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.

INTERVIEW WITH MARILYNNE ROBINSON

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Some of a great writer’s deepest thoughts might pass under the public’s radar simply because they appear in an academic journal.  I hope this won’t be the case with the eye-opening observations of Marilynne Robinson that appear in a special issue on her work of the journal Renascence, published by Marquette University (Vol. LXVI, No. 2, Spring 2014).

Robinson is a renowned, prizewinning novelist (Gilead, Home, Housekeeping).  She is also a serious and challenging essayist, author of Mother Country, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books.  My interview for Renascence focuses on her nonfiction.

In the interview, Robinson offers readers a challenging insight about today’s culture—our tendency to undervalue ourselves as souls.  You might suppose that her perception—given her essays on the Calvinist faith tradition—would apply only to people who believe in souls.  Hardly.  I find it purely metaphysical at heart, because it is all about what kind of attention we give one another.

In When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson comments that we have “a painful and ongoing history of undervaluing ourselves and exploiting one another.” I asked her by what means this takes place, and how we could counteract this influence.  Robinson answers, in part, that “the great world tells us that life is all a matter of marketing,” and that “shoddy cultural goods are supposedly justified by the fact that people buy them.”  The same goes for shoddy political goods, she says, and when the public accepts and perpetuates “these condescensions” they “endorse cynicism,” which is “a kind of damp shadow that blights the flourishing of the better things we want and need.”

Shoddiness in culture can be anything from tv shows and commercials to rap lyrics, movies, magazines, pop art, and unverifiable cyber commentary.  It ends up being shoddy to the extent that whoever generated it did not give it full attention, which implies respect for its subject matter.  When rap lyrics refer to women as sexual objects to be violated and tossed aside, the men who write and sing them are not, of course, applying their attention to the humanity of women.  They are selling macho swag at the price of women’s dignity.  And that blights our culture by casting a damp shadow on women’s hopes for better relationships with men, and those men’s relationships to the children they father.

Cynicism is the driving force behind politicians who disparage social programs that help the poor and provide educational opportunities, among other government efforts of clear benefit to society.  Their distorted and often fabricated claims are part of a cynical agenda to reduce taxes on the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.  No need to argue how far this blight has spread in today’s world.

The shadows of cynicism hang over billionaire industrialists whose factories and refineries pollute our environment.  They try to pour millions anonymously into political campaigns whose goal is to remove government safeguards against industrial pollution.  If they were publically identified, the people whose lives are harmed by such pollutants could apply the powers of their own attention to these cynical machinations.  Result: such condescension to the wellbeing of others would be thrown into the light of justice.

In the world of religion, the blight of cynicism is associated with sin and evil.  In the secular world, let’s just say it’s an enemy to be reckoned with.  Today the reckoning has to consist in not only paying full attention to the threat, but speaking out and exposing it to the light of others’ attention.

As any attending metaphysician would tell you, personal attention has the power to change personal lives, culture, and politics.

 

On the BIG QUESTION, “WHY?” When we all have to die…

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REFLECTIONS ON “WHY? THE FICTIONS OF LIFE AND DEATH” BY JAMES WOOD

Wood is one of our finest literary critics, whose book How Fiction Works deserves to become a classic.  I was struck by his recent essay in The New Yorker (12-9-2013), which grabs you right off with his recent presence at the funeral of a 44-year-old man he did not know.  The deceased, brother of a close friend, was cut down in his fun-loving prime by a fluke illness, leaving behind a wife and children.  This spurs Wood to ask the Big Question: If we all have to die, for what purpose do we live, when most of us will soon be forgotten?

Wood confides that he lost his faith as a boy, when his parents could not explain why God let people die, like the single mother of his playmates who got cancer, or why some are born with mental and physical handicaps, suffer fatal freak accidents, and so on.  He writes that in his youth, to conceal his atheism—along with swearing, drinking, and listening to Led Zeppelin—he began to lie.  He began searching through novels for answers that religion refused to divulge.  Fiction seemed more honest because it “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows it is a true lie,” and “is always a matter of belief—for readers to validate and confirm.”

What was dangerous and troublesome in religion to Wood was “the very fabric of fiction,” “a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data.”  Wonderfully put.  Who has not hopped onto the magic carpet of literature to be transported to distant climes and into the heads of characters so unlike—or shockingly like—ourselves?

Anyone paying attention to how they pay attention would agree that great novels are so full of their own life that, while reading them, our own mortality is momentarily banished.  In Wood’s terms, “Death will roar back, but not yet, not now.”  Except that a few great novels are filled with death and dying in ways that may help not a few readers cope with it better.  Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one.  The dying Ilyich, alone with his thoughts, reluctantly begins to review his ungratifying life from a previously disdained perspective—how little he has valued love in his striving for worldly status.

Most moving about Ilyich’s story, he seems entirely real.  This leads to where I differ from Wood’s choice of fiction as our best vehicle to convey what is dangerous and troublesome to religion and to any sort of received value or belief.  If we knew that this failed bureaucrat Ilyich was a real person who tried to work his way up the career ladder as we have, wouldn’t we take his moment of truth more seriously?  Lifelike fiction or real plodding human experience?  Not that we don’t love fine art, but—really.

There’s a reason so many Christians cling to the faith Wood found unsatisfying.  One reason, perhaps the biggest, is that Jesus, being born human and living among real people, had street cred.  There’s a kind of writing–not fiction, much as we love it–that carries the same credibility.

Wood overlooks something essential when claiming that novels perform “what God vouchsafes to us in Psalm 121: ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.”  Fiction preserves some of the history of our imagination, and much of what we imagine is based on real experience.  But fiction is also—and for some, most importantly—a means to travel beyond the borders of daily existence, to escape the finitude of the doors, rooms and routines we pass in and out of.  It’s just that some of us don’t always seek escape.  We want to face, to get help facing, whatever reality throws at us.

Woods overlooks the kind of writing that deals with the actual passages of our life, nonfiction.  Memoir, autobiography, personal journals and letters, to some extent biography.  In theological terms, the Lord’s promise to preserve our goings and comings is carried out partly by those created in His/Her image.  Even for nonbelievers, that instrumentality, the attempt to preserve and give meaning to our goings and comings, may be why nonfiction writing, especially memoir, has overtaken novels in popularity.

Memoirs are now written and published even by unfamous people whose lives do not make the history books or tabloids.  They are written and read for reasons that grapple with the Big Why of Woods’ essay, in non-imaginary realms, where readers realize that truth being stranger than fiction can be very entertaining.

Market research shows that memoir readers search for life stories that bear upon their own struggles and questions.  One of the strongest motivators for people to write about the darkest moments of their lives, strangely enough, is not self-promotion but to give others hope that they can survive their own particular shocks and horrors.

Here’s the thing, from a cosmic perspective.  Memoir writers and their readers can be likened to a communion of not-necessarily-saints.  A vast community of people trying to understand the perplexities of their own lives by learning about others’.  A bottom-line benevolent support system, so to speak.

There’s a deep undergirding of care to the whole enterprise of writing about one’s life and reading about others’ lives.  It involves a quality of attention that searches for healing and insight, and looks for hidden connections.  Whether perceived as divine or secular, this attention is life-affirming and mysteriously influential.  Shakespeare could have spoken for self-exposing scribblers and their readers in his famous, slightly misquoted line, There is a divinity [not “destiny”] that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will.  (We translate ‘divinity’ loosely here as ‘that which increases understanding by means of quality attention.’)

Wood says fictional characters, even if they die, return to life when we reread their stories.  By contrast, he needn’t add, real people die and stay dead. But not if they write a memoir, fill a journal, or write letters that survive.

Memoir writers not only have to find a narrative structure for the portion of life they are trying to write about.  They must face the existential challenge of writing as truthfully as possible, even if it may offend people they care about or uncover shameful or humiliating details.  It is a soul-wrenching project—one that feels like we need an assist from God and/or the spirits of brilliant writers past.

Dredging up memories is the just the beginning.  Once you’ve written them down, you must put them in a some rational sequence, a narrative.  Enter the agonies of craft.  You cut, paste, supply names, dates and locations to episodes partially forgotten, and change names to protect the living.  Making a readable story requires playing God in your tiny written universe—deciding to cull extraordinary persons and intriguing sub-plots in favor of those that move your story forward.  Doing so requires that you constantly refocus and reevaluate what deserves your own and readers’ attention.

It is perhaps the ultimate human quest: how best to give voice and form to the truth of one’s own unique life.  Why?  Because we can.  Because once we’ve written something in our own voice, it is part of creation.  Possibly immortal.

Introduction and Welcome

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You don’t need to be a professor in an ivory tower to do metaphysics. Not everyone, no matter how intelligent, ends up in academia, and not everyone there does metaphysics.  People do metaphysics when they ponder the whys and wherefores of life—from whatever standpoint they find themselves in.  I’ve met some serious metaphysicians who are taxi drivers, homemakers and electricians.  What makes them serious is how carefully they pay attention to what’s going on around and in them.  Here’s how I got started:

My mother was a nurse who loved to read, everything from fine poetry to the National Enquirer, from beauty tips and celebrity gossip to international news and political commentary.  She loved human interest stories the most, and shared the best bits with her family.  The one I found most intriguing has stuck with me all my life.  It was about  “boarder babies.”

There was a hospital with a maternity ward, according to this piece, where women sometimes gave birth and left their babies there unclaimed.  Note, these newborns were perfectly healthy with no birth defects.  They were cared for by nurses and aides who kept them clean, warm, and well nourished.  But the hospital staff had many other duties, and that was all they were able to do.  …What happened to those perfectly healthy little babes?

My students have been shocked, at least momentarily, to hear this.  But  occasionally a natural metaphysician among them pops up with the correct answer.

They died, that’s what.  Not of disease, or malnutrition.  They died for lack of attention.

Others ask snarkily, as some students tend to do, “You mean to tell us that babies who don’t get cuddled and cooed at give up and die, just like that?”

Think about it, I say.  You’re new to life, in a crib in a maternity ward.  Other babies’ mothers pick them up and hold them, family and friends ooh and ah and say how cute they are, and you are ignored except for the quick diaper changes, wipes, and bottles of formula.  You sense that other beings like you are getting what you want more than anything, and you are missing out.  If that’s all you knew of life, would you want to live?  Incidentally, the hospital in question formed a group of volunteers to hold and talk to the boarder babies, until they could be placed in proper homes.  After that they all survived.

Back to my real point:  Attention is vital for life.  Without it we die; with it we thrive. You would not be alive to read this if you had been denied sufficient attention as an infant.  

As this website will explore, attention may be the invisible (a.k.a. dark) force of our world.  And, as I have suggested elsewhere (See Publications Page), the lack of positive attention may be the initial source of what we feel to be evil.  On the other hand, caring attention may prove to be the essential ingredient of all personal power and achievement.

If you think this subject is vast and worth exploring, welcome to the world of attending metaphysicians!

  

FYI – A recent Op Ed column in the New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof  seems to illustrate my point rather convincingly.  It’s titled “Cuddle Your Kid!” and subtitled “What Romney and Obama can learn from rats and a teenage girl.”  Here’s the link:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/opinion/sunday/kristof-cuddle-your-kid.html?_r=0