Monday, March 07, 2011

Holding A Mirror To A Life

In his weekly column at Inside Higher, Scott McLemee last week reviewed National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Terry Castle's The Professor and Other Writings. I was fascinated by the description of a series of review articles that also served as a way of writing a memoir; after all, what else is a memoir but a review of sorts? What intrigues me most about the work, as McLemee describes it, is the possibility of honesty without either heroics or ego. Far too often we are subjected to the tired tropes of overcoming addiction, abuse, or some other relatively mundane problem as a source of strength, the prism through which one sees the rest of one's life emerge. Castle's book, on the other hand, offers up nothing either so dramatic or played out. Instead, it seems, what we have on offer are a series of reflections that are unapologetic in their revelatory power precisely because they are rooted in something quite literally everyone is at some point or another - whether insecure, or emotionally stunted, or what have you, all of us have lived moments in our lives that, were we more self-aware at the time, would have caused us horrid embarrassment at the very least. Looking back, through the veil of years, it is easy enough to cringe at ourselves, to wonder what, exactly, was wrong with us. To be able to sit and look at such moments, without apologizing, making excuses, with an honesty the author probably wishes were more evident at the time, and perhaps - I haven't read the work, but Scott seems to hint at this in the review - to do all this without seeking a "lesson" or "meaning" beyond, "Man, how could I not realize how I looked to others?". I find this more than attractive. It is, in a word, compelling.

I don't know if it's included in the volume Scott McLemee reviewed, but The New Inquiry included a link to Castle's reminiscence of the late Susan Sontag in The London Review of Books. Written as a memorial shortly after Sontag died, the piece is unsparing in its depiction of Sontag's personality, with all its quirks and foibles. It is also unsparing in its honest reflection on Castle herself. Without either apology after the fact or explanation as to its source, Castle reveals herself as helpless, even long after it became clear their relationship had deteriorated, in attempting to draw Sontag in to her life. In the midst of one of those dreary Manhattan dinner parties peopled by the obscurely famous and self-important, Castle shines a bare bulb upon the affectations of the self-declared culturally superior that is simultaneously funny and sad, not least because of how she depicts her place in such rarefied company.*

While certainly not as interesting or as intelligent as Castle, the possibility of doing something similar has been in the back of my mind, on and off, for years. I have no desire to be prurient. Nor do I wish to make others sorry they have known me by writing about times in my life that might include them in it. Further, I don't believe I am seeking meaning or life-lessons in doing this. If someone could, perhaps, see in my mistakes - to be polite - the possibility of escaping such a fate, that might be the best I could hope for.

All this is by way of introducing the possibility that, perhaps by way of Confessions-style writing, attempting to eschew too much explanation or a search for deeper causes, I may attempt such a venture.

*I should note that I have had exactly one such moment, being included in the rarefied company of a group both vastly more intelligent, and including some well-known, people. My experience was far less interesting than Castle's because I had the pleasure of the company of historian Rick Perlstein, a most gracious and open host. Around a restaurant table near Lincoln Park in Chicago, I had the opportunity to chat with and get to know a bit Chicago Reporter journalist Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and his lovely, charming wife Dunreith. Our guest of honor, George Scialabba, I sat catty-corner to, but he was engaged in conversation with others, and passed a pleasant evening in good company.

Virtual Tin Cup

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