And yet, we all have a great deal in common. Most of what we have in common is banal, to the point where our lives, as Neil Genzlinger writes in his wonderful takedown of the memoir craze, can be perfectly fulfilling without having the kind of drama that will excite a mass audience. Link here.
To his great credit Genzlinger captures the essential point. The memoir craze has worked to define what counts as a good life. Yet, he adds, memoirs have gotten it backwards. He concludes, correctly, that if your life is not worthy of a memoir: “congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”
But why would anyone imagine that a good, honorable life, filled with quiet dignity is somehow shameful?
Certainly, our celebrity culture contributes to this. It tells us that we can be famous by being shameless, without having done the work required to accomplish anything. Beyond it lies the therapy culture, with its incessant emphasis on psychodramas and hidden family secrets.
Nowadays, even if you cannot recall any family scandals that serves as proof, not of how utterly normal your childhood was, but of how thoroughly you have repressed your dark, dirty past.
Anyone who has become persuaded that psychodrama is normal and that he must do something to make himself unique and newsworthy is following the precepts of the therapy culture.
One subject I have scrupulously avoided on this blog is: Me. In part from modesty, but more importantly I want this blog to be thought-provoking, not sensational. I have chosen to spare you the post-mortem of my last bridge game, my walks around town, my friends and family, my visit to galleries and museums.
I like to think that people have better things to do with their minds than to rummage through someone’s dirty (or clean) linen.
I realize that this makes me something of a relic. So be it. Today’s young people have an unusual number of opportunities to reveal more about their private lives than they should. In the debates that are raging about these questions, I have taken the side of discretion, and, naturally, I do need to practice what I preach.
So, I follow Shakespeare‘s dictum: “The better part of valor is discretion.” To me, those are words to live by. Not only because of the emphasis on discretion, but because it says that there is courage in discretion.
Nevertheless, I did once write a book in which I appeared as a character. Admittedly, I was anything but a central character in my book: Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero, but I did write it from the perspective of my own experience.
You may know, I did not use the book to reveal what I had discussed or learned from my own psychoanalysis.
If memoirs involve relentless self-exposure, my book does not qualify. I used my personal experience to capture a moment in intellectual history. The central character was Jacques Lacan, so much so that most people would probably consider the book more biography than autobiography.
Happily enough, given the flood of empty memoirs, (the kind that Genzlinger encourages people to stop writing,) mine does qualify as one of those that he would count as worthy of the trees that were killed to print it.
According to Genzlinger, the art of the memoir has descended into the realm of the insignificant and the trivial. Memoirs are now being written, he says, by: “… a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.
“That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.
No one wants to relive your misery.”
In fact, no one really wants to relive anyone’s misery, especially when its exposure costs the person his or her dignity.
Writing about someone’s memoir of his mother’s death from cancer, Genzlinger is appalled by the fact that the author: “… pummels us with the details of every intubation, change in medication and debate with doctors. Why does he do this? It’s certainly not to memorialize his mother; not only does he tell us little about her, but he also strips her of any and all dignity by describing in voyeuristic detail her vomiting, diaper changes and such. Why does he do this? It’s certainly not to memorialize his mother; not only does he tell us little about her, but he also strips her of any and all dignity by describing in voyeuristic detail her vomiting, diaper changes and such.”
No one's mother’s dignity is worth the royalties. Nor is your own dignity, because what kind of son would willingly offer a vision of his mother that strips her of her basic human dignity.
No one believes that we ought to return to ancestor worship, but this form of disrespect gives us yet another reason to wonder whether it was really such a good idea to abandon of filial piety.