Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Memoir, Fiction & Truth (8): Conclusions

My summing up was a digest of all the previous posts on Worlds 2012, but this is - more or less - as it ended (as I now recall, as it seems best for me now to put it):

Sometimes it seems to me that at conferences like this we are circling about subjects we feel are there but can’t quite name. Should we begin with the notion of memoir on the one hand and fiction on the other? Should we see that in terms of objective or scientific truth on the one hand versus narrative with all its functions on the other? In terms of the documentary versus the imagination? In terms of observed codes and transgressions against them? Each time we change the terms we modify the meaning.

And what of the core ambiguity: truth and self. What are we talking about.

This is my favourite moth joke, the one I have told before and will probably tell again. This is how it goes:
A man rushes into a doctor's surgery and declares: Doctor! You have to help me. I keep imagining I am a moth. 
The doctor looks at him in surprise and tells him: I am a medical doctor. You need the psychiatrist next door. 
The man replies: Yes, I know, but your light was on.

The light of objective reality is dazzling and irresistible. It attracts our inner moth. We fly in and hover around it, occasionally knocking against it. But it is impossible to settle on. According to Wiki "One hypothesis advanced to explain this behavior is that moths use a technique of celestial navigation called transverse orientation. By maintaining a constant angular relationship to a bright celestial light, such as the Moon, they can fly in a straight line. Celestial objects are so far away, that even after travelling great distances, the change in angle between the moth and the light source is negligible; further, the moon will always be in the upper part of the visual field or on the horizon."

So it is, we might argue, with writers. It's just that, for pure relief, someone occasionally turns the light off and we're left to navigate entirely by the moon.

There was a lovely point in the discussion about speaking for the peripheries and assuming responsibilities when Samantha Harvey spoke up. She told us she was middle-class, living in Bath and she doubted that anyone was going to say (and this was beautifully phrased): We need to hear from you.

Who is going to need - I hear the word ‘need’ - to hear from any of us is the question.


I framed the ending with two poems, one, indulgently, my own - the first poem from the main sequence in Reel (2004) 'Flesh:An Early Family History'. The sequence is about memory but begins with five poems about forgetting. This is the first of that five. It is the recreation of a memory hardly any of us have of waking as a baby and seeing our mother lean over us.

The first hand coming down from heaven. Her hand.
She hovers above you. It is a premonition
Of life to come, a bird preparing to land.  
Your mother’s warmth. Her breasts. An impression
Of intensity as softness, and then the bones
Of her knuckles. Cheeks. Neck. The motion  
Of her head, swing of her hips. The delicate cones
Of her nipples. The mystery of the navel. Heat.
Cold, Wet. Dry. Milky smells and pheromones. 
Where do you begin? With fingers tickling feet
Or lips against skin ? Being lifted high
Then swung to safety? The noises of the street? 
Your minor disasters? Hearing your own cry
Echo in your head? There’s something lost,
Something buried deep under the eye 
You try to see with, something faint as dust
Settled inside your lungs, a history
Tucked in the folds of your body like a cast.  
The radio mumbles. A bell rings suddenly.
Light moving across the floor, over the ceiling.
The bird rustles. Her hair. The branches of a tree  
Against the window with a fellow feeling.

The poem imagines something as truth and enacts it as experience. It rejects the notion of memoir by stating its own condition as lack of memory. But much of what we think of as memory is constructed like this: a superstructure on a brief, vaguely recalled, poignant sensation that is then associated with other sensations and eventually turned into a coherent looking object.

I finished with the end lines from Charles Tomlinson's 'A Meditation on John Constable'. The poem begins with an excerpt from Constable's The History of Landscape Painting as epigraph:

Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments.

It ends on the subject of truth and fiction, thus: [Art]

    Is complete when it is human. It is human
Once the looped pigments, the pin-heads of light
    Securing space under their deft restrictions
Convince, as the index of a possible passion
    As the adequate gauge, both of the passion
And its object. The artist lies
    For the improvement of truth. Believe him.

We know to be careful about the Big Lie: we want both Constable and the adequate gauge, both of the passion / And its object, whether that be the moon or a lightbulb. We just need to include some clue as to which is which. And that we get there by 'transverse orientation'.

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