Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sort of a Memoir

3 January 2014 
Stendhal uses three different memoir-writing strategies: in media res, placing the reader at some point in the life from which the years immediately before it are recounted; from childhood, although Stendhal characteristically uses this device to show a certain self-consistency; and the coming-of-age recounting that gets the protagonist from mere youth to the beginning of maturity.  The first two are autobiographical, while the third is the opening chapter of a novel.

Stendhal wrote his in-media-res memoir 10 years after meeting the object of his fixation. She died in between, he eventually reveals, but his obsession with her persisted. I can see that. It ends with an account of a rendezvous he and a friend had with two English prostitutes. Bringing good food and wine along, they make a party of it, and the women are charmed. Their English clients were not as thoughtful. Stendhal praises their chestnut hair, his spirits momentarily recovered. The impression he leaves us with is of a man who's haunted by his great love and yet manifestly, observantly in the world. Despite his faithfully rendered activities, we never doubt his devotion.

4 January 2014 
The year after I got my B.A., I worked at the oldest private library west of the Mississippi, as it styled itself. My colleagues were older women, like characters from a play. The patrons were often drunk after lunch, smelling of onions and alcohol. I couldn't help but take these things in. Cautionary tales like this are useful when you’re young, showing you what to avoid. 

The most beneficial work I did between undergraduate and graduate school was as a term-paper ghostwriter. To make a decent hourly rate, every paper had to be written in six hours or less, so I developed a method and also honed my writing to the bone. When necessary, as with a class to which I submitted six different papers, I varied the tone. Every paper got an A. When I was offered  work with an architecture firm, I quit. It turned out that I was their only writer, and they closed down. For my part, any awe I’d felt for academia was gone.

My method was straightforward: I would find a general source that gave me the basic plot. Old volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the predecessor to Wikipedia, were great for this. Then I would find two or three plausible current sources, quickly absorb their theses and grab some quotes. Then I would write. (It helped that I was a fast and very accurate typist.) I never polished the pieces too thoroughly, which lent them authenticity. The term-paper mill's one sop to ethics was to ask the students propose their own theses. This was an error; they were often completely wrong and I would have to argue the negative, which I did with evident success: do-it-yourself rhetoric. 

To want to live parallel lives is in keeping with our sense of self. We embody different roles without much difficulty, navigating life's predictable contexts in a manner that more or less meets their expectations, so it seems reasonable to push this idea further. One problem is the inelastic nature of time. It's true that time slows down in certain situations, but this is not the same as having more of it at your disposal.

We push the idea further often because we want to our lives to be bigger or fuller than they are. The opportunities to do so arise with uncannily good timing; if they didn't, they would be easier to resist. Experience suggests that our ability to lead parallel lives is limited. What we really want is separate lives: a life here, a life there, with time and space between them. That would be really convenient. Some people reputedly arrange their lives in this manner.

"That would be really convenient" is meant ironically. What's desired is a life that's fluid and, if possible, frictionless. We want the usual borders to come down. It's a child's view of things, in which "choosing sides" is just part of the game. In a child's view, the point of living is to play, alone or with others. We go to school, of course, and clean our rooms, but our hearts are longing to make up stories or get a scene going.

My daughter came over this evening after writing me a long note in answer to a question about the impact of travel that I asked about the night before. We talked a bit further about it. I said that, to me, place represents a totality of expression, conveyed in talk and writing, of how things look and are cherished or neglected or reshaped, and of how people are. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a great many places, intrinsically distinctive to the point of insularity, become like "the rest." As business and tourism both search for still-insular places, I imagine they are as endangered now as the rhinos.

5 January 2014 
A certain bossiness floats through life, but mandatory is a broad, resistable category for me, taking in other people's ideas of how I should spend my time and even the consequences of my own earlier choices to attend parties, openings, concerts, dinners, and other events. Travel also creates a sense of dread as the date of departure looms, not out of any fear of traveling, but out of a countervailing desire to stay home. Knowing that I will invariably resist, I try to get myself through it. I think it relates to the separate lives discussion above: if I could, I'd often prefer to send someone else to fulfill these obligations. At the urging of a colleague, I once took the Meyers-Briggs personality test, which said that I was INFJ, the least populous of its eight types. I read the results, parts of which were familiar: craves company, but flees it unexpectedly. That's not resistance, it's self-preservation. 

As a child in Singapore, I used to move through the adult-filled garden of my parents' parties. I was quite small and my vantage point was low, so people's legs were like trunks and their upper torsos like spreading branches. Their attention meanwhile was at eye level. My favorite aspect of these parties was the Chinese lanterns my mother strung up. Nowadays at parties I try to float in and out, departing as quietly (and quickly) as possible. This is in no way a comment on the parties themselves, which are perfectly fine. 

Each person's nature is distinct from every other, yet we generalize constantly about how categories of people differ. These generalizations are both true and false. Since we chalk a lot of behavior up to them, believing in their truth must be part of our social-navigating apparatus, a heuristic that keeps us from stopping every five minutes to figure out what just happened.

To me, distinctiveness is all, especially in the closer relationships. The beloved one has these specific qualities of self, and when I catch a glimpse of her, I’m reminded of every other time they were evident. The thread of distinctiveness is visible whenever it appears. I see it and remember, "You aren't like anyone else." The best gift of self that people can give others is their distinctiveness. 

Death, I read, is a mark of seriousness in literature (V.S. Pritchett, via Russell Banks). It is the "great matter," according to the Buddhists; I believe they're talking about coming to grips with our mortality, a dance that began for me when I first realized that I would die. I was pretty far along, I think, before the terror of our situation, as Gurdjieff put it, became real to me. How one dances with death varies with one's age. At my age, the specific perils of getting older loom larger than my actual extinction. In fact, I’ve started to see death itself as something of a relief.

Uchimaya Kishio, a 20th-century commentator on the Soto Zen of Dogen Eihei (circa the 1100s), explained what mind means in Zen. Our world, he wrote, lives and dies with us. Mind is everything that exists for us. No one else can share it. It follows that a memoir like this resembles the residue of the spray on a sea-facing window of some cottage. It can give some sense of the pounding of the waves, perhaps, or the way the sea smells at a certain distance from it, but how it was, beyond these images, is limited by the medium, the intent, and the impenetrable boundary between what I experienced and what I'm able or willing to convey.

Is love not also a mark of seriousness? Love involves play, but play takes in death, as well, long before we understand that it applies to us. From the start, love is a serious game: our life depends on it. It exposes us to the perils of misunderstanding and the limits of our ability to shape events to suit our desires. It plunges us in sadness, almost from the outset.

Still later 
It’s characteristic of me to play the same music again and again. Right now, it's Angela Hewitt's version of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, especially the second half of notebook one. Before that, my favorite was Keith Jarrett’s recording of Handel's harpsichord suites. My life too is organized in a habitual way. Even my variants from it are habitual, I realize. People express amazement sometimes at the extent to which I cram culture into short trips, but this, too, is a habit. I pack my days with activity because otherwise I would get depressed, the main symptom of which is lethargy. If I'm depressed, I hardly stir.

My life was organized for me very early on. Whenever a structure is provided, I fall right in with it. Where it isn't, I have to create it. This is a slow, trial-and-error process. Weaving, which I do on most Saturdays, is an example of success in this arena. I have to extend it, I tell myself, thinking of everything that isn't getting done, isn't habitual, and needs to be (an old, old story).

One thing about modern life is that change erodes your habits. Bookstores where I used to go have vanished. Music arrives in ways I can't fully fathom (and most of it isn't the music I want). I have to decide which parts of "new" really pertain. And I have to navigate the subtle alterations of the everyday.

La Rochefoucauld is another great French commentator on intimate life between men and women. His life story was one personal disaster after another, when it came to women, until he finally met a woman smart enough to make a friend of him, pure and simple. Perhaps by then he was also tired of the chase. If lovemaking is a kind of conversation, why does it always blow up? Is there a way to sustain it? These are the questions that arise. It should be simpler, but both parties have to see it that way first.

The one psychic I know once commented that relationships between men and women have children as their trajectory when fecundity is in the picture. Children are "where it wants to go," whatever the conscious feelings of the participants. I think there's some truth to this. Getting older is therefore potentially liberating, freeing relationships to take other directions. 

When I read Enneagram Structures by Claudio Naranjo, I saw that my enneagram number is seven. I thought I was a five or a nine, but no, I'm a seven quite thoroughly. The flaws of this character type are a tendency to live in the future, not the present; a dependence on personal charm to dodge interpersonal bullets; and a determination to avoid anything remotely painful. 

6 January 2014 
Some time ago, I dreamt that I was walking in the middle of a curving, residential London street, the kind that's lined with row houses and shade trees. There was no traffic, apparently. Looking down, I saw a thin gold ribbon embedded in the pavement. I picked it up. In dark-blue letters against the gold, it read, "You are an editor." I didn't argue. It also made me realize that I'm a writer of specific kind, an amateur. I write well, and this ability has served me my whole career. But I don't think I'm capable of writing anything longer than a chapter and most of what I write is much shorter. When I look at what I write, I see a miniaturist, which means that I have to treat certain topics as fragments, if I can treat them at all, while others are perfectly suited to their small frame.

The diary form of this sort of a memoir exemplifies how I drag content out of my head. It reflects my lifelong tendency to plunge in without much if any prior design. Fiction comes much harder. While I occasionally have ideas for stories, I can't see where a story should go next. And where it goes is usually a blind alley, which is frustrating. I feel that my story has been hijacked, that my protagonists wouldn't go there, and yet clearly I wrote in that direction. More work, in other words, than I'm prepared to give it, so hats off to the real writers of fiction. 

What are my actual topics? They probably begin and end with me. As Christopher Isherwood put it, "I am a Camera," but the camera in my case (probably in his, also) is holographic. My topics are the things that resonate with me and in me. This doesn't mean that others don't figure, but how to work them in? When I make a point about distinctiveness, I could cite the most intimate details. In fiction, this might be useful, but anywhere else it feels gratuitous and indiscreet. Some of my photo-collages, interestingly, get into this territory. Visual work and fiction blur identity or subsume it to make a different point: not her, but this. A fictional narrative could be useful, but my version of reality has been challenged often enough to make me wonder, with Hayden White, if every narrative isn’t fictive. Certainly every narrative is subjective. 

Also separately
In 2005, a friend in Tokyo suggested that my family on my father's side was Sephardic. I don't know if it's true, but certain things argue for it. My name is derived from a city, which is how the Sephardim named themselves. And Parma had a large Sephardic community that was expelled on several occasions. Going backward from the chronology of the family tree, which starts when "they," the unnamed ur-couple, bookbinders, arrived in Odense, Denmark, I got to one of these expulsions, two generations or so earlier. The family went to Germany and then north, my cousin told me, some going to Norway and some to Finland. They were following the printing trade, I read in an essay on that topic by Peter Drucker. So my working theory is that this proto-family arrived in Denmark and said, "Hi, we're Italian." Generations later, some of them still look Italian or even Andalusian, but extended like the portraits of Modigliani. Others are entirely Nordic, gone to ground.

My daughter lived in Alpujarra, south of Granada, for almost three years. While visiting her, I had an impulse to settle there. I love Madrid, which is a more likely destination. Something about Spain feels like home to me, which if true must be a genetic memory. Is this possible? 

12 January 2014 
Last week, a friend posted a short essay by someone else that asserted that a memoir isn't an autobiography. I sort of agree, in the same way that this is "Sort of a Memoir." Her point was that you shouldn't expect accuracy from a memoir. Nabokov made this point, too, although he revised his second edition after his sisters complained about certain "facts." ("We were in Nice.") 

19 January 2014 
This morning, I visited a friend who's being treated for an illness. It took a toll on him last month, from which he's now recovering. He observed that his life is currently more bounded, and he wanted to find things to do that fit this new reality. I've started weaving, which he noted as an example of what he meant. I understand: the things I do are essentially domestic arts. 

Last night, I read an article in the Financial Times about long-lived men and women in Japan and the doctors who tend to them. The goal is a good quality of life, said one. A Japanese word was cited that translates roughly to "live life to the fullest and then die fast." One person's full is not another's. When I sum mine up at the end of the year, there's an illusion of activity, but it consists of my taking my way of being here and there, trying to preserve it—a comical process, especially in company. Owing to repetition, the everyday is supposed to have less resonance than unusual events, yet I crave it. Perhaps its resonance is a deeper one.