25 April 2006

Autobiography

Okay, autobiography and memoir are the genres I am most dubious about. Why, you may ask? Well, I'll tell you: it is because they claim to tell the truth, or at least we expect them to tell the truth. Awright, I'll admit there is another, though closely related literary genre you may have heard of that also claims to tell the truth, and it is essentially the mama of all truth-claiming literary genres and that is course is (let's say it all at once, boys and girls:) [<-- oh look, I made a smiley-face] HISTORY. I think it's instructive (and I am hardly the first to note this) that in at least French and German, the word for "story" is the same word for "history": respectively histoire and Geschichte. And let me remind you that the root of "fiction" in English is a Latin verb, fictio, which means "to shape" or "to mold."



My Masters in the world of memoir-fiction are "of course" Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund White. There is no doubt, to my mind, that Nabokov presented versions of himself--which multiply across his novels in what one could construe as an autobiographical way--as fiction: this gesture arrives in its clearest representation (is it a turning inside-out of our expectations) in the changing of the title of his avowed memoir, originally called, Conclusive Evidence, but which was finally titled, after some revision, Speak, Memory.

That's quite a title change.

In the first example, we have Nabokov, stating a facticity that is conclusive, then we get a title that's more ambiguous, where he exhorts "memory" to "speak." Anyone familiar with Nabokov well knows this is a specific and careful dissembling, in which, the first title declares an evidential expression, but the second, while more poetic, offers an almost metaphysical hopefulness that can only be construed as ironic at best, and derisive otherwise. To my way of thinking, the only other greater ironist in English heretofore was probably Chaucer. But at this point, I'm jest sayin'.

Then we have the example of Edmund White, who has never disavowed the roman a clef nature of his novels, but presents them as fiction. Yet, they are in some sense "true" representions, especially in his trilogy (originally a quartet), A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty (thank you, Kafka!), and The Farewell Symphony (thank you, Haydn!).

Thus, we have two examples of writers, one who moves further away from presenting himself as his fiction, and the other who does the opposite (his last novel notwithstanding). White is an interesting case of a writer who composed extremely novelesque [I intend that in the Barthesean-sense] works at the beginning of his career--the brilliant Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes For the King of Naples (not to diminish his later output at all)--but then wrote semi-autobiographical fictional pieces (already mentioned), a highly-regarded biography of Genet, a portrait of Proust, and declared memoirs about his life in Paris. The relationship between "fact" and "fiction," the ways one nourishes the other, and vice versa, the draws of composing for one over the other, are highlighted, in opposition, by the output of these two writers. [I note, only now, and briefly, that, Nabokov more or less gave his imprimatur to White, when he reviewed his Fire-Island-cum-"gay"-cum-Kafkaesque first novel for the New York Times, back in the day, and to some acknowledged degree, White has been living it down ever since--his other, competing mode of writerliness being Christopher Isherwood.]

In the case of Nabokov, we have a man composing words (in at least two languages), inspired by events in his own life and subjectivity. White, on the other hand, condenses and completes, but the shape of the narrative is closer to his own experience than Nabokov would ever feel comfortable with or admit.

So, who is the memoirist and who the fiction-writer?

This boundary is what interest me--if it exists as a boundary at all--and therefore this writing, and therefore my previous post(s) on the nature of writing and "truth." Therefore my reticence, in this blog, toward writing about myself, explicitly. If this is an autobiography at all, it is one of ideas, attitudes, and prejudices; not what I had for lunch today.

In my understanding, language itself is the disfiguring medium which causes the problem. Language and memory. Both are imperfect media of recording experience--and that word itself (I mean "experience," though I could have suggested "media" or "recording," just to be a dick) shrugs off the possibility of fact. Look at the example of the courtroom: first-hand testimony is valuable but ambiguous (the court knows that memory is fallible, even inventive). Even in photography, which until recently, the court of law--that place of facts, evidence, testimony, and circumstantial evidence--regarded as the "safe" and "objective" domain of recorded fact, has been degraded as record by the distorting presence of Adobe Photoshop.

Not only has the frame--the context, memory, genre, intention, forgetfulness--been questioned, but the objects inside that frame are now manipulable in ways that the Nineteenth Century, and its little sister the Twentieth Century, didn't really--I mean "truly"--consider.

So, what are we left with?

Well, we are left with a place of pleasingly confusing ambiguities. To be upset that "the record" offers no solace is no solace at all. In fact--or should I say "in fact"--this question really undoes our relationship to truth. Perhaps we are seeking the truth in the wrong places; perhaps the legal notions of experience are suspect; maybe we have been on the wrong track this entire time. If the "scientific" record of photography or videography has become a space of ambiguity, or even invention, what is a person to do?

I ask this question only to be a dick. Or perhaps a tool.

I suspect I have a hunch to the answer, but this post has already gone on far too long, and I applaud you if you made it this far.

5 comments:

Demo said...

The word "History", as you know, comes from the Greek historia, which means story and Homer (who ever he was), the first story teller, in fact spoke memory. The Greeks probably didn't distinguish between fact and fiction because the point is irrelevant. Even there "mythology" (what we assume is fiction) is simply the telling of the cultural story of a people which is its history. The search for fact to the greeks was found in the study of science and math. The stories we tell say something about us, our hopes, fears, aspiratons etc. The tragedies and comedies that have survived tell us much more of the people who lived in Athens than the found piece of pottery, and unltimately tell the story or history of human kind. Shakepeare understood this. Does it matter that Macbeth was not truly the evil ruler he's made out to be? Shakespeare, like Sophocles, gives us a truthful portrayal of who we are when ambition, egomania and cunning posses us.
Your musings seem to be a continuation of the bigmusle blog. When it comes to our human condition the truth is, there is no truth, and I don't mean this as sophistry. We are engaged on all levels, and much more so today than ever, in fantasy. The internet is not so much a technological advancement as it is a direct projeciton of our will to fantasize onto the world. When we are studied 400 years from now bigmuscle will tell a story about us regardless if what you find on the site is true or not.... and it's mostly not, and that's the point.

GayProf said...

I need clarification about what you mean by "truth."

Luciferus said...

Well, that's sorta the issue, isn't it? I wasn't taking on History as a truth category, per se: there's a larger space for the story of history than there is for autobiography and memoir, to my way of thinking. Though the common theme is the commonplace investment in these genre. Truth is outside the claims of these stories; truth is outside the world of facticity and reliability. My point is that many people read memoir and history in search of truth, but because a subject is writing these things, they get story. And that is something I feel needs to be foregrounded. And therefore I am impatient with readers who are impatient with the fact that these stories have a point of view and a prejudice--or maybe an invention. The truth I mention is both a vulgar understanding of the word and a definition I haven't bothered to explain yet.

GayProf said...

History should be taken on as a truth category. I agree with you overall, but am still wondering about the seeming presumption of “truth” that guides this post. It seems like there is a tricky contention here between the narratives created by autobiography/biography/history that claim truth, but only provide perspective, and an assumption that there is still an elusive truth that exists somewhere. In other words, is there really an objective reality that we can never quite see, but still exists? I wonder about this.

All that aside, some of the most interesting work being done in history right now involves the history of memory. How have people actively organized the past, told narratives, and made sense of the past to suit their current circumstances? In many ways, that’s much more interesting than the past events themselves.

Luciferus said...

The "objective" notion of truth, its vulgar version, is what I am interrogating, or wary of, in this post.

But past events take place in the present in two (or perhaps three, if we include film) places: memory and language. I foreground the idea of history and memoir as stories to call attention to this.

But the truth is another matter. In fiction and art, we "lie" and shape to tell a kind of truth, or to tell the truth. But history and memoir are often understood (or intended) as a direct access to truth or facticity--which are interchangeable in this "vulgar," commonplace, sense of the truth.

Don't get me wrong, I love both genre a great deal, but one of the ways I love them is as memories translated into stories through language. There is a grea deal going on in this as Levi-Strauss and Margaret Mead have pointed out.

Truth is so much more elusive than that commonsense notion--as anthropology and fiction have shown us: there is no direct access to truth--and I think psychoanalysis, and its Lacanian iteration, has some interesting things to say about this. But I intend to trick it out across posts and not address it directly for the time being.

I never said it was easy.