Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Trompe l'Oeil: Trick of the I

A biography is an attempt at conveying the personality, influences, energy sources, and methods by which the individual engaged life.  More than a mere recitation of events in an individual's life, biography places the individual in context of his or her zeitgeist, the better biographies demonstrating the effects of the individual on the zeitgeist and, reversing the process, the effects on the spirit of the times on the individual.

Although you've not seen the two terms used in connection with one another, many biographies, particularly those of artists, say for examples the American painter, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), or the American poet, Countee Cullen (1903-46), would seem to include that entity known as a catalogue raisonne.

At first blush, a catalogue raisonne might appear to be limited to graphic artists including photographers.  You believe and herewith argue for the inclusion of musicians, poets, writers, actors, choreographers, dancers, many of whom have the equivalent of catalogues raisonne compiled to cover their life's works.

In its most basic aspect, a catalogue raisonne is a comprehensive, perhaps even exhaustive listing of every work the subject has connection with.  The catalogue would include critical commentary, reviews, and the compiler's attempts at providing a large-scale sense of the artist, evoked through examination of the artist's work.

Thus, in literal and figurative ways, the biography and catalogue raisonne present the creator in dramatic, work-oriented dimension as well as evoking the artist's work ethic and the growth arc of the artist's vision of both the human condition and the medium of the artist's expression.

When these two media, so close in ways and disparate in others, found themselves on the stage of your mind at the same time, you experienced that aha-moment of thinking they did belong together.  Other aha-moments followed, including the potential for judges, lawyers, doctors, teachers, philosophers, and inventors to be thought of in terms of the aggregate personal history that is a conflation of biography and catalogue raisonne.

Both media have been orbiting the culture for some time.  The concept of the personal history was yanked into prominence by an individual you personally associate with his trademark red gingham shirt and his longtime association with the city of Chicago.  You refer, of course, to Louis "Studs" Terkel (1912-2008), a man who incessantly interviewed and produced biographies of working persons, emphasizing the work they performed, how they did it, and their attitudes to it.  In real and dramatic senses, Terkel did for biography what Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler did for the mystery novel; he democratized it. 

In a sense, Terkel, through his radio broadcast interviews and his books, made the term personal history seem more interesting and fraught than biography.  Yes, for an ardent certainty, there were splendid and meaningful biographies well before Terkel, not the least among them being Ben Franklin's autobiography or that stunning prose poem of Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory.

To get at your point about the confluence of biography, catalogue raisonne, and personal history,the Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana (1824-84) wrote a collection of six orchestral tone poems, Ma Vlast (My Country), a memorable sense of time, place, theme. There is little if any stretch of logic in suggesting Smetana did in music what Maxine Hong Kingston (1940--) did in her memoir/biography/personal history, Woman Warrior.

You have personal connections with the versatile and eccentric writer, William Saroyan (1908-81) first meeting him when you were the number two attraction to him at a writer's conference.  This meant he was the keynote speaker and you got to attend the dinner in his honor.  But at this dinner, he excused himself for a visit to the men's room, and was next heard from half an hour later, via a telephone call from the nearby Elk's Club to the manager of the writer's conference.  "Bill's been here for fifteen minutes, knocking back doubles and telling us to go fuck ourselves.  Says he's headed over to the Eagles."

Indeed, the manager of the conference heard from the bartender at the Eagle's Lodge.  "I guess it's a good thing, we got no Moose Lodge here in Santa Barbara.  Bill's signing your name to the tab and saying the Moose are more understanding than we are."

By all accounts an inventive writer, both in short story, novel, stage and screen plays, and essay, Saroyan was in effect an enthusiastic autobiographer.

Your favorite work of his, loaned you by his son (and your faculty mate at USC) Aram, was a collection of obituaries he'd written for persons he'd never known in life but, as reflected through his obituaries of them, wished he had known them.

Individuals are known through their life events, their imagination, their causes, their triumphs, disappointments, colossal failures, and the inspiration they radiated, often without knowing.

You first came upon the term "catalogue raisonne" when you were editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house, intent on acquiring a series of such works reflective of modern artists.  The term has bumped around in your imagination for some time, until you took over your late wife's class in personal history, which you've been giving three times a year for about three years.

One of your longest term friends, in addition to being a writer, was an accomplished artist.  At one point, you broached the subject to him of a catalogue raisonne of his work.  He considered this for a moment, then confessed that perhaps the catalogue raisonne would have to begin after his discharge from the Betty Ford Center.  "Less trouble trying to remember what came before then,"  he said.  "Besides, I'm more interested in trompe l'oeil."  

Trick of the eye.

And your come back.  "Trick of the I."


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