Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post from Mark de Silva. Mark is the author of the novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016). He holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). After six years on the editorial staff of the New York Times, first with its opinion pages and then with its Sunday magazine, he is now a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine and an editor at large for The Scofield. For 2018, he is a Tulsa Artist Fellow and a lecturer in the philosophy department at Oklahoma State University.
By Mark de Silva
Here are a few platitudes about memory. It’s subjective. It’s plastic. It’s often self-servingly selective, when it’s not simply fiction. Naturally, memoir, by which I mean that recounting of a human life in which protagonist and author are one, can’t help but inherit these liabilities. They once would have counted as such, anyway. In many quarters—in humanities departments, for some time now, and more recently and troublingly, in American politics and popular culture—acknowledging the frailty of memory and narrative history, whether personal or collective, seems to have brought with it a kind of relief from the age-old demands for objectivity (or even intersubjectivity). In many spheres of life, and especially online, we are now asked to admit to the looseness of memory’s grip, and the tallness of every tale. It’s what authenticity and honesty require, we are told: a frank reckoning with human finitude. But the news isn’t all bad (or is it?). For we are also invited to celebrate a newfound power over our pasts, and our presents too, through a curious form of autonomy that would have come as a surprise to a philosopher like Immanuel Kant: freedom from the tyranny of fact. Subjectivity, partiality, the fragment and the shard have all become refuges from the fraught, anxiety-making project of assembling wholes.
As a novelist, I have watched closely and with some dismay as this phenomenon has manifested in literary circles. Lately, mainstream critics and readers appear besotted by a shrunken, self-pitying strain of autobiographical fiction, one you could call with some fairness Facebook fiction, to distinguish it from the far thornier versions of the past, like Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire Of London, the first book in a notoriously vexing six-volume cycle of memoirs. Novels by Geoff Dyer, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose own memoir cycle, My Struggle, might be usefully compared to Roubaud’s, if only to measure the diminution in ambition, seem premised on the notion that if it is our fate to embroider and even fabricate our pasts, insulating our preferred identities from the sharp edges of actuality, we ought to openly acknowledge our fraudulence and fantasize with purpose, even panache. (The current White House has taken note.)
For my part, I’ve never found this particular conscription of the imagination, whether in literature, electoral politics, or daily life, especially appealing. Some liberties aren’t worth taking. Reading these authors, one feels that if they had more conviction, they would exercise their imaginations properly in the invention of characters, plots, and settings, without simply lifting them from their own lives; or else they would get down to the painstaking work of research and corroboration that’s involved in any plausible (authentic, if you like) history, including autobiography. Instead, they’ve settled on a middling path, both creatively (why struggle to invent from whole cloth, when you can just use your life, your memories to fill in your novel?) and intellectually (why sift and weigh the facts when you can just make up what suits the tale you you’d like to tell, the person you’d like to be, whenever reality doesn’t oblige?).
This fall, I’ve been examining problems for the autobiographical self in our research seminar here at the University of Tulsa. I’ve also been teaching a course in the philosophy of art at Oklahoma State University. The combination has been revelatory. My aesthetics course has me thinking that the deepest difficulty attending the autobiographical self is one that afflicts art too: sentimentality. Nostalgia, its most obvious form, is hardly the end of it. For the tint of the glasses needn’t be rose. The red of self-lacerating shame, say, or of righteous indignation, will do just as well. As will the gray of ironic ennui.
Do just as well for what, though? Evasion—frequently of the self- variety. This, I think, is what binds the various forms of sentimentality together: the desire to feel a certain way about oneself or the world perverts the desire to know. Fantasy comes first. Yes, memory is malleable and subject to all sorts of failings, no one can seriously deny this, and no one should want to. But why treat these banal faults as insuperable, a limiting horizon of our humanness? When it comes to memory and personal testimony, we nearly always have some form of corroborating evidence to aid us—written records, videotape, artifacts of various sorts, and of course other people’s memories—which we can check our memories against, if we genuinely interested in the truth.
Now, the significance of events may be impossible to settle definitively, no matter how much checking and rechecking we do. But this fault cannot be accounted a failure of memory or narrative; it’s simply a consequence of events almost always being able to bear multiple interpretations. That lends no credence to the more extreme claims we now hear, for instance, that all narrative or memoir is really fiction. This claim is of just the same order as that all news is really fake, even if the people making these two assertions tend to belong to different political parties.
So here’s my provisional conclusion: rather than any intrinsic limitation on the faculty of memory or the practice of storytelling, it is sentimentality—ginned-up outrage at political goings-on that barely touch our lives, say, or tender melancholia about what America used to be like—that stands in the way good autobiography, good politics, and good fiction. That sounds like something we can work on, though, if not exactly master. Nothing like fate.