When I walked into the apartment of memoirist Alan Kaufman in Lower Nob Hill around 2011, I noticed paintings covering his walls. I’d already read his nearly 500-page memoir, Drunken Angel. The book chronicles how he became a writer and drunk (and how he recovered from alcoholism). There was nothing about him being a painter.
How could he have left such an important detail out of his memoir?
Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, says the bedrock material for memoirists are the stories which haunt us. Those human moments worthy of reflecting upon that we can’t keep out of our brains no matter how many years have gone by or how many sleeping aids we take. She says memoir is “a story from a life. It makes no pretense of replicating a whole life.” We really only need a portion, bits.
But how do we reconstruct our pasts? Maybe we can learn from historians as well as other memoirists.
In the realm of history, I think there is still this age-old problem similar to memoir, that no matter how honorable the discipline may be, having descended from the great Herodotus and Thucydides themselves, there is still this question of science versus art. The memoirist can learn from this debate—no matter how scientific we think our approach to the themes of our pasts may be, we might just be getting lost in the grey cloud of memory reconstruction.
Philosopher Hans Meyerhoff in The Philosophy of History in Our Time discussed the dilemma for modern historicism of the mid-1950s (a huge debate we won’t get into for the sake of this essay):
One horn of the dilemma reminded the historian that he must tell the truth and nothing but the truth; that personal integrity, impartiality, and objectivity are the marks of dignity and the standards of ethics in any intellectual discipline . . . The other horn of the dilemma reminded the historian of what he would rather forget: namely, that this ideal may be unobtainable; that there are barriers, insuperable barriers, which separate him from his co-workers in other scientific disciplines; that, upon closer inspection, history sets definite limits to any claims of truth and objectivity; that it is affected by subjective, emotional, or irrational factors in its subject matter and in the mind of the historian himself; and that a historical work seems to be constructed according to a peculiar logic of its own which makes it difficult to say whether it is a work of science or art, both or neither.
Historians, memoirists, politicians, husbands, wives, children, bankers, baseball players, and so on, can’t completely re-live experiences, can’t have an objective narrative of the past, and in a way, can’t ever tell the full truth.
If the philosophy of history is to be any kind of indicator, no matter how scientifically scrutinized, no matter the memoirist’s ability to write in eloquent sensory detail, the end result of our recollections could be labeled as emotionally disguised literary art.
Meyerhoff says the historian’s methodology is dubious, suspect, and only seems to raise puzzling questions as to the causes of those haunting moments in history and in our lives. “Reason is often a poor guide to the deeply hidden, irrational strata from which many of the richest manifestations of human life draw their meaning and sustenance,” Meyerhoff writes.
Where does that leave memoirists?
I often ponder memoir essay topics: the day I ripped up a carpet in an elementary school classroom when the teacher wasn’t looking, the moment I was bit by a black widow before playing hockey, the crash of breaking a shin bone on a school field in San Jose.
How can I capture such stories if the past is so elusive?
Philosopher R.G. Collingwood in The Idea of History writes that history is merely the “actions of human beings that have been done in the past.” In other words, if history is everything we have ever done as a people, then maybe memoir can be broken down even further to a part of everything we have done as individuals. Or maybe everything that we have felt. Or, all the little things that haunts us, that we want to tell the truth about, but don’t know if we really can.
So how do we feel the past?
Collingwood poses the question: “How, or on what conditions, can the historian know the past? In considering this question, the first point to notice is that the past is never a given fact which he can apprehend empirically by perception.” He goes on to further say how untouchable the past is: “The historian does not know the past by simply believing a witness who saw the events in question and has left his evidence on record.” If a historian can’t simply believe a witness and we as memoirists are witnesses to our own lives, then where does that leave us in the empirical scientific process of telling the truth?
Collingwood says historians must re-enact the past in their own minds. Not just reflect on the past, but re-enact, which I think we can translate as feel. Collingwood then presents another problem when he says “no one experience can be literally identical with another, therefore presumably the relation intended is one of resemblance only.”
There lies the key for both the historian and the memoirist. A re-enacted past can only resemble the past. It is an imprint, like a feeling.
And since memoirists are only after a thematic approach, like Kaufman leaving out that he is a painter in a book about him as an alcoholic writer, we must learn the art of resemblance.
Friedrich Katz in The Life & Times Of Pancho Villa writes, “The most serious difficulty I had to deal with was to extract the historical truth from the multifaceted layers of legend and myth surrounding Villa. What made this task especially difficult was that, on one hand, Villa was enamored of his own myths and did his best to embroider them.”
Like historians, memoirists examine pasts, reconstructing all the outcomes and variances in each haunting experience. Are we getting the smallest details accurate? Have we brought our minds down roads that resemble original experiences? Are we embellishing to fill in the major gaps in the stories from our lives like the myths surrounding Pancho Villa? Are we allowing our creative ability to feel the truths we need to tell?
Collingwood discusses how the historical imagination must evolve to think beyond the here and now. I believe memoirists do the same.
No doubt, historical thought is in one way like perception. Each has for its proper object something individual. What I perceive in this room, this table, this paper. What the historian thinks about is Elizabeth or Marlborough, the Peloponnesian War or the philosophy of Ferdinand and Isabella. But what we perceive is always the this, the here, the now. Even when we hear a distant explosion or see a stellar conflagration long after it has happened, there is still a moment at which it is here and now perceptible, when it is the explosion, this new star. Historical thought is of something which can never be a this, because it is never a here and now. Its objects are events which have finished happening, and conditions no longer in existence. Only when they are no longer perceptible do they become objects for historical thought.
Perhaps only when the events that haunt us are no longer perceptible do they become fodder for the memoirist to create resemblances. In other words, the past may haunt us, but we have to be careful how we feel the past. Otherwise we may jump too far into myth-making.
In the art of resemblance in nonfiction we must be wary of betraying ourselves. We must hold those memories that haunt us at arms distance until fully scrutinized.
With each attempt at memoir we offer to create a history. We research. We perceive. We feel. We scrutinize. We create resemblances. Sure the process is about art. At the same time, the process must also be about checking memories against real data and other memories when we can.