PASSAGES OF TIME : SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE PERSONAL POLITICS OF LIFE STORY TELLING
How do we tell the story of a life that began and ended badly? Is there more to autobiography than a do-it-yourself obituary? What are the limits and conditions of public commemoration as a regime of truth? How does the space/time compression of everyday life in the digital age impact on our capacity to sustain coherent life histories and other narratives of long duration?
I have been wrestling with these issues of memory politics, life story telling and imagined communities of belonging for a long time. They were give focus by the experience of writing a memoir, which includes an extended essay on contemporary book cultures and the library as a memoryscape . But they were raised with particular and painful urgency by recently losing my adopted son and having to construct a tribute for his funeral service in a way which did justice to his troubled life.
When we think about what is at stake in a life story, whether it is told or written, we tend to think and say a lot about its beginning. The circumstances of childhood and youth play a prominent part because they are widely considered to be not only formative, but to intimately over-determine much of what subsequently happens to us. In the West, we are all children of Freud, whether we know it or not ; it is no coincidence that the best memoir written by a psychoanalyst should be entitled ‘ The Love of beginnings’ (J-B Pontalis). And now that we are all supposed to be authors of own lives and to continually reinvent ourselves from cradle to grave, now that the just-in- time production of the flexible self has become the organising principle of the post Fordist ,neo-liberal , perpetual beginnings are the order of the day. The result is to postpone, if not entirely foreclose, any consideration of endings. In the story books I grew up with The End was a prominent , and satisfying feature. Today it has been replaced by the mere full stop. The paradigmatic form of life history has become the soap opera where the story is always to be continued, next week, and there are always new characters, new situations while the basic plot, the dramatic unities of time and place remain constant. People may die or disappear but the story goes on and on, at least until the audience lose interest and the ratings fall. The death of a soap opera leaves a lot of people feeling bereaved, not just because they miss their regular narrative fix, but because it forecloses its peculiar dialectic of transience and permanence.
Of course stories are conventionally supposed to have not only a beginning, but a middle and an end. For narratologists the end is that part of the story where its meaning and purpose is evaluated ; for the life story teller the whole exercise is often about taking a step back and recollecting , if not always in tranquillity, just what the meaning and purpose of life consists in. Writing a memoir is a revisionary process, it involves the bitter sweet recognition that what is done is done; counterfactual life histories, agonising about what has been what might have been, or worse rewriting the past so that it conform to our hopes, defeats the purpose .Yet the fact that life is beyond amendment does not mean that amends cannot be made in the manner of its telling. Of course some people, especially politicians, write memoirs as way of settling old scores, but the true, critical, purpose of the memoir is to enable you revisit the foreign country that your past has become, to relearn its language, and customs and to unsettle your account by reconsidering what it amounts to. As a late work, and most memoirs are written by people over 60, the memoir may not be so much a confirmation or consolidation of the author’s life experience, as a radically new departure. I think this is what the best memoirs do. In my case starting ‘Reading Room Only’ was a way of writing myself out of a very dark place, of fighting back against the pull of suicidal impulses, and reaching out towards to the world, in the process finding that which in the midst of inferno, is not inferno and giving it space, making it endure (Italo Calvino).
But what principles of closure should apply to the life story if its end is indeed to constitute a new beginning? For most auto-biographers, it is enough to tell the story so far, to stop when the present is reached and perhaps to conclude with a little speculation about what the future may hold. We live our lives forwards, but very few people look forward to their death, unless they believe in some kind of afterlife. As you get older, the pressure to look back rather than forward becomes ever stronger. Yet there is one special sense, which I am going to discuss in a moment , in which the memoir become focused on its own posterity and that of its author in a way which complicates its reception by the reader.
These, perhaps somewhat morbid thoughts, came to mind because of an untoward event, an event which, while not actively anticipated, was nevertheless feared. In September of this year my adopted son, Stephen died of a seizure resulting from his alcoholism. He was 33 and for the past few years had been fighting what turned out to be a losing battle against his illness.
Alcoholism is not a good death. It is a death that poses particular problems about how to remember and tell the story of a life. Conventionally and in the context of a funeral service this remembrance takes the form of a tribute, a eulogy that celebrates everything that was positive about the person and their accomplishments. All flaws, anything that would detract from or challenge this idealised portrait is rigorously edited out the account. As such the funeral eulogy represents a symbolic equivalent of the cosmetic treatment that is given to the body by the embalmer, so that its physical blemishes, the signs of ageing, illness or injury are no longer visible. In his way a state of perfection that was not attained, -and indeed is unattainable -in life, is celebrated in death. The fundamental principle of this discourse is nil nisi bonum( nothing except good). From this perspective it is wrong and even dangerous to speak ill of the dead, not only because they are not there to defend their character and reputation, but because it conjures up an obscure and unacknowledged fear that their evil spirit, once named, will return to haunt those who dared to do so. One of the functions of the wake is precisely to keep watch over the body so that malign forces, including our own less than generous feelings towards the deceased, do not invade the occasion. The result is to turn death into a spectacle, whose formula is ‘only what is good appears, everything that appears is good’ ( Guy Debord). We say we are paying our respects to the dead, but sometimes this means that we are strenuously engaged in maintaining the outward appearance of their respectability – and ours.. We dress up in our most formal clothes to mark the solemnity of the occasion, but also to ensure that in death good taste triumphs over bad at least in matters sartorial.
In composing a tribute to Stephen, in trying to set his troubled life in some kind of framework which would enable those who knew him to both recognise him and mourn his loss, I was faced with the problem of how to address his alcoholism, without either romanticising it, or turning it into an overwhelming demonic force in a way that obscured what he managed to achieve despite – and sometimes because – of it. For it could not be ignored, it was a very large elephant to have in the room. At the same time I was aware how important it was for his young sons to be given an account of their father’s life which would sustain their own positive memories of him to help them withstand the anger they were also feeling. Yet there were limits as to how far I could go in constructing such an account without sacrificing its intelligibility. For example they did not want me to mention the fact that their dad had been adopted, although many of his friends knew, and that fact was constitutive of his life story. It just did not make sense without it. The problem with embalming a life is that it become unrecognisable. Just like the body in the coffin, it becomes wholly other in its lack of life. Better to remember the person as they were alive with all their faults and misadventures, than cling on to an ossified image that bears little or no resemblance to what they were like ‘in the flesh’.
All this has a bearing on the models and motivations that come into play whenever people give an account of their lives. There is a very long tradition of autobiography as an apologia por sua vita, a form of do- it -yourself obituary, in which the author says in effect ‘ look, this is how I want to be remembered when I am gone’. In other words the intention is to create a narrative legacy, to bequeath a story which may supplement, or compliment, and sometimes revise and refute the memories which other people hold. All too often this attempt to create a posthumous identity involves a sanitised version of events, expurgating anything at all problematic in the life history. These advertisements for an ideal self pull on some of the strategies we all use in presenting a highly edited version of ourselves whether to prospective friends, lovers or employers, or indeed ourselves. It is how we manage the public impression we make on others, by keeping what we see as the less respectable aspects of our lives strictly private and hidden from view. The more defended or paranoid the subject, the more extensive and florid this hidden curriculum vitae.
The authorised version of the life story, like the official CV, tends to be underwritten by a Whig interpretation of life history – a history which is unfolded as stages of a progress or journey, an onwards and upwards march towards some promised land, whether of spiritual salvation, material success or public fame. That is the template of most obituaries. Of course, obituaries are by definition reserved for the commemoration of public figures, and usually consist of a celebration of their public virtues and occasionally vices. For example the recent obituaries for Nelson Mandela did not much deal with his private life. The personal is supposed to be political, but we are not expected to be curious about whether Nelson was any good in bed, a caring father, or did the housework, because his private life is regarded as inconsequential. Usually we get two lines at the end saying So and So is survived by her spouse and children. We are not expected to wonder whether and how they survived his life.
The most popular rendition of the fable of fame was the ‘This is Your Life’ series on TV hosted by Eamonn Andrews in which some celebrity is presented with a highly selective version of their biography as they are joyfully and tearfully reunited with a procession of doting parents, inspiring teachers, devoted friends and admiring colleagues. Creditors, jilted lovers, abandoned children, and anyone else with a possible grievance is not invited to the show. Again it is a case of ‘only what is good appears , and everything that appears is good’.
There is an alternative and equally long tradition of confessional autobiography in which the author makes a virtue of his or her vices and makes the reader complicit in their rehearsal, either as source of titillation or absolution, sometimes both. Today this genre has been considerably expanded by the advent of fashionable victimologies associated with identity politics, and aspirational triumph-over-adversity stories. We have seen the emergence of the memoir as misery lit, telling one’s life as a litany of complaint about suffering, injustice or missed opportunity. Along with this we have seen the growth of narrative therapies in which the recounting of unhappy beginnings is supposed to lead to happy ever after endings. Yet whether the focus is on virtues or vices, whether the paradigm is the life of the apprentice saint or confirmed sinner, the mode of expression celebratory or repentant, in all these cases special pleading and self justification tend to be the order of the day.
Life story telling in whatever mode seems to me to pivot on a paradox. It is premised on a special kind of pact struck with the reader that the account will be as true to the life as possible, and this is underwritten by the assumption that there is a binding coincidence between the teller of the tale and its chief protagonist – they are one and the same person. And yet for reasons I have hinted at, this is a fictive concordance. However great the sense of continuing identity, however much we are in touch with our ‘inner child’, there would literally be no story to tell unless some device was introduced to interrupt the principle of sameness. If life is always same old story then it is hardly worth the telling. Equally even the most uneventful life may become interesting in the manner of its relating.
The life story may, or may not illuminate wider aspects of the history, culture and society in in which it is embedded, but it is a gift for the unreliable narrator and not easily rendered into a medium of subjective truth. The memoir is an ideal vehicle for the creation of personal mythographies inspired by retrospective illusionism. Frank Kermode in his memoir Not Entitled has this to say about the vagaries of the genre:
‘It might be claimed that almost everybody who has heard of the possibility of constructing even the most private, the most silent narrative account of his or her own life is some sort of auto-biographer. Perhaps the silent autobiographies manage to be more truthful, who can say, but in the course of writing it down, the others will discover, if they did’nt know already, that the action of memory depends on the co-operation of fantasy. That is the truth. ‘
The proposition here is that in the transition from silent or interior speech to the act of writing and public disclosure the process of remembrance undergoes a subtle transformation – it becomes structurally implicated in fantasy, rendered into the idiom of the imaginary. My suggestion, to the contrary, is that fantasy has the fullest reign in those private stories we tell ourselves about our childhoods and inner lives; these introspections are dominated by what Freud called screen memories and the family romance, and relatively unconstrained by reality principles; as soon as we go public, a more conscious principle of editing or censorship comes into play, as we seek to manipulate our experience to actively conform to social and cultural norms and manage the impression that our lives make on others. Everything that does not fit into these narrative protocols forms an unvoiced substrate of meaning in the account, a kind of hidden curriculum vitae in counterpoint to the official CV. The task for the ethnographer and the oral historian, and possibly the psychotherapist, as interlocutors of memory work, is to help people get on better speaking terms with these more occluded and unspoken parts of their life history, if only because it is here that the true impact of the social contradictions they live and enact, whether those of gender or class, age or ethnicity are most acutely registered.
Passages of Time
How the passage of time is lived and represented, how the dialectic of transience and permanence is negotiated, tells us a lot about the values which a particular social group or culture holds. In this context the time of bereavement is deviation from the norm. Every death is untimely in that it dislocates our relation to time. It pitches us into time lived without its flow, to borrow the title of a book which Denise Riley wrote recently about the loss of her own son. And this deviance extends to the status of the mourner. As she points out there is no term, like widower or orphan, to describe or mark the position of the bereaved parent. Given our current demographics losing your mum or dad, or perhaps your partner or friend is regarded as part of the natural course of events for anyone over 50. But there is something unnatural, disreputable even, about losing a child, whatever the circumstances. And there are no parents who do not blame themselves for what happened when their child dies. Or rail against the indifference of the Gods and the world. The situation was complicated in Stephen’s case because there is an official adoption story in which bad beginnings are supposed to be transformed into good endings through the process of adoption itself: the adoptee is renamed , as it were reborn, and lives happy ever after. And if this does not happen then it is the adopted parents fault.
Nevertheless there are also some entirely secular of principles of hope available to parents who have lost a child. Two weeks after her son’s death Denise noted :
In these first days I see how rapidly the surface of the world, like a sheet of water that’s briefly agitated, will close again silently and smoothly over a death. His, everyone’s, mine. I see, as if I am myself dead. This perception makes me curiously light hearted. You share in the death of your child, in that you approach it so closely that you sense that a part of you, too, died instantly. At the same time, you feel that the spirit of the child has leaped into you. So you are both partly dead, and yet more alive. You are cut down, and yet you burn with life.
Close friends as well as family can feel this pull between despair and redemption and it is tempting to want to escape from it, to turn the clock back, to live in the past,to stay in a time where your child or friend is still alive for ever and there is no death. And consequently no narrative.
Narrative is characterised by hetero-chronicity. Its potential space of representation contains many times – linear and reversible, cyclical and discontinuous. Times arrow flies in many directions. The life story may become reduced to the iteration of birth, growing up, ageing, illness and death. This chronic aspect of the human condition may provide the narrative armature, but in itself only yields a skeletal picture of a life. We need to put flesh on the bare bones of a life as captured by the bureaucratic record. We do not for the most part measure out our lives in coffee spoons, or increments of status, or in the number of our grey hairs but engage in a far richer multi-textured process of fabrication. Even if biology becomes destiny it never tells the whole story.
We can see why this should be so if we consider the most elementary structure through which the passage of lived time is marked in our culture- those little ceremonies of commemoration of a traumatic event we can never consciously recall, even though it is unconsciously embedded in our psyche – in other words our birthdays. Parents go to considerable trouble to mark their offspring’s advent because it was indeed a memorable event for them , even though the child in question cannot remember being born. And so it is with birthdays. The gifts , the treats , the party are there not only to celebrate the child’s arrival but to store up material for the family record. Yet how few birthdays actually feature in happy memories of childhood. Mostly these events are quickly forgotten, they blur together , unless they are marked by something untoward .There are elements in this little ceremony which register something else, its other scene, and signify the fact that every birthday marks a year further away from our beginning and a year closer to our end. This is what the lighting and blowing out of candles surely signifies. But this intimation of mortality, of a one way ticket from birth to death, is immediately reversed by the cutting of the cake and the making of a secret wish. Only on our birthdays, in this fragile liminal space, can be have our cake and eat it. But just in case we get too carried away by our magical powers of wish fulfilment we are unceremoniously brought down to earth by the ritual of ‘bumps’, one for each year, in which the of our friends is mitigated into something decidedly more friendly, even as it restores the remorseless linearity of lived time. Yet even here a principle of reversibility is introduced. Birthdays are important when we are growing up because they are markers of maturity – there is a whole world of difference between being 6 and 7 . Yet once we are seven we look back on being six with contempt, it has become a marker of immaturity, something we have left behind and grown beyond. So the temporal sign is reversed.
Let us note in passing that in old age a different principle of chronicity is invoked. Each year, each birthday is celebrated as a marker of longevity, of time wrested from the grim reaper. Under our present demographic regime, where the life of long duration is no longer so exceptional, and centenarians are two a penny , it may become devalued. The relationship between the quantity and quality of life has become increasingly problematic. More can be less.
f The passage of time thus does not take place in some empty homogeneous space. It is not just about clock time. It is governed by principles of periodisation and chronic predicament that are embedded in a culture, in different narrative paradigms of the life course which are themselves subject to historical change. This is the field of ethno-biography which is currently at the cutting edge of inter-disciplinary and comparative research into the life course.
Currently we can distinguish between two main chronotopes of life story telling, two different ways of articulating past, present and future into a narrative of the self:
The first we might call modernist. The past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed or is retrieved by the intervention of some special device of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle – the plan or higher purpose which governs the unfolding of the life history.
The second paradigm has been called post modernist. Here the present is a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity , split off from a past which never fades but continues to be re-presented and recycled and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable. Life history is composed of unconnected fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a narrative collage.
These may be ‘ideal types’, and most life stories are hybrids, but if you compare the memoirs written by members of the Bloomsbury group with Kathy Acker’s ‘Redoing Childhood’ you’ll see what I am getting at.
Kathy Acker was very influenced by the literary experimentalism of William Burroughs and the cut up technique and her work has in turn influenced a lot of Internet cut n paste writing. This brings us to the question of whether digital media can and do bring about an enhancement or an impoverishment in the quality of life story telling. Are they symptomatic instruments of the space time compression of everyday life and its messaging systems ? To paraphrase Warhol, do they allow everyone the possibility to be famous but only for five seconds or as long as it takes to post their latest tweet, or are they creating platforms for the sharing of experience, adding up to a collective, if virtual memoryscape? Are they definitively post modern, or do they perhaps illustrate Bruno Latour’s contention that we have never been fully modern and therefore cannot be post modern.
As a test case let’s consider You Tube, and more specifically its use as a medium of communication by young people, especially those who may be otherwise socially isolated. In the privacy of their bedrooms hundreds of thousands of adolescents across the globe talk to camera and open their hearts to each other about the emotional problems they are having with parents, friends, and lovers. The video webcam has become the portal of a mass confessional which both encourages public disclosure and preserves anonymity. It can be an open invitation to exhibitionism/voyeurism as performer and viewer become locked in an addictive folie a deux centred on a shared delusion of mutual seduction. Yet what is interesting about the coming of age stories which young people tell is how closely they conform to traditional narrative conventions and yet how spontaneous and unrehearsed their delivery is.
Take, for example, the coming out stories told by young gay people who are often subject to homophobic bullying at school and peer ostracism. You Tube is an important source of co-counselling and mutual support which has enabled many to come out to parents and ‘straight’ friends. The medium has provided a platform for shared testifying and bearing witness in a way that furnishes the props of a gay identity that might not otherwise be available. It has reinforced the role of the coming out story as a rite de passage into the gay community. However varied the content, the formal structure of these stories is invariant and elemental, but all the more powerful for that, and conforms quite rigorously to the narrative schema proposed by Todorov. Its ideal typical structure looks like this :
- An initial state of false equilibrium : passing as ‘straight’ in order to be accepted by family and friends and society in general
- A state of dislocation -the young person feels alienated from family and friends, lives a lie by passing for straight, and is worried about being ‘outed’ This is the starting point for the story to be told..
- The assignation of a task or quest, (with or without interdicts and sanctions) to restore the lost equilibrium. In this case the desire to be accepted by family and friends can only be realised through an act of disclosure which will produce a temporary disequlibrium but lead to eventual reconciliation.
- The struggle to achieve the task, through the overcoming of obstacles, the avoidance of traps. This usually includes a graphic description of the circumstances of the disclosure, the tactics used, the reactions of different people, and the feelings of protagonist.
- Coda: The achievement or non achievement of the quest and evaluation of its consequences. for both narrator and community. This is where the mythopoeic dimension of the coming out story emerges most fully in the form of a happy ever after ending. According to this protocol,before coming out sexuality was a guilty secret and afterwards it becomes a cause for celebration. Because there is such a strong investment in ‘outing’ as an act of personal liberation amongst gay activists, almost all the coming out stories told on U Tube are success stories. Stories with negative outcomes, where the project fails are rarely posted.
These coming of age stories are not miniaturised versions of the classical bildungsroman, to which they bear a superficial similarity. They are little vignettes of adolescent angst. Yet it seems to me that suitably expanded they could serve as a template for a whole life story, rather than just one of its episodes, provided the happy ever after coda is removed.
Whatever criticisms can be made of ‘identity politics’, it seems to me that the kinds of intimacy between strangers which electronic media afford in principle escapes the instrumental rationality and precautionary principles which dominate so much of our contemporary narrative culture in favour of a imagined community where a moral economy of mutual aid prevail. Of course, social network media may just provide another way of being alone together; and there is always the possibility of their commodification , not to mention sexploitation. A more telling criticism of this medium is that it reinforces the just in time production of flexible or neo-liberal subjectivity,it sponsors a purely opportunistic selfhood. Yet these on- line performances remain socially embedded. You Tube stories are all about family and friends, even if their idiom is highly individualised. At the same time they inevitably lack the perspectival depth that characterises narratives belonging to oral traditions, which are geared up to telling stories of long duration, and which form a corpus, a narrative legacy that is passed from generation to generation, being continually modified and added to. But what they lack in sophistication these stories often make up for in emotional intensity. It is hard to watch Tom Daley’s coming out story and remain cynical- even someone who is as caught up in the culture of celebrity as he is, needs to find a medium in which he feels sufficiently secure and at home to address difficult issues. Of course the moment is all too easily recuperated; from a media point of view it is just another kiss and tell celeb story, and gives him a unique selling point which adds to the ‘authenticity’ of the Daley brand. We just have to hope that he takes a leaf out of Dirk Bogarde’s book and postpones writing his memoir until after he has retired from the Fame Academy and can stake out a different kind of reputational identity.
Reading Room Only
In conclusion I want to briefly revisit my memoir, to consider how far it addresses some of the issues I have been discussing. Reading Room Only, as the title suggests is about the genealogy of an obsession with books, an obsession that has been fed by the ups and downs of my personal circumstances and sometimes altered them, for the better or worse. In tracing the role which books have played in my life, from first learning to read to building a library, I have tried to embed that story in another one, about the cultural and political milieu I inhabited, firstly as a child growing up in Bloomsbury during and after the war, later as a rebellious adolescent in public school and university, then as an organiser of that collective improvisation known as the ‘underground’ and finally as an ethnographer of contemporary social and cultural history.
Writing a memoir and building a library are both acts of self definition, but they are not equivalent, nor, in any exact sense, complementary. A memoir, as the term suggests, is an exercise in looking back, whereas a personal library, however much it may landscape our memories, cannot be reduced to them. Even and especially if it provides a refuge from the storms of history, a library also offers a prospect on the future; it is where we identify gaps in our knowledge and plan ahead to fill them; it reminds us that we live our lives forward, even if we relate them backwards.
Yet the two activities also have something in common. Writing (and reading) a book, like building a library, is a process of slow accretion and perpetual revision. If only death stops the bibliophile reading and collecting books, the finishing of a book is like a little death. You have to let go and say goodbye not just to this text but to all the particulars of your life that have become intimately bound up with it.
A library represents the labour and love you have invested in it; it is a way of defining who and what you are, or would like to become. More than that, it is a statement about what is regarded as being of enduring value, an expression of a personal philosophy.There are many contending schools of thought. Rationalists impose a rigorous conceptual order on their collections, whilst others regard building a library as an existential project whose authenticity is guaranteed by making gratuitous choices. For some a library is the realisation of a Big Idea, for empiricists it is a matter of trial and error. Pragmatists concentrate on the niceties of how practices of reading and collecting can be made to fit together while materialists are concerned with the subtle dialectics of scope and scale, or with the cruder thoughts of how to accumulate yet more intellectual or cultural capital.
But whatever our philosophy of book collecting, as we grow older we tend to become more parsimonious about what to add and want to travel lighter. When I retired from the university, all the academic books that were in my office were sold or given away. There just was no room for them at home, and I knew I would no longer need them for the work I still wanted to do. Still I was sad to part with them, some of them having accompanied me throughout my professional life. The experience made me all too aware of how fragile and evanescent the project of library building is. There is no such thing as a permanent collection. And because your books will survive you, and either be sold or given away as part of your legacy to family or friends, it is hard not to suspect that they are perhaps waiting eagerly for that moment to arrive, when they will come to life again, join other libraries, be held in other hands, now that you are gone.
It would surely be selfish to want to be buried with your books, and deprive others of the pleasure or instruction they have given. We know from our own experience that books which come down to us as family heirlooms, or as presents from those we love, occupy a special place in our affections; we treasure them even if we do not always like what they say, something we may also feel about their givers. And so it will hopefully be with those who inherit our collections. There are worse things to be remembered for than the books we leave. As for the strangers into whose hands our books may fall, the best we can hope is that they will care for them and delight in them as we have done.
As for memoirs, what is their legacy ? Can they ever be a trustworthy medium for confronting the gap between authorial intention and what others make of it ? It seems to me that if the memoir can deal with counter-finality, it is only by refusing its author the last word, by allowing the text to take on a life of its own. If and when that happens the pact between narrator and writer that makes the autobiographical project possible is recast in relation to a third party, an interlocutor. It may then become an act of address to a reader who is neither an alias nor an accomplice; it may be an act of redress directed towards those others who might so easily have been objects of the writer’s revenge but who have instead helped make amendment. It is these interlocutors, who constitute the true subject of the memoir.
So, for example the conversation which Reading Room Only initiates between, let us say, the seventy-year old ‘professor’ who wrote it, not quite knowing where it might lead, and the seven-year old boy he once was, who earned that nickname because he was such a little know-all, can certainly be one of collaboration. Indeed the memoir is a device for putting them on better speaking terms. But that relationship should not be a form of collusion, a ganging up against the passage of time that separates them. In fact this odd couple should agree to differ on almost everything except a valedictory message to share with the text that has brought them, however uncomfortably and briefly, together.
The memoir certainly provides a ready platform for devices through which the author stakes a claim to posterity through the corpus of his or her work, the flesh of the text surviving the physical death of its procreator. It is a way of having the last word through a proxy. Once this conventional ambition is relinquished, however, another version of the writers requiem and resurrection becomes possible. What this might consist in I discovered by accident recently during a periodic sort through my library. On the flyleaf of a second hand book about the history of archaeology I found an inscription in the form of a poetic epigram. Its author prefers to remain Anon It reads:
If the circumstance of my conception had been otherwise,
There would have been no need of proofs
For the narrative to become fair copy,
No call for punctuation to reach a conclusion,
No justification for end rhymes
To underline the scansion of the text,
Just the slow imprint of words on deeds
Speaking volumes of a legacy
Waiting to be unearthed :
Another book as yet unread
Pages open in welcome to a sheltering sky.