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. [...]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.
[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.
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.]
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