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.  


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