13 August 2014

Morning Again

Stanley Cavell asks “So is it completely necessary or completely contingent that I have come to this place to tell the story of how I did not die from many catastrophes? And if it is neither [necessary or contingent] then what is the story of a life? And where is a place and what is a form to tell it?” I am paraphrasing; or I am asking the question I want to ask provoked in part by Cavell’s autobiography Little Did I Know, a book I have not yet finished. Because though he is writing his autobiography he is really questioning the reality of an autobiography. Does an autobiography track a life’s inevitability or does it record its contingency. If the former then an autobiography creates direction and the life becomes a work of art, a creation out of materials chosen and then fashioned with intent and forethought; but if the life narrated is understood as the result of contingency then what events does the autobiographer narrate except those that interest him/her in the present.
            Cavell says that the problem in autobiography is maintaining the narrative thread. This is no easy problem, because at “each step I seem to run up against a crowd of related matters that demand their expression.” But is it in the narrative or in the memory that he runs up against the crowd? It matters! Since a whole life can’t be narrated, then the life that is narrated is different than the life that was lived and depends very much on memory. But is he trying to remember or to forget? The autobiography is not the facts: “I mean to speak from identities compacted in my existence, a matter of attaching significance to insignificance and vice versa.” It is fiction, nonetheless: “Is anything other than the whole truth even a partial truth? And is anything the whole truth?”
            I have been thinking for a long time about autobiography: if I wrote one what life would I want to portray? From what place would I choose the events to narrate to create the life narrated? What life would I want the narrative to portray? Who do I think I am compared to who others might consider me? Cavell defines the Tannhauser effecta condition I experienceas the discrepancy between my feeling about my effort (my work) in the present and the effect that effort has on others. Yesterday, I got my annual royalty check for $78.29.
            My friends support my ego, but Cavell cautions me, “what friends cannot do is to prove that you have made yourself comprehensible to strangers.” Is the function of my work to make friends of strangers or strangers of friends? Cavell says that narcissism is a “suspended recognition of the separation of a world apart from me, a wish to show oneself, to make oneself, one’s work worthy of love.” How is my writing purely self-indulgent and narcissistic? And if I tell only a partial truth, then what part of the whole autobiography is true. And what am I to make of that part which is not true?  
            But perhaps a life becomes so only when it is narrated and then it becomes available to be read as fiction. Fiction, Kendall Walton suggests, are works whose function is to serve as props in games of make believe, and that any work which has the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe, however minor or peripheral or instrumental that function may be, is a work of fiction! Why do people write autobiographies? To create a life? Why do I read them?


Anonymous Barbara said...

Perhaps autobiographies need to be written at the present moment (when an event is occurring) not after the event when memories may be false due to one being a different person at the time of the writing than one was during the event.

I believe one reads them to discover oneself.

17 August, 2014 03:13  

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