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 Dependence Of Autobiography On Biography (And Vice-Versa)

A few weeks ago, I briefly spoke at a conference hosted in honor of my dissertation advisor’s eightieth birthday. In my talk I offered some personal recollections of having worked with Distinguished Professor Rohit Parikh, his intellectual influence on me, and the various lessons–personal, technical, moral–that I learned along the way from him. As I began my talk, I apologized for what I described as the ‘self-indulgent’ nature of the talk. After all, even though the talk was about Professor Parikh, it would keep me center-stage at all times; I was as much a character as him. The stories I would tell my audience were about him and me; they would describe my passage through my dissertation, my post-doctoral fellowship, and then later, my work as a faculty member of the City University of New York, all the while informed by my advisor’s presence. (And indeed, I found myself telling tales of my first encounter with my advisor, my decision to work on a dissertation topic that spun off from one of his papers, my struggles to become more mathematically proficient, the shaping of my philosophical world-view through the many discussions and conversations we had, and the various insights into mathematical method, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the nature of logic and knowledge that I gleaned over the years from him. I recalled memorable lines, jokes, profundities; I briefly mentioned our political differences.)

As part of my ‘apology’ therefore, I said that in trying to provide a biography of someone I had interacted with over an extended period of time, it was necessary to provide an autobiography as well. I went on to note that this was not surprising: after all, the recountings of our autobiographies must necessarily call on the biographies of others to be made complete. Our lives are not lived in isolation; they inform, interact with, and impinge upon, many other lives. We form relationships with others; we enter into them, and move on out again; they take us from station to station. The stories of our lives, thus, are also the stories of many others’: friends, lovers, enemies, teachers.

Biography and autobiography are fickle genres of story-telling; they rely on memory, and are infected throughout by all kinds of prejudice. The interaction between the two I describe here shows how these errors may accumulate: my autobiography might distort the biography of others. I might cast myself in a more favorable light, paint myself as more virtuous when contrasted with others; if my autobiography is relied upon as a biographical source for others’ lives, these errors will be perpetuated. In the particular forum in which I was recounting my ‘autobiography’ a converse possibility existed: that I would be corrected by the very person whom I was speaking about; my advisor could have raised his hand at some point and told me that he remembered additional details that I had forgotten, or that I had gotten some quote or location or time wrong.

No man is an island and all that.

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.

Richard Holmes On Biography’s ‘Physical Pursuit’ Of Its Subjects

In an essay describing his biographical work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes writes:

[A] biography is…a handshake….across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.

It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endlessly mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.

Holmes bases this view of the work of the biographer on two claims about the art, the first one of which claims that:

[T]he serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.

Biography is a famously reviled literary genre–sometimes described as fantasy, sometimes intrusive voyeurism, sometimes ideologically motivated hatchet job. Holmes is right to describe it as being animated by an ‘endlessly mysterious question.’ (He is also perspicuous in describing it as a ‘handshake’ and an ‘act of friendship’ of sorts.) That question’s mystery–which becomes ever more prominent when we think about its unanswerability with respect to ourselves–does not make the attempt to answer it necessarily ignoble or ill-motivated. But it does bid us be circumspect in assessing how much of the biographer’s task is ever ‘complete.’

To acknowledge that difficulty note that Holmes adds a variety of physical emulation to the task of the biographer: we must be where our subject has been in order to assess what his experiences there might have been like, and thus evaluate what their contribution to his life’s work were. Thus the Nietzsche biographer must make the hike to Sils Maria and ascend the heights that surround it. There, perhaps, one might investigate what Nietzsche had in mind in his constant invocations of the ‘clean air’ he experienced there, and wonder about the sordid life he might have left behind. Because we are not disembodied intelligences, but rather embodied beings in constant interaction with our environments–physical, mental, and emotional–Holmes’ injunction is a wise one. The biographer who writes of Jack Kerouac without undertaking a long road-trip on American highways, and does not wonder about what effect the sights seen therein–big skies, the black asphalt stretching to the horizon, the lonely houses and farms, the lives of fellow travelers–could have had on an endlessly restless and fertile imagination is crippled, fatally, in his task.

But even as we set to work in this dimension, we realize how much is still hidden away from us, how much remains inaccessible. We are still left to play, unavoidably, with our speculations, distant third-person reports, and autobiographical confessions of dubious fidelity. Perhaps this is why Holmes concludes by describing biography as an ‘act of imaginative faith.’

Notes: This essay begins with what must be a distinctive entry to the ‘not-so-humblebrag’ genre:

By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.

Donald Trump And The Art Of The Presidential Deal

Shortly after I arrived in the US in 1987, I began working in my campus cafeteria (at the then minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.) One of my non-student companions at work was a young man who worked on the weekends as a replacement for the weekday staff. He was frivolous and funny and irreverent; he brought a little sparkle to what was otherwise a dreary pair of eight-hour shifts. Among other things, he introduced me to the colloquialism ‘dead presidents,’ telling me that collecting them was his favorite pastime, the hobby that was way more useful and relevant, in this day and age, than philately or lepidoptery. (I realize the latter is not a hobby, but you catch my drift.)

And one fine day, he informed that the person he respected the most was Donald Trump. Who?

I did not know who ‘the Trump’ was. My friend informed me, in a slightly breathless and incredulous tone of voice, that Trump was a ‘go-getter,’ ‘a man who knew what he wanted,’ ‘a leader.’ He knew how to make money; he didn’t put up with bullshit. The evidence was there for all to see: all those buildings he had ‘built,’ the millions he had amassed–he was, you see, a great and accomplished collector of dead presidents.

Intrigued by this transparently sincere account of hero-worship–and still fascinated by the phenomenon of the American businessman as cultural hero, a fact which I had noticed in the adulation directed at Lee Iacocca–I resolved to read Trump’s ‘autobiography’, The Art of the Deal. (I had also read Iacocca’s autobiography, unimaginatively titled Iacocca: An Autobiography, by then.)

Book-length brags by corporate tycoons are not unknown in publishing; Iacocca’s book was a good example of it. Trump took it to the next level. The rest of the world merely put up barriers; Trump destroyed them. The world consisted of bureaucrats and those who would choke the honest, money-making ambitions of good Americans; they stood in the way of all that was good and pure about the American Dream[tm]. Trump fought them all. And he won. It was, truth be told, a curiously thrilling story. There was adversity; it was overcome. There was grime and dirt and squalor; majestic–even if gaudy and architecturally loud–buildings rose over it all. (One of them even offered the cleanest public restrooms in New York City; they had pink walls!.) And money, the thing that seemingly enabled the good life, was made. Lots of it. The Rising Tide of Trump floated the boats of all those who jumped in on the deals he made.

I lost contact with the legend of Trump after that. From time to time, I would receive periodic updates: perhaps a divorce, a television show, an intervention in politics. He never seemed to move too far away from the spotlight. His presidential candidacy was unsurprising; he must have known all along that he excited a curious fascination in the American mind, that his tale of big money and relentless ambition and hustle would resonate with many.

Trump is not a fool even if he is a buffoon. He is wealthy and ambitious; he knows what resonates with those who believe this rigged world is their oyster in potentia. He knows that if he spends enough money, he could win this all. And write another bestseller about the experience.

Confession: I do not know if Trump is serious about his presidency bid or if he is simply angling for a new television show.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

The Difficulty of the Memoir

As my About page indicates, I am currently working on “a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom” (contracted to Temple University Press, for the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass).  Writing it has proven harder than I thought.

I began writing the book late in 2001 and had a hundred-thousand word draft ready late in 2004. I wrote with little guile, wanting to get my memories committed to paper, organizing in them nothing more sophisticated than a simple linear narrative. First this happened, then this, and so on. I organized the material in the only way I knew: by chunking it into simple temporal segments. I gave the draft to a couple of readers, and then forgot about it because I had other writing projects at hand.

Five years later, I submitted my draft to a couple of trade publishers.  One sent me a rejection, the other never replied. I then sent it to an editor recommended me by an acquaintance, and she rejected it too. I then sat on the book for another couple of years before making contact with Amy and sending it to her. She liked the project, and after a full review process at the press, I signed a contract.

And then I returned to work on a nine-year old draft. Unsurprisingly, I found a great deal of material I did not like. More importantly, I soon ran into a greater difficulty: it is hard to tell a coherent story about yourself – especially for public consumption.

We are the central characters of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are subject to constant, ongoing revision; we are good at forgetting, suppressing, and embellishing the little details that make it up.  (By our actions and our pronouncements we are also spinning one version of this story for everyone else.) This closeness of the narrative and its constantly shifting nature means that writing about it was always going to be challenging.

And how. I frequently find myself quite puzzled by the character in the story I am writing. I don’t fully understand him and would like to make him more comprehensible. But doing so, perhaps by greater confessional revelation or forensic detail, is not as straightforward as it seems. We have forgotten a great deal, and we often remember incorrectly. And sometimes, in an attempt to make more palatable the unvarnished truth, we might introduce incoherence elsewhere in the narrative structure–there is a thread that binds, and it can snap if stressed too much.  It is all too easy to second-guess oneself: What do I really need to tell the reader? Was this a good idea to begin with? We might construct a too-sanitized picture of ourselves, suddenly struck by timidity at the thought of exposure. Lastly, we sometimes sense that we have layers and layers of complex detail that need unpacking; a really coherent story about ourselves, one that we often take hundreds of hours to recount in a therapist’s office, might simply be too much for the written page; writing it sounds like a lifetime’s labors. And it would be tedious in any case, of little interest to anyone but ourselves.

I am not yet close to solving these challenges; I expect to write that dreaded email asking for an extension–beyond the summer, to the end of the year–all too soon.