Rachel Cohen

Reading Now

Autobiography Today

When I was teaching more, my students, undergraduates and graduates, people who were somewhere between eighteen and seventy-six years old, were all writing their memoirs.  I railed against this at first, particularly with younger students; such was my reputation for impatience with the form that I even had students hesitatingly ask if it would be all right to use the first person.  I did see that this was a somewhat ridiculous position for an admirer of Montaigne and David Foster Wallace to be in.  

I conceived of different ways to explain the distinction: between essays full of the writers’ personality, even experience [Woolf, Montaigne] essays that nevertheless needed the world in order to become shapely and coherent, and accounts of incident or recovery that held their narrative internally, internal to the life of the writer.  It became increasingly difficult to maintain these kinds of distinctions.  

It is not simply a series of coincidences that in the last ten or twenty years bookstores have sections and special tables devoted to memoir, literary prizes have begun to be awarded in the category of memoir or autobiography, literary careers can be built out of a series of memoirs and serious novelists no longer confine themselves to autobiographical fiction but often write at least one memoir.  There has been one of those large changes in literary expression, like the novel replacing the verse epic, or the irregular poem replacing one with rhyme and meter.  

The puzzle of why, now, the literary endeavor so often begins with the first person is preoccupying.  It certainly does not suffice to point to confessional talk shows, poetry and musical lyrics; or to reality tv; the rise of documentary films; facebook pages, blogs, iphone self-documentation.   All these must be additional results of some common deeper cause.  The isolation of the modern self?  Uneasiness with imagination?  The general distrust of the general principle, felt to be falsely homogenizing, even colonial in intent?  (These may not really be distinct either.)  The fear that one’s own experience will be swallowed up by technology, advertising, the speeding years?  The rootless nation of immigrants, bereft of continuous tradition, trying at least to get something down before everyone moves again?  The end of religion?  The gradual evaporation of the reality of other people?  The focus of capitalism on the individual as acquisitive being, acquirer even of experience?  

Self-absorption, people have said to me impatiently when I broach the subject, sometimes before hurrying on to talk of their own projects.  What if the impulse is a healthy one – to restore, or at least record, the damaged self, to take seriously one’s own corner of the universe, to try to communicate by beginning from a beginning.  If the fragments of ruined culture are what we have perhaps it is right to start with one’s own experience of them.    


The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers

Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898-1905

Since my father’s death I’ve been twice to look at the Cézanne Large Bathers that our museum has borrowed from the one in Philadelphia.  I might have gone more often but with the baby there hasn’t been so much time.  It’s a vast painting – eight feet high and nine long.  The wall text says its vault of tree trunks makes a cathedral and this is right, not merely architecturally.  These tree trunks, along with a general impression of blue, and the gathered naked bathers, are the things you’re aware of before you know you’re looking, and the trees – four major lines on the left, two which join on the right – organize the space and direct your view.  The groups of people are at ease because they are gathered under and near the trees; the relationship of the figures – to the ochre ground, blue of water with swimmer, huge blue leafy cloudy sky – makes sense because of the curved, triangular view through the trees.  

One of the things your eye is drawn to, small in the distance, is a church with an oblong blue roof over the main building, and a little higher, a triangular blue over its steeple tower.  When I first saw this pair of roofs I thought they were one very beautiful shade of perhaps a cobalt blue.  After I had been looking at the painting for some time I realized that the roofs incorporated many shades of blue.  This was so obvious that I was quite surprised by how definite my early impression of a singular shade had been.  I already knew that the relationships among colors take time to see in paintings, but I hadn’t realized before how dramatically an impression of an individual color can change.  In studying the painting, I had been acquiring subtleties of comparison and distinction, a general blue was becoming various enough to give me back figures, water, distance, sky.  It was all there from the first, but I didn’t have enough experience to see it.  
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