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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Boyz from the Deep

-- By Tom Phillips

Years ago, as a graduate student in psychology, I took a course called Memory and Attention, from which I remember only one basic proposition:  memory is a function of attention.   We remember what we pay attention to. 

I thought of Memory and Attention recently as I read Volume Three of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” the story of a middle-aged man remembering his experience as an adolescent boy.  And because Knausgaard is often compared to Marcel Proust, who wrote a hundred years ago, I went back and re-read the first part of “Swann’s Way,” the beginning of that earlier six-volume epic, drawn from Proust’s memories from the same time of life.   

What's striking in both is the quality of their attention, the amount of experience they can extract and retain from a moment – Proust watching the twin spires of the church shift their perspective in the waning sunlight, as he walks “Swann’s Way” in the little town where he apparently spent just a few weeks of his young life.  And of course the most famous extraction of them all – the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea, the subsequent descents into the subconscious, and finally the awakening of the whole remembered scene, the town and its environs, all the feelings that were bursting the heart of a proto-poet at a tender age. The past becomes present, memory and attention are one.


Proust’s memories are those of a pampered, sickly boy growing up in the 1880s, in Paris and a summer home in the countryside  – a dreamer, a wanderer and a voyeur, a mama’s boy who keeps company almost exclusively with adults – a linguistic prodigy, a painter with words who becomes intoxicated with shifting landscapes, changing light, elusive tastes and scents, and wonders at the more or less stable characters of his upper middle-class relatives, and what he sees as the predictable, fixed behaviors of servants, tradesmen and the peasantry.   

Knausgaard’s boy grows up in the 1970s on an island close to the Norwegian shore, where the forest is being torn away for middle-class housing developments and a garbage dump, and lives his life escaping from a mercurial, sadistic father.  He comes alive in comic books, soccer games, suicidal fantasies, outdoor arson, Beatle songs, biking, skiing through the woods, wolfing candy bars from the convenience store at the gas station, foraging in the dump.  He spends his time with his peers, who pick on him for being buck-toothed, pear-shaped, too smart in school.   But he doesn’t care, he says, except when he does, when his response is to cry.  

Both boys are weepers, attached to their mothers, of dubious masculinity in their adolescent years.  Both are obsessed with sex, and romance.

As literary creations, they are authentic in a way that’s rare in traditional fiction or formal biography.   And the source of their authenticity is their origins in memory.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Proust’s persona came to life just around the dawn of psychoanalysis, when Victorian ideas of character were being laid to waste by the new, much broader concept of personality – beginning with the irrational force of childhood sexuality.  Knausgaard comes upon us at a time when homosexuality, androgyny and transgender behavior are suddenly perceived as normal, along with a host of other former disorders.  For me the most disgusting part of Volume Three is the shitting-in-the-woods scene, where Knausgaard and his friend violently project and then inspect their feces, marking their turds as specimens to be revisited.  But maybe coprophilia is only the next normal behavior to come off the list of “perversions.”  Knausgaard is taking us to the woods for a purpose – maybe to force memory in all its distressing variety to the literary center formerly claimed by history and the imagination.  The more we know and are willing to accept about individual behavior and personality, the more memory can become the fount of creation, the more memoir may displace fiction and non-fiction.      

Gordon Allport, a personality theorist of the 1950s, insisted that a large part of each human personality was “idiographic,” that no one else had it.  He claimed each individual human was more different from his fellows than one animal species from another.  I thought that was outlandish when I first read it, but now I'm not so sure.

If each human being's personality is as singular as Allport supposed, memory is the gold key to discovery in literature.  Memory takes from each author and gives to each reader a unique, even bizarre kind of enlightenment --  nothing generic or “universal.”   Where the imagination tends toward types and composites, memory yields the original, the individual monster rising from the deep.

Of course, memory and imagination are inseparable -- they overlap and interact in ways we're not even aware of.   I write this partly because I too have dug from memory and recreated in words a boy -- an idiographic child of the 1950s who experiments with perfume, moons the police, pretends to be a Nazi sympathizer.  As far as I  know, I embellished him not at all with my imagination -- though I can't be sure.  But I was happy on a recent browse through my local bookstore, to see my thin volume in a section marked neither fiction or non-fiction, but simply "literature."

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips   

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