Saturday, December 15, 2007

O Wad some giftie the Giver gie us

The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-between, they do things differently there. What a splendid observation, adding a bridge between the sentiment that history is a account written by the winners and the notion that the present is ours to engage and the future is ours to regret because of what we did not do in the moment. There is some collateral relationship as well to Gertrude Stein's famed observation about Oakland, California, the city of her birth, "There's no there there."

What is the sense of writing memoir, someone asked me recently, if persons reading it don't believe the account? To illustrate this is a letter to the editor of the current edition of Harper's, in which the writer recalls being dressed in an overbearingly hot and scratchy suit for his bar mitzvah, which fell on a warm day, producing in the memoirist the recall of sweating to the point where drops of perspiration actually fell from his forehead to the text of the Torah, much to the outrage of the rabbi. The writer showed the account to his mother who denied her son, her own flesh and blood, had ever the need to cope with such an uncomfortable suit. Much to the writer's relief, he soon encountered a friend from those earlier days to whom that very suit had been handed down for his own bar mitzvah. Relieved at the validation of his memory in peer review, the writer returned to his mother who promptly said of the peer reviewee, "That man is a liar."

Is all memory, all experience, all future forecast doomed to be distrusted? How shall I regard the history I read with such avidity the better to understand what happened before I got here? How indeed shall I regard the discoveries I make while browsing through my copious volumes of notes, accounts, confessions, and opinions, rendered since my late teens? Is this body of work my most imaginative fiction of all? Or is it instead not so much a record of event but of my ability to evoke an atmosphere of emotion, landscape, and the result of striving? Dare I say entertain?

Is story telling a deliberate contrivance to produce such a profound sense of disagreement from the reader that the reader's entertainment comes from supplying his own version of the story?

At this stage I see only the lovely state of detente in which the reader suffers my version barely patient in order to get on with the reader's own, more compelling, more truthful version.

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of the willing suspension of belief, he was speaking of the reader being rendered trusting of the writer to the point where the reader no longer questioned. Some of our early works in English, Pamela, for instance, or Robinson Crusoe, first appeared, they were widely and wildly believed to be absolute truthful accounts in which, in Pamela's case, we rooted for her pre-marital chastity and in Robinson Crusoe's case, in which we were relieved that it was he who was stranded on the island, not us.

For now I believe the only option is to write about everything as though reporting on the truth as I see it, then to hope that this will propel me upward to the next plateau where I can see different horizon of truth and aspire to it.

3 comments:

Pod said...

the go-between is one of my all time favourites. i am sure it was written by or about me in a parallel/other lifetime

Lee's River/Zlatovyek said...

"dare I say entertain?" Oh yes, definitely; because if the writer's word don't entertain in one way or another, who sticks around to read them?
(etymologically, by the way, entertain comes from the old French "entretenir" i.e. to hold together as in weaving or building.)

Anonymous said...

"For now I believe the only option is to write about everything as though reporting on the truth as I see it, then to hope that this will propel me upward to the next plateau where I can see different horizon of truth and aspire to it."

Beautiful.