Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


The Mixed Pleasures Of Attending Our Own Memorial Service

Wanting to attend our own funerals, our own memorial services, is a fantasy with a long and distinguished pedigree. (As is the associated fantasy of wanting to read our own obituaries.) With good reason. If things have worked out well, many of our friends and family members will be there, hopefully all well-dressed. Importantly, we will be the focus of attention, the center-show, at most times. Some folks will occasionally deign to speak to each other on topics that do not directly pertain to us, but we will at least feature front and center in any formal addresses delivered from the podium of choice. Perhaps there will be photographs of us, all showcasing our ‘best sides’ and our best memories; an artful act of editing that will show our lives in the best possible way, constructing a narrative that will suggest all went well, we only made friends, we always looked happy, we went to wonderful places, we ate great food, we did great work–you get the picture (literally.)

And then there is the matter of the eulogies. Ah, what sweet joy. To hear our friends speak glowingly and tearfully about us, to hear them recount tales and anecdotes in which we come off so well, in which even our faults are beautifully incorporated into a larger picture of goodness–who would want to forego such an opportunity? Some of our creative friends might even have produced several drafts of the eulogies they deliver, thus ensuring a carefully crafted final product that will do the most justice to a description of our lives and our virtues. If the logistical details have been sorted out, there will be good food and drink, and once the effects of those kick in, and some of the tears have been wiped away, there will be, among your friends, much merriment and conviviality. We might even hear more stories about ourselves; more clever punch lines that we delivered on many a memorable occasion in the past. It will be the kind of party we often wanted to throw, but were never quite able to pull off; it was too hard to get everyone together in one place. Now, we don’t even have to clean up.

But we should be careful to not tarry too long and we should slip away as the service and the after-party winds down. For we might notice, much as we did as the attendees gathered and talked among themselves as the services kicked off, that our friends and families have lives that will persist and continue even after our deaths; once the service is over, and as dispersals take place in the parking lot and lobby, we will begin to fade ever so imperceptibly from view. The world awaits; we had our turn on the stage, exit left directions have been issued, and now we must depart. To delay our departure will only be to receive further evidence of what we fear most of all: our erasure from this world. Other forms of existence await us hopefully: perhaps as memories and continuing influences in the lives of those we loved. Those will have to do for now. (And ever?)

John David Mabbott And Two Influential Paragraphs

In the summer of 1992, I had begun to consider the possibility of returning to graduate school–this time for a new program in study in an unfamiliar field: philosophy. I had no previous academic exposure to philosophy so I would have to begin at the ‘bottom’: by taking classes as a non-matriculate student, and then on the basis of the grades secured in those, seeking admission in a graduate program. I was not entirely decided on this course of action; much uncertainty, a reduced income, and possible unemployment lay ahead.

That same summer I traveled home to India, met my mother, told her of my plans and was gratified to find out she approved. While in India, I went rummaging through my father’s book collection and brought back a few tomes to adorn my shelves. Among them was J. D. Mabbott‘s The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. An inscription on the book’s frontispiece–in my father’s distinctive handwriting–informed me my father had bought the book in 1962 at a bookstore in Bombay. In the first section ‘From Hobbes to Hegel,’ in the first chapter ‘The Use of Authorities,’ on page 9 I came across the following passage:

The philosopher does not discover new facts. His concern is our everyday view with its common landmarks, duty, obedience, law, desire. He does not set out, as the scientist does, grasping his compass, towards lands no man has trod, nor return thence bearing strange treasures and stranger tales. He is rather to be pictured ascending the tower of some great cathedral such as was St. Stephen’s, Vienna. As he goes up the spiral stairway, the common and particular details of life, the men and tramcars, shrink to invisibility and the big landmarks shake themselves clear. Little windows open at his elbow with widening views. There is conscience; over there is duty; there is conscience again looking quite different from this new level; now he is high enough to see law and liberty from one window. And ever there haunts the vision of the summit, where there is a little room with windows all round, where he may recover his breath and see the view as a whole, and the Schottenkirche and the Palace of Justice in their true relative proportions, and where that gargoyle (determinism, was it?) which loomed in on him so menacingly at one stage in his ascent shall have shrunk to the speck that it is.

We shall be told that no one reaches the top. A philosopher who ceases to climb does so only because he gets tired; and he remains crouched against some staircase window, commanding but a dusty and one-sided view at best, obstinately proclaiming to the crowds below who do not listen, that he is at the summit and can see the whole city. That may be so. Yet the climb itself is not without merit for those whose heads can stand the height and the circling of the rising spiral; and, even at the lowest windows, one is above the smoke and can see proportions more clearly so that men and tramcars can never look quite the same again.

Once I was done reading that passage, I knew my decision to study philosophy was the correct one. I was exhilarated; I felt new adventures, new journeys, novel sights and experiences lay ahead. I had felt, just by Mabbott’s description of the philosopher’s elevation, elevated myself. No description of any academic field I had ever read before had ever captivated me so. I wanted more; I couldn’t wait to start studying philosophy seriously.

John David Mabbott remains an obscure philosopher to this day. I’ve never read anything else by him, or seen a citation to him anywhere in any philosophical text I’ve read. But without exaggeration, these two paragraphs of his rank among the most influential pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  And of course, my father, by buying his book, had made it possible for me to encounter them. Many thanks to the both of them.

Note: Needless to say, I still own The State and the Citizen–it’s falling apart but I won’t let go.

The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

We eat comfort food when we are sick, angry, depressed, or unhappy: chicken soup, chocolates, <insert your own, idiosyncratic favorite here>, substances that satisfy cravings which tap into some deep nexus of the mind and body and momentarily elevate our mood. Comfort food is comfortable because it is ‘easy’; it does not tax you unduly; it provides readily accessible pleasure; it goes down smoothly, bringing you up as it does so. Like comfort food, there is comfort reading too. Everyone has their own varietal.

Last Thursday, a bacterial infection that has, on and off over the past three weeks, subjected me to a sore throat, fever, body aches, a runny nose and eyes, and which I have subjected to two courses of antibiotics, returned with a vengeance. All too soon, I found myself canceling trips to the gym and social engagements, and retreating to the safety and comfort of my bed. There, unable to sleep, I turned to the most visible and tangible source of comfort: a good read.

My tastes in comfort reading follow well-established patterns: books on cricket; fiction by authors whose work I’ve read before; narrative, ‘trade’ or ‘popular’ history; and lastly, a perennial, military history. It was to this group, and to a particular subset of its offerings–military aviation–that I turned to this past weekend. With a slight twist.

For many years now, I’ve owned the last vestiges of my father’s book collection. (It deserves a blog post of its own, which I will write someday soon.) For the time being, it suffices to note that that collection includes two autobiographical accounts by pioneering test pilots: Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow.   The former’s Test Pilot and the latter’s Mach One, have long adorned my shelves; for some reason, I’d put off reading them ever since I brought them back from India a few years ago (after an extended quasi-archaeological rummaging through my brother’s garage.)

On Friday their day had come. I could not read Cass Sunstein on analogical reasoning in the law or Larry Alexander on being constrained by precedent in legal decision-making; I could not concentrate on Seneca‘s nostrums for a good life; I could not stare at a page of Mussolini expounding on fascism; I did not feel like hacking through a ninety-thousand word assemblage of notes and comments and semi-coherent writing. But I did think I could read, again, like I used to when I was a schoolboy, about pilots, and the machines they flew. I was ready to be transported again to familiar spaces in the mind.

Duke and Lithgow are now long gone (the latter in an aviation accident in 1963); in my father’s time, when he was a newly commissioned fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, their stories–about service in the Second World War, followed by flight testing work on the new generation of jets–must have served as inspiration and edification alike. The inscriptions in these books indicate my father bought them on 3rd May 1955 at the International Book Depot in Bombay; some sixty years later, in Brooklyn, I finally read them. It was a curious occasion on which to reconnect with my father, but there was no quibbling with the manner in which I did so.

Of Cricket Fans And Memoirs

Last week, I sent in the draft manuscript for my next book–“a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom”–to the editors at Temple University Press. The book, whose description, not title, I have indicated above, will now be reviewed, revised and then finally rolled off the presses as part of the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. By way of providing an introduction to the book, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting–what else–the book’s introduction below.

Continue reading

Geronimo and the Cruel, Beautiful, West

Yesterday’s post on the continued presence of derogatory team names and mascots in American professional sports was, in part, prompted by my reading of Geronimo‘s autobiography.  It is a short book, an easy read, and comes with an excellent introduction by Frederick Turner. (Geronimo: His Own Story, As told to S. M. Barrett, with introduction and notes by Frederick Turner. Meridian Books, New York, 1996; other than some long quotes in previous histories, this is the first sustained narrative by a Native American that I have read.)

As with most histories of Native Americans, I am left a little numb: the familiar stories of dispossession, a series of betrayals, endless dissembling, and in the case of Geronimo, like some other great chiefs, the humiliations of imprisonment and camp life. By the time Geronimo–after surrendering and becoming a ‘prisoner of war’–has converted to Christianity, started selling bows and arrows at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, and posing for photographs, we are sick of it all.  Death must have been a merciful release from that protracted punishment.

In some previous posts on the American West, I had noted, in passing, the contrasts that that land holds for us: the beauty of its landscape and the cruelty writ large into its history. A couple of eloquent passages  from Turner’s introduction that describe the denudation of the West’s natural inhabitants bring that contrast alive for us.

First, the flora go:

But even the native grasses were being exterminated as the West was made over into farms and ranches: 142 million acres of the continent’s heartland that for millennia had been thronged with big bluestem, blazing star, wild indigo, black Sampson, butterfly milkweed, compass plant, prairie smoke, Scribner’s panicum, golden alexander, shooting star, and prairie dock.

Only the West could inspire descriptions– those startling names!–like that. But it inspired a savage response as well.

And then, writing of California,

In 1848, when gold was discovered in that area, and it was annexed as a state, there were approximately one hundred thousand Indians there; by 1859, that figure had been reduced to thirty thousand; and by the turn of the century there were only a fifteen thousand of the race once described by a devotee of the American way as a ‘set of miserable, dirty, lousy, blanketed, thieving, lying, sneaking, murdering, graceless, faithless, gut-eating skunks as the Lord ever permitted to infect the earth, and whose immediate and final extermination all men, except Indian agents and traders, should pray for.’ To an appalling extent the prayers were answered.

Geronimo died far  from home. In his autobiography he expressed his final wishes:

It is my land, my home, my father’s land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be, I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish at present, and that our name would not become extinct.

His wish was denied.

Winning Chaplin’s Autobiography

The record for the longest tenure as a book on my shelves belongs to Charles Chaplin: My AutobiographyBut that’s not the  only distinction for the little tramp’s tale. It also represents the only academic award I have ever received in my life: its jacket bears a stickered certificate stating that I have been awarded the ‘Progress and Application Prize’. My grade–the tenth–is noted, as is the date, 3 October 1981.  (At my boarding school, once the annual academic prizes had been announced mid-year or so, the awardees were allowed to select a book from a local bookstore; the name of the book was reported to the folks in charge of academic honors, and a few weeks later, at the school’s award ceremony, that book, duly wrapped, was handed over to us. I still think it was a pretty good system as far as those sorts of things go.)

The official description for the prize went something like this: ‘Awarded to the student who makes the most academic improvement in a year’. That meant, in practice, a student that had enhanced his grades the most compared to the ones earned the previous year. The nominations were made by teachers; word had it that they looked not just for better grades but also visible proof of nose-to-the-wheel effort.

‘Progress’ and ‘application’ are not two terms I normally associate with myself, so I still look back at this prize with some mystification. My grades for that academic year had not been outstanding; in a class of twenty-one, I had come in sixth or seventh. I was in the top third of the class. But it was also the case that the previous year, I had ranked nineteenth in the same class.

In my ninth grade, I had switched schools. After a disastrous eighth-grade, my mother decided it was time for an intervention. Perhaps a change of scenery would help; I hadn’t been happy with my teachers and my classmates in my old school; the boarding school I would be sent to promised many changes besides its hillside locale. But because my school was located in the hills, it followed a different academic calendar. Going there would mean starting school mid-year; I’d have to either go back to the eighth grade or rush into the ninth. I picked the latter option, and interestingly enough, the school agreed.

I floundered and spent the rest of the year desperately trying to catch up with my classes; I spent most of my evening study hours faithfully copying out notes from other students’ notebooks. But to little avail; when finals time rolled around, I was still unprepared. Things were always going to be better in the tenth grade, especially as I did some more catching up over the break.

But I think what really clinched the prize was my decision, in the tenth grade, to become the only student in my class who took notes during history lectures. While my classmates, in a gesture of protest at the sonorous litanies sent our way by our teacher, refused to open their notebooks, I kept my head down and scribbled away. Truth be told, it was my favored strategy of choice for  neutering the almost inevitable boredom that would result if I didn’t occupy myself somehow. Staring out of the window would result in a quick reprimand, so I sought relief elsewhere.

It worked: my efforts were noticed; my first and only academic honor was bestowed on me. And it made perfect sense that I’d pick an actor’s autobiography to instantiate it.

Note: Hopefully, this post will kick off a ‘Tale of the Tome’ series of posts here.