Art of the Anti-Memoir

Homily for Sunday, December 16, 2018
Advent 3C
Philippians 4:4–7

pensive writer-Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904In “The Art of Self: Autobiography in the Age of Narcissism,” an article in Harper’s Weekly in May of 1994, author William Gass skewers the genre.  Of autobiographies he says:

Welcome to the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life… The autobiographer tends to do partials, to skip the dull parts and circle the pits of embarrassment…  Are there any motives… that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification?  To halo a sinner’s head?  To puff an ego already inflated past safety?

Gass would much rather read something “that captured… a moment in our own lives.  In language… beyond… contriving,” with a voice and perspective that is “pitiless… remote, immune to praise,” and that emphasized not the exceptional but “that we are jointly human.”

Literary critic Marco Roth concurs and wonders if:

it possible to write a memoir about how you mistook your own life, about what you didn’t yet know or failed to see, and when you didn’t know it?  About how your character and judgments were formed and how you came to unlearn that first and not always painful formation?

Enter the “anti-memoir.”  The anti-memoir is void of a narrative arc that goes smoothly from A to B.  It is absent any self-aggrandizing or promoting or justifying.  The anti-memoir is not about the “I” but rather the questioning of the “I” and the conflicts the author experiences; which are not extraordinary but rather the same as we all experience.  Anti-memoirs tend not to “do drama,” nor do they typically end with an epiphany or a tidy resolution.  Indeed, as author Yiyun Li writes, what makes an authentic anti-memoir is that it

is a… messy tale, much messier than a memoir…  You can’t pretend your life is a ‘neat’ story or even a ‘good’ story—life isn’t a good story. If you try to make it into one, you are simplifying too many things.

CS_LewisExamples of anti-memoir might be Aspley Cherry-Gerard’s The Worst Journey in the World, his frank, first-hand account of Scott’s last Antarctic expedition; or Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, about his visit to the penal colony there; or Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, about growing up in a Jewish family in fascist Italy in the 30’s and 40’s.  And the genre need not be dour—C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy could also be anti-memoir.

As I consider the traits of the “anti-memoir”—the absence of a clear narrative arc, no “drama,” focusing not on the “I,” not self-aggrandizing or promoting, not looking for epiphanies or tidy endings, but instead writing “a very messy tale” that acknowledges that “life isn’t a good story”— I can’t help but wonder if the apostle Paul might have been a good “anti-memoirist.”

  • Paul does not “circle the pits of embarrassment” or “halo a sinner’s head.” To Paul the Corinthians are still dysfunctional; the Galatians are still “you foolish Galatians.”
  • Paul does not promote himself: “We do not proclaim ourselves,” he writes, “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.” (2 Cor 4).
  • Though we can guess from his words the “story” in which Paul was involved, Paul’s letters are not narrative. Nor does Paul’s life follow a neat narrative.
  • Despite having ample material with which to do so, Paul never manufactures drama. Of being whipped, beaten, stoned and shipwrecked, for example, Paul merely says that he was whipped, beaten, stoned and shipwrecked.  (2 Cor 11:25).
  • As for “mistaking his own life” and “failing to see,” Paul readily admits: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” (Gal 2)
  • Paul’s life truly was “messy.” He persecuted the Church and was then himself persecuted; he had no stable home; he was frequently at odds with authorities; he was whipped, beaten, stoned and shipwrecked; he was executed as a criminal.

But even from prison awaiting his execution, Paul writes—not focusing on himself; it’s not about him—to the Philippians, “Rejoice!”  No matter the circumstance, “Again, I say rejoice.”  “It’s not about me or my being in prison,” Paul says in effect.  “Of course my life is a mess.  Everybody’s life is a mess!  But let’s not do drama.  Rather, ‘Rejoice…. Do not worry… make your requests known to God.’”

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If Paul is an “anti-memoirist,” so is Advent a season for “anti-memoir.”  Advent is a season for stepping back and taking a look at our lives with a dispassionate eye—no drama!—and accepting whatever mess we may find there.  Advent is an opportunity, not to find tidy, neat narratives that go smoothly from A to B; not to “Facebook” our lives and pretend that they are better than they are.  Advent is a time to allow the messiness of our lives just to be.

Bird in a bush at the ArboretumAdvent is a time to allow the messiness of our lives just to be, and to trust that God, in God’s own time and in God’s own way, in the darkness of this “womb,” will slowly knit together our incoherent bits and pieces, and—when we are ready to hold it for ourselves, to nurture and care for it—[God will] bear this new life forth into the world.

Poems—at least good ones—are also “anti-memoir,” for they, too, “capture… our… lives.  In language… beyond… contriving.”  I am going to leave us with a poem about Advent.  And incoherence and weakness and messiness; and holding and nurturing and caring for new life.  And rejoicing, and not worrying… and freedom.  Here is “Pastoral,” by Rita Dove.

Like an otter, but warm,
she latched onto the shadowy tip
and I watched, diminished
by those amazing gulps.  Finished
she let her head loll, eyes
unfocused and large: milk-drunk.

I liked afterwards best, lying
outside on a quilt, her new skin
spread out like a meringue.  I felt then
what a young man must feel
with his first love asleep on his breast:
desire, and the freedom to imagine it.

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