24 October 2017

Inspired (in part) by David Copperfield

I have for some time wondered about the nature of autobiography. If the aim of the form is reputedly the pursuit of self-knowledge, then autobiography fails because the Self from whom the autobiographer would learn exists it exists in the past, but the writer who writes about his past Self exists in the present. The autobiographer can only see the past from her position in the present and therefore, can know only from the perspective of that present Self. Thus, she possesses an awareness of the Self in the present and by necessity constructs the development of that self from a narrowed view of the past. Even Wayne Booth’s My Many Selves defines his present Self by the categorized selves in the past, and the harmony he claims to achieve in the present results from his own construction of the selves of the past. The question of autobiography then must be asked: what does the writer in the present mean to do with the past? The intentional fallacy of the New Critics, that states that an author’s avowed purpose cannot be used to measure the success or meaning of any work of art, might be applied not only to critics but to autobiographers as well, and the self that is pursued in autobiography ought to be understood by the reader and the author as only a construction in the present and therefore, might be recognized as a representation only of a limited and view of self in the present but cannot be considered as the self. The intention might be Self-knowledge but it is the Self’s present knowledge that constructs the past. Autobiography presents a fiction.
     Knowledge of self must be distinguished from the actual Self. I am never all that I say I am and I am always more than I could know and say. In fact, the self that writes has to be different than the self about which is written because the autobiographer sets an aim that is wholly different than had been the aims of the subject of the autobiography. The latter had no notion of ever being the subject of an autobiography, and her actions cannot be considered coincident to the ascriptions given to her by the autobiographer. But if the Self in the past had already intended to become the subject of an autobiography, then the actions in the past were governed by the necessity of their having to be written in the future. The life was always determined by the necessity of its autobiography and the autobiography cannot be considered a pursuit of self-knowledge: that self was already formed in the past. The autobiographer imposes a trajectory for which the object in the past could not plan nor would even recognize. The Self in the past could never know where she might be in the future, but the self in the present in a twist on the Hansel and Gretel story drop the white pebbles to situate the Self at ‘home.’ Phillip Roth refers to autobiography as the most manipulative of genres: contained within every autobiography is a counter text out of which the manifest text derives and which it attempts to hide. Wittgenstein writes that “no one can write objectively about himself because there will always be some motive for doing so. And the motives will change as one writes. And the more one is intent on being ‘objective,’ the more one will notice the various motives that enter in.” The autobiography ceases to be fact and becomes opinion, and the latter has subjective motive. In the autobiography, I am who I want to be; in writing the autobiography I become who I would be. The autobiographer controls the presentation of self and chooses those elements of the life that justifies that presentation.
     For a good while, then, I have assumed a strategy of reading autobiography as fiction, and consider that the strategies by which I read novels might be applied to my reading of autobiographies. In this regard, the complexity of reading Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield intrigues me: David Copperfield is reputedly the autobiography of David Copperfield a character that is based loosely on the life of the author of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. And within the novel/autobiography Mr. Dick is working on his autobiography, Memorial. I consider that David Copperfield is a book about autobiography.
     David Copperfield notes that the pain and suffering he experienced as a child at the hands of his step-father Mr. Murdstone and the latter’s sister, Jane, were so severe that he did not ever examine for how long it might have lasted, but in the present, that is, years after the events occurred are being narrated, Copperfield writes, “I only know that it was, and has ceased to be; and that I have written, and there I leave it.” David tells us that the writing invents what memory will not hold. Autobiography creates. But even that is not the whole story. Earlier in the novel, Copperfield writes, “I set down this remembrance here, because it is an instance to myself of the manner in which I fitted my old books to my altered life, and made stories for myself, out of the streets, and out of men and women; and how some main points in the character I shall unconsciously develop, I suppose, in writing my life, were gradually forming all this while.” What Copperfield seems to suggest here is that his narrative represents to him how his past influences the story he tells, which is an autobiographical cliché, I suppose. But he also acknowledges that his past has been revised to fit his current situation: his old stories had to be adapted based on his new life. More, David acknowledges that the character he develops in the writing arises now from the unconscious even as the points in the character existed unconsciously formed in that past. That character in the past acted unaware of the aims of the autobiographer, and even the autobiographer remains unconscious of the manner that the character developed, and acknowledges that the character that is presented derives from an unconscious. The autobiography emphasizes its own ignorance.

19 October 2017

Where Are They?

Even if I wrote everything down, then I cannot imagine how would I find anything when I needed it? I have almost fifty years of journals, and I have recycled even more over the years. None of them were indexed anyway. How would I recognize them what I might need now? Where are the thousands of books I have read and even studied over the years? That I cannot find them in either the journals or the memory leads me to self-doubt. What do I know? Can I be a scholar and have lost so much? Where is Freud’s Rat-Man, or his Studies in Hysteria? Where have I stored the studied writings of George Lukács or Leon Trotsky. I studied Hegel on the arts and cannot find a single thought regarding it at present.  During my Marxist phase (I am not sure I ever left it) I read Das Kapital with Michael Harrington: both gone! My shelves are filled with hundreds of books that don’t seem to have a file in my mental library and whose subjects I have not indexed.
     In his essay “Winnicott’s Hamlet,” Adam Phillips offers as an epigraph to Section 3 a quote from T. S. Eliot’s essay on Phillip Massinger. Eliot writes, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I immediately recalled Pete Seeger’s statement that “To steal from one is plagiarism but to steal from many is research.” And I thought also of Winnicott’s statement in his paper “Primitive Emotional Development” (1945) in which he explains, “I shall not first give a historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then last of all interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any.” Finally, I recall Stanley Cavell’s quip that “If one can learn only what one is ready to learn, doesn’t it follow that it is impossible to know whether you are teaching anything? You have to learn how to make yourself worth stealing from!” And I think that these men have offered some insight into where things go.
     Now the interesting thing about stealing, of course, is that one must somehow hide the objects stolen, either completely out of sight or made part of one’s self. One ought not to display a work of art and announce that it had been acquired by theft; nor should one appropriate the words of another and pass them off as our own. Eliot appended to “The Waste Land” a page of footnotes defining from where certain phrases and sentences derived, but these words out of their original context produced wholly new meanings.
     I think this idea is my salvation: to steal requires that the object stolen be transformed and not somehow put on naked display. AS an object it must be used! Winnicott and Eliot and Seeger suggest that the proper use of an object is at times to destroy it so that it can be created. I think Dylan was a master of such theft! We transform things and in that way we enact our creativity. To Masud Khan’s suggestion that Winnicott read a specific book he has brought, Winnicott responds, “It is not use, Masud, asking me to read anything. If it bores me I shall fall asleep on the first page, and if it interests me I will start rewriting it by the end of the page.”
     And perhaps I might name all of the books I have read, even recognize that I have read them as I study my shelves, but I in my interest in so many of them led to my rewriting them, to their transformation, and that is where they have gone: they are here.

12 October 2017

Lear Redux

Gloucester has been cruelly blinded by Cornwall and Regan, the latter one of Lear’s deceitful daughters. Edgar, Gloucester’s banished son, dressed as Poor mad Tom, comes upon his father being led about by an old man. and sent out into the world. After Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall and Regan, he wanders out into the world and there he comes upon his banished son, Edgar, disguised as Poor mad Tom. He requests that mad Tom lead him to a cliff in Dover off of which Gloucester intends to jump and end his life. Edgar leads his sightless father to a plain near Dover and then tricks him to believe that he has indeed, jumped from the heights and miraculously survived. Then, changed dress from Mad Tom to that of peasant, Edgar leads his father on towards Dover where Cordelia has brought an army to regain the kingdom from her sisters.
     Gloucester and Edgar headed toward Dover come upon Lear, still suffering in his madness. Gloucester recognizes Lear from the tenor of his voice as Lear speaks, and recognizes in Lear’s state the fate of the world. “O ruined piece of nature! This great world/Shall so wear out to naught,” Gloucester laments. Lear continues to speak from his madness. Staring at eyeless Gloucester he says, “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how young justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief.” In his madness Lear speaks perceptively about the world and about himself: he had once been guilty of passing justice on Cordelia. But Lear has learned. He asks Gloucester: “Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar. And the creature run from the cur? There thou might’st behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.” And I thought immediately of Trump and his administration: dogs barking at the helpless.
     The nation is being governed by a pack of ignorant, egotistical and greedy thieves. Every day a new assault on the public is perpetrated by this cadre of dangerous incompetents. Trump believes he is playing some reality board game but his pieces are deadly weapons that could actually blow up the world. He governs by tweet and ignorance and the Republican majority cravenly (with some isolated exception) with little objection allow the dog to bark.  To enrich themselves and their gang they would destroy the world. They are despicable. Lear advises Gloucester: “Get thee glass eyes,/And like a scurvy politican/Seem to know the things thou dost not.” This is our reality. We live in a very dangerous moment, and I awaken every day to fear.