30 November 2012

Memoir, a Beginning

For some time now I have been interested in the memoir. And I keep wondering what am I seeking when I read them. Memoir and autobiography are often considered synonymous, but I take the latter as the record of an entire life, or at least up to but not including death; and the former as a view of a portion of a life, sizable though the portion might be. I understand that Miley Cyrus at the age of sixteen has penned a memoir, but her young age conflates the two forms. And maybe the distinction is irrelevant.
I am at the moment wondering if autobiographies and memoirs possess themes as do novels and other pieces of imaginative literature. What is a theme? My old copy of Thrall and Hibbard (Thank you, Dr. Wise!) defines theme as “the central or dominating idea in a literary work . . . It is the abstract concept which is made concrete through its representation in person, action and image in the work.”  My immersion in the postmodern and/or post-structural (and, in fact, in a calm perusal of any shelf containing tomes of literary criticism) has led me to know that themes vary with the particular reader and the strategies she has activated in her reading; and with the times in which the reading takes place. The Scarlet Letter certainly demands a different reading today than it did when it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century. I know, as well, that a work can produce a variety of themes; and that a theme is what the book is about even when I cannot exactly recall what happened in the work.
Now, my Thrall and Hibbard notes that in non-fiction works theme “may be thought of as the general topic of discussion the subject of the discourse, the thesis.” The latter term refers to a position taken by a writer or speaker and that in the work must be sufficiently proven. 
Autobiographies and memoirs are reputedly non-fiction pieces: they report the biography of the person writing autobiography, and the reader assumes that the events reported are true. In some very obvious instances we discover that this is not the caseA Million Little Pieces comes immediately to mindbut most memoirs are taken as fact. Phillip Roth, in his autobiography, The Facts, has called the whole notion of ‘facts’ into question, but I will save that discussion for another time.
For this time, however, I want to consider that though the obvious theme of all autobiographies and memoirs is the life of the autobiographer or memoirist, in fact, the life of the autobiographer or memoirist is itself organized by a theme. As the story itself expresses the theme in a work of imaginative literature, so might I understand the autobiography and memoir as a piece of imaginative literature that expresses a theme and that might be read using strategies appropriate to the novel. In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”  Jeanette Winterson writes: “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story.” If life is part fiction, then to write about life must contain a good part fiction. I know well how and even why to read fiction, but I have begun to wonder why immerse myself in autobiography and memoir unless I read it as a work of imagination and not of absolute fact? And then I activate a whole other set of strategies than I have led to employ when reading non-fiction. In writing the autobiography of a life how does one distinguish between the fact and the fiction of the life told? Leave out the fiction and the facts tell only a partial story; leave out the fact (how is that possible?) and the work is all fiction and no longer seems an autobiography. Isn’t Moby Dick Ishmael’s memoir? 

23 November 2012

With Malice Toward None

I remember one Thanksgiving it might have been almost fifteen years ago, I think. We were celebrating in New York, and after sharing an enormous turkey dinner with all of the trimmings and then some, my brother and I attempted to escape the somewhat suffocating environment of family, immediate or otherwise, and we headed out to find a bar in which to unwind. Yes, we were family, too, but we had a common interest to find someplace away from the business of the family gathering. But despite our serious, concerted effort, we roamed the neighborhoods without coming upon a single establishment open for business; disappointed, we returned to the family dinner with our desire for quiet and solitude disappointingly unfulfilled. We poured a brandy resignedly.
     With all due apologies to Native Americans who must view the day as one to be celebrated with tears and mourning, that evening I understood that Thanksgiving possessed a sacredness that in the United States insisted that business not proceed as usual. The streets of our town were mostly empty and the doors of businesses sealed tightly shut. Though it might be true that without family the day could be terribly lonesome (I think of Soapy in O. Henry’s story “The Cop and the Anthem”) the purity of Thanksgiving’s special character would not be violated. This holiday linked us historically to our origins as a nation however we conceive of those origins. A few restaurants remained open to feed those who preferred not to cook, or were in the midst of traveling, but for the most part the streets were empty and the store windows darkened.
     I mention this because this year on Thanksgiving not only were many of the bars open until late into the evening, but the shopping-for-Christmas was to begin (and had begun) even before the turkeys carcasses had been cleared away to become for leftovers. The dinner tables had not yet been cleared and the wine glasses still remained half-full when people jumped into their automobiles and headed out for the nearest mall. Celebrants stood at the Thanksgiving starting line and waited for the gun to start the mad shopping orgy that culminates in Christmas. Thanksgiving had ceased to be a time for reflection on our histories, a moment when some (at least) could savor the good fortunes that had befallen them, and to celebrate the company of family and friends who had sustained us and would keep us warm during the long and cold and often dark winter months. Thanksgiving had to be endured as a necessary episode before the main event would begin. Though once I considered Thanksgiving the closest thing to a national secular religious celebration, Thanksgiving had now been rendered meaningless.
     And so, as I regretted the transformation of a day I have long celebrated with some real joy into some mad capitalist frenzy of anticipated purchase and rabid consumerism, I thought of Elena Kagan. I recalled her confirmation hearing when Senator Lindsey Graham queried her on her whereabouts on Christmas Day. At first, now-Justice Kagan took his question seriously, as if he was pursuing some technical legal point that might determine his vote on her nomination, and she began to offer a response to a question that appeared to confuse her; more out of respect for the Senator than she was shown by him, she chose to consider the question seriously, and began to respond to some issue regarding what had come to be known as the Christmas Bomber. But Senator Graham, sitting lazily in his chair with his vacuous head propped up by his left hand, interrupted Kagan and said, “No, I’m just asking where you were at on Christmas!” And after what I still take as amazed laughter, Elena Kagan said, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese Restaurant.” It was the perfect response to a remarkably stupid question.
     Aside from Graham’s bad grammar, I point out the absurd inappropriateness of his question. In his presumptive query Graham invaded the privacy of the individual in demanding she reveal publically how she might have been privately celebrating a holiday; she had not been accused, after all, of being absent without leave from her position! There is an insolence in his question, an assumption that the day (for him) was somehow so special (and important) that Kagan should be able to recall not only where she was celebrating it but that this information had such significant that should be read into the public record. As if her nomination to the United States Supreme Court should depend on the nature of her celebration of Christmas, a holiday, she pertly responded, had no spiritual import to her. Senator Graham, knowing full well that Kagan was not Christian, wondered how she celebrates a Christian holiday, and of course, behind that question, rested an unspoken judgment. When Graham’s staff vetted Elena Kagan they must have learned that as a Jew she probably didn’t celebrate Christmas; and that if as a secular Jew she did in some manner celebrate the holiday nevertheless his question assumed a significance to the day that he had no right to impart to her.  By his question Senator Graham failed to attend to either the candidate or to to the more general concept of cultural diversity on which the United States purports to stand. In fact, I haven’t the foggiest notion what purpose his question might have had except to embarrass the candidate for not being Christian enough to celebrate Christmas.
     And I am disturbed not merely by the inane question of Lindsay Graham (which will have to speak volubly for itself) but the response of the other Senators to Kagan’s statement that she had spent the day in a Chinese restaurant. One senator announced that “I could have almost expected that answer,” to which Graham responded, “Me, too.” (I repeat: to what purpose the question might have been put to Kagan in the first place except to embarrass her.)  Was Senator Lindsay Graham that imprudent and ill-advised¾to put the best light on the situation¾that he either didn’t understand something very basic about the candidate that he should have previously known, or that he didn’t very much care if he showed the candidate the respect she deserved. In either case, his question speaks from a remarkable ignorance. Another senator on the committee adds to the inanity, “No other restaurants were open.” As if this comment would explain Kagan’s playful statement by an uncalled-for rationality that suggests a serious lack of wit on the part of the Senator. Yet another voice from a member of the august committee (the adjective is meant to drip with irony) that this situation had been explained to him by Jewish senator Charles Schumer, from, you know, Jew York!!
     And I am thinking on this Thanksgiving Day that I despair that these men are responsible for establishing a rule of law and reason. “Oh no, you can’t fool me, there is no Sanity Clause!”
     Well, with a large portion of the population scurrying through the shopping malls, I am off to the hopefully empty movie theater to see Spielberg’s Lincoln. It was this 16th  President who declared in the midst of civil war, that we ought “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” Oh how the mighty have fallen!

20 November 2012

On Apology

I’m been thinking about apology. About “I’m sorry” and the act of saying it. I think we utter “I’m sorry” as often and as perfunctorily as we utter “How are you”
There are the obvious moments when “I’m sorry” might be the only response, as when I step on someone’s foot, for example, or spill my glass of red wine on the clean white tablecloth, events perpetrated without malicious intent—indeed, with all due respect to Sigmund Freud, without any intent at all. I am sorry, I say, and in that apology I acknowledge what it is I have done, but say as well that I did not in any sense intend to commit this regretful deed. I am sorry for the deed.
And then there are those moments when I attempt to accomplish some task without realizing much success, as when I fail at assembling my child’s new bedroom furniture that arrives with detailed instructions written by someone who has not done well in her technical writing class, I complain. I look at the scattered pieces and the multi-page manual and I moan, “I’m sorry” before I call someone with the requisite expertise. Or in a related sense, I utter “I’m sorry” when I have almost completed said construction but discover that several pieces remain yet lying lonely on the assembly floor and the furniture leans a bit to one side or appears in places somewhat upended. I am sorry for the deed insufficiently realized through all fault of my own.
And then there are those times when I have acted and/or spoken irrationally (though speaking is itself almost always a performative act, I think!) and I express regret for words ill intended and badly phrased. These, I think, are events that are ultimately as easily recognizable as the first instances noted above, though clearly the intentionality here exists and is not meant well. Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” is a clear example of this instance: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is to see you!” In a quieter, less bitter moment I apologize and acknowledge not my feelings that maintain their legitimacy but my needless and inappropriate expression of them. The derisive statement was more about me than the other.
And then at times I apologize that there exists too much injustice and cruelty in the world, and that too many people go to bed hungry and alone and suffering, and though this situation is not my fault directly, yet the knowledge of these conditions remains my burden. So is it with my regrets concerning death and illness: I have no role in the events but neither have I any ability to alter the outcome. My apology speaks of my powerlessness and my ultimate regret.
But there are times when my actions have been neither maliciously conceived nor heartlessly intended. They proceed from no accident. Indeed, the act I commit emanated not from who I am at the moment but the self I have brought to the moment; the act was not a choice but a necessity of Self. I could have done something else but then it would not have been I who acted. And to say “I’m sorry” in this instance would be a denial of myself. I have business and desires and of them I am comprised and from which I act. To behave contrary to these business and desires is to behave contrary to my self. They are not an accident of circumstance, neither the result of an inadequacy nor a malicious ill-conceived event, but an authentic expression of self. As Dylan says in “I've tried not to ever hurt anybody/And to stay out of the life of crime.” There is only a bit of equivocation in Dylan’s assertion: he may have tried not to hurt anybody, but that doesn’t mean that no one got hurt. And in fact the statement might itself be understood as a kind of apology. But here the intention is important. Though Heschel somewhere says that a deed that ends badly is not a good deed regardless, and that a deed committed with evil intent that results in good is regardless a good deed, sometimes a good intent does matter. We are not ever in control of all the factors that determine results.
And if the act stemmed from some ignorance, then it was an ignorance of which I was not yet aware. How can I apologize for my ignorance when my life demands that it exist. Here “I’m sorry” demands my apology for what I could not yet know. Nathan Zuckerman’s low assessment of Swede Levov results from such ignorance: “I could not have been more wrong about anything in my life,” he writes. But the statement is not an apology but an admission.
I think of Hawthorne’s minister who donned the black veil as the external symbol of his internal sinfulness. I would needs wear a badge, like Hester Prynne’s Scarlet A  that reads “I’m Sorry” to excuse my every behavior that offends someone.
Perhaps it is patience we require to live more peacefully in this world. Dylan again: “You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine.” Two rights don’t make a wrong, indeed, but they do make trouble.
I prefer Whitman’s motto: “Do I contradict myself. Well, then, I contradict myself!” Live with it!

14 November 2012

When Sleep May Come

I think I have forgotten how to sleep. Oh, not that I do not slip out of waking consciousness and into a dream state, but that the body no longer seems to know how to be comfortable. I awaken throughout the night with arms aching from having been used as pillows instead of the multiple and costly pillows which I continue to stack on the bed. Sometimes I am awakened by the body as an emergency response to a limb numbed from having been somehow in my restless sleep been so positioned to be deprived of blood. I wake with phantom arms and lie restlessly and uncomfortably awaiting a return of presence in some tingly recovery of sensory feeling. At other times I am awakened by the pain in the bones and joints that comprise my knees that have begun to ache from having been stacked one atop the other as I lie in my sleep in a fetal position. Or I awaken with some regularity to trudge to the bathroom. Sometimes, E.T. phones home and I answer the call.
Or I dream. And in these dreams as I enact desire I am not restful.
I wonder when it was that I lost the ability to sleep restfully. It is a curious disability, I think, to have moved into positions that make sleep uncomfortable. No matter how many pillows I purchase they provide little comfort and minimal ease. Perhaps it is the mind’s refusal to tolerate death’s counterfeit that unsettles the body: rage, rage, against the dying of the light! The mind will not let the body sleep. Or perhaps it is exactly the opposite: the body will not rest, rest perturbed spirit.
Poor Macbeth despairs that he has murdered sleep by killing Duncan in his sleep. Lady Macbeth does not rest easily in the night: she walks the castle in her sleep sorely troubled. “A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefits of sleep and do the effects of watching.” Lady Macbeth is getting no rest. I awaken all night from my failure to remember how to stay asleep.
It seems odd to consider that sleep is somehow learned and that it might then be also forgotten. Having once known well how to sleep, in the present moment I have lost that capacity but I have killed no king. 

09 November 2012

Of Pen and Ink

Somewhere in the basement, in files I have not looked into for years and then years, there are pages of yellow legal pad paper covered over with words, words, words! What is the matter, my lord? These sheets are the rough drafts of papers I wrote before I began composing on the computer. They are the sheets from which I typed the formal, final manuscripts of the papers I wrote for college and graduate school (or that I gave to an expert typist for final preparations). They are, of course, not clean copies: there exist yet cross-outs and insertions and stains of coffee and blueberry muffins covering the words so carefully thought out and written. Carefully thought out because every wrong idea meant a sheet crumpled and tossed. Every wrong idea meant the destruction of large segments of the paper, or the complicated process of literally cutting and pasting whole pieces of the paper together. If the sentence or paragraph revision occurred on the bottom of the page then often the whole sheet had to be rewritten and/or repositioned. Writing then seemed to demand the mental composition of whole sentences and even paragraphs even before a pen was put to paper. There are hundred of pages down there in the files, and having over the past thirty-five years or so turned to the computer for my composition, I can’t imagine how I was able to produce not just all of the papers but even a single one. And then I wrote with ball point pens that were usually lost or misplaced before they ever ran out of ink.
So today I marvel at the ability of say, Henry James or George Eliot, to compose the remarkably long and complex sentences and paragraphs in any one of their novels much less in the entire body of their work. They wrote with pen and paperand fountain pens at thatand plain, even unlined paper. I wonder what their manuscripts look like?
The computer has altered the composing process. I think that now I think in smaller grammatical units, and am certainly more carefree in the manner in which I lay down the words; I know that anything can be easily deleted (or even somewhere saved!) and possess still yet a clean sheet of ‘paper’ on which to continue writing. My floor is no longer littered with crumpled sheets torn from the pad and my waste paper basket has no discarded sheets. Now simple movements of the keys delete and move my words and thought about. Perhaps at the computer I now have more possibilityJames might have been more ready to leave a less than perfect construction rather than destroy a whole written page. And I marvel at the process of his insertions (of words it might not have been too difficult) but of whole sentences and paragraphs the effort might have been quite daunting. Perhaps in the 1906 revision of the novels James undertook the work that with pen and paper seemed at the time too complex.
And I wonder how my thought has shrunk with my current practice of composing on the computer. I need think in terms not of sentences and paragraphs but of words and phrases. In the composition, I go by going where I have to go, and need make not too careful plans for my route.