03 January 2013

Second Pass

I recall this specific episode of Seinfeld. It concerned Elaine’s panic when she learned that the contraceptive sponge had been pulled from distribution and was no longer going to be sold in the New York drugstores. In anticipation she attempted to corner the market of the product and hoarded the boxes of sponges in her apartment. Then she began to discriminate between those men who were “sponge-worthy” and those who were not so deemed. “Jerry,” she says desperately, now that the sponges have gone off of the market “I’ve got to reevaluate my whole screening process. I can’t afford to waste any of them!”
I’ve got shelves and shelves downstairs of autobiographies and memoirs, but lately I’ve been wondering what constitutes a life worthy of an autobiography or memoir. Elaine interviews her latest beau: she inquires after his financial status, his habits of personal cleanliness, the current state of his bathroom, his willingness to trim his sideburns before she declares him “sponge-worthy” and takes him to her bed! What deems a life worthy of its being written and of my reading it?
I ask this question because I have just completed Winter Journal, a memoir by the author Paul Auster. I actually have not read any of his other works, and so I cannot say to what extent this latest piece can give insight into any of his already published work, but I find his life not especially extraordinary that I need study it. Indeed, the accounting of the progress of his life consists mainly of descriptions of a non-remarkable childhood, a typical adolescence with the de rigeur account of his sexual frustration, his masturbatory habits, and then his initial, unsatisfying sexual encounter; an annotated listing of the places he has lived (his girlfriends remain mostly without names), and a description of a series of encounters he has had in life with death. All in all, I would say, a rather uneventful eventful life. Indeed, this book is more about death than about life. “You have entered the winter of your life” closes the book. What makes this life sponge-worthy? I prefer King Lear or “The Dead.”
What does make a life worthy of recounting in such a public forum? In her own memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson writes “But life is more than an arrow. The womb to tomb of an interesting lifebut I can’t write my own; never could . . . I would rather go on reading myself as a fiction than as a fact . . .” That is, Winterson suggests that in her writing she would rather write the emotional and imaginative interactions in which she has engaged, but there is nothing linear about these events. Perhaps there are things that are too painful to be spoken, and so what we do manage to say compensates for what can’t be said. The truth remains silent. “We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t.” Thus, all autobiography is fiction: our bodies exist in the real world and do not write the life, and our neurotic states tell a necessary but not necessarily factual story.
What makes a memoir sponge-worthy then must be the ability to use the neurotic states to tell the stories of bodies and their neurotic states. Memoirists, Patricia Hampl writes, “wish to tell their mind not their story.” A sponge-worthy memoir writes a fascinating mind.


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