Essay — December 7, 2017, 12:39 pm

The Art of Self

Autobiography in an age of narcissism

Self-absorption, we are told, is the principal preoccupation of our age. It is an odd activity. I imagine a blotter soaking up its own absorbency and disappearing like a Cheshire cat by slow degrees. Still, if the star is more important than the team, the clan closer to our real concerns than the wider community; if minorities are to be promoted to major, and sects gain sole possession of the holy; then perhaps we should embrace the ultimate plurality our selfishness suggests and each perform our person to an empty house.

But what if we really want the world to watch? Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy! That surely deserves a commemorative marker on the superhighway of my life. So now I’m writing my own sweet history. However, there’s a rub. What kind of figure can I count on cutting in another’s consciousness or on that most merciless of public stages-the printed page?

The power to see ourselves as others see us is granted only to such disengaged observers as arrive from France by slow sail. Even my mirror puts just that bit of me before my gaze that I permit to fall there. I cannot see all round myself: not anywhere I walk or perch, or if I quickly whirl about to come upon my rear and take it by surprise. I might as well be asleep to such sides of me as disappear out of the corners of my eyes. Nor is the ugliness of my gnarled feet evident anywhere within my skin, where I alone can feel what splendid shape they’re in. I think I have a winning smile, but to those on whom my smile is so winsomely conferred, the slightly turned-down corners of its lips convey despair, disgust, disdain-I know not what uninvited attitude in addition-and invariably, if in tears, though I argue my happiness like William Jennings Bryan on behalf of God, the weeping will convict me of a lie, as far as mere onlookers are concerned; because we really believe in no other consciousness than our own, and must infer the contents of another’s mind from the perceptions that arrive in ours: from an overheard voice, its screams and groans and heavy breathing; from a body, its weight and posture; from someone’s gait, the swagger; and from the face, its signs. And to the groan don’t we affix our own ache, to another’s risen flesh our yearning, to the sly wink our own conspiratorial designs?

It is safer by far, some say, to rely on behavior to speak by itself. History is something we catch in the act, and only acts have public consequences. Internal states are not even evidence, for pains can be imagined or misplaced, their groaning faked; better to see where the bone is broken or tooth decayed (John Dewey once argued that an aching tooth was not sufficient evidence of something anywhere amiss), and if I promise to give another all my love, it would be wise of the lucky recipient to wait and weigh what the offered love improves, and count what its solicitude will cost.

Feelings are not a dime a dozen, but the price of eggs is eighty cents. Which, do you think then, really hatches chicks in the yard?

Yes, as Aristotle insisted, the Good is what the Good Man does. Does the geologist need to infer an interior to his rock to read its past? Does the botanist really interrogate her plants? Does the zoologist attribute suffering to his frogs as he runs his scalpel round their gizzards? Why, we could weep a world of pain into a thimble and have hollow enough left over for a finger, since consciousness never struts and frets upon the stage or occupies a locker in the dressing room.

Biography, the writing of a life, is a branch of history. It requires quite a lot of labor, and therefore, when such a work is undertaken, one would expect the subject to be of some significance to history as a whole. Yet, except for the encyclopedia of the dead, as Danilo Kiš imagined it, where everybody’s obit is already complete or in meticulous construction, the majority of mankind rest, as George Eliot wrote, in unvisited tombs and have left behind them nothing of their former presence but perhaps a hackneyed scratch upon a stone. Futility is the presiding spirit at every funeral.

Caesar’s assassins did not stab him with their souls. In Hades, their shades are not stained by the murdered man’s blood. That blood caked, that blood colored, only the blades.

Biography, the writing of a life, is a branch of history, but a broken branch, snapped perhaps heartlessly from the trunk, at the moment when Montesquieu directed the historian’s eye to larger themes and toward those general social aspects from which the individual’s traits, he believed, had more specifically sprung.

Yet if my tooth aches, it is after all my ache, though you may be better informed than I of the swelling; if my heart is sore, that soreness is unique, though its heaviness does not even tremble the balance bar; if I am afraid, do not complacently say you share my fear and understand my state, for how can you know how I feel? Isn’t that our unpleasant complaint? Isn’t that how we reject so much sympathy-stale candy on a staler plate? Since, to accomplish our death, there are a thousand similar and similarly scientific ways, but inside that shutting down of the senses there is a dread belonging to no one else even in the same sad medical shape; there is a large dread like an encountered rat, huge, as if fat as an idol, bearded like some ancient northern warrior, yet as indistinct in its corner and as ineffectual as lint. We can’t make history out of that.

Knowing has two poles, and they are always poles apart: carnal knowing, the laying on of hands, the hanging of the fact by head or heels, the measurement of mass and motion, the calibration of brutal blows, the counting of supplies; and spiritual knowing, invisibly felt by the inside self, who is but a fought-over field of distraction, a stage where we recite the monotonous monologue that is our life, a knowing governed by internal tides, by intimations, motives, resolutions, by temptations, secrecy, shame, and pride.

Autobiography is a life writing its life. As if over? Or as it proceeds? Biographies are sometimes written with the aid of the biographee, and these few are therefore open-ended too, centrally incomplete, for death normally does the summing up, the bell tolls for the tale beneath whose telling the deceased shall be buried, with the faith that he or she shall rise again on publication day, all ancient acts only pages then, every trait an apt description, every quality of character an anecdote, the mind squeezed within a quip, and the hero’s, or heroine’s, history headed not for heaven but for the shelf.

If we leap rapidly enough from one side of this insistence to its denial from the belief that only I can know how I am to the view that only another can see me really-we can quickly persuade ourselves that neither self-knowledge nor any other kind is possible, and, so persuaded, sink dizzily to the floor. Of course, we might, by letting the two positions stretch out alongside each other and observing how these two kinds of information are of equal value and are complementary, conclude that for a full account both the “in” and the “out” are needed. That was Spinoza’s solution. It is usually wise to do whatever Spinoza suggests.

How does autobiography begin? With memory. And the consequent division of the self into the-one-who-was and the-one-who-is. The-one-who-is has the advantage of having been the-one-who-was, Once. The-one-who-was is, furthermore, at the present self’s mercy, for it may not wish to remember that past, or it may wish the-one-who-was was other than the one it was, and consequently alter its description, since the-one-who-is is writing this history and has the upper hand. Every moment a bit of the self slides away toward its station in the past, where it will be remembered partially, if at all; with distortions, if at all; and then rendered even more incompletely, with graver omissions and twists to the plot by the play of the pen, so that its text will no doubt be subsequently and inaccurately read, systematically misinterpreted and put to use in yet another version, possibly by a biographer bent on revising the customary view of you and surrounding his selected subject with himself, as Sartre surrounded Genet, as a suburb surrounds a town and slowly sucks its center out.

The autobiographer thinks he knows his subject and doesn’t need to create a calendar of the kind the biographer feels obliged to compile so she may boast she knows what her subject did on every day of his life beyond kindergarten and his first fistfight. He is likely to treat records with less respect than he should, and he will certainly not investigate himself as if he had committed a crime and ought to be caught and convicted; rather he’ll be pleased he’s got his defense uttered early, because he understands that the biographer’s subjects all end in the pen. No, he will think of himself as having led a life so important it needs celebration, and of himself as sufficiently skilled at rendering as to render it rightly. Certainly, he will not begin his task believing he has led a botched life and will now botch the botch. Unless, of course, there’s money in it and people will pay to peer at his mistakes as they pay to enter the hermaphrodite’s tent at the fair-ladies to the left, please, then gents, thank you, there to the right, between the chaste screen of canvas. An honest autobiography is as amazing a miracle as a doubled sex, and every bit as big a freak of nature.

The autobiographer tends to do partials, to skip the dull parts and circle the pits of embarrassment. Autobiographers flush before examining their stools. Are there any motives for the enterprise 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? Who is smug enough to find amusement or an important human lesson in former follies? Or aspire to be an emblem for some benighted youngster to follow like the foolish follow the standard borne forward in a fight. To have written an autobiography is already to have made yourself a monster. Some, like Rousseau and St. Augustine, capitalize on this fact and endeavor to hide deceit behind confession. Of course, as Freud has told us, they always confess to what their soul is convinced is the lesser crime.

How often, in one’s second childhood, does one tum back to the first. Nostalgia and grief, self-pity and old scores, then compete to set the stage and energize each scene. Why is it so exciting to say, now that everyone knows it anyway, “I was born … I was born … I was born”? “I pooped in my pants, I was betrayed, I made straight A’s.” The chroniclers of childhood are almost always desperate determinists. Here their characters were formed; because of this wound or that blow, some present weakness can be explained. And how often does that modestly self-serving volume wear its author out, or he becomes bored with his own past and forswears his later years. Sometimes, too, Fate cuts the cord, and the autobiographer dies in his bed of love, still high in the saddle of the self.

Since it is considered unwise to wait to write your life till you’re entombed and beginning to show your bones, you may choose to do it ahead of time, as Joyce Maynard did, writing her chronicle of growing up in the Sixties, Looking Back, at age eighteen. Why not? Our criminals are mostly kids; kids make up the largest chunk of our silliest, most easily swayed customers; and much of our culture is created for, controlled by, and consumed by thirteen-year olds. Willie Morris, having reached at thirty-two what the jacket flap calls “mid-passage,” paints, in North Toward Home, his cannot-be-called-precocious picture of the South.

Many lives are so empty of interest that their subject must first perform some feat like sailing alone around the world or climbing a hazardous peak in order to elevate himself above mere existence, and then, having created a life, to write about it. As if Satan were to recall his defiance of God, his ejection from Heaven, his yearlong fall through the ether, and even his hot landing in a lake of fire for our edification. Still, he didn’t defy God just to make the news. Some choose to write of themselves merely as cavers or baseball players or actors or mountaineers, or create the biography of a business. Lives of crime are plentiful, as well as those of derring-dodaddies from the Old West. Others linger, like Boswells, at the edge of events, so that later they can say: “I was there, and there I saw King Lear go mad; I can tell you of a King who cursed, who cried, who called for his fool, who sat slowly down and sadly sighed … ” Nevertheless, by accident sometimes you will find yourself in an important midst, Saigon falling around your person like a tower of blocks, or, as fortune smiles, have undertaken stale tasks that turned out more wellish than sickly; then an account of them, of how it felt to have grappled with Grendel, or have smelled the Augean stables before Hercules had swept them, or had the blood of an assassinated president sprayed over your shirt as you rode in his cavalcade; yes, then an account might be of value to future travelers who might not wish to go that way.

We have, well before us, the apparently noble example of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who was a foot soldier in Cortez’s army. Annoyed by the incompetence of earlier authors, who spoke the truth “neither in the beginning, nor the middle, nor the end,” he wrote his own True History of the Conquest of New Spain, and prefaced his honestly unpretentious work with this simple statement:

That which I have myself seen and the fighting I have gone through, with the help of God, I will describe quite simply, as a fair eye witness, without twisting events one way or another. I am now an old man, over eighty-four years of age, and I have lost my sight and hearing, and, as luck would have it, I have gained nothing of value to leave to my children and descendants but this my true story, and they will presently find out what a wonderful story it is.

We believe him because what he writes “rings true,” but also because, like Cephalus in Plato’s Republic, he is now nearly free of the world and its ambitions, of the body and its desires. Almost equally wonderful is the account by Apsley Cherry-Garrad of Scott’s last Antarctic expedition in The Worst Journey in the World, or James Hamilton-Paterson’s luminous description of life on a deserted Philippine island, Playing with Water.

Nonetheless, these aren’t autobiographies yet, for they’re deliberately incomplete because no one wants to wade through your parents just to get to the South Face, or read about your marriage in order to enjoy your jungle escapades; furthermore, many of these memories are so completely about a few things seen or endured or somehow accomplished that they are little different than the excited jabber of the journalist who has stumbled on a camp of murderous thugs (you’ve seen the film) or stood in the square where the martyrs were made, and whose account consequently cannot be called by that uncle-sounding name of Auto, for where is the “I,” old “I,” sweet “I,” the “I”? (Though the so-called new journalism, which Capote and Mailer practicedfor a while, made even reporters into pronouns, disgracing the profession.)

Of course, there are a few minds whose every move is momentous, and a few whose character is so complex, complete, and elevated, we wish to know how? and why? and a few whose talent” is so extraordinary, their sensibilities so widely and warmly and richly developed, we think naively, oh so naively, that they must have bounced out of bed like a tumbler, cooked morning eggs as if hatted like a chef, and leaped to their work with the grace of a dancer. We think them gods, or Wittgensteins. Just because their off-rhymes did not smell like something spoiled.

But he has a lifeful of private knowledge-our autobiographer. He knows of acts, small and large, that only he witnessed, only he remembers; she recalls a taste from an ancient swallow, or a scent that her lover loved but only she remembers, or a feeling on seeing her first egg cracked or baby beaten; yes, surely Lincoln recollects the rain on the roof when he signed the Proclamation; and don’t you remember when you were a burgeoning boy whacking off in the barn before the boredom of the sheep-how the straw stuck to your sweater and a mysterious damp darkened the bowl of your knees? Yet just what use are these sensations to a real biographer, whose interest is in the way you lived solely because of its possible bearing on what you did? And whose interest in what you did exists principally because of the perplexes to which it led.

Between ego and object, we teeter-totter. When the autobiographer says, “I saw,” he intends the report of his perception to modify his ego, not merely occupy his eye; he is the prophet who is proud he has talked to God, not the witness who is eager to describe God’s garb and what leaves moved when the bush spoke.

But now for a little history of the corruption of a form. Once upon a time, history concerned itself only with what it considered important, along with the agents of these actions, the contrivers of significant events, and the forces that such happenings enlisted or expressed. Historians had difficulty deciding whether history was the result of the remarkable actions of remarkable men or the significant consequences of powerful forces, of climate, custom, and economic consequence, or of social structures, diet, geography, and the secret entelechies of Being, but whatever was the boss, the boss was big, massive, all-powerful, and hogged the center of the stage; however, as machines began to replicate objects, and little people began to multiply faster than wars or famines could reduce their numbers, and democracy arrived to flatter the multitude and tell them they ruled, and commerce flourished, sales grew, and money became the really risen god, then numbers replaced significant individuals, the trivial assumed the throne that was a camp chair on a movie set, and history looked about for gossip, not for laws, preferring lies about secret lives to the intentions of Fate.

As these changes take place, especially in the seventeenth century, the novel arrives to amuse mainly ladies of the middle class and provide them a sense of importance: their manners, their concerns, their daily rounds, their aspirations, their dreams of romance. The novel feasted on the unimportant and mimicked reality like the most cruel clown. Moll Flanders and Clarissa Harlowe replace Medea and Antigone. Instead of actual adventures, made-up ones are fashionable; instead of perilous voyages, Crusoe carries us through his days; instead of biographies of ministers and lords, we get bundles of fake letters recounting seductions and betrayals. Welcome to the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life.

            Historians soon had at hand, then, all the devices of exploitation. Amusing anecdote, salacious gossip would now fill their pages too. History was human, personal, full of concrete detail, and had all the suspense of a magazine serial. History and fiction began their vulgar copulation or, if you prefer, their diabolical dance. The techniques of fiction infected history, the materials of history were fed the novelist’s greed. It is now difficult, sometimes, to tell one from the other. It is now difficult to find anyone who wants to bother.

Nowhere would one find the blend better blended than in autobiography. The novel sprang from the letter, the diary, the report of a journey; it felt itself alive in the form of every record of private life. Subjectivity was soon everybody’s subject.

I do not think it should be assumed that history, which had always focused its attention upon wars and revolution, politics and money, strife of every sort (while neglecting most everything that mattered in the evolution of human consciousness, such as the discovery of the syllogism, the creation of the diatonic scale with its inventive notation, or three-legged perspective, to be for centuries the painter’s stool), had found its final relevance with the inward turn of its narrative, for it now celebrated the most commonplace and cliché-ridden awareness, and handled the irrelevant with commercial hands and a pious tongue, as if it were selling silk.

Our present stage is divinely dialectical, for we are witnessing now the return of the significant self. Prince-not a reigning prince, of course-Madonna, not a saintly mother, to be sure-stars of stadium, gym, arena, and screen constellate our consciousness, as history becomes a comic book and autobiography the confessions of celluloid whores and boorish noisemakers whose tabloid lives are presented for our titillation by ghosts still undeservedly alive.

If we think about composing our autobiography in any case, where do we turn but to our journals and diaries, our appointment books, our social calendars? We certainly ask for the return of our letters, and review all our interviews to see if we said what we said, if we said it when they say we said it, and whose tape we may have soiled with our indiscretions.

But what are these things, which serve as the sources for so much autobiography? There are differences between diaries, journals, and notebooks, just as there are differences between chronicles and memoirs and travels and testimonies, between half-a-life and slice-of-life and whole-loaf lives, and these differences should be observed, not in order to be docile to genres, to limit types, or to anally oppose any mixing of forms (which will take place in any case), but in order that the mind may keep itself clean of confusion, since to enjoy a redolently blended stew, we are not required to forget the dissimilarity between carrots and onions, or when composing our apologia, the differences between diaries and letters and notes to the maid.

The diary demands to be entered day by day, and it is improper to put down for Tuesday a date who closed your dreary eyes on Saturday. Its pages are as circumscribed as the hours are, and its spaces should be filled with facts, with jots, with jogs to the memory. Diary style is staccato, wirelesslike. “No call from Jill in three days. My God! Have I lost her?” “Saw Parker again. He’s still the same. Glad we’re divorced.” “Finished Proust finally. Champagne.” And you are already disobedient to the demands of the form if you guiltily fill in skipped days as if you hadn’t skipped them.

The journal still follows the march of the calendar, but its sweep is broader, more circumspect and meditative. Facts diminish in importance and are replaced by emotions, musings, thoughts. If your journal is full of data, it means you have no inner life. And it asks for sentences, although they need not be polished. “I was annoyed with myself today for hanging about the phone, hoping for a call from Jill, who hasn’t rung up in three days. She said she would call me, but was she being truthful? Dare I call her, though she expressly forbade it? I don’t want to lose a customer who spends money the way she does.” “Parker came into the shop, what gall! And ordered a dozen roses! I couldn’t believe it! I know he wants me to think he’s got another woman. God, he looked gaunt as a fallen soufflé. I think I’m happy we’re no longer together. He never bought roses for me. What a bastard!” “Today was a big day, a memorable day, because today I closed the cover on Proust, I really read the last line, and ‘time’ had the final word, no surprise there. I feel now a great emptiness, some sort of symbolic letdown, as if a soufflé had fallen.” You may revise what you have already written in your journal, but if you revise a passage prior to its entry, you are already beginning to fabricate.

Virginia Woolf’s Diaries are therefore misnamed. We can see, in her case, as in that of Gide, the tyranny of the journal when, like a diary, it wants to have its day-to-day say, and we are led to imagine its keeper hoping from life only something worth writing about, living through the light for the sake of a few evening words and worrying whether her senses will be sensitive, her thoughts worthwhile, and a few fine phrases turned during yet another entry.

With the notebook we break out of chronology. Entries do not require dates. I can put in anything I like, even other people’s thoughts. The notebook is a workshop, a tabletop, a file. In one of mine you will find titles for essays I hope one day to write: The Souffle as a Symbol of Fragile Expectation. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge are misnamed, for the language is far too polished, the episodes too artfully arranged, the perceptions too poetically profound; and there is not nearly enough mess; however, if Rilke’s fictive Notebooks really resemble journals, Henry James’s Notebooks are the real thing: a place to plot novels, to ponder problems, to consider strategies and plan attacks.

All three-diary, notebook, journal-are predicated on privacy. They are not meant to be read by anyone else, for here one is emotionally naked and in formal disarray. Unlike the letter, they have no addressee; they do not expect publication; and therefore, presumably, they are more truthful. However, if I already have my eye on history; if I know, when I’m gone, my jottings will be looked over, wondered at, commented on, I may begin to plant redemptive items, rearrange pages, slant stories, plot small revenges, revise, lie, and look good. Then, like Shakespearean soliloquies, they are spoken to the world.

None of these three-diary, journal, notebook-is an autobiography, although the character of each is autobiographical. A memoir is usually the recollection of another place or personality, and its primary focus is outward bound: on the sudden appearance of Ludwig Wittgenstein in Ithaca, New York, for instance, or how Caesar said, “You too,” before he fell, or what it was like to go to bed with Gabriele D’Annunzio. Even when the main attention of the memoir is inward, the scope of the memory tends to be limited (how I felt at the first fainting of the queen), and not wide enough to take in a life. Lewis Thomas takes the seventy-year life with which he assumes autobiography concerns itself, and first removes the twenty-five in which he was asleep, and then subtracts from the waking hours all the empty and idle ones to reach a remainder of 4,000 days. When he discounts blurred memories, self-serving reconstitutions, and other fudges, his count comes down a good deal more. The indelible moments left will most likely be found to occupy a thirty minute burst. Such bits, he says, are the proper subject of the memoir.

What gets left out? That I read the papers. What gets left out? That I ate potatoes. What gets left out? That I saved my snot for several years. What gets left out? My second attempt to circumcise myself. What gets left out? The shops in which I purchased shoes, my fear of the red eyes of rabbits. What gets left out? What demeans me; what does not distinguish me from anyone else: bowel movements, movie favorites, bottles of scotch. What is saved? What makes me unique; no, what makes me universal; what serves my reputation; what does not embarrass the scrutinizing, the recollecting self.

And if we make a collection of such memories, they will remain like unstrung beads, because an autobiography has to rely on what cannot and is not remembered, as well as on what is: I was born; I had whooping cough before I was three; my parents came to Sunnydale from Syracuse in an old Ford sedan.

Edward Hoagland’s piece “Learning to Eat Soup” captures this feature perfectly, composed as it is of paragraphs made mostly of memories: balloons into which the past has been breathed:

My first overtly sexual memory is of me on my knees in the hallway outside our fifth-grade classroom cleaning the floor, and Lucy Smith in a white blouse and black skirt standing above me, watching me.

 

My first memory is of being on a train which derailed in a rainstorm in Dakota one night when I was two-and of hearing, as we rode in a hay wagon toward the distant weak lights of a little station, that a boy my age had just choked to death from breathing mud. But maybe my first real memory emerged when my father was dying. I was thirty-five and I dreamed so incredibly vividly of being dandled and rocked and hugged by him, being only a few months old, giggling helplessly and happily.

A good deal of what we remember is remembered from paintings and plays and books, and sometimes these are themselves memories, and sometimes they are memories of books or plays or paintings … whose subject is the self.

Testimonies, too, have powerful impersonal intentions. They do not simply wish to say: I was there, I saw enormities, now let me entertain you with my anguished account of them-of how I suffered, how I survived, remembered, yet went on-no no, for they, those witnesses, were there for all of us, were we, standing in that slow-moving naked line, holding our dead baby across our chest to hide the breasts, never staring at others in the row, mumbling a prayer in a vacant way-yes; this is our numb mind, mankind’s misery, no single soul should bear it, not even Jesus, though it’s said he tried.

It is healthy, even desirable, to mix genres in order to escape the confinements of outworn conventions or to break molds in order to create new shapes; but to introduce fiction into history on purpose (as opposed to being inadvertently mistaken) can only be to circumvent its aim, the truth, either because one wants to lie or now thinks lying doesn’t matter and carelessness is a new virtue, or because one scorns scrupulosity as a wasted effort, a futile concern, since everything is inherently corrupt, or because an enlivened life will sell better than a straightforward one so let’s have a little decoration, or because “What is truth?” is only a sardonic rhetorical question that regularly precedes the ritual washing of hands.

I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and then having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world. Anyone honestly happy with himself is a fool. (It is not a good idea to be terminally miserable about yourself either.) But an autobiography does not become a fiction just because fabrications will inevitably creep in, or because motives are never pure, or because memory will genuinely fade. It does not become a fiction simply because events or attitudes are deliberately omitted, or maliciously slanted, or blatantly fabricated, because fiction is always honest and does not intend to deceive. It announces itself: I am a fiction; do not rely on my accuracy, not because I am untrustworthy but because I am engaged not in replication but in construction. There will be those who will try to glamorize their shoddy products by pretending they are true and then, when they fail to pass even the briefest inspection, like the movies JFK and Malcolm X, dodge that responsibility by lamely speaking of “art.” Fiction and history are different disciplines, and neither grants licenses to incompetents, opportunists, or mountebanks.

Next, in our travel across this map, we encounter the autobiography disguised as a fiction, presumably to prevent libel suits. For if the disguise cannot be seen through, what is the point of it as autobiography? And if it can, what is the purpose of the disguise? Conrad Aiken, possibly for the sake of objectivity, probably to injure only those who knew the code, put Ushant (an analysis of his relationship with Malcolm Lowry) in the third person. Whether confessed to or not, many novels are autobiographies in disguise-so it is often asserted-and the chief advantage of this strategy, apart from the fact that the novelist need only remember what springs most readily to mind and can avoid all the sufferings of scholarship, the burdens of fairness, the goal of truth, is that the narrator of a novel can whine and grumble and play the fool without automatically tarnishing his author’s own character, which would otherwise be revealed to be spiteful, small-town, banal, and cheap.

Nevertheless, we should not mistake the adjective for the noun. A fiction does not become an autobiography simply because some of its elements are autobiographical; an autobiography is not a form of fiction merely because a few passages are mistaken, or misleading, or metaphorical. Just as anything properly called philosophy may be assumed to be philosophical without need of remark, so to describe a text as autobiographical is to imply that it is not a biography of the self by the self but is employing somewhat similar data or attitudes or techniques. And normally we would not study the autobiographical in order to decide what autobiography ought to be. That would be putting the quality before the noun. And the quality hasn’t the weight of the horse or the bulk of the cargo in the cart.

Perhaps the gravest misuse of the adjective concerns the unconsciously epiphanic text. Any word, any gesture, any act may reveal some bit of the inner nature of its agent, and if we seek concealment, achieving it may seem easiest inside clichés, behind conformities, by means of immobility or any of those responses that are so entirely required by circumstance as to prohibit individuality: running from the bull, answering “hi” to “hi” and “fine” to “howyadoin’,” dying when shot through the heart. But if Kafka puts a period on a piece of paper, we are shortly trying to lift it to look on the other side. “Yes, he ran from the bull but in a feminine way.” “His ‘fine’ was flat as yesterday’s soda.” “Did you notice? He wouldn’t say ‘hi’ till I said ‘hi,’ otherwise he wouldn’t have recognized me at all but he would have skated by.”

Freud preferred to examine the little ties that accompany more intentional behavior-our slips, mistakes, our silly errors–on the ground that these were free to be determined more entirely by the inner self. So a painting that is wholly abstract might be more revealing of the painter’s nature than a realistically rendered city street, because on the city street the lamp would have to go here, the pub’s sign there, the leaded glass beneath, and the narrow sidewalk would have to accompany the stretch of cobbles.

However, autobiography is about a different business: it is an intentional revelation that may in addition, and by its openness, conceal; but it is not a fundamental mode of concealment that then habitually slips up. And the finer the artist, the less likely that epiphanies will be plentiful, because the requirements of form are far more demanding than most determining historical causes and create their own outlines, their own noses, their own internal relations.

In an autobiography, the self divides, not severally into a recording self, an applauding self, a guilty self, a daydreaming self, but into a shaping self: it is the consciousness of oneself as a consciousness among all these other minds, an awareness born much later than the self it studies, and a self whose existence was fitful, intermittent, for a long time, before it was able to throw a full beam upon the life already lived and see there a pattern, as a plowed field seen from a plane reveals the geometry of the tractor’s path.

When we remember a life we must remember to remember the life lived, not the life remembered. For first there is the stunned child, the oblivious child, the happy child, playing in war-tom streets, stealing rings from lifeless fingers, pissing down basement steps, bragging to his friends of the horrors he has seen; and then there is the old man he will become, looking back, horrified by the horrors the child was a party to, outraged by the awfulness of it all or, conversely, pooh-poohing those few tears once shed over a broken balloon-unimportant to the wise old observer writing down the words “broken balloon,” which, when those few tears occurred, stood for total disconsolation and the child’s first sense of how fragile the world and its pleasures are. Upon the child the autobiographer must not rest her knowledge of Greek, her memories of deportation, of her father’s fascism, of the many untrustworthy men she has had to turn away; yet she cannot look back as if blind to the person she now is, as if unable to think or write, as she now can, just because she is recalling the death of her father and how he sat for several hours in his favorite chair before the fire, growing cold beneath the warmth of its familiar and friendly flames.

So shall we undertake, first, to describe the nature of this historian who picks now at the scab of his history? And to do that, won’t we have to split ourselves once more, as Paul Valery’s Monsieur Teste imagines, becoming the observer of our present self, the so-called autobiographer, the self whose life has been no longer than … six hours? since it was then we decided to write an account of our life … ten days? since it was then our spouse left the family house forever … or, eight weeks? since it was then our finances were found to have been fraudulently obtained … or, twenty years? Is it that long since we’ve changed? If we ever have; if we haven’t been Sir Walter Scott, the author of Waverley, from the day we were born, when the nurse came to our papa and said: You have a bouncing baby boy, sir, the author of Waverley, who has arrived at fully half a stone; as if our books were in our genes as well as in our definite descriptions.

That’s not an entirely silly suggestion. When, in former philosophies, the existence of a soul or self was argued for, it was always pointed out that our birth name named us as a subject, not as a predicate; that the subject was that enduring and unchanging substance to which life’s changes occurred, and if there were none such, and the self altered as a cloud, there’d be no nucleus around which our characteristics might circle like wagons, no title to the text of our doings and days. Autobiography (the noun) was the search for and definition of that central self (which might indeed be genetic), whereas the autobiographical (the adjective) took up the cause of the predicates and was concerned solely with the accidents of time and place, the vicissitudes of the instincts.

Reading, haven’t we often encountered a passage that captured-we think perfectly-a moment in our own lives? In language so apt and beyond our contriving? So mightn’t we then collect these, arrange them, if it seems right, chronologically, as Walter Abish suggests in his brilliantly constructed book 99: The New Meaning? We would demonstrate in this way not the differences between lives but their sameness, their commonness, their comforting banality. Three or four or five such compilations might suffice to serve for all personal histories.

And if-as we might imagine-it was the substantive central self that watched us while our outside self shaved (not the mirror); and if it was that same resourceful eye that saw through our daily life’s evasions; and if it were timeless, always the same, through defloration, divorce, remarriage; then there is a very good chance it is also the author of any true autobiography; it is the ageless ego that compiles the history of its aging Other, pitiless as it should be, remote, immune to praise; and if so, might not it be the case that we are jointly human instead of merely animals of the same species, because that sleepless watcher, like an eye in the sky, like God was once flattered to be, is, in each of us, pretty much One, unchanging and unchanged, even in Mozart or Montovani, the saintly Spinoza or the beast of Belsen?

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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