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?)

William James And The Pre-Raphaelites’ Influence

This morning, for no particular reason, or perhaps because I’ve been reading Becoming William James, Howard Feinstein’s excellent psycho-biography of William James, I posted the following on Facebook:

William James was a better, more interesting, writer than Henry James.

These are, as my friend Margaret Toth pointed out, “fighting words.” But of course, as I noted in response, “That’s why I put them in a status. To get one started.” An entertaining and edifying one so far.

One of the defenses I mounted of William James–in response to Bryce Huebner saying that “Henry may have been the better philosopher”–was that I considered that William’s better writing made him a better philosopher too. (Just because I find the distinction between form and content a spurious one.) I then went on to say that William “certainly comes across as the wiser, the one with better insights into the human condition.”

Now, one aspect of a philosopher’s wisdom may be found in their work; another may be found in what they themselves found to be influential and important in their intellectual and psychological development.

A good example of this is the influence that the Pre-Raphaelites had on James. Their “aesthetic embodied tendencies that would emerge in William’s later work as a pyschologist and philosopher.” They:

[E]mphasized a psychological element in subjects that had hitherto received symbolic, allegorical treatment. Observation of the people around them was as important as learning the painter’s craft….[their] use of color and emphasis on realistic detail gave their painting a characteristic hard edge, creating a visual world of shapes with impermeable boundaries, like so many pieces of stained glass.”

Later, William James in his psychological work  “would prefer minute, phenomenological descriptions of minds in action.” In his philosophical pluralism, “he explored the relationship of personal worlds, he, too, emphasized the hardness of edge that divides human experience as decisively as lead separates the fragments of stained glass.”

But perhaps most impressively for me, James took the most inspiration from John Ruskin‘s views on artistic creation, on “the relationship between effort and talent.” For Ruskin had written:

It is no man’s business whether he has genius or not: work he must, whatever he is, but quietly and steadily; and the natural and unforced results of such work will always be the things that God meant him to do, and will be his best. No agonies nor heart-rendings will enable him to do any better. If he be a great man, they will be great things; if a small man, small things; but always, if thus peacefully done, good and right; always, if restlessly and ambitiously done, false, hollow, and despicable. [John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851, pp. 12]

There is a simple and acute wisdom here, one that might be discerned quite clearly even as we disregard the predestinatory  note, and Ruskin’s belief–expressed elsewhere–about the great men being able to do great things “without effort.” For the injunction here is clear, one we find expressed in modern homilies too: do your work as best as you can; put the hours in; be steady and steadfast in your efforts; care not for rewards or recognition; do not torment yourself with anguish about whether your work was meant to recognized or valorized. The doing of it–and the staying with it, and enjoying the time spent on it–is ample reward.

Note: All quotes other than the ones from Ruskin are taken from Becoming William James, pp. 108-110.


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.

Hagiography as Biography: Turning Writers into Saints

Tim Parks wonders why biographies of writers flirt with hagiograpy, why they are so blind to their subjects’ faults:

With only the rarest of exceptions…each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous…is invariably described in a flattering light…special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

[B]iographers apparently feel a need to depict their subjects as especially admirable human beings, something that in the end makes their lives less rather than more interesting and harder rather than easier to relate to their writing. It is so much clearer why the books were written and why they had to be the way they are if the life is given without this constant positive spin.

[O]ne can only assume that they are satisfying a general need to reinforce a positive conception of narrative art, thus bolstering the self-esteem of readers, and even more of critics and biographers, who in writing about literature are likewise contributing to the very same good causes.

The habit of imagining the writer as more well-meaning than he or she probably was is even more curious when we turn to academe. Usually hostile to any notion that knowledge of a writer’s life illuminates his work—“Biographical Fallacy!” one professor of mine would thunder—academic critics nevertheless tend to assume that the author is a solemn soul devoted to profound aesthetic enquiries and invariably progressive narratives. [emphasis added]

I would have thought the answer to Parks’ puzzlement was staring him right in the face (he flirts with it above in the line emphasized) . Biographies of writers are written by, er, writers. To write quasi-hagiography rather than biography, to suggest that the personal and the artistic can be so divorced is to also give oneself a free pass: judge me on my writing, and my writing alone.  Here, the personal is not treated as political; instead, it becomes an autonomous sphere, one whose influences on a  writer’s writing are not permitted to be viewed and whose consideration is not allowed to enter into any judgment of the writing, now viewed as an act radically divorced from the life that led to it.  Writers are not embedded in their actions and circumstances and relationships; they are merely conduits for the expression of their art, which they bring to life by dint of their unstinting labors.

This is an exalted view to hold of others; it becomes even more pleasurable to profess such views when they lead to an exalted vision of oneself. Writing quasi-hagiographies of writers is then best understood as equal parts self-glorification and anticipatory protection of oneself against future critiques. To suggest the writer is essentially noble and virtuous despite well-known personal failings is to act to ensure a similar view of one’s own life. It is an act of writerly solidarity, an insurance policy taken out against any criticism that peeks under the hood.

56-Up: Checking In With ‘Old Friends’

Roger Ebert once referred to Michael Apted‘s Up series as the ‘noblest project in cinema history.’ In writing his review of 56-Up–the latest installment in the story of the Fab Fourteen–Ebert disowned those words as ‘hyperbole’ but its easy to see why he might have thought so. It is as straightforward–and as complicated–a film project as could be: take fourteen children, interview them at the age of seven about their vision of life and what it holds for them, and then, every seven years, meet them again to ‘check in.’ The original premise might have been to explore whether the British class system affected a child’s world-view and whether it locked their lives into unalterable trajectories, but over the years the Up series has grown into something else: an episodic cinematic document of a tiny cross-section of humanity.

Fourteen ‘ordinary’ people; fourteen ‘ordinary’ lives. Hardly the stuff of riveting storytelling, or so you’d think. Thirteen of them are white, one is black, four women, all are English. This is not even a very representative sample of the world’s humanity. And yet. somehow, over the years, they’ve managed to captivate millions all over the world who tune in, faithfully, every seven years.

Every viewer of the series has his or her own personal reasons for remaining riveted to it, for eagerly awaiting the next installment. In my case, it has been because, like many others, I’ve become personally interested in the fortunes of its participants, not out of pure voyeuristic curiosity, but because I’ve been growing too, and often find immediate, sharp, and personal resonances with their lives. There is the sometimes incoherent, sometimes acute vision of the seven-year old, the callow, rash pronouncements of the teenager and young adult, the maturing, sometimes rueful perspectives of the thirty and forty-somethings, and now, the slow, low, sometimes content glow of the mid-fifties. (They’re ahead of me; I’m not fifty yet, though the gap between my age and theirs has shrunk!)

It would be a mistake to say every life examined on this show demonstrates some universal truth or anything like that. Rather, each one showcases, in part, some of life’s fortunes and misfortunes; some get more than fair share of the hard knocks. But it is in the adding up, in the rendering of a composite image that one is able to see a glimmer of the complexity and variety of human existence: present and missing parents, loves–lost and found, illness and good health, passion and anger, ruefulness and exultation.

Of  the various cinematic techniques invented by directors over the years, I find the epilogue particularly poignant: the passage of time and persons, the looking back, the reckonings and accountings of a life.  Often it is because those episodes are tinged with regret for missed opportunities, sometimes because through them, we are brought face to face with the most basic facts of our existence: life is just one moment after another, the past already gone, the future yet to be realized. The Up series has often felt like a collection of epilogues even as we know–or at least believe and hope–another installment is forthcoming.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m looking forward to 63-Up.