How many significant smells made up a year? How many make up seventy years?

Our memories are of smells, taste, touch, sight. Only rarely do they fall in the form of a confession narrative. But they’re the seed of works of art.

I recently read an essay about a search a brother and sister made to recover some of the smells associated with their childhood. That would be fun, I thought. There are so many, especially for an older person. How many significant smells make up a year, how many make up seventy years?

It's not 1945; it's not Chicago. But it is how it smelled. Photo by Moff. Creative Commons license.

When I was five, more or less, we lived for a year in Chicago because my father was in the Navy and stationed there before they sent him on a ship to Shanghai. What I will never forgot is the smell of bus exhaust on streets rent with cold wind. I also remember the smell of crayons, and how oleo smelled when my mother mixed it up with the coloring that turned it to butter. I don’t remember the smell of the apartment, but since it was low-income and my mother was a tidy German, I’m sure it must have smelled of old rug, disinfectant and Campbell tomato soup. But that’s not the remembered part, that’s the imagined part.

The other important smell in Chicago was the warm, damp smell of ironing around me while I played on the cold linoleum floor under the ironing board as Superman ended and one of those especially mature male voices that still announces most important events, told us that Roosevelt had died.

Chicago was a short, neatly defined space of time. Its smells are easily isolated and identified. Most of what we smell is associated with events that occurr throughout our lives. Special smells that evoke only one place or time are rare: most odors are too complex emotionally to be associated with just one place or one event. Like the sweet apple and space crumbly covering on my Grandmother’s dinacouva (a Volgadeutsch coffee cake). The thick acrid odor of the brown spittle of frightened grasshoppers. The wonderful scent of old wood and old books in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music – a smell that comes back to me with the sound of violins, cellos and pianos, even though I was there, in that space, just one time, the only time I ever smelled it.

Photo by pheanix300. Taken in Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.

Then there are the tastes we all recall. The tart taste of green apples that enlivened tongues dulled by milk and cookies; the drugstore rainbow float that nobody makes anymore; the jiggling of cherry-colored jello as it slipped down our throats.

The way tears felt on our cheeks at shouted insults, Lassie and saying good-bye. Ah, but here, see. I’ve gone on to other kinds of memories, still made of sensual things, but beginning to grow more complex.

All of these are like Proust’s Madeleine cake. They’re the seeds of novels, concertos, jazz riffs, paintings.

Our first memories certainly don’t come to us in the form of confessional narratives. (See my last two posts if this last segue made no sense to you!) Some of us have had lives that were patterned that way: sin and suffering, remorse, forgiveness and grace. But most of the time most of us don’t, and our memories don’t come to us in that format either.

I wonder if the passion for memoir, even for the least palatable of confessional narratives, has religious roots, and not just in its history in the West. It’s just possible that, as our era has grown more secular, our need for it has had to find other ways to express itself, and has finally exploded into the swelling rush of autobiography that we see around us today.

And for the old artist, what an interesting dilemma when art and memory are so much more….

Here are two more pages from the Roonbook of Wild Stuffs. In some odd way, I think they may be relevant to today’s post.

Confession in a late age. Part 2

To continue from the last post with Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay (which is actually a book review, but the book doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as Mendelsohn himself):

A decade and a half ago, the distinguished critic William Glass fulminated against the whole genre [of memoir] in a scathing Harper’s essay, in which he asked, rhetorically, whether there were ‘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?’ The outburst came at a moment when a swelling stream of autobiographical writing that had begun in the late eighties was becoming a flood. By the end of the nineties, a New York Observer review of one writer’s first book, a memoir, could open with an uncontroversial reference to ‘this confessional age, in which memoirs and personal revelations tumble out in an unprecedented abundance.’

Unfortunately, some of our most touted recent memoirs have turned out to be phonies: e.g. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, supposedly a memoir about drug addiction, created a scandal until his sponsor Oprah Winfrey withdrew her support and Frey apologized on national television for lying. If a memoir isn’t based literally and blow-by-blow on someone’s life, if the suffering isn’t real, how can the redemption be real?

Which brings us to the subject of “reality.” Says Mendelsohn, “Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued.” The most obvious reference is to reality TV where the impoverished homes where ‘real people’ live are turned into mansions, where the real people themselves are abandoned (with a host of TV cameras) on desert islands, sent out on unlikely dates, made to eat disgusting insects, or to relate in excruciating detail their most personal struggles. In every instance, however debased it may be, there’s the same narrative of suffering and redemption.

Poster and wall. NYC. Late 20th century.

Our hunger for ‘real’ stories of  ‘real people’ may only be exceeded by our need to tell our own.

And this is where one of several dilemmas lies. Anyone who has tried to write down details from her past, in fact, anyone who has tried to remember, knows how unreliable memory is. The truth of any memoir can only be a relative truth. And still, we all intend, and pretend, to tell the truth. Today, especially with the Internet, personal narratives are legion. To be online can be like getting lost in a place full of tumult and shouting. From all sides, in the news, on entertainment shows – there’s little difference between them now – the stories come at us – unproofed, unedited, unevaluated. And we, bewildered, but thirsting for the real and the true, we comb through them, entangled in the wild growth of them and with no machete at hand.

Jungle scene. Photo by Mess of Pottage. Creative Commons license.

In our aesthetic life, as in our political life, reality and truth are more and more difficult to distinguish, or to define.

Mendelsohn suggests that the thirst for confessional narrative presents a serious problem for fiction. “If you can watch a real lonely woman yearning after young hunks on a reality dating show, why bother with Emma Bovary?” Memoirs, like nonfiction, are about the details of  life, its objective truth. A novel, on the other hand, represents a “truth” about life itself. A novel is apparently what Frey really wanted to write.

However, I feel myself treading – to continue with my overwrought metaphors of overland travel – on uneven ground. Maybe the next post.

I’m only adding a single page from Sally Levy’s Roonbook of Wild Stuffs this time. I’ve been too verbose. I think this page may describe something of how it feels to think about all this.

Confession in a late age

We live in an age rampant with memoir and confession. What does it mean for us now and in the future.
And a little refreshment: more from Sally Levy’s Roonbook.

Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupcon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history has been the black sheep of the literary family. – Daniel Mendelsohn

As I go on in this odd, late age, I find I’m more and more interested in understanding how our culture is changing, especially as it relates to time, speed, history, and memory. In two recent posts, I tried to grasp some of the “Roman circus” that makes up so much of our popular culture, and touched briefly on confession and memoir. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when I read a January 25 New Yorker article by Daniel Mendelsohn, that I began to understand what’s happened to us and a bit of why—though still not at all what’s next.

St. Augustine. Victorian window of St Augustine of Hippo. This window is in the former Dominican priory church of Hawkesyard. The arrow, piercing the heart, stands for divine love and illustrates St. Augustine's creed that "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God." Photo by Lawrence OP. Under a Creative Commons license.

Mendelsohn begins at the beginning, or close to it, with the fourth century Confessions of St. Augustine. Granted, there were years of autobiographies before this but they had been about the escapades, most of them military, of famous men. Augustine’s was an internal, spiritual adventure about abject spiritual emptiness and its redemption. Other similar memoirs followed, all about suffering and redemption (e.g. St. Theresa), until centuries later, as the culture became secular, they began to yield to another kind of confession – the confession as therapy and therapy as redemptive. Says Mendelsohn: Once the memoir stopped being about God and started being about Man, once “confession” came to mean nothing more than getting a shameful secret off your chest — and, maybe worse, once “redemption” came to mean nothing more than the cozy acceptance offered by other people, many of whom might well share the same secret…. then it also became the force behind our present day hunger for life stories of tragedy and redemption in dozens of memoirs and television shows, in short, in everything from Mommie Dearest to thousands of Oprah Winfrey interviews.

Of course, it’s all been more complicated than that — for example, books like the Education of Henry Adams and all the sad memoirs from the prison camps of World War II. I intend to push further into Mendelsohn’s article and into its implications for art and for older artists in my next post. And I hope a few after that.

However, as promised, I want to end with more of Sally Levy’s Roonbook of Wild Stuffs. They’re like a bit of seltzer water after a meal that’s too heavy, like fresh air after too much time in the library. Enjoy!

The Roonbook of Wild Stuff cont’d.