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Thursday, July 22, 2010

39. Autobiography (9) These novels will give way, by and by ...

Herbert Garrie Carozzi, Barry William Carozzi, Linda Robina May (Kipping) Carozzi, circa 1955/56

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist, once made the following observation about the likely future of writing:
These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries and autobiographies – captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which really is his experience, and how to record them truly.

At the time, novels were beginning to be the dominant literary form.
History has not supported Emerson’s judgment however; novels – especially what used to be called trashy novels – romances (or penny dreadfuls as my mother insisted on calling them, the Mills and Boon style of novel to which I gave the name Nurse Ducketts) – continue to sell in huge numbers. In the past decade we’ve seen the phenomenon of Harry Potter, the continuing popularity of romances, and other publishing phenomena such as the Twilight series and the Stif Larson Girl who books.

Emerson’s expectation - that ‘true records’ of personal experience, in the form of diaries and autobiographies, would replace the essentially escapist style of literature – proved ill-founded. It took Eliot, writing perhaps five decades after Emerson, to clarify the reason: ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality.’

It’s as if we say: give me half truth and fabrication, give me gothic extremes or sentimental pap, give me escapist fantasy any day in preference to ‘experience recorded truly’.

Why might this be? Emerson again pointed the way. The problem lies in his: If only. If only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experience.

Elsewhere Emerson wrote: The years teach much that the days never know.

And perhaps that is also another way of stating the problem. In the daily chaos of experience, we have trouble working out just what is going on. Or perhaps it’s not so much the chaos ‘out there’, but the trance in which most of us live our lives. We all know the experience – we drive out of our driveway to drive to work or school or a friend’s house; we arrive there and have no recollection of the journey. It’s as though we’ve been in a trance; we’ve not been paying attention. Perhaps we rarely pay attention; perhaps we are rarely ‘fully there, IN the moment’.

I’m picturing you, the reader, sitting there, reading what I am writing. Reading can be passive; I ask you to be an active reader. While I’m gathering my thoughts, gather your own. Form your own list, either mentally, or on paper, as I gather mine. Let us go, you and I, back to the most significant moments, the most significant events of our lives.
Let us do, first of, what the phenomenologists suggests. To the extent that we are able, let us bracket out all preconceived notions, all prejudice. Let us give an account that simply tells, in its purest form, the experience. What happened.

To begin. What is your first memory. Your earliest memory. I shall tell mine in the third person:
A small child is walking along, beneath the leaves of an avenue of trees – elm trees or plane trees. He is walking with an old woman. Her hands are old, the skin like dry leaves, and marked with old age spots – liver spots. The child is very small, and his hand is being held in the hand of the old woman. It is autumn, and leaves fall from the trees, the brown, dry leaves of late autumn. The child senses some parallel between the skin of the old woman’s hands, and the skin of the leaves. The child senses that this old woman is his grand mother.

Later, I come to associate the old woman in the memory with my grandmother on my mother’s side: Edith Kipping. That is my earliest memory. It returns to me, like images from a dream, throughout the next 40 or more years of my life. It feels an important dream. My readings in the field of psychology suggest that this dream must have some significance; it must mean something, it must be about something important.

I eventually relate the dream to my mother, and ask her: ‘Why would I remember that event?’

My mother is by now in her early 80s. She will die within three years. By this time, I am in my mid-40s.
‘When you were perhaps two and a half ', my mother tells me, ‘your grandmother came down for a visit. I was due to have a baby – your baby sister. Mum came down to lend a hand during the last stages of my pregnancy’ . She pauses while I take in this information.

‘She looked after you while I was in hospital. She walked you round to see me one day.’

Sometime in late 1945 my mother gave birth to a stillborn girl child. It was my mother’s third full term pregnancy. Or that's what she told me. The first child, a boy, was stillborn – sometime in 1941. He would have been my older brother. These are the facts related to me at various stages over the course of the forty odd years that Linda and Garrie were my Mum and Dad.
So that is what I make of that experience. I have recorded these events truly. At 45 I believed that when I was around two and a half my mother gave birth to a stillborn girl child; and I annex onto this story a psychological explanation.
It's 1945. I'm 2 or so. My parents have told me for months that I will soon have a little brother or a little sister. My mother goes off to have the baby. My nanna comes down to Melbourne from Hamilton, to help out. One day she walks with me to the hospital. Perhaps my mother is beside herself, at the loss of a second baby. Perhaps Garrie is at home distraught. Perhaps it is to the emotional whirlwind that is stirred up by this terrible loss that I am attuned. The memory is there because it is associated with strong feeling. Perhaps the two and a half year old that I was realized, at some level of his being, that events of great import were occurring, and the memory of aged and withering skin, of falling leaves, of my tiny hand held firm by her ancient hand, on a grandmother’s one visit to Melbourne are all that remains.

Our lives, our identities are formed out of the stories that we tell, the stories that are told to us.

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