Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why Memoir?

Sometimes it seems that everyone is writing a memoir. It makes some sense. You are supposed to write about what you know. What do you know better than you?

This applies most especially to young people. In their Facebook postings young people often talk about themselves. One suspects that they find themselves to be utterly fascinating. More power to them.

If you compare what they know about themselves and what they know about anything else, it’s no contest. Writing about themselves is a default position for people who know very little about anything else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

At the opposite extreme are those who have held high office and who write memoirs to fill out the historical record. Often enough, these writers are trying to make themselves look good. If they have provided service to a nation, they have the right to tell their stories in whatever way they wish. We leave it to historians to separate the fact from the self-serving swill.

Writers should know that there is no right or wrong about including personal experience. If details about your personal life will keep your readers interested and allow them to understand larger points, why not do it.

But if a memoirist includes salacious and sordid details in order to generate publicity and sales, his work will have no redeeming value.

Self-indulgent exhibitionism can obviously be harmful. When you advertise your shamelessness, the world might well believe that you are untrustworthy and unreliable. If you cannot keep your own confidence, how can you be expected to keep anyone else’s?

Worse yet, when celebrity tell-all memoirs confer fame and fortune on their authors allow other people to believe that exhibitionism is morally desirable.

As you know, we moderns believe that we have invented the memoir. In fact, we did not even invent the modern vulgar variety. It’s sad to say it but we like to think of ourselves as utterly original, a life form that has never before existed.

We really need to be disabused of that notion. Not only does it remove us from history, but it means that we cannot even profit from the wisdom of past generations. There is nothing quite as sad as people who believe that they must make their own mistakes, especially when a scintilla of good advice would spare tem the pain.

If one were asked to provide a simple rule about including personal experience in a memoir, it would read something like this: the information should help communicate your idea without drawing undue attention to you.

It’s like getting angry. If your anger directs attention toward the cause of your anger, it’s a good thing. If your anger merely makes you look like an angry person, it has served no purpose, therapeutic or otherwise.

If you write a memoir for what it will do for you, you are wasting your time. Like any piece of writing a memoir needs to engage a reader’s interest and tell him something that will be worth knowing. Unless you are an historical figure, your memoir should never be directly about you.

I would emphasize that it is no small task to write about yourself without drawing attention to yourself, how to select or hide personal experience in order to show how to apply or not to apply moral precepts to real life situations.
Of course, we did not invent the memoir.

In truth, most modern memoirs pale in comparison tothe great memoirs of the past.

One recalls The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius which date to the second century, A.D.  Augustine wrote his Confessions in the late fourth century A.D. St. Teresa of Avila’s The Life of Teresa of Jesus dates to the sixteenth century. In more modern times, Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned his Confessions in the mid-eighteenth century.

Strictly speaking, fictionalized autobiography, like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not a memoir, but is an offshoot of the genre.

It should go without saying that all the cited works are well worth a read.

Obviously, the books by Catholic authors are a subspecies of the sacrament of Confession. They must have served to show believers how to confess sins and to receive forgiveness.

The autobiography of St. Teresa does recount her confessions, but it does something else. Counting among the medieval and Renaissance books about mystical journeys to find God, it shows an individual gaining a more personal relationship with God, one that does not depend on the Church.

With the exception, perhaps, of Rousseau, none of the great memoirists or autobiographers is really telling a life story. These books are didactic and instructional. They offer life lessons, good and bad. Often they show how the authors overcame sin and doubt to find God and faith.

You might say that these authors are showing how they gained knowledge, but they are also showing themselves as examples worthy of emulation.

The most important change in the genre was introduced during the French Enlightenment by Rousseau. With his Confessions, he shifted the genre away from moral teaching toward self-exposure. Rousseau was not trying to show you how you should become. He believed that he needed to tell everything about himself, the good, the bad and the horrific.

He was arguing that complete disclosure was on higher importance than showing how to improve your character.

I would go so far as to say that Rousseau was promoting amorality. Telling everything, without regard for the results it might produce in other people is self-indulgent. In the hands of as brilliant a writer as Rousseau it aims at redefining moral values.

Rousseau justified his tell-all memoir by saying that it is all  his truth. He even pretended that the book of his life will gain him entry into Heaven:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood. Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast read my inmost soul: Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.

Clearly, he did not want to show himself at his best. He did not want to show you how he overcame his faults and improved his character. Rousseau was not presenting himself as an exemplar of what Aristotle would have called good character. In that he was surely correct.

Character is something you build. Just as you do not build a house by including everything that is lying around, you do not build character by giving equal value to everything. All of your actions and passions do not have equal value in showing who you are. They do not all show how you can or cannot be expected to conduct yourself in the future. The fact that you acted badly does not define who you are… unless you decide that it must.


Anonymous said...

So reality TV is thee latest modern social horror I have to thank Rousseau for?


Stuart Schneiderman said...

The short answer is: Yes.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the other is Obama's grand vision for the new American social contract....