Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Beginnings and the Endings of Things

Historian Richard White on conclusions: “Lives are not stories. A day, a month, a year, or a lifetime has no plot. Our experiences are only the raw stuff of stories. The beginnings of our lives are arbitrary; usually their endings come too soon or too late for any neat narrative conclusions. We turn our lives into stories, and, in doing so, we can stop them where we choose. Our stories do in a small way what memoirs and autobiographies do on a grander scale: they allow a self-fashioning that gives remembered lives a coherence that the day-to-day lives of actual experience lack. History, of course, also imposes coherence, but the historian works with less malleable stuff than memory. Memoirs are seamless; good histories disrupt.”

White makes an interesting but problematic distinction. He’s correct to say that the stuff we experience daily is no more formed than clay; and that to assume that our autobiographical stories have neat endings is to is to give in to Art (shape, mold) as seductress. But a memoir — whether it’s narrative with its seams artfully hidden, or essayistic and rambling — is a history, of the writer, of a mind, of an environment, of a life. Montaigne notes that our selves change (at least) daily: what greater disruption can there be? What more vivid manner of “self-fashioning” can there be when yesterday’s truths collapse into today’s scrutiny?

It’s the essayist’s job to render incoherence artfully, to allow memoir and history — a duo White suggests are in opposition — to blend. And if I work with my history filtered through memory, than surely that history will be rendered malleable, but no less true, no less historic.

I like Samuel Butler: “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” That's the movement, from darkness to light, mystery to knowledge, that the autobiographical essayist has to learn.

"The Conclusion" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons


Patrick Madden said...

I think White is saying something likely true, but also fairly obvious, and he's puffing it out with too many unnecessary words. And as for an essayist's job, I agree that she must "render incoherence artfully," but would add (not to contradict you, but perhaps to contradict what gets written by others) that some notion of incoherence remains in the product. Of all the nonfiction writers, the essayists most recognizes that incoherence, most resists the urge to make life conform to neat patterns (usually predetermined). One last thing: for all its virtues, one great flaw of the Internet is that it clouds facts, ideas, quotes with dreck. I'm trying to find the source of that Butler quote, but all I can find are "quotes" pages, and NOBODY cites a source. *sigh*

Joe Bonomo said...

Yes, Patrick, I agree. Uncertainty works well in an essay, particularly as a starting point. Sometimes I feel that essays are answers to rhetorical questions, but the answers can remain tentative, in-the-dark, shapeless, even.

I agree with you about the Butler quote. Well, what Shields would say, etc.