Sunday, June 29, 2014
Mother of the Muses
I had the strange and somewhat disconcerting experience recently of reading a memoir about people I know. It was written by a woman who was, at one time, romantically involved with a close friend of mine. Both of them are writers, and her memoir details a time in her life after college when she, a young woman from a privileged background, took a poorly-paid entry-level job at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger, and simultaneously moved into a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with my friend (in a building that really should have been condemned; I was there many times). At the end of this time period, according to the memoir, she underwent an awakening that was both literary and spiritual in nature and jettisoned the apartment, the job, and the boyfriend.
The memoir may sound -- and perhaps is -- a trifle slight and self-serving. It's a coming-of-age story very particular to its time and place -- New York City in the 1990s -- but it's written with an appealing clarity and simplicity, and the author gets so many things right, including the changing seasons in the city; my friend (whom she paints in an unflattering, if fairly accurate, light); and, ultimately, the reality of suffering. One of her job duties at the literary agency was answering the voluminous fan mail sent to Salinger with an off-putting standard form letter. After reading some of these letters, however -- many of them from fellow World War II veterans -- and after belatedly reading Salinger's slim oeuvre, she comes to a deeper understanding of the human condition. She notes that Bessie Glass, the mother of Franny and Zooey, of Boo Boo, Buddy, and Seymour (as well as of Walt, lost in the war, and his twin brother Waker, a cloistered Carthusian monk), "is in mourning [for her two dead children]. As is the entire Glass family. A family in mourning, never to recover. A world in mourning, never to recover." The book is worth reading just to get to that moment, which comes near the end.
I didn't know the author that well back in the day, and I don't know whether her heart had always been open to the truth of suffering, or whether that realization was entirely catalyzed by her reading of Salinger. The author's ex-boyfriend has, in private correspondence, cast her compassion somewhat into question, but I suppose it's not really that important. What is important is the truth that art can effectively reveal certain aspects of humanity, including the inescapable fact of its suffering, and can also provide, if not the remedy for that suffering, then at least some assuagement.
This calls into question the purpose of the memoir as a genre. What is it for, really, and who among us has lived in such a way that merits such public retelling? The Salinger memoir appealed to me because I knew what the author meant. She describes with great care the weather, what she wore, and what she ordered at the deli, all of which are things that I like to know about; attention to such details in my own life is something that has always had great, almost talismanic significance for me. And even if she's not telling the truth about everything -- because who, in a memoir, is? -- she is nothing but truthful about the fact that, beneath the surface of things and phenomena, trouble is roiling, suffering exists, and even the best-intentioned of us cause one another unspeakable pain. If the Salinger memoir has merit, it's primarily because it sends out a slim shaft of light into the brokenness of things: the light of shared pain, of recognized suffering. We possess art, as Nietzsche said, lest we perish of the truth, and is not the purpose of art to alleviate suffering? Goethe wrote:
Now, Muses, enough!
You strive in vain to show
how anguish and joy
change places in the loving heart.
You cannot heal the wounds
that love inflicts;
but comfort comes,
kindly ones, only from you.
And Memory, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the muses.
Perhaps all art is an evocation of Memory, Mother of the Muses; as writers and as readers we summon her so that, as good mothers do, she might comfort us.