Saturday, October 13, 2012

Common Moments, Wrapped Secrets

Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.

I was interested in these lines of John Berger's when I first encountered them. I was confounded, too. Such statements belong in that group of observations that seem profound but that also stiff-arm me; I want to get in and better understand, but something—my own ignorance, lack of perspective, lack of context—keeps me out.

John Berger
In 1986 Berger, a well-known art critic and writer, published "Her Secrets" in The Threepenny Review. Seven years later Threepenny editor Wendy Lesser published Hiding In Plain Sight: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography and included Berger's piece. This is where finally I recently read the essay where Berger makes his curious comments about the foundling origins and nature of autobiography. "Her Secrets" is a beautiful elegy for the Berger's mother, who'd died only a month before Berger wrote the essay; Berger is indeed writing directly about orphanhood, for his father had died a decade earlier. I was lacking context, but that didn't preclude me from wanting to understand further what Berger had meant when he wrote that autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. Is it because of the starkness of grief? Because the writer is a solitary figure? Because even if an autobiographer is writing about and exploring the enormous world it's a world that's filtered finally (only) through the particular perspective of the writer herself (and her many selves)? But, Berger writes: begins. Not includes, or ends with.

What Berger was evoking was his own grief, sadness unique to him, of course, and yet not, as he recognizes that the anxiety over his and his parents' mortality is a common thread. "Every time I went to bed—and in this I am sure I was like millions of other children—"
the fear that one or both of my parents might die in the night touched the nape of my neck with its finger. Such a fear has, I believe, little to do with a particular psychological climate and a great deal to do with nightfall. Yet since it was impossible to say: You won't die in the night, will you? (when Grandmother died, I was told she had gone to have a rest, or—this was from my Uncle who was more outspoken—that she had passed over), since I couldn't ask the real question and I sought a reassurance, I invented—like millions before me—the euphemism: See you in the morning! To which either my father or my mother who had come to turn out the light in my bedroom, would reply: See you in the morning, John.
Faced now with the reality of his mother's death, Berger wonders if it isn't the time to write an autobiography. He decides against it, in his reasoning inadvertently making a defense for personal essaying: "All that interests me about my past life are the common moments. The moments‚ which if I relate them well enough—will join countless others lived by people I do not personally know." As the essay's title suggests, Berger's mother was a hard woman to know, thrifty, practical, neither ebullient nor particularly reflective, mysterious, a carrier of "wrapped" secrets that she believed her son intuited, understood, and would help silently bear. "The last, the largest and the most personally prewrapped wrapped secret was her own death," Berger writes. "Of course I was not the only witness. Of those close to her, I was maybe the most removed, the most remote. But she knew, I think, with confidence that I would pursue the matter. She knew that if anybody can be at home with what is kept a secret, it was me, because I was her son whom she hoped would become a writer." Indeed, Berger's mother had hoped her son would become a writer, he notes, "since the night after I was delivered."

"Her Secrets" is brief, circling Berger's mother after the fact in an attempt to understand her and her "respect, a secret loyalty to the enigmatic," and ends with a lovely but haunting scene at her deathbed where her illness remains largely unspoken. "For the first time in her life and mine, she could openly place the wrapped enigma between us. She didn't watch me watching it, for we had the habits of a lifetime. Openly she knew that at that moment her faith in a secret was bound to be stronger than any faith of mine in facts. With her eyes still shut, she fingered the Arab necklace I'd attached round her neck with a charm against the evil eye. I'd given her the necklace a few hours before. Perhaps for the first time I had offered a secret and now her hand kept looking for it."


Before I read "Her Secrets," what bothered me about Berger's observation about autobiography was that it felt like, well, a secret, insights offered in a foreign language. His essay has given me greater context, but I see now that it wasn't necessary to read the essay in order to understand the observation. Autobiography is an orphan form in that every writer begins and ends alone. Berger himself, in trusting his impulse to write about his mother, recognizes that the solitude and the specificity of his grief, though wholly his, might be also a door that opens to others.

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