Saturday, October 29, 2011

Smaller in Scale than I Remember

Myth is born of the urge to name what’s nameless, to convey enormity  between finite covers, to describe one end of the Brooklyn Bridge to the other, even if it was really the Verazanno-Narrows. Myth describes something, or some people, or some event, or some place, that makes contact with vastness. Beyond my Saturday afternoon allowance sagas, my incidents as a wandering child may have been fewer in number, smaller in scale than I remember—would I really leave the store where my mom was shopping to wander, or am I conflating other visits to the plaza that I took, later, on my own?  If I’ve elevated little journeys to mythic proportions—if I’ve told tales—then I must need them, to explain something, a religion of youth to have faith in, to justify my embrace of seclusion, my unsatisfied wanderlust, my dubious joy in solitude, which diminishes in value the older I get.

In A Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud argue that myths are linked closely to religion, yet “once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale.”  And if the human is not heroic, but simply human, what’s his link in the narrative? Folklore is made of legends, of stories that the common person passes along orally. When we share family yarns around the table, or tall tales at the bar, or, alone in bed or in front of a mirror, mouth along silently as memories tell their own stories, we’re all folklorists of the highest order, each of our accounts embellished, sweetened, dramatically thickened, adding pages and chapters to the books we write, or want to read. I covet my adolescent wanderings, play and re-play them as origin stories on memory’s immense screen. I become—in this private theater—an icon, the wandering child.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some Perspective on Alison Bechdel

“I think that’s probably a good model for memoir writing: acknowledging the inadequacy of your own methodology. And it’s all inadequate, really, memory and documentary evidence alike.” 

That's Alison Bechdel glossing not only her brilliant graphic memoir Fun Home, but the very notion of writing autobiographically.  Bechdel uses maps, photographs, letters, texts from books, handwriting, diary entries, typescript, cutaways, transparencies—all graphically rendered.  The photographs we see are, of course, not photographs at all but Bechdel's drawings.  She's hardly a photo-realist—she lacks the skill or the aesthetic interest—and that would defeat the purpose, anyway.  The photos in Fun Home reveal phantasms and personas that she remembers, or wishes to forget; her re-presentations of the photos are guided by her subjective interest in them, need for them, and I wonder how her subjectivity renders this face more shadowy than the photo says, or this body-language more culpable than the photo insists.

What I find especially interesting in Fun Home is Bechdel's playing with perspective, obviously a prime concern for any autobiographer, but for the graphic memoirist even more so.  A conventional autobiography is written in the equivalent of a point-of-view shot in a movie: here's the world as I (character, persona) see it.  I've always been intrigued by modes of remembering, specifically how our perspectives shift as we recall.  Here's what I saw, but what did I look like seeing it, and what did you see from over there, and what might I see from the top?  Fun Home moves among first-person, third-person, and impossible perspectives, though the majority of panels are drawn in third-person.  Bechdel's telling her story, but she's also telling a story with characters, scenes, and plot, and she makes the choice to render herself as part of a community, in front of and part of the places in which she lives, and remembers.  Her choices ask: what do we see when we remember, and how does our remembering change what we saw?

~~

Some perspective:

Conventional first-person, diary writing.

Haunting/haunted first-person: the last image Bruce Bechdel saw.
 



A blend of first-person and impossible, Alison's OCD.

Third-person: there we are, as I (we?) remember it.

Third-person, the final image of an autobiography.

Autobiographical writing demands a blend of perspectives.  In Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman, frustrated with writing his and his brother's stories, finally gives the narration over to his brother: here, it's your story now.  Capote disappears entirely (though, of course, not really) in In Cold Blood; in The Night of the Gun David Carr investigates his own life as if it belonged to someone else; in his new Last Day On Earth, David Vann entwines his perspectives on and experience with guns and violence with that of a psychopathic killer.  No one exists in a vacuum, and Fun Home dramatizes this powerfully.

What can a graphic memoir can do that a conventionally written memoir cannot? I'm not sure how to answer that—or if, in this era of collapsing genre/form distinctions, the question matters very much—but I'm certain that Bechdel's labor-intensive model literally shows us what we might not otherwise see in a word-based memoir.  Look at the the panels above.  As in any first-person writing, we virtually, empathetically, step into the narrator's shoes, or in the case of the first panel, Bechdel's hands.  In a brave and bizarre move, Bechdel offers us a devastating point-of view shot in the second panel, the last moments of her father's life, an imaginative leap if there ever was one.  In the third, we see a characteristic blend of first-person and impossible perspectives, a kind of hyper-realism that insists on representing how the brain really thinks, sees, obsesses.

In the bottom two panels, Bechdel says this: my memories of leaning into but not quite falling over to my dad, and of leaping into his arms at the public pool—both common moments in adolescence—gain from the telling.  We two people in this strange, tragic family are two people in the world, acting out our inconsequential dramas as road versions of the same dramas occurring somewhere else.  Bechdel seems to argue that what matters more than her first-person perspective of leaning and leaping toward her father—as crucial and everlasting as that is—is the drama she and her dad create as an image of family, love, conditions, secrets, joys, and sorrow.  Ezra Pound: an image is "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."  Memory has many moving parts.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Live Nude Essay!

Psst... "Live Nude Essay!" appears in the new issue of Gulf Coast.  Take a peep, don't be shy:
I’m thinking of the clothed essay versus the nude essay. The clothed essay prizes craft and subtlety, evocation and song. “Nakedness is uncomely, as well in mind as body,” Francis Bacon wrote four hundred years ago, “and it addeth no small reverence to men’s manners and actions if they be not altogether open. Therefore set it down: That a habit of secrecy is both politic and moral.” The vulgar, nude essay has no secrets, is uncomely not in an other-century modesty or prudishness, but in its artlessness. An autobiographical essay moves from private to personal, but the nude essay is too private and too personal, smirking that its nakedness is subject enough, its tan lines and scars and piercings doing all of the work. The nude essay says, I see you gawking at my flesh and curves, my sinew and sex, what else do I have to do but preen. The nude essay spreads its legs and the gesture of seeming confession is mistaken for content.
       The clothed essay demurs, covers up, led by the voice’s intimacies and the sensuality of contemplation. The clothed essay doesn’t keep secrets—it’s not coy—the clothed essay evokes, believes that abstraction and consideration can be hot. The clothed essay, layered, offers a wealth of ideas, reflection, doubt, patience, uncertainty, less the hot now of the nude essay. It doesn’t shy from writing about nudity, but it keeps its dress on, and wonders how. The clothed essay might offer you its jacket, saying It’s too large, but it will fit. Clothes, carefully selected, aesthetically pleasing, shape and form, are a kind of craft against the nude essay’s raw data. The clothed essay might think about flashing, but doesn’t. The clothed essay’s privacy settings embarrass the nude essay. The clothed essay doesn’t Tweet. To excess.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The memoirist’s dilemma, ctd

"Warning: staring at a reflection of yourself for too long can damage your battery."

—my iPhone mirror app warning



Image via iPhone Apps Club

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Killer, now in paperback

In a few weeks, Continuum will reissue Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found in paperback.  In the book, I discuss at length and in detail the ferocious performance that Lewis gave at the legendary Star-Club in Hamburg, West Germany on April 5, 1964, backed by the U.K.'s Nashville Teens.  The show was later released as Live at the Star-Club, one of the greatest live rock & roll albums ever cut.  I discuss Lewis' career up and downs that led him to the Star-Club gig—the evening of the day in which the Beatles filmed the opening sequence of A Hard Day's Night, one group ascending in popularity, one artist descending—and then discuss Lewis' career resurgence in the late 1960s as a major hardcore honky tonk country artist.

~~

Here's my description of "Mean Woman Blues," the opening track on the album:
Thank you, thank you very much ladies and gentleman.  I’d like to say it’s a pleasure, a great honor, to be back at the fabulous, most beautiful, I mean really swingin’ Star-Club.  Yeah!
           “Mean Woman Blues,” the lead cut, is nothing short of a mini concert in and of itself.  Loch chose well: Jerry Lee had released a version of Claude Demetrius’ song on an EP in 1957, a few months after Elvis Presley had issued his own take (on the Loving You film soundtrack).  Elvis’ version was fun, swinging, and pretty dirty for the late-1950s, and he clearly has fun taking the risk.  Jerry Lee’s version is typically perverse in that the subject of the song shifts from a woman who’s so mean that she fucks with an angry face, to…well, to the Killer himself, who pinches the spotlight in the first verse and never relinquishes it.  Oh, the mean woman gets a nod or two, mostly in the form of lascivious ogling of ruby lips and shapely hips, but apparently more urgent for Jerry Lee is a discourse on his love for coffee and tea.  As always, the lyrics take a back seat to their filthy delivery which takes a back seat to Jerry Lee’s piano playing which takes a back seat to nothing and no one.  By the end, “Mean Woman Blues” is the Killer’s only (with help from the rock-steady trio of Roland Janes, J.W. Brown, and Jimmy Van Eaton, of course).  And it’s become the standard bearer: when Roy Orbison released his version of the song in 1963 he assaulted welcoming charts with Jerry Lee’s arrangement, substituting his own name for Jerry Lee’s in a kind of a geeky, understudy eagerness that somehow works.
            Seated onstage, he cocks his head, looks over his right shoulder at the smoke-filled crowd, lets a rolled “l” escape from juvee hall and issues a grand, onyourmarksgetsetgo glissando that leads to a suspenseful mmmm before the flag is dropped: I got a woman, mean as she can be! Barrie Jenkins, on cue from the cheers of recognition erupting before the first line is out, sprints out of the gate with a snare roll, and the forty-minute gallop is on.  What follows sets the benchmark for the rest of the album: loud, crashing, and impossibly fast.
        “Mean Woman Blues” smokes.  Peter Harris’ bass is warmly recorded, providing ample road for Jerry Lee’s jalopy-joyride of a performance, and Jenkins and John Allen ably keep up, Jenkins punishing his ride cymbal in double-time and Allen battening down the hatches with a clipped rhythm, tossing out tentative licks at the ends of some lines—but for all intents and purposes the Nashville Teens sound astonished, as if they’ve awoken on a carnival ride at the crest of a steep hill.  Jerry Lee’s left hand is bedrock: sure, cocky, clock-perfect.  His right hand virtually stages a show itself: rooster-like in its swagger, proud, flashy.  Thirty seconds into the song and you can feel the sense of wire-taut fun and abandon, and the palpable fear that the whole thing might fall apart soon if the players aren’t careful.  The Nashville Teens pay close attention on the verses—remember, only thirty seconds before they didn’t know what song they were going to be playing—and hit the stops well, though the Killer rushes through them, impatient. 
            Soon the song arrives at the place everyone in the crowd is waiting for, the first solo—Jerry Lee lets loose a yeah-hah! and pistons his right hand in eighth notes while Jenkins and Harris squeeze shut their eyes and go along for the ride, borne aloft by a delirious whistle from the crowd.  The glissandos are hysterical now.  Jerry Lee tosses Allen his first guitar solo, which he plays well, raw and choppy, though it’s hard to hear in the mix and beneath his bandmates bashing around.  Jerry Lee speeds up and barks Go! to the band—impatient to get back on mike?  Testing the band’s endurance?  By the time the Killer does butt back in to holler that he ain’t bragging but you know it’s understood that when he does something he does it mighty good, it sounds like redundant boasting.
           
But in case the crowd isn’t convinced, he drops things down for a relatively quiet, minute-and-a-half break where he plays some fun with his right hand and gets cute vocally, and the tune loosens up and really starts to swing.  And this is where any cultural blockades that there might be between the Killer and his audience crumble, brick by brick. Alan Clayson makes an interesting observation: “Coupled with a time-honoured Teutonic fondness for heavy-handed rhythm, the directness of rock & roll’s repetitious lyrics enabled those adults who couldn’t comprehend a word of English to be swept along emotionally, even become superficially aroused, by ‘Hound Dog’ more readily than their opposite numbers in the U.K. who dismissed any opus containing ‘ain’t’ as gibberish, a guttersnipe corruption of the language.”  Robert Palmer was onto it, too: “Rocking out, REALLY ROCKING OUT the way Jerry Lee Lewis did on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and still does every time he sits down at a piano, is the most profoundly revolutionary statement an artist can make in the rock and roll idiom.  It bypasses language, obliterates social conditioning, fulfils a basic human need for rhythmic movement, arouses primal hungers, and suggests how one can go about gratifying them.”  Palmer adds with a wink, “If you don’t believe me, go out and buy a fifth of Jack Daniels, get together with the sexual partner of your choice, and play the record again, real loud.” 
            What language barrier?  During the breakdown in “Mean Woman Blues” Jerry Lee’s yeah’s, oh’s, uh-huh’s, ooh’s, growls, and general vocal silliness elicit hoarse and happy cheers from the crowd.  No translation necessary, vielen dank, for the universal poetry of Rock & Roll, Bluster, and Sex; the Killer’s strong hands, his arrogant wide-leg splay at the piano, the countless lagers paraphrase the song just fine.  At one point in the show Jerry Lee joins in with the crowd as they chant Jerry, Jerry, Jerry…!  It’s the only word they really need to understand.  
~~

If you do purchase and read Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, I advise that you do so in a controlled environment.  There's some serious mayhem here.  A clip of Lewis playing "High School Confidential" on U.K. television a few weeks before the Star-Club gig:


Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Man, redux

I recently watched The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) on Chicago's WCIU, where local legend Svengoolie did his kitchy-host best, making snarky comments from an open coffin and dropping in a factoid or two.  I hadn't seen the movie in many years, and was struck by how frightening it still is.  I'd expected the years to have softened for me the film's sensationalistic storytelling, to have (dubiously) blessed me with ironic perspective against late 50s sci-fi melodrama.  Instead, I was riveted, as I was when I first watched as a kid.

Something interesting happened to me about a third of the way in.  Robert Carey, played by Grant Williams, has begun shrinking, the unwitting victim of a radioactive mist encountered while he was sailing, but all he's noticed thus far is curious lengthening of shirt sleeves and oddly baggy pants, alerting his increasingly concerned wife Luise (Randy Stuart).  He visits several doctors and learns ultimately that he's being ravaged by a kind of anti-cancer that is arresting and reversing the growth process.  This is all creepy enough, but then director Jack Arnold and editor Albrecht Joseph do something remarkable: trusting the payoff that delaying the image of a tiny Robert Carey will bring, the filmmakers give us a scene where Carey is addressed while in his living room, spoken to but not seen, for a minute or two.  When Arnold and Joseph finally match-cut to Carey in his chair, the effect is startling:


Given the odd blend of surprise and corniness, the emotional power this moment creates is staggering. The melodrama is supplied less by the edit than by a shrieking orchestral chord of dread, a minor-note clash of strings and horns (Irving Gertz, Earl E. Lawrence, Hans J. Salter, Fred Carlin, and Herman Stein are the film's uncredited scorers; Joseph Gershenson its musical director).  Later images in the film are harrowing: the grotesquely huge cat playing with Carey as if he's nothing but a toy; the giant, loathsome spider in the cellar and the epic war it wages on a Carey; the emotionally complicated, Eisenhower-era-culturally charged sight of an embarrassed wife towering over her providing, shamed husband.  Yet this simple image of a devastated man sitting in an over-sized living room chair (note the large arm of the man speaking to Carey) and the corniness of an adult actor earnestly playing this while sitting in an obviously rigged set, is the brief moment from The Incredible Shrinking Man that I haven't been able to shake for decades. My chest still goes cold when I see it.

~~

Suburban horror. When I first saw the movie as a boy on a Saturday afternoon, Carey's existential, quasi-mystic mutterings at the film's conclusion were well beyond me, and yet I somehow understood the gravitas.  ("Great art can communicate before it is understood," T.S. Eliot.)  This closing monologue does not appear in The Shrinking Man, the novel by Richard Matheson published a year before the film adaptation, but was added by the director, who correctly felt that the momentum of Carey's vanishing led Carey, and by extension, the audience, to question the worth of human life, the deceptions imposed by the values of relative size (man over woman, man over insect), and the human's place in the infinite cosmos.  This Naturalistic conclusion and its imagery wholly shook me—the towering suburban yard, ordinary and immense; the glance upward to the infinite heavens; talk of zeros and God and nothingness.  As a kid in suburbia, the notion of vanishing was pleasant, especially during puberty, but the reconciliation that Carey makes (or, bravely attempts to make) with his inessential self, his puniness, his certain, brutal fate as food for marauding insects, was too much for me to bear. It implied a courage and vision that I could not possess.  So the effect was both thrilling and heartbreaking.

"I was continuing to shrink, to become... what?" Carey asks at the end of the film,
The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet—like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist! 
At the time I vaguely but urgently connected the unsettling feelings this conclusion gave me to the short film Powers of Ten, which I'd recently watched at the Air and Space Museum ("The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet—like the closing of a gigantic circle"), and to the disappearance of the Lyon sisters in my hometown.  Years would pass before I'd truly understand the import of Robert Carey's dilemma, and the bravery of his renewal.

Final moments of The Incredible Shrinking Man here.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Scorsese and Harrison Living in the Incomplete World

An admission: I'm usually lazy critically when it comes to the Beatles.  I've been a Beatles nut for nearly forty years and it's often more fun to enjoy them rather than to consider them.  This is the case with my critical relationship to Martin Scorsese, too; I'm a huge fan, and though I certainly have been disappointed with his lesser movies I'd often rather simply love the work of his that I love.  This is the pleasure principle interfering with objective criticism, and I'm not necessarily proud of it.

And so I watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World with pleasure—enjoying the footage I hadn't seen, the personal artifacts from Harrison's life, the interviews, Scorsese's evocative, at times impressionistic editing, Phil Spector's wild bug eyes—but I also couldn't help but be disappointed.  This is less a documentary about Harrison than it is a Promotional Film from the Harrison Estate, unsurprising given that Harrison's widow, Olivia, executive produced the film, but unexpected given that the film was made by Scorsese, a filmmaker never afraid to essay the darker side of humanity.  Recently at Slate Bill Wyman took to task certain music documentaries, specifically the Harrison film and more generally Scorsese's music nonfiction films (on The Band, Dylan, the Stones).  "We're living in the age of the schlockumentary," Wyman wrote. "Ideally, a documentary should have an arm's-length distance between subject and chronicler. And one hopes that the director is there in service of the viewer, not the subject. In the arts world, that ideal is getting harder and harder to find."  Certainly Scorsese's rock and roll fandom could lead him close to hagiography, but I was hoping that what had interested Scorsese in Harrison was Harrison's lifelong push/pull between stardom and privacy, between the secular and the sacred.  Scorsese's pretty familiar with these extremes, and his best fiction films dramatize the tensions that they create.

But Scorsese seems uninterested in presenting Harrison as a round character, E.M. Forster's definition of a dynamic person who's defined by conflict and contradiction and surprise, as opposed to a flat character, who's unsurprising, static.  As readers (or watchers of movies, listeners to narrative songs) we care about round characters: they move us, we have stake in them emotionally.  Scorsese's most indelible creations are round and complex: Henry Hill; Travis Bickle; Rupert Pupkin; Jake La Motta.  I was hoping that Scorsese would treat Harrison the same way he treats his fictional protagonists, that is, mercilessly, but with heart-breaking respect for their humanity.  As a man devoted to spiritual journeying, Harrison is obviously close to Scorsese's wandering heart, and a subject ripe for exploring the kind of fraught journeying that mark all people searching for God.  We get some conflict in Living in the Material World, but it's softened by the selective glow of friendship, memory, nostalgia (and, likely, the Harrison family's controlling hand).  Harrison's infidelities are touched upon, as his is drug abuse and his famous ire (Ringo describes Harrison's "bag of anger"), but we never get very deep into them, into the crises, character traits, and sensibilities in Harrison that drove him from the dark to the light, and back. 

~~

"The word documentary," Robert Coles writes in Doing Documentary Work,
certainly suggests an interest in what is actual, what exists, rather than what one brings personally, if not irrationally, to the table of present-day actuality.  Documentary evidence substantiates what is otherwise an assertion or a hypothesis or a claim.  A documentary film attempts to portray a particular kind of life realistically; a documentary report offers authentication of what is otherwise speculation. 
"Present-day actuality" and realism are obviously subjective states, and, as I've written elsewhere, every biography is a secret autobiography.  But rather than lessen or invalidate his documentary, I was hoping that Scorsese's private/personal intersection with Harrison's struggles would've enriched the film, made it into a kind of auteur nonfiction, dramatizing fight and surrender, pleasures and selflessness.  We get mostly lip-service paid to Harrison's personal flaws, which are backgrounded behind his marvelous generosity and genuine spirituality.  I've no doubt that Harrison was a spiritual man convinced, wryly but passionately, that the material world is little but diversion and deception.  But this view feels incomplete.  I would've liked to have seen more about the power and temptation of those diversions, which to any of us can feel as overwhelming and necessary and valuable as that which is more profound and unworldly.  I would've liked a little more foul Piggies to balance his Sweet Lord.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dew it (did it?)

In Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece about the notion of advertisements implanting in us false memories.  Lehrer begins by bemoaning his own poor episodic memory, and then shares a recollection that he covets but knows is false (sipping from Coke bottles at a high school football game where glass containers had been banned; and no, he wasn't rebelling).  Describing his memory as "flawed nostalgia" originating from a Coke commercial he's often watched as a teenager, Lehrer writes that "It turns out that vivid commercials are incredibly good at tricking the hippocampus (a center of long-term memory in the brain) into believing that the scene we just watched on television actually happened." He cites a recent study in The Journal of Consumer Research:
The experiment went like this: 100 undergraduates were introduced to a new popcorn product called “Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn.” (No such product exists, but that’s the point.) Then, the students were randomly assigned to various advertisement conditions. Some subjects viewed low-imagery text ads, which described the delicious taste of this new snack food. Others watched a high-imagery commercial, in which they watched all sorts of happy people enjoying this popcorn in their living room. After viewing the ads, the students were then assigned to one of two rooms. In one room, they were given an unrelated survey. In the other room, however, they were given a sample of this fictional new popcorn to taste. (A different Orville Redenbacher popcorn was actually used.)
One week later, all the subjects were quizzed about their memory of the product. Here’s where things get disturbing: While students who saw the low-imagery ad were extremely unlikely to report having tried the popcorn, those who watched the slick commercial were just as likely to have said they tried the popcorn as those who actually did. Furthermore, their ratings of the product were as favorable as those who sampled the salty, buttery treat. Most troubling, perhaps, is that these subjects were extremely confident in these made-up memories. The delusion felt true. They didn’t like the popcorn because they’d seen a good ad. They liked the popcorn because it was delicious.
This is endlessly interesting to me.  Apart from what this says about the power of ads to entice us, to virtually insist that we respond personally, and thus warmly, to a product with which we have no context, no past, I'm fascinated with the implications of implanted memory: what does it mean to live a life with a fictional past?

~~

I'm just out of the frame
In Mountain Dew ads from the late '70s, cut-off-jean-wearing blonde girls giddily climbed aboard rocks and leaped in the air, and I gladly jumped with them.  I'm certain that I resisted a "false experience effect" from those commercials—I haven't translated them as my own memories, in other words—but when I remember watching those ads, led by my insisting, insistent body, I see how thin are the walls between memory and desire, between having had and wanting to have.  I can easily imagine someone, the brunt of jokes at his physical lacking or social ineptitude, wishfully importing himself into that perfect sunny afternoon at the river with the cool guys and girls, swinging from rope swings and leaping into water, soaking up the good vibes of friends and caffeine, years later lamenting where did it all go, those bright, endless afternoons of play and flirting, all of us so healthy and tanned, our young bodies humming, where did those days go, where did I go?

We'd like to think—armed with maturity and perspective tempered with melancholy though clear-eyed grief over lost youth—that we can steel ourselves against such false nostalgia, but the brutal machinations of the experiment Lehrer cites above suggest otherwise: we belonged, though, of course, we didn't.

I don't remember this well
What memories of my boyhood—long days playing with K. in his rec room; endless bike rides along and through the woods; pulling down L's shorts; jumping on the waterbed—have I fabricated, have I allowed an advertisement or after-school special or sitcom to cast and chart against a kind of Adolescent Freytag's Triangle?  And if I have appropriated another's imagery for my own, what does that say about the memories by which I might define myself?  In excising material when I tell an autobiographical story, I reveal via those deletions as much about myself as I do the material that I keep in for public display.  It must work the same for the imagined past: what I call my own though it's not mine reveals what is less dispensable for me.

Memoirists, Patricia Hampl argues, must be on their guard against this kind of poaching.  In her terrific "Memory and the Imagination," from I Could Tell You Stories, she offers a small memory of a piano lesson, a set piece featuring her friend Mary Katherine and an indelibly drawn teaching nun, Sister Olive.  Soon enough, Hampl owns up to some serious revising of her past in the memoir, indeed, to outright fictionalizing.  Many details in the memoir, she reveals, were imagined, were lies.  Inside the memoiristic dilemma of truth revealed in/as deception, Hampl discovers some things:
I really did feel, for instance, that Mary Katherine Reilly was far superior to me. She was smarter, funnier, more wonderful in every way -- that's how I saw it. Our friendship (or she herself) did not require that I become her vassal, yet perhaps in my heart that was something I wanted; I wanted a way to express my feelings of admiration. I suppose I waited until this memoir to begin to find the way.
Just as, in the memoir, I finally possess that red Thompson book with the barking dogs and bleating lambs and winsome children. I couldn't (and still can't) remember what my own music book was, so I grabbed the name and image of the one book I could remember. It was only in reviewing the piece after writing it that I saw my inaccuracy. In pondering this "lie," I came to see what I was up to: I was getting what I wanted. At last.
Like Hampl desiring that piano lesson book, I wanted to leap into the air with my/not my blonde Mountain Dew girl; somehow I erected a wall between her fiction and my truth.  I can't be sure that that wall hasn't been permeated or circumvented, pushed over or town down elsewhere in my memory storehouse, where I've cast and re-cast my stories with plots and actors, borrowed, refitted, dramatizing a finer, or a sadder, life.  

~~

In "The Forest of Memory" Kathryn Harrison quotes Freud: "It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood. Memories relating to childhood may be all that we possess."

~~

In the September 14th New York Times Magazine, science author Pagan Kelly wrote about advances in cyborg technology, profiling, among others, Gerwin Schalk, a 40-year-old computer engineer.  Kelly describes an encounter with Schalk:
On the day I stopped by his office, Schalk hit a button on his computer, and Pink Floyd blasted from his speakers. He was running an experiment to see what happens to people’s brains when they listen to “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1” (a question that has occurred to any stoner who ever contemplated human consciousness in the glow of stereo lights). Weeks before, Schalk played the Pink Floyd song for some of his epileptic volunteers and recorded the activity in the parts of the brain that process sound. Schalk showed me a volume meter on his computer screen — this was a brain, tracking the roar of a guitar solo. It worked just like any other volume meter, but in one experiment, Schalk found that the brain did something unexpected. When he interrupted the Pink Floyd song with moments of silence, the brain’s volume meter continued to tremble up and down, as if the song were still playing. This, Schalk said, showed that the brain creates a model of what it expects to hear — a shadow song that plunks out its tune in the player piano of our auditory system. 
This got me thinking: do we fulfill a memory's plot development, nudge a recollection toward a conclusion that it might not posses?  If we experience something incomplete, a life equivalent of an interrupted song—a failed romance, say, or a brave effort that fell short, done in by cowardice—does the mind in recollecting fill in what didn't happen?  Something to guard against, and to revel in.  For the autobiographical writer, there's always a pas de deux between the past and its telling, between what did and what didn't.  But desire has a strong compass pull, and each dancer will move toward desire's lead.


1970s Coke commercial still via In A Perfect World

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The writing circle

When a writer circles himself, essaying the self for subject, he's aware of Montaigne's many selves and so he circles more, in ever-widening circuits, enacting the great paradox of autobiography that the further we get from ourselves, the clearer we see ourselves, but now there are too many people events places in his generous circles so he asks himself, am I writing autobiography or biography? and remembering those many selves he tightens the circle a bit, honing in back on the "I" but all of those people events places he encountered in his movement away from the self have affected him so he includes them again, but now the circle's getting crowded so he excises some of those people events places and now, yes, the focus is back! so he circles himself more trying to capture in language his many selves but what is truth after all and so he includes the circling itself in his very subject, now admits that, yes, it's all fool's gold, this attempt to make sense, to filter the world through himself, and if the world ends at the end of his arm, which it does not, how to account for all of those people events places that his very arm points toward or tries to sweep away? and so he cirlces back out in an attempt to present not a self but a world (Hampl) but this isn't what he wanted to do, he wanted to write about that day as it dissolved into that one and that myth as it collapsed into the trite time and now it seems that in writing about himself he's become a prism through which it all passes, he guesses now that this is true autobiography, that every biography is a secret autobiography and that every autobiography must be a generous biography, too, and now he's tired, too much circling so he calls it a night, and when he sleeps he dreams fictions of his life, stories that made profound sense as he slept and no sense when he awoke ("A novelist is, like all mortals, more fully at home on the surface of the present than in the ooze of the past," Nabokov) and he realized with a start that an essay can be like a dream—it’s difficult to maintain that forward momentum, thinking essayistically = interrupting the flow, allowing in tangents, because among the reoccurring dreams he has is seeing a band live and invariably, the dream—which is narrative, and never absurd or surreal—never gets past the first song, the band stops playing, or something distracting happens in the crowd or outside the venue, and this helps him a bit though he can't say why and so he circles some more, remembering Montaigne's many selves, and sighing, he circles back
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