Sven Birkerts

The Invisible Self

Willian Least Heat-Moon begins Blue Highways with a series of very short chapters, setting the stage for the voyage he’ll soon take in his “truck” (let’s be clear: it’s a van) named Ghost Dancing. Chapter 3 starts this way: “A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic” (4). And he ends it like this:

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected. (5)

Then we’re off, climbing into Ghost Dancing with Heat-Moon (Is this why he calls it a truck? Because saying climbing in the van with Heat-Moon sounds a bit sketchy? Get in my van and I’ll show you America, yeah, America. But think of all the famous vans that have come to pass…the Mystery Machine of Scooby Do, the black van of the A-Team. Let us not dishonor the literary history of vans by calling Ghost Dancing a truck!)) as he travels the so-called “blue highways” of the country, the back routes, through towns off the Interstate, where we get the growing sense that the project of the book is to show some kind of real America to the reader and to the author.

But what of the self of that author, our narrator who quickly dispenses with the raw materials of his identity — age, marital status, van ownership — and promises to stay away from what Scott Russell Sanders describes as “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (“Singular First Person”)? And let me dispense with this idea straight off: Blue Highways is certainly written within that voice, is animated by the clear presence of Heat-Moon narrating this drive. There’s nothing objective about the voice, nor the project, and I don’t think Heat-Moon would argue with that. The shutting up about that topic that he references is the singular focus on the self as subject and not the denial of the power of the singular voice.

Still, the book is undeniably, about William Least Heat-Moon. About halfway in, after lots and lots of writing about other people, extensive quotations, and history, and exhaustive listing of the food he finds at diners, Heat-Moon winds up in the desert of Eastern Arizona:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force of spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous, mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. (162)

“A new land of the eye” might has well be written “a new land of the I,” as the seeing of the moments to follow are the emergence of the vision of the self, the recognition that as much as he might deny it as the source of the project, the subject of Blue Highways is that, even when it isn’t. Really, what road book isn’t about the person on the road? On the Road is about America, sort of, but really focuses on Jack Kerouac. Eat Pray Love is about Elizabeth Gibert. The Songlines is about Bruce Chatwin. And on and on.

I mean this as no criticism, of either Heat-Moon or of the genre of travel writing. Quite the opposite: any book of travel that implies objectivity is false. The traveler is always the subject, even if the reader thinks he/she is gaining some kind of overview of a place previously unknown. There’s a reason, after all, that mid-century maps and guide books were sponsored by oil companies. They were the real subjects, urging travelers to know that about other places, that being the unstable need to pump gasoline into tanks to feed engines to turn wheels that take travelers to places. The literary travel writer isn’t, of course, in the business of selling oil or tires but, instead, peddles the self as a vehicle of transport.

I doubt Heat-Moon was ever ignorant of this fact. Heck, the first page of Blue Highways offers this idea: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go” (3). Yet he proceeds with the attempt to subordinate the self as subject as he does this. While it’s possible that he took the voyage that makes the material of the book without a clear sense that he was looking for himself (but, c’mon, that’s precisely what the American road book is all about, and why a literary person hits the road at a time of personal crisis, at least partly), certainly he knew by the time of the writing that the self was an unavoidable subject. Still, the claim is made.

And, notably, this is a claim that has been made by every book under consideration this semester: Patricia Hampl recedes for the middle of her memoir. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher searches for himself via his father (and, ultimately, mother). Mark Doty finds himself in his mother (and, ultimately, his father). Lauren Slater finds herself by creating a fake self. Maxine Hong Kingston writes the self through the application of myth and story.

What gives? Particularly since that subject is an inevitable portion of any kind of autobiographical writing. Clearly, when we write from the perspective of the self, we write about the self, no matter how we seek to evade or subsume ourselves as subject.

I think the distinction lies between subject and singular subject, as this is the distinction I see between pop-memoir/autobiography/political memoirs and literary memoir. In the first category, the subject of the book is the subject of the book: the self matters most of all, because readers are drawn to the dramatic features of the individual. This, also, is why I consider a healthy chunk of even creative nonfiction as more-or-less the equivalent of genre fiction. For many books, “plot” matters more than anything else. In the case of popular nonfiction et al, plot equates to the singular personality of the writer. It’s no mystery, then, why the first titles that often come to the popular mind when hearing the word “memoir” are tales of personal triumph, degradation and recovery, medical trauma, and all sorts of melodrama. This, also, is why I admire what Lying does in the sub-genre of the medical memoir, since Slater absolutely resists the “requirement” to make this about recovery. Genre nonfiction lacks subtlety, and while Lying isn’t exactly subtle in the way of Descanso, Slater’s narrative is oblique, which I suppose is another kind of subtle: look at this so you can understand that, but don’t look directly at that.

Literary memoir focuses on a different sort of aspect of self. Sven Birkerts describes the function of pain in what he calls traumatic memoir in a way that I think does a lot to define how the self works in literary memoir, as sources that “create discontinuities in a life that often require different strategies of presentation” (145). I’d like to suggest that the writing of the self in careful memoir is always the writing of our own discontinuities, which are born partly of the multiplicities that are each of us and partly of the way other lives intersect with our own in creating our sense of self.

The desire to deflect, then, to write about others or, even, to claim a desire to not write about the self is a good faith recognition of the discontinuity of experience. This is, perhaps, the most important way that a writer can avoid the sort of solipsistic, navel-gazing work that dominates the nonfiction bestseller list (alongside soporific, terrifying guides to business management techniques). If we accept ourself as part of the subject of our lives, we recognize the way our sense of self develops through interaction and, perhaps even more importantly, we are able to write memoir that reflects the lives of readers as well as authors. A literary memoir helps the reader see him or herself in the author’s story. As Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8). I’ll add that, in order to write about our own experience, we often need to pass through the doors of others.

(Un)Reliability in Memoir

A) In full, chapter one of Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying: “I exaggerate.”

B) And this from Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir: “…memoir is undertaken not just as another kind of artistic expression, which is to say a work created for an intended audience, but also as an act of self-completion” (88).

C) What does a writer do if the act of self-completion forces her to consider the gaps in a life that cannot be filled? See “A.”

***

As memoir, Lying addresses both a unique and resolutely universal conundrum, the instability of memory, which complicates the writing of a piece of art that in its very definition depends on memory. If memoir seeks to think back on a portion of life, reinhabit memory, then apply the lens of time to make sense of those memories, the enterprise would seem to be utterly corrupted when the view through the lens magnifies a gaping hole or, in fact, if the application of the lens functions like a magnifying class aimed at an ant in the hot sun, the multiplication of energy causing the obliteration of the subject of study. Such a memoir would be a close-up image of a smoking hole. And in many respects, Lauren Slater writers of the examination of such absence. Hers is a story of reconciling childhood epilepsy (or appears to be…instability makes me question everything in this book), which she describes as having left gaps in memory. Experience has been erased, and in this memoir she seeks to write and examine that experience.

So, directly, Slater’s admissions of exaggeration are revelations of experience. I hope that doesn’t strike anyone as too post-modern, this intentional absence functioning as commentary on the absences of life. Indeed, this is the only tactic that Slater has in reconstructing her life. She cannot complete the self in the same fashion as other memoirists, because she cannot access or even pretend to access memories. About fifty pages in, she writes the magic words THE END, then flips everything around on the next page, just so we’re clear on what’s happening:

Not quite.

This is a work of nonfiction. Everything in it is supposed to be true. In some instances names of people and places have been changed to protect their privacy, but the essential story should at least aim for accuracy, so the establishment says. Therefore, I confess. To the establishment. I didn’t really fall into the grave. I was just using a metaphor to try to explain my mental state. The real truth is I went to the funeral, the hearse had engine trouble, the coffin was late, I looked into the grave, and I thought about falling in. (60).

Page 59 offers the narrative clarity we desire in reading, a story that comes to a satisfying and properly evocative ending, Slater lying at the bottom of a grave looking up at the faces peering over the rim. Page 60 presents the complication, that it didn’t happen even as it did, because things that happen in the mind are every bit as real to the body as things that happen physically. Perhaps obviously, in a memoir focused on the deep issues of the brain, writing through this aspect (and against the mind-body split) is crucial.

What memoir isn’t about this, actually? In Firebird, Mark Doty looks through lenses of time to repopulate the memories of his childhood, and he identifies his project as the construction of a perspective box, which is to say, a box built of distortions and viewed through different resolutions. In Descanso for My Father, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher assembles a version of his father through the collection of pieces, which is to say he reconstructs a false image through the act of tertiary memory. In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl addresses the difficulty of could in the telling, and the slipperiness of memories of learning to play the piano, and how writing through the false memory leads to something…else.

While it’s too easy to repeat this aphorism, I repeat it anyway: all memoir is meta-memoir. How can it not be, if the project of the writing relies in the ethical engagement of memories that can never be fully trusted? I say too easy, though, because Lying cannot be reduced to mere meta-artifact; it is not just or even a book about writing memoir. Sure, we can read it that way, since the trouble of memory that Slater considers is the trouble of the genre, but Lying is also a tremendous act of ethical reconstruction. It is a memoir (how I want a strand of significant organ music to play as you read those words), and it is concerned primarily with the very construction of self that Birkerts suggests as central to this particular style of art.

I’ll back up here for a moment, to my aside about never trusting anything in Lying, that I’m never quite sure if she’s really writing about epilepsy or if she’s using it as a metaphor for something else. While this, too, sounds overly-meta, I think that’s part of the point. Even though Slater keeps reminding the reader of when she exaggerates, or when she is flat out lying (think, again, about page 60), that act works to weaken the reader’s resolve to see the action on the pages as fully literal. Yet, also, it encourages the reader to trust the moments that are presented as real, because Slater has established herself as reliably unreliable. She’ll tell you if she’s lying…right…won’t she?

Maybe. Maybe not. How could she if she herself doesn’t even know? Ultimately, that’s the point of the accent on unreliability, that we can never knows as readers because she can never know as writer. So we are forced to trust experience in the same way she trusts experience, which is to say that we can’t but also do. Which is to say that the memoir functions simultaneously as meta and literal text. Which is to say that memoir itself, even life itself, is about dealing with the unreliability of our own narrative centers. We do that automatically every day, yet also experience the frustration of moments when, say, a loved one remembers a cherished moment different than we do. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Both…neither…we can never quite know.

Owls and Artifacts of Memory

In a past that shouldn’t seem as distant as it feels, my father and I traveled the woods together. I walked beside him as he pointed out flashes of color. I waited in the dark as we called to owls. I awakened early, in murky dawns, to visit smelly salt marshes and fix spotting scopes on wading birds. These memories flicker at the edge of my past, appearing as suddenly as the first live owl I ever saw. Late at night, I rode beside my father in his GMC. We wore black trash bags as improvised ponchos, and the rain outside continued to fall as it had all day. Under a canopy of trees, the night seemed absolute, barely ruptured by the truck’s headlights. Above us, then, appearing like a portent, or an angel, or bolt of feathered energy, a Great Horned Owl hovered. His mottled underbelly glided just above the windshield, for a moment so brief it survives only as memory, not story. Then it disappeared.

Matthew Ferrence, “Spaces Between”

Here now, in the last twitches of summer, where weather has turned quickly from a cool summer to solidified autumn, a Barred Owl has taken to calling from the woods near my house. The call first appeared a bit more than a week ago, the familiar four beat syncopation, hmm hmm hm-hmmmmm. I awoke that first night, cool air streaming through the open window, the clock declaring it half past three, and I listened while the owl called into the night. Last night, the owl called again, as it did two nights before as well, wresting me from sleep now even through closed windows. This is not a loud call, the owl clearly perching not in my yard or the neighbors, but down the street, where the road ends and a swatch of ravine separates the small city from forest. But I hear it, wake to it, something about the tonality of owls that cannot be ignored, something about the owl that calls to me alone.

“The point of the recollection of thing, person or event is in large part to reinhabit, to some degree, the former self,” Sven Birkerts writes in The Art of Time in Memoir (26). So it is with owls for me, this most recent night call an echo of other appearances. And reading today, I find myself thinking about these words from Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s prologue to his collection, Descanso For My Father: “Gazing down at the artifacts, I began to assemble portraits. From the portraits, narratives” (Fletcher 5). I do not intend to write my own narrative here, that of owls calling out from so many nighttimes to so many versions of myself, though I do expect to be haunted by owls for the remainder of my life, haunted in much the same way Fletcher writes of spirits visiting members of his family after death. No, indeed, my intention is to write myself toward a brief discussion of the power of the owl named Tirzah, the most crucial character in the lead essay of the collection, called “Beautiful City of Tirzah.”

This autumn marks the fourth I have taught that essay, but the first that I have taught it as part of a study of the recently-published collection. And I must report that I find the essay near-perfect, as fine an example of recognizing the power of metaphor circling a life as I can find. The motion of Tirzah in the essay leads both reader and narrator toward objects of note. Owls are, as grandmother Desolina declares, omens, if not bad, at least “messengers of the night” (11) as she tells the childhood Harrison, narrator of the essay. Structurally, it is precisely the motion and effect of the singular owl, Tirzah, that I find so fascinating.

Tirzah directs the eye, avoiding young Harrison for so many pages because he is not prepared to follow the owl where he needs to go. Instead, she gives peace and hope to his mother, memory of youth to his grandfather, sense of purpose to his brother. Or, rather, Tirzah doesn’t avoid Harrison: the avoidance goes the other way, the boy too timid and unsure to embrace the bird. His first touch, even, is with the tip of a pencil. But then, finally, an opening…literally, to the closet door within which the possessions of the narrator’s dead father are collected: “Tirzah, gazing toward the opening from her perch, flutters atop the closet door. I hold my breath. My sister calls our mother. Normally, the closet is off limits to us kids. We try to shoo Tirzah away, but she won’t budge. She just stares into the cool abyss. After a moment, she lowers her head and hops inside. From then on, the hall closet becomes her sanctuary. To fetch her, I must reach into darkness, brushing my father’s things” (16-17). Literally, the action of the owl is to lead young Harrison into that darkness, to force him to reach — without sight — and make contact with the clothing left behind. Structurally, the move signals the space between the then and now of memoir, of which Birkerts writes as being central to the meaning-making of the genre. The owl leads the author to reconcile the memory of the past with the meaning of the past.

Describing that move doesn’t do it justice, because the lyricism of the essay is staggering. There are no breaks to the narrative, no clumsy moves to declare what things mean. In fact, the very nature of this essay is to avoid declarations. It is, instead, a groping toward the beginning of knowledge, a slow recognition of the desire to know a man who can hardly be remembered. Tirzah is, in this light, both omen and oracle. Yet she is also purely owl, revealed later in the piece at the expense of a meadowlark.

For a long time, this essay has struck me with its beauty. As a stand-alone piece, it serves as an exemplar of what the essayistic impulse is all about. But as the lead piece to a collection, it serves as so much more. “Beautiful City of Tirzah” locates the moment of departure for the author, that moment in life when a single portrait began to shape the desire for narrative. Reaching into that darkness is the moment when, in the words of Birkerts, “pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience” (49). From this starting point, then, Fletcher establishes the position of the book, that of the confused young boy, seeking knowledge, afraid to touch it, yet reaching into the darkness. This, too, is the position of the memoirist, beginning to first recognize the way moments will assemble to reveal a clarifying, if not unifying, narrative.

I think, then, of my own owls, and of Fletcher’s prologue definition of the roadside memorials he has witnessed in New Mexico: “However they originated, historians agreed: a descanso marks the ground of an interrupted journey, the spot where a man, woman, or child died unexpectedly, the point at which a spirit left its body. A descanso reminds us to pray for a soul in purgatory. It is a manifestation of unexpressed grief, a communication, a eulogy, an apology” (6). I think about the owls of my life, how they adhere to moments of longing, and night, and the confusion that lies between wakefulness and sleep. “A descanso is love,” Fletcher declares, ending the definition. The book, Tirzah, owls hooting across Northwestern Pennsylvania — these are all invitations to recognize the gaps of knowing that create our emotional memory, the energy of attachment between past and present that allows us to recognize the meaning of the present in the accumulation of the past.

Historical Perspective and the Position of Memoir

In the early going of Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir, Birkerts describes the act this way: “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning — with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story” (3-4). Today, my own consideration of the genre leads me to consider the way Patricia Hampl positions the narrative identity that is intuiting the meaning at hand, just whose contingency is telling which story. After opening with two essays that mull the nature and (un)reliability of memoir, Hampl moves to a curious trio: “The Mayflower Moment: Reading Whitman during the Vietnam War,” “What She Couldn’t Tell,” and “Czeslaw Milosz and Memory.” From the perspective of, well, perspective, these three essays address the narrative position of the American Self, the Memoiring Self Who Doesn’t Quite Understand the Whole Story, and the Historical Self. In the motion between these three essays, Hampl addresses a key question of the genre, that of how you position and fashion a narrator (the “I,” generally).

The bracketing essays of this trio describe two poles of that self. From Whitman, Hampl argues that the American memoirist writes within a national context that must reckon with a troubled national history (as must all who write within the context of any nation’s history) but also within an uttered sense of American unity, a conflict that can create some mental unease. “But reading Whitman I belonged: to what I felt was the true nation, to those who lived in the magic of the possible, in mourning for America, the pure idea” (49). Yet Hampl also develops the essay as a tracing of her path away, at least for awhile, from Whitman, in part because of the tension between ideal America and lived experience.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Hampl writes of Czeslaw Milosz, who she argues “has located the best grace of memoir: a method which allows the self to function not as a source or a subject, but as an instrument for rendering the world” (86). Instead of a Whitmanesque author describing the self, Milosz is a self inhabiting the residues of Eastern European atrocity, Nazism and Communism. For Milosz, then, or perhaps for the version of Hampl writing in this essay, “This presence which lies at the heart of the experience of memory is both personal and impersonal. This double nature of his memory, which Milosz says caused his post-War experience in the West to be ‘robbed’ of some of its ‘reality,’ is, from an American middle-class perspective, an enriching and intensifying of reality” (90).

The nature of the narrative self, then, can be considered from these two perspectives. One is the central I, the figure whose authority as individual  (something Hampl, I believe, would argue is rather particularly American), allows that I to serve as the vision for both a nation and the reader. This is an I who can see all, is an active participant in the making of meaning about the self in question. The other side, the Milosz, is the witness who walks through the wreckage of history and weighs the personal experience against the heft of the past. This is Milosz placing personal childhood memories in the context of killing fields (see 90-91). This is Milosz writing a self that is not so much a stand-in for Poland but a self who cannot be reckoned alongside the known history of the homeland.

The contrast here is, perhaps, one born of age. As any American tourist will report, Europe is so much older than the U.S. As facile as such an epiphany may be, an American abroad can rarely help but marvel at the number of buildings that are older than our country. This is a useless emotion, but one I’ve certainly felt when abroad — some combination of humility, wonder, and pride. We’re so new. So naive. So fresh. So full of hope. That’s kind of Hampl’s suggestion as well, in the choice of the I as conduit: Whitman’s I is one that isn’t yet jaded enough to deny the possibility of national ideology. The I of Milosz, instead, has seen enough to be less impressed with the hopefulness of a youthful national identity. And, as Hampl illustrates so well, the reading of Whitman during the Vietnam War is a dissonant moment of reading about the ideal while the ideal commits the atrocities of war. Reading Whitman now, of course, carries similar cognitive risk.

How then, might a memoirist move forward from these two extremes of the narrative position? As Hampl puts it, “We embody, if unwittingly and partially, our history, even our prehistory. The past courses through our veins. The self is the instrument which allows us not only to live this truth but to contemplate it, and thereby to be comforted by meaning — which is simply the awareness of relationship” (97). This persistence of the past animates the most interesting of these three essays, the centerpiece that is nominally about Hampl’s relationship with an elderly Czech woman in St. Paul, “What She Couldn’t Tell Me.”

First, consider the relationship of that essay’s title to the title of the book, I Could Tell You Stories. Here, immediately, is the opening and closing down of narrative fullness. Together, the book promises the possibility of story (an issue covered deeply in the first essay of the collection) and, then, the refusal or inability to tell it. Spoiler: the problem of Mrs. Beranek is that she is a Czechoslovakian refugee of the wrong sort. She and her husband left the country not to flee Communist oppression but because, immediately after WWII, the nation wasn’t a friendly place for a couple who had fared well as collaborators with the occupying Nazis. Beranek wants to tell that story, starts to at one point, but cannot: it’s a story of the wrong sort of struggle, since it is the bad guy trying to argue for his humanity. Yet, at the same time, it is a quintessentially human story of loss, and a story we typically refuse to hear. We prefer the St. Paul newspaper version of it, that the family had had enough of Communism, than the troubling reality of collaborator suffering. A) We’d just as soon have them suffer as not; B) We’d just as soon not hear stories from collaborators; C) We’d just as soon not consider the historical residue of living collaborators.

Thus the structure of Hampl’s essay moves the reader through a fascinating progression. Her own choice of narrative presence is an intriguing combination of Whitman’s American ideal and Milosz’s historical witness. Hampl reveals unease throughout the essay, moments that indicate that the historical self knew something was up with Beranek. And by the end, she returns to Prague to find a relative of Beranek who reveals some part of the truth, that the couple had left the country at precisely the moment when only national traitors would have. Hampl writes of Beranek to write of a narrative self that gradually must contend with the rupture of national idealism.

Hampl has befriended an enemy here, has shown great kindness to a woman who history marks as traitor. For this, she inherits a book of photographs that forever fix the images of Mr. Beranek, the soldier-collaborator, the wartime wealth of a couple who profited from the loss of their country. Whatever is left of Hampl’s American idealism must succumb to this reality: Mrs. Beranek could be used as a story of American dreams only by ignoring the nature of what brought her to the country. Notably, the essay is written mostly as a narrative of Mrs. Beranek, without a heavy consciousness by Hampl; she breaks for reflection seldom, until the end of the essay. Here, I see the imprint of Milosz, of what Hampl herself identifies as the position of memoirist and lyric poet: “consciousness in the light of history” (100). This is an essay that traces the coming of age of a voice. It is a narrative self that recognizes the limitation of stories that could be told but cannot, that recognizes the importance of using history to consider experience. In fact, Hampl herself does not know that Mrs. Beranek was a collaborator; she has only intuited this, and been told by someone else that such was the case. Factually, there’s little “evidence.” Yet the reality is clear: this is the only reasonable explanation.

Here it is at the very beginning of that essay, the commentary on the nature of figuring the memoirist’s stance: “Everything about Mrs. Beranek…should have told me that she harbored a secret. But I was incapable of recognizing a secret of her kind” (61). At this moment in the collection, Hampl’s narrative position is not yet one capable of hearing the story that could not be told. She was, perhaps, still too much steeped in Whitman and not yet tempered by Milosz. At the same time, Hampl chooses to end the essay not with the final revelation of the full truth of Beranek’s guilt but, instead, with the revelation that this is a fake name, at the request of the woman, who is long dead and, therefore, who would never read these words. That Hampl chose, still, to honor that request indicates the persistence of Whitman’s hope, that she has written with the gravity of history even as she participates in the peculiar hope of a young nation. The last word, in fact, is “innocence,” tied to Mrs. Beranek, who we know not to be innocent in any pure sense. In this move, the self of Hampl’s narrator has  populated a sophisticated place of hope and history, has set aside the naiveté of Whitman, which in fact Hampl recognize as a misreading of Whitman and not a problem with the poet. Hampl writes a consciousness that reckons with the relationship of the past and the self, and in so doing makes a contemporary revision of Whitman: an American self that writes what she sees, all the while understanding that there is much she cannot see.