09 February 2013

Life's Story

Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator in Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist, learns that he did not receive a Fulbright award because of his association with Ira Ringold, a blacklisted Communist who the FBI thought was his uncle. This news, given to him by Ira’s brother Murray more than forty years after the fact, comes somewhat as a surprise to Zuckerman. Murray tells Nathan that Ira had carried about with him for his whole life the guilt “[a]bout what happened to you” when Zuckerman younger. Nathan says, “Nothing happened to me. I was a kid,” and Murray responds, “Oh, something happened to you.”  Of course, that something has made all the difference.
And Nathan considers: “Of course, it should not be too surprising to find out that your life story has included an event, something important, that you have known nothing about¾your life story is in and of itself something that you know very little about.” I’ve been wondering what he meant by that since self-awareness sits high atop my list of values. I have spent too many years in therapy discussing and even constructing what I thought was my life-story. The unexamined life is not worth living has served as a guiding principle. My goodness, I’ve tattooed on my soul Thoreau’s charge: “Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him? Does Mr. Grinnell know where he himself is? Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes -- with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.” I sense that Zuckerman is responding to Thoreau.
And perhaps this is what Zuckerman means: one doesn’t know one’s life as a story, complete with a plot and theme, and thus, it is impossible to know what event had some importance in the development of that life.  One lives a life from moment to moment, without the teleological trajectory so inherent in and necessary to a story. Whatever else a story is, it is a construction, and what is included in it has significance and therefore importance. But if my life story isn’t very well known (by which I mean as a story) then, of course, certain event will not enter into any plot. I am thinking now that it is perhaps not even at its end that one can see ones life as a story and can recall all of the events that happened in that life that could be deemed important. Zuckerman will say, “I came here because I don’t want a story any longer. I’ve had my story.” But Murray’s narrative suggests to Zuckerman that whatever life story he though he knew was at best incomplete and at worst, just plain wrong! Zuckerman: not lord of any realm, but a mere jester.


Anonymous Barbara said...

Lately, I have been examining my life to the term "hidden curriculum." One doesn't know what event, experience, learning, people, etc. one missed that also influenced one's life in some way.

10 February, 2013 10:14  

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