ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.

EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.