Thursday, August 09, 2007

Virginia Woolf & life-writing

Today, "working up" VW, happen'd upon these sentences from her fragmentary memoir, "A Sketch of the Past," dabbled at while she was writing a formal biography of her friend Roger Fry:
this throws light not merely on my own case, but upon the problem that I touched on the first page; why it is so difficult to give any account of the person to whom things happen. The person is evidently immensely complicated. Witness the incident of the looking-glass. Though I have done my best to explain why I was ashamed of looking at my own face I have only been able to discover some possible reasons; there may be others; I do not suppose that I have got at the truth; yet this is a simple incident; and it happened to me personally; and I have no motive for lying about it. In spite of all this, people write what they call 'lives' of other people; that is, they collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown. [...]

[My mother] was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life. This influence, by which I mean the consciousness of other groups impinging upon ourselves; public opinion; what other people say and think; all those magnets which attract us this way to be like that, or repel us the other and make us different from that; has never been analyzed in any of those Lives which I so much enjoy reading, or very superficially.

Yet it is by such invisible presences that the 'subject of this memoir' is tugged this way and that every day of his life; it is they that keep him in position. Consider what immense forces society brings to play upon each of us, how that society changes from decade to decade; and also from class to class; well, if we cannot analyse these invisible presences, we know very little of the subject of the memoir; and again how futile life-writing becomes. I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.
How neatly, yet how despairingly, Woolf pinpoints the deepest problems of the memoirist, & shows how that biographer's problems are the same – only multiplied, for the biographer does not have the autobiographer's access to her subject's memory.

Thinking about my own biography seminar this coming spring, determined to do some of my own genre policing: ie, this will be a seminar on biography, deliberately excluding autobiography & memoir. Reasoning?:

•sheer incompetence, for starters: I have never written memoir/autobiography for anyone but my desk drawer, as a personal aide-memoire, & I've never made a close study of the genre.

•picking one's struggles: over the years, I've come to see one of the biographer's central tasks as that of sorting, ranking, weighing, prioritizing evidence (once, of course, evidence has been scrupulously gathered); memory, conventional wisdom has it, trumps all other sorts of evidence. (& this is certainly true of memoir-writing as it's practiced by writers more scrupulous than James Frey.) But in biographical writing, memory – as presented in after-the-fact letters, in interviews, in – yes – memoirs – becomes one among many other sorts of evidences, & in my experience not the most reliable.

If I were to allow memoir's foot into the door, I'd be attracting a bunch of folks who'd be much better served by working with my colleague Bradley, who's worked with & thought about the genre in much greater depth than I; & I'd be opening cans of worms that I don't particularly want to sort thru – as they'd distract from the very particular cans of worms I do want to untangle.

But Woolf's words haunt me with a sense of the ultimate inadequacy of any life-writing. What she's lamenting here, surprisingly enough, isn't the accuracy or inaccuracy of memory, but the incompleteness of memory – and by implication the incompleteness of any view of the past we might construct. (Striking, as well, her shift from the personal – the importance of her mother to her formation – to the social: our inadequacy at sorting out the influences on a life of society, of class, of public opinion, etc. The biographer is perhaps better equipped to address the latter class of influences [ie the social], while memoirist is best at addressing the former [the personal], tho at the same time may perforce may be more blinkered as to the latter.)

[Woolf's own "solution," for those who want to know how the struggle "comes out," lies in casting memory into a fictive artifact (specifically the portrait of her own family life in To the Lighthouse); the biographer's – having to tread the shaking line betweeen invention & "truth" – is rather more complicated.]
Latest bit of self-promotion: if you care to see what yr humble blogger looks like among much more distinguished company, check me out on Shoemaker & Hoard's authors page.

No comments: