On Writers and Writing
The Stuff of Legend
By Margo Jefferson
New York Times
March 14, 2004
Don't bring us any more memoirs!" This is the new cry in the book industry, I'm told, and a foolish cry it is, unless what publishers no longer want are just those unshaped tales written as though every detail mattered simply because it happened.
Any art form can become a fashion victim. So can any artist or thinker, however great. Thinking about the memoir sent me back to an essay by Walter Benjamin. Writers have cited Benjamin so relentlessly for the last three decades that my first impulse was to censor myself. But "The Storyteller" casts real light on the power of the memoir now.
In 1936, when this essay appeared, Benjamin was already thinking about how mass media affect our response to literature. He saw media "information" as jolts of pure energy. (Call them dopamine highs.) Literature works differently, he thought. Novelists bring a personal voice to the "profound perplexity" of human life. Memoirists are storytellers with another kind of license. Stories are rooted in the life of a group: its memories and traditions; its talk -- experience . . . passed on from mouth to mouth."
To write is always to separate oneself -- to be of but no longer in the world described. The memoir reveals this double life and persuades the reader to live it. Benjamin calls the two oldest forms of storytelling the historical chronicle and the fairy tale. When we read a good memoir we know we are reading both history and legend.
In two recent memoirs -- Paul E. Dinter's "Other Side of the Altar: One Man's Life in the Catholic Priesthood" and Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" -- we enter all-male worlds of secrecy and ritual. Strangers are seen as aliens, inferiors or enemies.
Dinter, the Roman Catholic chaplain at Columbia University for 15 years, began his priestly training in 1964, a high school boy excited by the modernizing influence of Vatican II. Thirty disillusioned years later he left the church to marry and become a stepfather. Anthony Swofford came from two generations of military men. He signed up for the Marine Corps and, in what now seems like a deja-vu-all-over-again twist of political fate, found himself fighting in the first gulf war under the first President Bush. These men are witnesses and survivors. Witnesses tell us what happened. Survivors tell us what it cost.
We now have official reports on 50 years of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, sanctioned by lies and cover-ups. Dinter is one of the few priests to give us the testimony we need: sustained and intelligent, layered with observations and emotion. Part of his story could be called "Memories of a Catholic Boyhood." Boys, he writes, have trouble finding "an inner life, a fantasy world, in which they do not figure as sports heroes, cops, firemen, film stars, members of the military or a little of each." The church eased spiritual longings and provided both a good education and a profession. Dinter writes that it "offered the unsure young male a safe place in between boyhood and the uncertain demands, unsafe desires and unpublished satisfactions of adulthood. . . . The priestly mystique offered a young man the chance to rise above the messiness of everyday existence."
He writes about the difference between doctrine and everyday practice: the drinking, bullying and repression, the power struggles. He calls a chapter about his yearlong sabbatical in Rome "The Men's Club on the Tiber." Dinter's hard-won decision to leave the church becomes part of a larger story. "Selling the idea of a necessary connection between celibacy and priestly ministry, and of an even more essential connection between the priesthood and male genitalia . . . promotes both fear and hatred of female sexuality and a phobia of most forms of sexual love that human beings practice," he says. More openly gay members of the clergy, he believes, will help: "Gay sexuality can no longer be understood as the perverted opposite of 'normal' heterosexuality; for all human sexual organization lies along a spectrum." I admire Dinter's wry modesty and his gift for seeing deeply into people. When he falters, we get dutiful prose -- the formal phrasings of the classroom. But a small price to pay, all in all.
Swofford's prose hurls us into violence: the violence of Marine Corps training, raucous jokes and despair, fear and blood lust, oil fires and bombs, tormented veterans. ("We fired the same rifle. You have the same problems as me," one drunken veteran sneers in a late-night phone call.)
Swofford was one of the marines sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to train for the war. "Say you're excited to be here and you believe in the mission and that we'll annihilate the Iraqis," their sergeant orders when journalists show up. "You signed the contract. You have no rights, you can't speak out against your country."
Learning to kill isn't enough; soldiers must want to kill. Films like "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon"? To civilians they're antiwar. Marines see a "magic brutality" that "celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills."
We hear the war talk; the chain of curses built into every command, the manic sex fantasies about women back home, who may or may not be faithful. We watch soldiers take helmets and homemade dog tags from dead Iraqis "to confirm that they are marines, combatants, jarheads" -- to give meaning to those seven months in the desert, "to steal history from dead Iraqi soldiers who now have nothing to remember."
Guilt and bravado, self-loathing and self-questioning. For Swofford, "the men who go to war and live are spared for the single purpose of spreading bad news when they return, the bad news about the way war is fought and why, and by whom for whom, and the more men who survive the war, the higher the number of men who might speak."
Every real story is useful, Benjamin wrote. The usefulness may lie in a moral, in practical advice or in a series of probing questions. But in every case the storyteller is a man who has "counsel for his readers." And counsel, "woven into the fabric of real life, is wisdom."
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