Monday, April 4, 2016

"Do you feel that you can really know something?" Monson and D'Agata

Ander Monson's new interview with John D'Agata is rich and absorbing. It's a lengthy conversation, and if you're interested in writing and in the essay's history and possibilities as a genre, as well as in the limitations of taxonomy, I recommend you read it. The whole thing's good, but this particular passage is illuminating, as D'Agata drills down into some of the autobiographical origins of his deep—as he says "spiritual"—distrust of facts:
So...on an aesthetic level, I don’t put a lot of stock in verifiability in nonfiction because for me there are other exciting ways to make nonfiction. But on a deeper level, on a spiritual level, I also just don’t believe in the conceits of facts.

John D'Agata
Some of this comes from how I experienced the world growing up. I grew up in a very loving home and a very supportive home, but it wasn’t a stable home by any means. We were poor. The most vivid and consistent memory I have from childhood is of my mom crying through the night because we were always on the brink of losing our home. I was kicked out of high school. (I am a certified high school drop-out.) My brother and I were apparently the only kids at our school from a “broken” home, which we sometimes got bullied for, even once by a teacher in my brother’s case. And I figured out that I was gay just as AIDS was hitting the mainstream consciousness, so that my sexual awareness was not only a reluctant identification with a thing that my culture was telling me was “wrong,” it was an identification with a thing that was so “wrong” it was apparently going to kill me. So, you know, if you’re 10 or 12 years old and God seems to be on a rampage to kill all the faggots, how do you trust your own feelings (how do you trust your gut, your instincts, your very nature) when even Nature itself seems to be telling you that you’re mistaken, that you’re on the wrong path, that your very heart cannot be trusted. If the feelings in your heart don’t go away, what do you do? What do you trust?

Andre Monson
My brother and I grew up together, and we’re still really close, but as adults we’ve reacted to the instability in our childhoods in different ways. My brother lives a nearly perfect life—gorgeous wife, gorgeous kids, gorgeous home, gorgeous friends, and a spectacularly successful career in finance that pretty much guarantees that he will never experience instability again. He’s constructed a life that’s almost an antidote to how we grew up. And while I too live a much more comfortable life now (thankfully), I’ve chosen to respond to our background differently. I like exploring the uncertainly that’s at the heart of things, the instability that I think is hiding under almost everything that we experience.

I think that defines a lot of artists’ work: not whether or not we recognize the instability in the world, but what we do about it. Some of us want to mask that instability and some of us want to expose it. You can see this reflected aesthetically in artists’ work across media. But the reason why this issue gets particularly heated in nonfiction isn’t because it’s an issue of different aesthetic tastes, but rather because it’s a reflection of different spiritualities. Fundamentally it’s a reflection of how you experience the world. Do you trust? Do you believe? Do you feel that you can really know something?

For some of us the answer is yes. For some of us the answer is absolutely not. So when we challenge each other regarding the verifiability of facts, it feels sometimes like we’re challenging each other’s belief systems. And that can feel scary, and it can hurt. I suspect it hurts in both directions.
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Graywolf has just published The Making of the American Essay, D'Agata's third anthlogy in his excellent trilogy on the history, theory, and practice of the genre.

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