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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The truth in life writing


I can't honestly contribute to the world-wide conversation we are having about the murder of the journalists, artists, and editors at Charlie Hebdo or say anything that hasn't already been said by the millions who marched in defense of free speech.  Except to say that the societies that are culturally rich, societies that create policies that seek inclusion and that strive to recognize the rights and gifts of everyone are societies where meaningful conversations are encouraged and allowed.  Only when we can say everything to one another, only when we can question everything, only when we feel that the wildest idea might have some merit, only where critique of the status quo is not silenced, can such societies grow and thrive.  Such conversations exempt only hate speech, because hate speech is not part of a conversation but an edict, an absolute position that the holder has no intention of examining or changing.

Beyond those words which might come from anyone defending free speech, I can only add something to one of the quieter corners of our human right to say what we need to say:  that when life writers make it their task to be as honest as they can be about the way their lives intersect with the world and ideas they are exploring, the reader becomes more human. This fall, I read three books of partly autobiographical essays with student and friend, Sonia Stanger:  Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, and Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby.  In the new year, I downloaded Karl Ove Knausgaard's idiosyncratic and popular My Struggle:  A Death in the Family to my iPad, finding myself as completely engaged as the other million readers seem to have been.  Knausgaard gives me a place to begin my thoughts about the effects of honesty in life writing.  In his early pages, he talks about deciding not to drink because when he does, he gives away too much of himself.  "I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed:  no one gets close and no one sees me.  This is what must have engraved itself in my face, this is what must have made it so stiff and mask-like and almost impossible to associate with myself whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of it in a shop window." 

Without any explanation, Knausgaard suddenly shifts to a description of a late Rembrandt self-portrait:  "All the facial detail is visible; all the traces life has left there are to be seen.  The face is furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time.  But the eyes are bright and, if not young, they somehow transcend the time that otherwise marks the face.  It is as though someone else is looking at us, from somewhere inside the face, where everything is different.  One can hardly be closer to another human soul."  Several things make this self-portrait different for Knausgaard:  one is that it was painted the year Rembrandt died.  But the other is that Rembrandt creates what I will call "another economy" in the Western philosophical penchant for privileging sight among all our senses, and for making the ability to see a source of power.  Knausgaard writes  "The difference between this painting and the others the late Rembrandt painted is the difference between seeing and being seen.  That is, in this picture he sees himself while also being seen."  Rembrandt occupies two positions in this painting.  As the painter, he has the power to see himself and the craftsmanship to represent what he sees.  But he is also making himself vulnerable, an object of the viewer's gaze, complete with a face that is "furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time."

The suddenness with which Knausgaard introduces this image tells me that Rembrandt's self-portrait is, in a way, the model for his autobiographical undertaking.  Unlike the social Knausgaard who has stopped drinking to keep people from knowing him more fully, the autobiographer Knausgaard, the writer who is driven to undertake a project that will produce 6 sizable volumes, is driven to be seen.  And see him we do.  He tells us about discovering that when his "dick" is erect, it is crooked and ugly:  he will never achieve the adolescent boy's goal in life:  to have sex as soon and as often as possible.  We learn about his dream to be a rock musician, which is the icon for the way he actually sees himself, which would represent his true self to the world; but at the same time, we are privy to his relentless practicing that produces nothing but mechanical sounds.  Clearly, his brain does not "speak music."  We follow his ambivalent desire to hang out with popular cliques, even while he mocks their popularity and refuses to conform in ways that could make him equally popular.  The effect of Knausgaard's willingness to be so honest and so vulnerable is twofold.  The honesty and vividness with which he writes tends, I suspect, to provoke the reader's memories of similar fears, attitudes, and embarrassments.  And once we have done that, almost sharing them with the Knausgaard that inhabits the page, we are more human.  We are a witness to his struggle, not a judging witness, but one that finds our own failures and weaknesses mirrored within the world he creates.

I know that Lena Dunham's Not that Kind of Girl (we're going from the sublime to the ridiculous here) has been ridiculed for being full of TMI.  The scare quotes around the word "learned" in the subtitle certainly bode ill.  And I seriously wanted to sit down and have a conversation with her about her pride in her inability to cope or function without melting down. I also wanted to suggest that if she was going to give the reader too much information, she could at least give us some analysis of that information, which she is clearly capable of.  (This is how Knausgaard's equally honest description of his teenage years differs from Dunham's:  it comes with implicit, if not explicit examination and analysis.)  I don't really need her diet plans.  But I imagine that her examination of a drugged night that ended in unprotected sex that was "terribly aggressive" resonates (with variations) with many women:  "I feel like there are fifty ways it's my fault.  I fantasized.  I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a bit easier.  To lessen the space between me and everyone else.  I was hungry to be seen.  But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way.  I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us.  I never gave him permission.  In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge has kept me from sinking."  Weirdly like Knausgaard, Dunham shares her vulnerability, her discomfort with social occasions she also craves, and her sane ability to draw a line--"I never gave him permission"--where there is no sand to mark it.

Leslie Jamison's award-winning and best-selling The Empathy Exams is a series of essays, some of them originally published elsewhere, that circle around the topic of empathy and some of empathy's cousins, like sympathy and understanding, or the distinction between true feeling and sentiment.  In the opening essay, she earns her street cred for writing about this topic:  as a poor creative writing student, she worked as a medical actor, someone who memorized the symptoms given them in a case study, but who wasn't particularly forthcoming with the young doctors-in-training.  After meeting with the student doctor, the actors graded them on their detective skills and on their empathy.  After playing these roles and having conversations with other actors, Jamison seems to have a clear line on empathy:  "Empathy isn't just remembering to say that must really be hard--it's figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.  Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.  Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.  Empathy requires knowing you know nothing....Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia--em (into) and pathos (feeling)--a penetration, a kind of travel.  It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query:  What grows where you are?  What are the laws?  What animals graze there?"

One of the principles of creative nonfiction is that the writer has two powerful tools:  his or her voice,  which creates and embodies the idiosyncratic and hopefully eye-catching persona, and her or his experience, which lends a note of authenticity.  Jamison makes full use of these, juxtaposing her work as a medical actor with her own "case studies" of her abortion and heart surgery that failed to fix her irregular heartbeat.  But it was her more subtle use of her presence in the world she was writing about that I found most skillful.  In a brief piece called "Indigenous to the Hood," she takes part in a "gang tour," which essentially involves a busload of tourists being driven around by former gang members (one hopes) to the neighbourhood that holds their stories.  As Jamison astutely puts it, "They've turned their experiences into stories for travelers.  They are curators and exhibits at once" (84).  While she knows that the people who take such tours "want the tour to give you back another version of yourself, you and everyone:  a more enlightened human" (89), she is rightly skeptical of such a project.  Does she really need to get on this bus to wax philosophical about what Susan Sontag and scholar Graham Huggen have to say about our search to make "exotic" experiences part of our world view, or could she simply have written this straight?  How many of us have similarly gone on a vacation, seeking an "authentic Italian/Hawaiian/Chinese experience," perhaps knowing we can't have it yet bamboozling ourselves into believing that we captured a small slice of it?  By representing her experience as a tourist, her inner tourist meets ours; her flawed but hopeful humanity bumps up right against ours in the inevitable line that always begins and ends our tourist experiences. Briefly, we make eye contact with the writer, admitting that yes, the line is very slow today.

My last example is Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, a phrase she borrows from the letters of Georgia O'Keefe.  Of these three books of essays, hers is the most elegant, polished, thoughtful, thought-provoking:  just read it.  I could wax lyrical about the way she's structured essays that are independent into a book that has an integral shape and project; I could admire her poetic use of language or the wide reading that informs her thought.  But let me simply use a brief moment where her task as a daughter is our task as a reader.  Her relationship with her mother had been very difficult; we're given enough evidence to fully believe that.  But when it was clear her mother had Alzheimer's, she thinks of all the ways her mother undoubtedly gave care--giving baths, doing laundry, making meals--if not love.  She writes "It was in honor of that unremembered past that I took care of her, that and principle and compassion and solidarity with my brothers.  How could I not?"  If this sounds a bit clinical, a bit as if she's preparing for a polar expedition, it is, thought Solnit examines her own behaviour:  "I was distant.  I studied her, I pondered her.  My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it.  We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another's story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them" (29).

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers, that if we want to connect ethically with people whose experience and attitudes are profoundly different from ours, we need to share stories.  But as all these writers illustrate, one way or another--literally or by indirection--we also need to see and be seen.  We need, as Solnit suggests, the stories of others as a reminder of many things:  of the fact that we are not always the centre of the universe, and of the fact that complex circumstances place people in universes quite different from ours, universes that we need to be so attentive to that we can at least attempt to map them.  But in the face of others' honesty, we need to be seen, to put ourselves in the position of the object of the gaze--even if it's only our own gaze.  These writers' vulnerability demands that we also be vulnerable, even if only to our stronger, better, wiser selves.  That's how we become more human.

1 comment:

  1. Kathleen, I'm thrilled to learn that you and Sonia are friends! I met her when she was in Kindergarten at Ecole Connaught, in the same class as my daughter. I marvel at the incredible young women they've become! And happy to hear that Sonia's still writing. Somewhere in my archives I have a chapbook, Supercow, cowritten by Sonia, Bruce Rice's daughter and my daughter. Oh, what fun!

    And thank you for the titles I've added to my to-read list. It is not always easy to make oneself vulnerable as needed to do the work of writing. But there is nothing else I've ever found that is so very rewarding! It's good to know there is a community of like-minded individuals nearby.

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