23 July 2014

Other Lives to Lead

Thoreau says that he left Walden for the same reason as he went there in the first place: he had other lives to lead. Now, I recall that he originally occupied Walden as an experiment: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” I have never had Thoreau’s discipline but at no point in my life have I not tried to live by his principles. And at this moment I am drawn to these lines because I am leaving a Walden.
            For years I have defined myself as a long-distance runner, and for many years I actually was such. I had run three marathons in not unrespectable times, and I have accululated and worn through drawer-fuls of race t-shirts. There were times in my past when I logged in at forty and fifty miles; when I anticipated the journey out and often sought means and paths that would lengthen that passage; when during the run I did not concern myself with time nor climate. I loved to run and lived in my running. But these days I seem more apt to anticipate the cessation of the effort and the closeness of the approach to home. Now I count my steps and measure the time until I can stop. I hope for rain and difficult weather. I no longer experience the freedom or joy of the trail.

            And so I have taken to the health club and lifting free weights. I have enrolled in spin cycle classes and in attempts at various forms of Yoga. I am seeking a life of activity away from the running trail. It is difficult to leave one Walden even for another and so in the process I experience questions of identity and selfhood: if I am not a long distance runner then who am I? Or perhaps it is that I don’t leave my Walden but rather take it with me to my next location. I have other lives to lead. “I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops.” And so I do not leave the runningthough they are fewer there are still miles to go before I sleepbut I plant other seeds that I hope may sustain me. It is all an experiment and they are all Walden Ponds. I am learning new horizons and limits.

13 July 2014

Queen for a Day

One of the TV programs I recall watching when I was quite young was Queen for a Day. On this show, hosted by Jack Bailey, the women-contestants would be asked to recount publically their sordid tales of misery and woe, to which the audience would be asked to respond with applause (!) that would be measured on an applause-meter. The woman whose story inspired the greatest applause would be named “Queen for a Day,” and she would receive as a prize just those things the absence of which her story proclaimed as the source of her suffering.  There would always be considerable lament and weeping in the narrations. I think that what Queen for a Day promoted was misery, and its appeal seemed to lie in the ability to leer obscenely at the suffering and pain of others and then to enjoy the privilege to to assess and quantify the misery presented, and to elect the woman who had narrated the most wretched tale of woe to be Queen for a Day. Losing contestantsthose whose stories just weren’t sufficiently depressing would also receive some token reward for allowing the audience to leer. Later Phil Ochs would in a different context define the entire experience of Queen for a Day in his song “Crucifixion.” He sang, “Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all/ And do you have a picture of the pain?” It was the pleasure of viewing someone else’s pain that made watching the show pleasurable.
            I raise this issue now because for some time I have been reading and thinking about memoirs, a genre that some might say is emblematic of our time‘our time’ being the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That is another issueor no, perhaps it is the same issue, but I am headed in another direction right now. I think autobiographies are problematic: the truthfulness of any one of them is dubious (see Philip Roth’s The Facts, or Frank Kermode’s Not Entitled, or Paul DeMan’s essay, “Autobiography as De-facement”) and so I have been wondering that if they are not truthful, then why do we read these texts and why they are written. Again, this is a complex problem (I think), and one I mean to more formally pursue in the future. But I have recently finished reading two separate memoirs: Mary Karr’s trilogy, The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009); and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (2005). These memoirs recount the miserable lives that each author endured, overcame and survived to narrate gloriously, say the reviewsabout their torturous experience. Both authors as a result became instant celebrities and extremely successful ‘artists,’ and their books appeared high on the New York Times Bestseller list.
            As a result of the portrayal of the pain and suffering each author endured , she moved into the ranks of the rich and famous. That is, both Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls become famous by recounting the misery of their lives; there is, it would seem, some value in emphasizing the suffering! In recounting their pain vividly they become, as it were, queens for the day. And I cannot now distinguish between this experience and that of old television show that rewarded a brilliant recounting a life beset by misery and suffering. These women are rewarded by a public hungry for tales of woe for their tale of woe. But until the writing neither woman had much of note to report, and their notoriety derives from their recounting of their lives and not from any material achievement in their existences. Since neither author engages in much psychological analysis of the lives in which the suffering derives, there isn’t much to be learned from the accounting. It is the spectacle of suffering that remains the attraction. And of course, it is the misery that must be foregrounded and hence, the tale is focused and falsified to this end. Any narrative that narrates conversation that took place twenty or thirty years ago strains credibility. The consciousness of a thirty year old imposed on a three year old just doesn’t bespeak an honest telling.
            To my mind the life of each author is no more nor less miserable than that of countless others. The same, of course, is true of the memoirist Frank McCourt whose own trilogy (Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man) may be partly responsible for the popularity of the form. He too offers exact transcriptions of conversations that took place fifty years earlier! As in Queen for a Day, the narrative is directed toward the depiction of misery, and the more miserable the better the story!
            But the same, I think, cannot be said, say, of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, a memoir that recounts the endurance of a human confronted by a historical force that was designed to deny the very humanity to which the writing offers testament. Levi’s aloneness in the camps was not particular to him alone, nor did what he suffered stem from his eccentric familial situation: it might be that Happy families are all alike, and that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but to read Anna Karenina is to observe not eccentricity but individuality. There are motives underlying behaviors that Tolstoy meticulously studied and explored. The novel is an exploration of a complex humanity in the face of suffering and not merely an account of the suffering. I can be Anna during my reading of Anna Karenina, but there is nothing in these memoirs of misery with which I can identify or from which I might gain insight into my own life. It is pure voyeurism in which I engage, but I am no longer amused.  

04 July 2014

Some Further Thoughts on Autobiography and Memoir

Literary critic Frank Kermode in his autobiography, Not Entitled, narrates an incident that took place during his stay in Tuscany with an Italian friend. One night the two attended an opera and returned home quite latewell, in fact, at three in the morning. Now, it seems that for the next afternoon the lady had invited friends to share lunch but in the middle of the meal, exhausted, she put her head down, fell asleep and settled into a catnap, “slumping forward, as it were, on her paws.” Unfortunately, underneath her slumbering body lay the guest’s sunglasses and camera, which they left behind when they timorously took their leave of the sleeping hostess. When they called to recover these items, Kermode offered to return them to them when he was in London.
            This is a simple incident in a very long life: Kermode died at the age of 90 years. Kermode comments that any number of details, “remembered or invented” could be added to the account of this incident, “so that the entire episode, when adorned with material that might in the ordinary way seem tedious, with portraits of the persons concerned in the tiny drama, not least with associations developed even as one wrote it all down, would look more like a dream, and have the kinds of potential meanings we seek in dreams.” That is, what at the moment seemed like a mundane occurrence, a simple event without context or meaning in itself, takes on significance in its narration as a result of the materials the author chooses to include and/or to add, by the elaboration of personality and detail that then become available to the reader for interpretation and meaning. Thus it is that meaning occurs in the activity of reading and interpretation and is based in (or is that on?) what the author puts in and leaves out in order to develop and enhance the narrative. And since the author is concerned that there be readers, he attempts to write well! And there is the rub! For in the writing well, Kermode notes, the opening is made for fantasy.
            But this is Kermode’s autobiographythe narration of his life. Shouldn’t there be only ‘the facts?’ Kermode suggests that since he intends to recount his lifewhatever he writes ought to be the honest storythe truth. But, Kermode notes, perhaps it is only those who merely tell their story to themselves who have the opportunity to be more truthful than those who write their stories down, for the latter soon “discover, if they didn’t know already, that the action of memory depends on the cooperation of fantasy. This is the truth.” By fantasy I do not think Kermode refers to the unreal or whimsical; rather, Kermode acknowledges that in order to narrate cohesively a certain amount of editing must be accomplished! The autobiographer because s/he is writing necessarily imposes pattern; in the creative act of writing s/he necessarily selects and adds those details that enhance interest in the work. What results cannot be the truth! “It is a species of the good writing that cannot help eliminating truth from autobiography . . . it is a means of giving life the calm coherence of myth.” The northeasters, those storms that disturbed, distorted, and disrupted the simple narrative of life, are tamed in the writing, but then the substance of the autobiography is necessarily no longer honest. “If the honest truth is demanded, let it be remembered that few, and of them not many very honest, have been willing to claim that they told [the truth]; it is undeniable that its principal enemy, in autobiography, is, as I have suggested, not mendacity but good writing.”
            Thus it seems that the truth of the autobiography is always compromised by the autobiography having been written, and the attempt to write well increases the depth of deceptiveness (or fictionality) in and of the narrative. And so I raise two questions: first, why does one choose to write an autobiography given that the life that is told in it (or by it) is the creation of narrative; and second, what should one expect when one reads an autobiography given that the life presented is not identical with the life lived? Kermode suggests that the significance of the autobiography rests in the presence in it of a “climate.” What we seek in an autobiography—what the autobiographer seeks to offeris the atmospheric conditions that define a life. The weather changes from day to day, “unpredictable as dreams,” but autobiographer presents this instability as climate.