Introducing Pamela

Is the essay inherently post-structural?

My readerly friend, let’s change direction for a bit on this Friday afternoon–which is of course, from a networking/public relations standpoint, a terrible time to post. But there you have it. Today is the day this post is demanding to be born.

I’ve been having this conversation in my head and the in margins of various books for years now (yes, I’m that girl, the one that writes all over books), and I’m going to try to reproduce it in some coherent (ahem! with all that entails!) form.

Is the essay inherently a post-structural form, because it acknowledges the fragmentedness of the subject, the gaps and silences of traditional narrative? Does the fact that the essay acknowledges the subject’s lack of knowledge of itself make it in fact post-structural?  Or does the essay rely too strongly on the notion of a reliable narrator, one coherent self telling the story? Is it enough that the essay often acknowledges that that particular self exists only in that particular moment of telling the story?

Am I even asking the right questions here? Is this another case of a post-structural piece of work versus a post-structural reading of any piece of work? Am I wasting my time? I don’t know. Let’s see. Let’s essay. And let’s begin with the narrator and her reliability.

Philip Lopate, in The Arto f the Personal Essay, tells us, “The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity.” You see the problem there? Reliable. Sincere. Lots of non-post-structural implications there. Sounds like that darn liberal humanist self again. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, in The Fourth Genre, as well, privilege the unified voice, saying of the essay, “Its writers share a common desire to speak in a singular voice.”

Lopate, though, throws a bit of a wrench in things with this:

Part of our trust in good personal essayists issues, paradoxically, from their exposure to their own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust. Their sincerity issues from an awareness of their potential for insincerity—see Max Beerbohm’s telling aside, “But (it seems I must begin every paragraph by questioning the sincerity of what I have just said)”—and it gives them a doubled authority. 

Well, there’s an interesting thought—an awareness of our potential for insincerity gives us even more authority. It’s true the essay does this—monitors its subjectivity constantly—but does that make it any more self-aware? Any more authoritative? I have to think about that. Does that mean that each reflection/refraction I write about “Bedtime Stories” makes me more authoritative? Hmm . . . but what if those subjects occur outside/after the essay? Which Liz does it make more authoritative? Are the collective Is more authoritative than each individual I, even if they are contradicting themselves, showing their fragmentedness?

Lopate tells us that essayists are “adept at interrogating their ignorance. Just as often as they tell us what they know, they ask at the beginning of an exploration of a problem what it is they don’t know—and why.”

Unlike the traditional biographer, and the autobiographer, essayists, according to Lopate, have “realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality.”  That’s the p/s good news. On the flip side, however, “The hope is that in the end, when an essayist’s lifework has a been accumulated, all those personae will add up to a genuine unmasking.” And we’re right back to the knowable, representable self. de Man. de Faced.

But then Lopate backs out again. (I have to say, the guy is a little slippery. Fragmented, I might even say. Next time I see him at a conference . . .) “In the meantime, the personal essayist tries to make his many selves dance to the same beat—to unite, through force of voice and style, these discordant, fragmentary personae so that the reader can accept them as issuing from one coherent self.”

Why? Why does the reader have to accept the essay as issuing from one coherent self? This is exactly what I want my readers NOT to do. What happens if the reader is asked to accept multiple, fragmented subjects all in one instance? What happens if the essay is chaotic? The (auto)biography is chaotic?

I swear I want to pin this guy down, and I can’t. Maybe I can. I think, I think he’s saying that over a lifetime, we have these multiple and fragmented personae that we are trying to represent as coherent, and we hope that over many, many essays, we end up “unmasking” the real self. Is that what you’re getting from Lopate? Because frankly, I’m starting to think he’s on the fence about the self and the subject. I mean, there is a self to unmask or there isn’t. And it’s representable or it isn’t.

If I follow Lopate’s logic, then, my post-structural autobiography can exist; I can just paint a million different pictures of my subjectivity, pile them all up, and then I’ll be represented. At which point I will have tossed out the post-structural. Because then even my million subjectivities will have become fixed. Ahh, but there’s where Lopate and I disagree. I don’t think the stable, knowable self exists prior to, or after, language at all, no matter how much material you pile up.

Vivian Gornick, in The Situation and the Story, skips this discussion and jumps right into the construction of the persona. There’s no fooling around here with whether or not the coherent self exists. For Gornick, that debate doesn’t matter. What’s important to Gornick, and, she argues, to the essay, is the creation, or selection, of the appropriate narrator to tell the story; “the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or memoir. It is the moment of illumination.”  Just prior to this, Gornick tells us:

Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.

Gornick calls this  “a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.” For Gornick, as opposed to Lopate, the creation or selection of a persona is a conscious choice of the position and angle, the perspective, the subjectivity, to tell a story.

And this is what I’ve been talking about–this persona, the subject represented in writing, always has a particular perspective, is fixed–for the moment, anyway.

Now, what about the “I” of “Bedtime Stories,” the center of this little project of mine? Poor girl, she’s all confused, but not unlike a half-hour sitcom, she straightens it all out in the end. Paves over the cracks. Stops the disintegration of the narrative with some trusty spackle. Trustworthy? All-knowing? Exposing her own bewilderment? Illustrating a knowable mental journey?

You could almost argue that there are two subjects writing that essay–the confused Liz confronting the broken narrative, and the safe, secure Liz who comes around at the end and shuts up the confused Liz. Maybe this is an example of Epstein’s wound being enacted–the confused Liz who sees the broken narrative being shoved into the abyss of silence by the Liz who doesn’t want to see. The bad Liz.

I should start giving these other Lizs other names. Like Pamela.

Pamela is not very nice. She’s maybe a little bit bad. Certainly less naive. She might watch Criminal Minds for the wrong reasons.

Moving on. Root and Steinberg give us this: “Creative nonfiction is reliably factual, anchored in real experience, whether the author has lived it or observed it and recorded it.”

But experience is always and already interpreted. Haven’t we agreed on that much? And therefore, that poor girl in “Bedtime Stories,” is just presenting her already interpreted, but not yet consciously, version of the story.

Annie Dillard tells us, “The nonfiction writer thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case, he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts” (xxvii).

I think I’m reaching a conclusion here. The personal essay, the genre of creative nonfiction, is not inherently post-structural, or not. But we can read it with a post-structural lens, and interrogate it further, even, than its own narrator does, because it gives us the room to do so.

Was this just an exercise in futility?

The personal essay is inhabited, yes, by a coherent voice, presenting itself as a knowing self…but there’s no one to say that that subjectivity—the one presenting itself as a coherent, unified, knowing self, exists for a second beyond the moment it speaks. Right? I don’t think the essay, as a genre, goes so far as to make that claim.

So, then, the subject of “Bedtime Stories,” just the essay, not all the other material, is perhaps unified, coherent, or was at the moment of writing, but the refractions remind us that that particular subjectivity (and we’ve seen how it might be fractured itself) existed only at that moment, and was, even in the moment, fragmented, unknowable, unrepresentable, AND, AND, AND has since changed, fragmented, and, THUS, it became fictional the moment it was fixed, anyway. Defaced.

The I of the essay is only the I of the moment writing.

So can you, or I, or Pamela, write a post-structural autobiography?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: