Posts tagged Confessions
Confessions

In my previous post, I declared I just didn't have anything to say about Rousseau's Confessions. I misspoke, apparently. After writing that post, I realized some things: namely, just because the content appalled me, I can't ignore the form/style/function of what is considered to be the first autobiography in the Western canon; and while I also raise an eyebrow at that designation of first, I can't however claim that women's diaries and collected letters preceding his time (which read like autobiographies), were ever written with the intent to psychologically understand how the past impacts the present. Rousseau set out to write the first autobiographical confessional narrative for public consumption. (His confessions aren't Augustine's, whose audience and judge was God.) Rousseau invites, or maybe dares, readers in his own time and readers of the future to go ahead and judge him. What's more, Confessions is hardly his most important work, even if it does foreground Freud and psychoanalysis, as this article explains and this article questions. However, Rousseau's other literary and philosophical contributions are extensive, and, as this article states: "Rousseau stands squarely if unsystematically at the root of democracy, autobiography, Romanticism, child-centered education, even psychoanalysis." So I can't just ignore his presence on my list, and I really can't ignore his generic influence on my own writing. 

Several years ago, my first attempt at creative nonfiction was Wild Thing, a little pamphlet with maybe a dozen or so prose exercises within. But for just one of them, I did not delve into my childhood. A few years later, however, I began drafting Fit Into Me, which examines my childhood with a magnifying glass. The manuscript was shortlisted, I just found out, for a certain nonfiction prize, and while I understand why it wasn't selected (after seeing the description of the winning manuscript, especially), it still stings to know it came close but not close enough. And yet, the thing about that contest that made my submission possible is the publisher's interest in manuscripts in progress, manuscripts not yet fully realized. What's clear to me and has always been clear to me is that my confessional impulses in Fit are not yet fully realized, and this is its current draft's failing. As much as I hate to admit it, Rousseau may have just called me out on what I already knew but resisted. In his confessions, he does not hold back; he shares his many humiliations and his consequent shame. He tells all. I, on the other hand, have yet to really confess anything. Confessions, then, is a craft lesson, a condemnation, reminder, and warning: 

Histories, lives, portraits, character sketches! What are they? Ingenious fictions built on a few external facts, a few speeches that relate to them, some subtle conjectures in which the author is much more anxious to shine than to discover the truth. 

"What are you afraid of?" Lance asked a few years ago, in his response to one of my nonfictions. I still can't answer, but I'm thinking about it. I've been thinking about it. I'll continue to think about it. And in the meantime, I'm reading and thinking about a lot of things, and I'm writing these mini-responses here on this blog, in order to rethink those things. Soon, after exams in August (or maybe September), it will be time to stop trying to shine and to discover instead my own Rousseauian truth.

Tristram and Gregor

For the most part, my posts have been written in response to the texts I've read as I've read them (in order by date of publication). But after Don Quixote, things started (fittingly?) to get all jumbled up and out of order. First of all, it's so damn long it was slowing down my progress. When the how-to-be-ready-for-exams plan is to read a book a day, it starts to feel impossible when a single book creeps into the three-day mark without an end in sight. So I decided to keep moving forward to trick myself into thinking I was making progress with the rest of my texts while I slowly returned to DQ and read little bits of it here and there.

The next text I should have read was Robinson Crusoe, but because my clearest thematic focus at that point had to do with liminal, marginal, and inferior figurations of women, wives, mistresses, maidens, etc., I chose to skip it and read Pamela instead, which then led to my request to read Shamela instead of Tom Jones, and Moll Flanders instead of Robinson Crusoe. I wrote about Pamela and Shamela but did not write about Moll because I figured I'd have more to say about her down the road in a future post about Molly Bloom. So, then, I should have read Tristram Shandy and Confessions but, again, because I wanted to stick with the ladies I jumped ahead to Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman which led to this long post about Maria, Jemima, Minerva, the three Madam Bovarys, the two Cleises in Sappho's poems, and the Minyades from The Metamorphoses. 

I'd already read Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, and Bleak House; so at this point I had to decide if I wanted to keep moving forward into the late 19th century or go back and get caught up. I went back and finally read Tristram Shandy and Confessions. I didn't have a lot to say or write about them, so I opted to keep reading and finished Don Quixote and made my way into the Russian golden age with Gogol's Dead Souls, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (the length of which has turned it into another DQ). After the Russians, and at the height of realism, I dropped down into Huysmans' decadent Against Nature, which I had never before encountered. I still don't know what to think, but I know I will still be thinking about it even as I make my way ever forward. Revisiting Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was fun, sort of, and reminded me of a class I took a long, long time ago on the fin de siècle. At that time, though, I certainly had no clue about symbolism, deep psychological realism a la James's The Turn of the Screw, which I just now revisited, or dreams/involuntary memories/sexual repressions — which I've been thinking about quite a bit, re: Mann's Death in Venice and Proust's Swann's Way. When these texts made those moves through literary history undeniably clear, I stopped reading for a bit and went back to get my facts straight about the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Gothic, Transcendentalism, Naturalism, and Decadence. Today, after this post, I'll be diving headlong into the modernists, and, I have to say, I'm quite sad to leave behind the bulk of my historical texts and authors. Ulysses is next. And I'm afraid. 

Tristram, that proto-pomo text, derailed me a tiny bit. I love that it's so out of place, that it's such a special snowflake historically, but I haven't yet gotten past my first impression after my first read — that it's a nine-act page performance about penis/castration anxiety and actively deplores women and puts them in their place. At one point, Tristram tells female readers they didn't understand the previous chapter and to go back and read it again while the narrative continues for male readers. Adding insult, one of the book's primary jokes leans on the fact that Tristram's autobiography takes an absurdly long time to finally get around to the event of his birth. So, in all that time, while he's waiting to be born, his mother is upstairs laboring while the men downstairs have important conversations. . . . 

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Undeniably, Tristram Shandy is Rabelaisian. And so we can't ignore Gargantua and Pantagruel's treatment of the female act of giving birth or of female genitalia in general: first, there is Pantagruel's mother, Badebec, who instead of giving birth lets loose:

three score and eight tregeneers, that is, salt-sellers, every one of them leading in a halter a mule heavy laden with salt; after whom issued forth nine dromedaries, with great loads of gammons of bacon and dried neat's tongues on their backs. Then followed seven camels loaded with links and chitterlings, hogs' puddings, and sausages. After them came out five great wains, full of leeks, garlic, onions, and chibots, drawn with five-and-thirty strong cart-horses, which was six for every one, besides the thiller.

Then there is Gargantua's mother, Gargamelle, who "began to be a little unwell in her lower parts" and instead of giving birth lets loose a literal shitstorm: "it was her fundament, that was slipped out with the mollification of her straight entrail, which you call the bum-gut . . . Whereupon an old ugly trot in the company, who had the repute of an expert she-physician" glues and sews shut Gargamelle's anus and vagina.

And, of course, in Chapter 15, Panurge suggests "a pretty strange, and new way" to build walls around Paris "cheap," which is to say: out of vaginas, which will repel any who come near. To prove his point, he tells the story of the old lady, the lion, and the fox. Basically, the lady falls backward and her skirt flies up, exposing her genitalia. The lion thinks her vagina is a wound and tells the fox to "wipe it lustily well and hard . . . both within and without" while he goes to get moss to stuff it with. The poor fox:

wiped as hard as he could, here and there, within and without; but the false old trot did so fizzle and fist that she stunk like a hundred devils, which put the poor fox to a great deal of ill ease, for he knew not to what side to turn himself to escape the unsavoury perfume of this old woman's postern blasts. And whilst to that effect he was shifting hither and thither, without knowing how to shun the annoyance of those unwholesome gusts, he saw that behind there was yet another hole, not so great as that which he did wipe, out of which came this filthy and infectious air.

This hole smells of "five hundred devils," the fox tells the lion upon his return: "I am almost choked with the smell therof, it is so pestiferous and empoisoning."

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Not only, then, is the thought of Tristram's mother's labor abhorrent, and horrific, but the stuttering, fragmentary nature of Tristram's narrative is, as I said, a page performance, which begins with Tristram's parents' coitus interruptus. It's his mother's fault, of course, that his father's pleasure is delayed, because of her apparent idiocy: "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?" asks Tristram's father at the end of Chapter One. The narrative's constant disruption and the long dashes that mark digressions within digressions are a kind of visual reminder of the penis throughout, the ejaculatory nature of Tristram's life and opinions disrupted by a constant act of narrative coitus interruptus. 

So anyway, yeah, if proto-pomo Tristram gave me a taste of where I'm headed, like I said, well, I'm afraid. And sad to be leaving behind the rise of the novel of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

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But none of that is why I wanted to return to this blog after my long absence and write this post. What I really want to write about is my response to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist," which I read yesterday. What I can say today is that, while I have loved a lot of books on my historical list (Pamela being the most surprising of them), nothing has left me speechless. After reading these two stories, I was stunned. I just sort of sat on my couch in a state of sad, glorious desperation. At last, a writer from my literary family tree. Someone from whom I am clearly and recognizably descended — and not because of form or content but something more elusive, atmospheric, tonal. I don't know why I was so surprised, though. My first great literary influence was Garcia Marquez, who sings Kafka's praises for the same reason I now sing both of theirs: 

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, "As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, and found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . ." When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. 

It's bittersweet that the image I used above is of Gregor Samsa in bed reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. What would Kafka have said about it? We'll never know. He died three years before Garcia Marquez was born. In any case, I was stunned, and it's not like I haven't read Kafka before. His Amerika is clearly (well, maybe not clearly, but obliquely) referenced in We Take Me Apart. I wanted Amerika on my list, to have a chance to read it again, but my committee members recommended the stories instead. I'd read them before. I wasn't much interested. So, yesterday, to have the response I did was shocking. I'd opened the book expecting to plod through yet another read of "The Metamorphosis" and to come away with something, at least, to say about Ovid's The Metamorphoses. I thought Kafka could supplement Ovid. Wrong! But what's changed since I first (and last) read "The Metamorphosis"? I think I was in high school the first time a teacher assigned it. I didn't get it. It was weird. And gross. I read it again as an undergrad. By then I'd fallen in love with Garcia Marquez, so the weirdness wouldn't have concerned me. Thinking about it now, all I can come up with is maybe because that same class introduced me to Calvino I forgot all about Kafka and his disgusting bug when I chose to climb up into the trees instead, and onto the surface of the moon, from which I still haven't come down. 

So here we are. "The Metamorphosis," yet again. And this time, it knocked the wind out of me. I got lump-in-throat emotional. I felt things. Unnameable things. Emotions and feelings turned visceral, the precise magic act of transformation that I hope my own writing inspires in readers. I don't cry easily, but I came close in the aftermath of just these two stories. I don't even know what to say about them because they're everything. Throw any question at me about craft and/or literature, and I'll find the answer somewhere in "The Metamorphosis." Throw any question at me about art and entertainment, and the answer is in "A Hunger Artist." I'm not even kidding. A while ago my dad sent me an article about what Kobayashi has been up to since being banned from professional eating. His refusal to sign a sponsorship contract kept him from becoming the caged circus animal that the hunger artist ultimately becomes. His fifteen minutes of fame is the hunger artist's. I could write anything here. My God, Kafka! These stories! I wish I could stop for a few weeks and read all the Kafka and all the criticism from his time to now. I can't, though, because I need to keep moving forward with my lists. But after exams, yes, after exams, I will read everything Kafka wrote and I will cry an ocean.