The democratizing effect of contemporary publishing, education and especially technology has created an unprecedented age of personal narrative and commentary. Never in human history have individuals been exposed to so many other people’s visions of the world. (There are now 200 million Tweets sent every day; some 76,000 new blogs debuted in the last 24 hours, pushing the total near 166 million; “more than 30 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) [are] shared each month” on Facebook; and the average American teen sends and receives 3,400 texts a month.) Who knows what the cumulative effect of all these other takes on the world—not to mention news, pseudo-news, films, cable TV, message boards, e-mails, advertising, propaganda, and cell-phone calls from my acquaintance Crazy Larry—will be on the evolving human brain? Will we collectively lose the ability to choose among competing narratives? Or will administrators be able to sell liberal arts education as remedy?
Given the eternal nullity that lies on either side of our birdlike tweets, the gifts of perception, memory, and speech are holy ones, and I’m all for using them to gloss Self. But when is personal vision interestingly or even adequately conveyed? Answers will vary of course by sender, receiver, relative ambitions, and the chosen mode of communication. But what about in long forms, such as the memoir? How much skill, context, repose, maturity, forgiveness, acceptance, unalloyed anger, irony, bitterness, knowledge and, ultimately, understanding do they require? Not much, if we’re talking about the commercial market, which relies on raciness, glamor, scandal and power. But what about art?
"There are three conditions of art: the lyrical, the epical and the dramatic,” James Joyce writes in his Paris notebook in 1904. “That art is lyrical whereby the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to himself; that art is epical whereby the artist sets forth the image in mediate relation to himself and to others; that art is dramatic whereby the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to others."
The idea is expanded in Portrait of the Artist (serialized 1914-15), where, in the famous passage about the artist being Godly indifferent, paring his fingernails while the drama of his handiwork plays, Stephen Dedalus says:
The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea ... The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak.
(To compare, Ezra Pound says in ABC of Reading: “Coleridge or De Quincy said the quality of a ‘great poet is everywhere present, and nowhere visible as a distinct excitement,’ or something of that sort.” And T.S. Eliot, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”)
I wonder how this idea might be used to address recent dyspepsia over creative nonfiction, including memoir? What if one of the roots of current problems with the form is that when a writer tries to move toward the “impersonal” in a form that’s believed to be “personal,” it triggers disbelief? Is there some genetic code of genre that makes memoir susceptible to perceived illness while fiction goes on healthily or at least blissfully undiagnosed? Is there a dis-ease [sic] endemic to the form as it's been understood or is the problem merely with our time for understanding it in a certain fashion?
(I wouldn’t even include the Frey mess, which was more of a marketing swindle than a writing problem. I also don’t mean getting some things wrong inevitably and unavoidably, as Nabokov did in Speak, Memory, before coming back 15 years later to correct them in the “revisited” edition. Did it matter to Nabokov’s readers in those 15 years, 1951-1966, if he got a fact wrong or left out some piece of information? Did his butterflies on the other side of the world cause an emotional hurricane here? As it turns out, Hurricanes Hazel, Diane, and Flora did indeed wreak havoc in those years; the Andrea Doria and the USS Thresher sank; and Mount Agung erupted. So you can see it’s important to get things right the first time.)
When memoir sticks closely to the lyrical, it can’t easily be argued with. Feelings simply are, and they’re owned by each of us. Readers can say, “I wouldn’t have felt that way in your situation,” or “Your feelings are self-serving, so I’m uninterested,” or “You don’t express yourself adequately to make me feel as you do,” or “I don’t like feeling this way too, so I won’t read any further.” But they cannot fairly say, “You never felt that way.” A purely lyrical prose memoir, the self writing solely to and for the self, would be opaque and is probably rare.
The technology of writing wants to communicate as surely as the technology of guns wants to kill, even if the only thing writing wants to convey is that life sometimes feels like the view from a solitary cave at other hermits in the cliff face. Good memoirs, due to their shaped and condensed qualities, are so far from opaque they’re more like when Captain Nemo (in the Disney film) permits Professor Aronnax to peer through a small window of shaded glass at the secret nuclear fire that propels and powers the Nautilus.
The “epical form [emerges] when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event,” Joyce says. For most of us, whatever we’re the center of is epic. (“Dude: It was epic. Believe me.”) As soon as “the artist sets forth the image in mediate relation to himself and to others” there also begins to be the ability for readers to position themselves in relation to the text by cross-checking outside facts and judging the significance of events portrayed and the author’s role in them. In this lies the start of dissatisfaction. If political memoirists make themselves into heroic figures, I might not argue about the scale of their figures or the Olympian power they wield, but I can squawk that their portrayal of the world cannot align with the one I also inhabit. When we read memoir we demand to discover a rich interior life, but we also expect reference to the physical world in which we too maintain a body, and for the writer’s dream-within-a-dream to seem not-impossible except, perhaps, as fantasy.
The epical mode, when “[t]he personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea,” creates an atmosphere in which we tend to “like” or “trust” the narrative voice. In the end we read—or don’t—from some combination of subject, tone, attitudes, fluency, and information that does or doesn’t align with known facts of the case. Not to our credit do we probably read what is already to our own understanding. Also: Does the text feel complete? Has all the potential energy been converted to kinetic? Does it have some magnetic pull of profluence, a mystery at its heart? Is its movement as of ice melting on a hot stove? Is there an accumulation of images and developing motifs, or is it merely one thing after another? Does it show something in a new way, without posing (unless posing is its thing, as with Hunter Thompson), ax-grinding or unironic stupiding? Is it in the end satisfying, even if it’s meant to mimic dissatisfaction with that aspect of life we call incoherence?
As for the third condition—“The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life”—I think in nonfiction of Chekhov, Twain, Woolf, Nabokov, EB White, Lillian Ross, Agee, Langston Hughes, Hersey, Didion, Mailer (despite all odds), McPhee, and, well, go to this site < http://sonyahuber.com/blog/gsu-classes/cnf-book-list/> for a good list with others.
To be continued....