Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fragmentary Thoughts about Writing and Roland Barthes' Mother

I remember, once, in college, visiting a friend at another college. Her favorite professor, a poet, was coming over for dinner. We made a three course Indian meal, picked out the best cheap wine we could afford. I remember this poet seemed to me uniquely glamorous, a woman who was not famous and would never be but somehow made her living doing something creative, and was older than us but carried herself in a way that made us think she had a right to write the poems she did, that she could write about passion and not be ridiculous.
Midway through the dinner, the poet talked about her mother. She said that she'd always thought the most terrifying lines of poetry she'd ever heard were these, from Anne Sexton's "Housewife":
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.

A woman is her mother. That's the main thing.

It was the last two she was referring to as terrifying. To be swallowed was one thing, to be was another. We all nodded knowingly at the great wisdom of what the poet was saying.
When I was in graduate school, I was surrounded by something called "theory" and people I thought of as theory heads. A lot was said about what that was, some of it interesting, a lot of it not, and somewhere deep inside me there may be someone who has something to say about that. One thing I remember is conversations among ourselves, and with people we were hiring, where the question was posed, "who is your favorite critic/theorist?" Thankfully in my program this was really a question about who you enjoyed reading, people who were called critics or theorists not because they were 'experts' or had some claims to be systematic, but because they were smart and beautiful writers who wrote something that didn't fit into any one category. And when we asked the question that way, nine times out of ten, the answer was either Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes.

It's probably not a coincidence that both these writers work in the seams of genres, from Benjamin's not-quite-essays and epigraphs to Barthes' mythologies and the pseudo-dictionary of "A Lover's Discourse." I remember one of my favorite grad school teachers saying that if we got nothing out of what we were doing, perhaps we would have a chance to give that book to to the right person.

So, now, this little New Yorker piece. I love things like this, pieces of diaries, pieces of other lives. When I'm on the subway and I see someone writing in a Moleskin, I have to stop myself from looking over their shoulders. In that moment of writing, squeezing in a few lines before school or work, it seems everything they had to say would be of the utmost fascination. When you see something like this, one little fragment for a day of grief, you think of the hours squeezed into that sentence. At one point, he says "I don't want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it- or without being sure of not doing so - although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths."

I think I know what he means. All writing comes from life, and there's something distasteful and ethically suspect about it, and not just when we're betraying confidences. Even after her death, Barthes doesn't want to turn is mother into literature, but he is unable to do otherwise. Sometimes I think the whole trend towards abstraction in criticism - of which New Critics were as guilty or guiltier than theorists - and the whole insistence on the irrelevance of biography, was a way of dealing with this discomfort. We think novels are better or superior to memoir, because we think memoir can't be written, not really, not fully, by anyone with a conscience.

It's odd to hear a man of about sixty speak of his mother the way he does. He mourns ("Don't say mourning. It's too psychoanalytic. I'm not mourning, I'm suffering") her the way we think of mourning a long-time partner, her absence a constant presence. Apparently they lived together for the whole of his life. I don't know anything about the circumstances, but I prefer to think of it as nothing pathological, as simply a case where a bond doesn't break. Should it feel so strange, to hear a man mourn with pure grief, rather than with the guilt and half-regret we expect from today's memoir writers.

Of course, it's even harder for the mothers to tell their stories. Back in A Room of One's Own, Woolf goes through the names and says, the thing these women all have in common is that they are not mothers. More now can find some insufficient solution to the need for time and solitude, but the ethics of saying what they know remain vexed. A friend told me recently of finding the diary of a great-grandmother, who described not only her desperate unhappiness, but contained detailed portraits of her husband and children in meticulous and unflattering detail. I asked her what she did with it and she said, I got rid of it, of course. There is the responsibility, there are feelings, also. But there is also the urge to record, always equal parts hope and despair.

And so the mothers remain everywhere and nowhere, as Barthes once said of men in women's magazines. Others pull together the fragments, as in this chilling piece of a story by Lydia Davis:
Mothers, when they are guests at dinner, eat well, like children, but seem absent. It is often the case that they cannot follow what we are doing or saying. It is often the case, also, that they enter the conversation only when it turns on our youth; or they accommodate where accommodation is not wanted; smile and are misunderstood. And yet mothers are always seen, always talked to, even if only on holidays. They have suffered for our sakes, and most often in a place where we could not see them.