is, though Mary Karr has written an interesting memoir, it is for having written it that she achieves her fame and not for the life the memoir recounts; her life finally might be understood as one not too unlike ours. The life she recounts is interestingly told, but does not achieve the status of an exemplary life; there was nothing about Mary Karr’s life that warranted its recounting except her ability to tell a good story.  In The Liar’s Club, it is the style and not the life that interests me, and were it not for her memoir, Mary Karr would have remained somewhat anonymous. 

16 July 2012


A wallflower hangs in the background while others move to the center and dance. Either from shyness or some variety of unpopularity, the wallflower stays on the fringes of activity, sometimes an astute observer of the scene, but also one not prone to reveal what s/he knows. That the wallflower is present at all attests to her desire to dance, but something keeps her from the floor. According to the On-line dictionary, the term ‘wallflower’ (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/wallflower), refers to “the fragrant flowers of Cheiranthus cheiri [that] came to be called wallflowers because they often grow on old walls, rocks, and quarries. The plant name is first recorded in 1578. It is not known who first made the comparison between these delicate flowers and the unpartnered women sitting along the wall at a dance, but the figurative sense is first found in an 1820 work by Mrs. Campbell Praed entitled County Ball.” The word originally described women at dances, but today the word applies to men as well and to situations that are far removed from the dance floor. Wallflowers are not outsiders but they are found outside of society; I think wallflowers are not anti-social, but rather, may be socially averse. I suspect that the wallflower could change the quality of the entire room if only he entered into it, yet, its wonderful fragrances are lost to the crowded room because the flowers cling desperately, even longingly to the walls. And yet . . .
Perhaps the wallflower is also an invitation. S/he waits for someone to act—to pluck her bloom off of the wall and carry her fragrance and delicacy out into the room. There is much beauty in the flower. The wallflower may be afraid but is open to a call; the wallflower waits to be taken, and offers hope in return.
Wendy Wall sings of this invitation in “The Wallflower’s Waltz:”
These may be hard times these days
But there’s a way to break the fall
Let’s get out and get ourselves some congregation
The night is young and I’m in full bloom here on this wall
I hear music and it’s playing my salvation
I think the wallflower knows the risks that accompanies entering the dance, but who knows better the benefits of the dance to fare in life. The invitation here reminds me of Robert Francis’s poem “Summons,” about which I wrote some time ago here. In “Summons” the narrator longs to be awakened, but there is no sense of sadness in his entreaty. He already knows what he will be told, and he could even enjoy the wonder without his companion. But in “The Wallflower’s Waltz” the grief is palpable and overwhelming: the wallflower is full of life and wants only to share her sense of life. She won’t—maybe even can’t—dance alone; but she is ready and in full bloom and only awaits someone’s inviting grasp so that she might join:
Won’t you take up my hand
Lift me off of my seat
Spin me onto that floor
Sweep me off of my feet
A bloom withers on a vine
Left alone left to chance
And it’s breaking my heart not to dance
The desire and loneliness expressed in the final line saddens me.
It is heartbreaking not to dance, not to join with others in joy and gaiety; that because of some private motive that paralyzes the will to sit alone waiting longingly and invitingly.
It is painful to anticipate the dance and then not to waltz, to watch without a smile the smiles of the dancers. It breaks one’ heart to hold out the hand and have the invitation unrecognized or even spurned.

12 July 2012

Thursday, I think

She wondered what it meant when I said I was doing nothing. I answered that my days were relatively empty of directionfor the most part I did not have to be anywhere at any specific time and for no pressing reasonand what had to be done had become so routinized that it required some little effort in time but demanded very little energy. And that was all, alright with me. I had, as it were, no direction home; indeed, I had no direction at all. I was reading randomly and without question; I maintained interest without vision. The books and papers piled up and none called out pressingly to me. Occasionally I would foray out of the compound for dinner and drinks with friends, but mostly I remained content to stay within. I started screening the four seasons of Felicity (another show that flew under my radar) and peaceably spend some daylight hours in the cabin happily watching this drama (?) of manners (?) about students at the University of New York, very transparently NYU. I half-heartedly check the movie listings at the local theaters (little to see this summer), peruse the music venues (there’s always Beethoven) and even theater offerings (Neil Simon never my preference), and then I return to the computer screen and to Felicity Porter feeling content enough that I have ventured out at least in my imagination.  The book, Symphony #1 has been published, the school year was over, the children mostly gone, and the treatments regular and successful. I told her that I was tired and distractedor distractibleand that I didn’t want engagement.  
She asked if I was okay doing nothing, and I said I thought I might be so. I said I thought that what I was, in fact, doing was filling the cup until it flowed over and that when it did so I would engage in some activity represented by the overflow. I understood that at any time I could, if I so desired, force the issue: just start something and something else would inevitably follow. But, I told her, I preferred not to. I was on some kind of vacation. By eight o’clock in the morning my day lay wide open and wholly unstructured.
I have had to learn to give myself permission to enjoy this freedom, because that is, indeed, what this time represents. I was being unproductive but not unemployed; I had no direction home but was not without a home. I remain grounded by the details, but there was at this time no bigger picture. Moving through the world required no effortthere was no resistancebut I wasn’t going anywhere.
I think Thoreau lived much of his adult life in this manner, but perhaps the journals were the defining mechanism that gave his life direction:  in those journals he explored the life he was living. He was not living to write about it, but writing about it changed his life. I think learning to live deliberately required a certain freedomwhat we might today called aimlessnessbut in fact there was nothing aimless about Thoreau’s directionlessness. In searching for his life he was creating it; creating his life was searching for it. He said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” I am building castles.
It is a luxury to be in this state. And neurotic to be displeased in it.

09 July 2012

Old Friends

Some of my dearest friends and comrades are the books that sit on shelves throughout my home. I call them friends because with them I have shared a precious intimacy. They are my chosen, and I have given my life to them. I have stood naked with them and written my secrets on their souls, and they have offered me their private thoughts and given me entrance to their most intimate confidences. I have lain with these friends during my brightest days and my darkest nights; in the lonely moments of my soul they have comforted me and been my companion through until morning. These friends and I have together laughed and wept, bemoaned and celebrated our individual state and that of the world; we have together in joy studied and frolicked. These friends have drunk with me my coffees and liquorsI have stained their pages with my carelessness, and they have often served as valet and wiped my face when I was too untidy. These intimates have entered the cloistered spaces into which even my children have no access; they have suffered without complaint the stench of my ordure and enjoyed the sweeter smells of my private fragrances. The books have kept the splatter from my desktops and my lap, and screened my face from the muck and mire of the world; they have borne the blows aimed to me.
But like me, my friends have aged, and sometimes when I pull one out from the shelf and beg some companionship, their fragility becomes all too evident. The glue has irrevocably dried up; the covers slip off and the pages detach from the spine. With the slightest movement pages float down like leaves off the trees in the Fallor drift like souls lost. When I pull a volume out to renew some familiarity or to enter into some new intimacy, the book comes undone in my arms and becomes unreadable. I no longer can enter into new conversations with this particular friend for it can no longer bear the weight of my body or my soul. My pens and pencils would now rend the lines and spaces; my own voices engraved in the pages have become faded in their memory.     
What shall I do with these hoary books? I hold one up and it crumbles in my hands. Delicately I embrace the volume and gently turn some pages and recover some of my past: I see along the margins shadowy words in a familiar handwriting recollecting some thoughts and holding onto my past. Without the books I would have no access to this past. I hold onto these friends for my life. The shelves bend under the weight. 
What do I do with these hoary books? I place them with love back on the shelf and I purchase them anew; my library doubles in size with the repetition. But reading the new edition does not feel the same knowing my old friend sits silently forlorn on the shelf.