Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Memoirs Maybe Do

Botticelli. Augustine, 1480.
Some argue that the earliest memoirs are Augustine's Confessions (written in 397-98).  That the Confessions are the first Western autobiography is seldom contested, but the first memoirs? Do I dare try to distinguish?  Autobiographies keep their specificity, and memoirs universalize.  Autobiographies are the writings of one life, one very important life, with these dates and these events, and here's what happened and maybe why; and memoirs end up putting into words the fundamental experiences of many.  I love the switch in scope, from personal to universal, of memoirs.  They universalize a very particular human experience.  They take what is deeply, secretly, sometimes painfully specific, and through craft of language and generosity of spirit make it make sense to everyone.

These last criteria of craft of language and generosity of spirit are what would make me argue render the Confessions a memoir.  If you're going to read just one of the 13 books, read book 2, in which Augustine remembers stealing pears that he didn't even want to eat, and the awful pleasure of throwing them, having taken maybe just one bite, to hogs. "My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it." He ends the chapter with the devastating "And I became a wasteland to myself." It's not a pious memoir of turning to God (for that is the main narrative arc, which makes some readers glad and others uncomfortable), but instead a raucous and wild one.  "The sense of touch has its own power to please and the other senses find their proper objects in physical sensation" (hubba hubba!)  I've never stolen pears, but I am seduced by the tale of beautiful young men running in the streets at night and plucking ripe fruit - sin? pitiful fantasy of a middle-aged woman? sublimation of the sex drive? ever-lasting desire for rebellion? Every generation comes up with a different response and way to reason through Augustine's stolen pears. Personal - universal.

But ultimately, it's his awareness of the writing process that makes Augustine a memoir writer to me. "To whom am I narrating all this? Not to thee, oh my God, but to my own kind in your presence. - to that small part of the human race that may chance to come upon these writings." Of course, it's delightful and awesome to know that millions of people have read Augustine's Confessions.  But it's also that community that a memoir creates, of people who understand or come to understand - "to my own kind in your presence."  I think that creating that community of understanding still motivates memoir writers.  The "presence" within which the community is created is no longer just that of God, it's other Big Ideas: Home, Children, for example.

Which brings me to the two memoirs currently on my bedside table. (And no, one of them is not Eat, Pray, Love).  In my attempts to hold on to Brittany, still see the pictures and think about the sounds and remember the sensations, I read I'll Never be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside.  I'm terribly jealous of him because he owns a house in the Finistère and spends more time writing about washing machines than megaliths, but hey, it's his story and it was fun to walk with him.  He nails several phenomena that I love to think through: the whiplash between the French love of detail and precision (things must be just so), and the French love of Really Big Ideas (things must be just so because of "liberté, égalité, fraternité, bien sûr!") And also the strange dances of familiarity and (eventually, eventually) friendship.  It took our friend in Brittany eight years to get a bonjour from a neighbor.  And when it came, it was warm and the most natural thing to do. Chapters and generations of contemplation (years of therapy?) can't explain it all.  But Greenside gives you a pretty good sense of that discovery and desire for home.

In some wonderful, but unplanned continuity from Home to Children, I'm reading She Looks Just Like You; a Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood by Amie Klempnauer Miller.  I'm only on the second chapter of twelve, but I couldn't wait to write about it.  The specific experience here is one whose voice is just starting to be heard - and here, eloquently, warmly, pointedly.  She has a great section in which she writes about the inconceivability (my bad pun, not hers) of gay couples even wanting to have children.  Surely that's not part of being gay, said the culture at large - even the gay culture at large.  The universalizing revelation is that wanting children is part of human culture. No, not everyone wants to have kids, but the dividing line between people who do and who don't is not their sexuality (plenty of straight people don't want to have kids).  It's everything else that goes into the process of wanting children: love, home, desire, dreaming, curiosity.  And the challenges of conception are widespread, too. Amie herself, in the long frustrating end, can't conceive.  This is the part where I smiled and wept at the same time: she worries about her eggs being little lesbian separatist eggs keeping the sperm out. But her partner can, and now, in the middle of chapter two, she watches Jane's body grow around the baby and it's poignant and wonderful, and read it read it read it! The transcendence of (her?) writing is that we're all in there: hoping and daydreaming and coming up with crazy scenarios and doing word plays (they call the baby the "Speck" and Jane is the "Speck Jar" and Amie is the "Spectator") - anything to make the unimaginable possible. Yes, they're part of the "gayby boom," but Amie still has to go to the "stay-at-home-dads" section of the book store to read through ideas of her role in their endeavor. Well, but the next lesbian mom-partner won't.

Which brings me to why I love America (in a general, ever-potential way; not a realist "Oh God, why does the Tea Party even exist?" kind of way).  I will end briefly by marveling at what happens because Americans don't like waiting (definitely, a cultural universal here).  The law is doing one of its strangest dances ever around the issue of gay marriage, going back and forth, and back and forth again, and telling people to wait, wait wait.  Of course I looked to France to think through their potential solution, but of course no one is getting married over there (there's the PACS, and the general disdain for organized religion, so if you do get married in a church in France, just what is it you're trying to prove, buddy? PACS not good enough for you? liberté, égalité, fraternité!).  But HERE, gay marriage is going to become legal, no matter how long it takes for the culture to realize that the law was written not with conservative agendas in mind, but universal civil rights instead. The law will eventually catch up with itself. In the meantime, two women have started an on-line Gay and Lesbian Wedding Magazine.  It's all here: the honeymoon spots, the costumes for the bride and broom (not a typo, a new language, words that make new identities real!), funny ways to get through the agonies of menu choices and future in-laws. Writing makes it real, writing makes it so, and memoirs make you feel it.

No comments:

Post a Comment