23 July 2014

Other Lives to Lead

Thoreau says that he left Walden for the same reason as he went there in the first place: he had other lives to lead. Now, I recall that he originally occupied Walden as an experiment: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” I have never had Thoreau’s discipline but at no point in my life have I not tried to live by his principles. And at this moment I am drawn to these lines because I am leaving a Walden.
            For years I have defined myself as a long-distance runner, and for many years I actually was such. I had run three marathons in not unrespectable times, and I have accululated and worn through drawer-fuls of race t-shirts. There were times in my past when I logged in at forty and fifty miles; when I anticipated the journey out and often sought means and paths that would lengthen that passage; when during the run I did not concern myself with time nor climate. I loved to run and lived in my running. But these days I seem more apt to anticipate the cessation of the effort and the closeness of the approach to home. Now I count my steps and measure the time until I can stop. I hope for rain and difficult weather. I no longer experience the freedom or joy of the trail.

            And so I have taken to the health club and lifting free weights. I have enrolled in spin cycle classes and in attempts at various forms of Yoga. I am seeking a life of activity away from the running trail. It is difficult to leave one Walden even for another and so in the process I experience questions of identity and selfhood: if I am not a long distance runner then who am I? Or perhaps it is that I don’t leave my Walden but rather take it with me to my next location. I have other lives to lead. “I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops.” And so I do not leave the runningthough they are fewer there are still miles to go before I sleepbut I plant other seeds that I hope may sustain me. It is all an experiment and they are all Walden Ponds. I am learning new horizons and limits.

13 July 2014

Queen for a Day

One of the TV programs I recall watching when I was quite young was Queen for a Day. On this show, hosted by Jack Bailey, the women-contestants would be asked to recount publically their sordid tales of misery and woe, to which the audience would be asked to respond with applause (!) that would be measured on an applause-meter. The woman whose story inspired the greatest applause would be named “Queen for a Day,” and she would receive as a prize just those things the absence of which her story proclaimed as the source of her suffering.  There would always be considerable lament and weeping in the narrations. I think that what Queen for a Day promoted was misery, and its appeal seemed to lie in the ability to leer obscenely at the suffering and pain of others and then to enjoy the privilege to to assess and quantify the misery presented, and to elect the woman who had narrated the most wretched tale of woe to be Queen for a Day. Losing contestantsthose whose stories just weren’t sufficiently depressing would also receive some token reward for allowing the audience to leer. Later Phil Ochs would in a different context define the entire experience of Queen for a Day in his song “Crucifixion.” He sang, “Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all/ And do you have a picture of the pain?” It was the pleasure of viewing someone else’s pain that made watching the show pleasurable.
            I raise this issue now because for some time I have been reading and thinking about memoirs, a genre that some might say is emblematic of our time‘our time’ being the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That is another issueor no, perhaps it is the same issue, but I am headed in another direction right now. I think autobiographies are problematic: the truthfulness of any one of them is dubious (see Philip Roth’s The Facts, or Frank Kermode’s Not Entitled, or Paul DeMan’s essay, “Autobiography as De-facement”) and so I have been wondering that if they are not truthful, then why do we read these texts and why they are written. Again, this is a complex problem (I think), and one I mean to more formally pursue in the future. But I have recently finished reading two separate memoirs: Mary Karr’s trilogy, The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009); and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (2005). These memoirs recount the miserable lives that each author endured, overcame and survived to narrate gloriously, say the reviewsabout their torturous experience. Both authors as a result became instant celebrities and extremely successful ‘artists,’ and their books appeared high on the New York Times Bestseller list.
            As a result of the portrayal of the pain and suffering each author endured , she moved into the ranks of the rich and famous. That is, both Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls become famous by recounting the misery of their lives; there is, it would seem, some value in emphasizing the suffering! In recounting their pain vividly they become, as it were, queens for the day. And I cannot now distinguish between this experience and that of old television show that rewarded a brilliant recounting a life beset by misery and suffering. These women are rewarded by a public hungry for tales of woe for their tale of woe. But until the writing neither woman had much of note to report, and their notoriety derives from their recounting of their lives and not from any material achievement in their existences. Since neither author engages in much psychological analysis of the lives in which the suffering derives, there isn’t much to be learned from the accounting. It is the spectacle of suffering that remains the attraction. And of course, it is the misery that must be foregrounded and hence, the tale is focused and falsified to this end. Any narrative that narrates conversation that took place twenty or thirty years ago strains credibility. The consciousness of a thirty year old imposed on a three year old just doesn’t bespeak an honest telling.
            To my mind the life of each author is no more nor less miserable than that of countless others. The same, of course, is true of the memoirist Frank McCourt whose own trilogy (Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man) may be partly responsible for the popularity of the form. He too offers exact transcriptions of conversations that took place fifty years earlier! As in Queen for a Day, the narrative is directed toward the depiction of misery, and the more miserable the better the story!
            But the same, I think, cannot be said, say, of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, a memoir that recounts the endurance of a human confronted by a historical force that was designed to deny the very humanity to which the writing offers testament. Levi’s aloneness in the camps was not particular to him alone, nor did what he suffered stem from his eccentric familial situation: it might be that Happy families are all alike, and that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but to read Anna Karenina is to observe not eccentricity but individuality. There are motives underlying behaviors that Tolstoy meticulously studied and explored. The novel is an exploration of a complex humanity in the face of suffering and not merely an account of the suffering. I can be Anna during my reading of Anna Karenina, but there is nothing in these memoirs of misery with which I can identify or from which I might gain insight into my own life. It is pure voyeurism in which I engage, but I am no longer amused.  

04 July 2014

Some Further Thoughts on Autobiography and Memoir

Literary critic Frank Kermode in his autobiography, Not Entitled, narrates an incident that took place during his stay in Tuscany with an Italian friend. One night the two attended an opera and returned home quite latewell, in fact, at three in the morning. Now, it seems that for the next afternoon the lady had invited friends to share lunch but in the middle of the meal, exhausted, she put her head down, fell asleep and settled into a catnap, “slumping forward, as it were, on her paws.” Unfortunately, underneath her slumbering body lay the guest’s sunglasses and camera, which they left behind when they timorously took their leave of the sleeping hostess. When they called to recover these items, Kermode offered to return them to them when he was in London.
            This is a simple incident in a very long life: Kermode died at the age of 90 years. Kermode comments that any number of details, “remembered or invented” could be added to the account of this incident, “so that the entire episode, when adorned with material that might in the ordinary way seem tedious, with portraits of the persons concerned in the tiny drama, not least with associations developed even as one wrote it all down, would look more like a dream, and have the kinds of potential meanings we seek in dreams.” That is, what at the moment seemed like a mundane occurrence, a simple event without context or meaning in itself, takes on significance in its narration as a result of the materials the author chooses to include and/or to add, by the elaboration of personality and detail that then become available to the reader for interpretation and meaning. Thus it is that meaning occurs in the activity of reading and interpretation and is based in (or is that on?) what the author puts in and leaves out in order to develop and enhance the narrative. And since the author is concerned that there be readers, he attempts to write well! And there is the rub! For in the writing well, Kermode notes, the opening is made for fantasy.
            But this is Kermode’s autobiographythe narration of his life. Shouldn’t there be only ‘the facts?’ Kermode suggests that since he intends to recount his lifewhatever he writes ought to be the honest storythe truth. But, Kermode notes, perhaps it is only those who merely tell their story to themselves who have the opportunity to be more truthful than those who write their stories down, for the latter soon “discover, if they didn’t know already, that the action of memory depends on the cooperation of fantasy. This is the truth.” By fantasy I do not think Kermode refers to the unreal or whimsical; rather, Kermode acknowledges that in order to narrate cohesively a certain amount of editing must be accomplished! The autobiographer because s/he is writing necessarily imposes pattern; in the creative act of writing s/he necessarily selects and adds those details that enhance interest in the work. What results cannot be the truth! “It is a species of the good writing that cannot help eliminating truth from autobiography . . . it is a means of giving life the calm coherence of myth.” The northeasters, those storms that disturbed, distorted, and disrupted the simple narrative of life, are tamed in the writing, but then the substance of the autobiography is necessarily no longer honest. “If the honest truth is demanded, let it be remembered that few, and of them not many very honest, have been willing to claim that they told [the truth]; it is undeniable that its principal enemy, in autobiography, is, as I have suggested, not mendacity but good writing.”
            Thus it seems that the truth of the autobiography is always compromised by the autobiography having been written, and the attempt to write well increases the depth of deceptiveness (or fictionality) in and of the narrative. And so I raise two questions: first, why does one choose to write an autobiography given that the life that is told in it (or by it) is the creation of narrative; and second, what should one expect when one reads an autobiography given that the life presented is not identical with the life lived? Kermode suggests that the significance of the autobiography rests in the presence in it of a “climate.” What we seek in an autobiography—what the autobiographer seeks to offeris the atmospheric conditions that define a life. The weather changes from day to day, “unpredictable as dreams,” but autobiographer presents this instability as climate.


22 June 2014

Writing and Action

It was a wonderful dream. That is, as the dream ended, in the dream I was smiling, and I from the dream feeling content and fulfilled. Now, as I sit in the coffee house and recollect the dream in moments of tranquility in order to consider the import of the dream, I feel it reduced to mere cliché. Of course, the possibility exists that the dream itself was reflective of the ordinariness I have spent years trying to (unsuccessfully) rise above but into which now my dream and its interpretation situate me. And hours from the dream, I can now only reconstruct and narrate it as I wish it to have been and not necessarily as it was then when I would not awaken from it. In fact, all I can remember at this instant is the punch line: “All writing is deferral,” and even that memory might be inaccurate. But it is that on which I must reflect for that is all that I can recollect.
            I think that writing, yes, defers action. Thoreau, who penned millions of words years ago noted this interesting irony: somewhere in his multi-volume journal he said we could not live and write about our lives at the same time. We must do or observe our having done! This is a situation similar to the problem with engaging in life and photographing it: one can only do one thing at a time. Ross McElwee, the director of Sherman’s March, narrates that perhaps he is photographing his life in order to have one, and his documentary positions him as the quintessential voyeur, watching the world through the lens of his camera. I can write a life, but I cannot enact that lilfe at the same. But I am not Marcel Proust who wrote from his bed from which he rarely arose, and there rests not lightly in me the ever-present tension between the desire to act and the desire to write about the action.
            Which is not to say that writing is not living for it is a way of life, but it is a deferral of all other action,: I cannot write about baseball and play it simultaneously. And though I might learn through my writing, it is my life that proves the effectiveness of the learning and hence, of the writing.  I can use the writing to plan the action but not to do the action itself. In the writing I plan but defer commitment. This is true for Roth’s Zuckerman who retreats from the world so that he might write it. Or I can use the writing to reflect upon action, even to plan it, but not to enact it. Writing in this sense becomes both action and its deferral. As long as I write I need not attempt, and following the attempt I return to the writing to consider the action.
            And so the opposite is true as well: that if I defer the writing I defer reflection and can continue to act and produce the raw materials about which I may write and therefore, upon which I can reflect. And what it was in the dream that must have been so satisfying was the acceptance of this tension. I awoke content: it is ok to act and it is ok to write. There is no hierarchy.

15 June 2014

I did not yet read the book, though someone left the novel lying on the floor by the bedside. The Fault in Our Stars is young adult fiction and so I am certain the reader was one of my young adults. I will now read the book because I want to understand how the experience of the movie differs from the experience of the book though the subject/plot of both must possess great affinities. I was deeply affected by the movie but I suspect for reasons separate from the way my lovely daughters (and even their friends) will see it.
            The film’s protagonists are teens suffering and dying of cancer. I attended an early show on a chilly, cloudy afternoon in mid June, and the sparse audience consisted mostly of young adults. They were very quiet. I wondered how the film they viewed was different than the one I screened. Augustus Waters, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Isaac (no last name given or remembered) suffer from cancer. Isaac has lost one eye to cancer before the film had begun and his other eye must be removed before the film concludes. Issac’s girlfriend cannot bear his pain and she ends their relationship.  Hazel’s cancer is under medical control, but her condition remains seriously volatile and critically affects the quality of her life; and during the film Augustus Waters dies from the cancer that had already taken his leg and that eventually stops his heart. He had been a trophy winning basketball player. He is, of course, adoringly cute, personable and unreservedly witty.
            Certainly, these young adults comprise an unusual assortment of leading characters. From the outset the audience knows that none of them will survive their teen years. A terrible pall hangs over the film. But The Fault in Our Stars is also an odd love story, a rather perverse romantic teen-flick played out on a background of disease and mortality. Augustus and Hazel establish their relationship despite their illness; their relationship allows them to transcend their illness. Finally, though the film must end in death, Augustus and Hazel affirmatively speak the final words of the film: “OK!” And perhaps as sad as the film must appear to the teens and young adults to whom the film is directed, there was triumph at the end in the love that survived death.
            But not for me. To my mind the film represented my ultimate nightmare: the death of a child. Not like Broken Circle Breakdown, a film that also concerned the death of a child but was more about the effect of the death on the relationship of the parents, The Fault in Our Stars was a portrayal of the unnatural imminent (and not immanent) mortality of three beautiful youths in the midst of a life that appeared otherwise without any sense of tragic dimension. And though the three adolescents remained strong and stalwart throughout, there was no attempt to disguise the threat under which each lived, and there was nothing that the adults could do—doctors included—to relieve the condition of the children. The adults were rendered helpless, and I sat in the audience as one of those helpless parents.
            From the film’s beginning it was clear that someone was going to die, but it was also clear that Augustus and Hazel were going to fall in love and that there love was going to not save them but would allow them to overcome the reality of their separate deaths. In the midst of the sufferings they experienced, love triumphed over death.
            But my adult cynicism took no comfort; I was Willem Dafoe, the embittered writer to whom Hazel and Augustus travel to Amsterdam to see, who did not survive the death of his eight year old daughter from cancer. Along with his daughter he had lost his life. I think The Fault in our Stars was two movies: one for young adults and the other for parents. If we both wept, I think it was for different reasons.

10 June 2014

On Prayer

I have been thinking a great deal about prayer. Heschel says that prayer is an expression of awe and wonder: an acknowledgement that the world is so much grander than I could ever conceive. I tend to agree with Heschel. When I pray I situate myself in the grander scheme of things; I address the ideas that extend beyond me and to which I look. That is, when things go well, I move outside my mundane existence, transcend my physical limits and achieve a loss of bodily tension and separation. Once, on a summer’s day I stepped out of doors and felt that the there was no space separating my body from the air. I was the air. When prayer works well that is how I experience it. As the cliché goes, I am one with the universe.
I think of prayer as community. Prayer is what brings people together for some common purpose that seems not at all instrumental but communal. Heschel remarks that ‘we never pray as individuals, set apart from the rest of the world. The liturgy is an order which we can enter only as a apart of the Community of Israel . . . every act of adoration is done in union with all of history, and with all beings above and below . . .” Only in community can I pray, and I pray to belong to community.
I represented the University at the inauguration of Rabbi Aaron Panken as the 12th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Hebrew Union is the largest organization of Reform Judaism in the United States, and the servicesthe classical one I attended on Shabbatstruck me as both sincere and cold. I felt similarly during the entire inauguration service. I was in community but not in prayer.
This is not the place to explore the history of Reform Judaism; it grew out of the assimilative desire of German Jews to belong integrally to German society without having to first convert to Christianity. And at least in part Reform Judaism assumed some of the trappings of Christian church service: the choirs, the musical instruments, the architectural style of churches and sometimes even of mosques. The sanctuary of the Plum Street Temple where the Inauguration took place is an inspiringly magnificent and beautiful edifice, constructed in the 19th century by the Reform Jews of Cincinnati under the leadership of Isaac Meyer Wise looked and felt to me like a Roman Catholic cathedral. Where the great cathedrals were constructed out of stone, Plum Street Temple sanctuary was created in fine wood, its walls intricately but respectfully patterned in paint.
But wait, I wanted this post to be about prayer and not place . . .  
The space above my head in the sanctuary was high enough to allow my prayers to rise, but the space for my prayers seemed to have little place in the sanctuary. The serviceon both Shabbat (in a different space not even designed as a sanctuary/chapel) and the Inaugurationwas more about performance than about prayer; I felt in both places treated more like an audience of prayer than a participant in praying. Oh, the voices—almost all soprano and alto were exquisite, but they supplanted and did not enable mine. Their sounds kept me grounded and did not let me transcend because the voices were, perhaps, not human enough. They were perfect. It was to their sound I was meant to attend, and not to the universe beyond of which they spoke. It was of their voices that I was in awe and not the heavens and earth of which they sang. Well, perhaps that was my failing . . . but it was a cold beauty I experienced. And despite all the talk of God, I did experience the possibility of a transcendent presence. It is, I think, my flawed human voice that expresses the awe and wonder that makes prayer honest, even as it is all the volumes in the library that makes me humble. Though there might have been joy in those who sang the words of the prayers, it was joy of their voices I thought I was meant to experience. My thoughts remained below.         
Though there was a great deal of community in these spaces in which there was prayer, but I felt more an audience rather than a congregant, and I felt alone.