The Scandalous Truth about Memoir

Sunday, May 29, 2022

What Is It

A memoir is a personal narrative written about a pivotal time in the author’s life. While the story is told from a particular perspective, the events recounted are supposed to be fact, not fiction. But what exactly counts as truth in memoir? Is the distinction between “literal truth” and “emotional truth” just a way of shirking responsibility for fabricating falsehoods? What other ethical responsibilities does the memoirist have—for example, when it comes to exposing other people’s secrets? And why should anyone read—or write—memoirs in the first place? Josh and Ray take a trip down memory lane with Helena de Bres from Wellesley College, author of Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir.

Comments (6)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, April 21, 2022 -- 4:45 AM

This is unexpected, and too

This is unexpected, and too quick for me, at least, to find this book and offer questions. Based on the premise, intent would seem to be the issue, along with a boatload of responsibility. It is a tangled web and sometimes beautiful thing.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, May 12, 2022 -- 9:07 AM

still working through this

still working through this book.

What does de Bres think of the work of Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski's pen name? Bukowski is a hero in my mind and a memoirist beyond compare. I'm having issues with all the genre-wrenching going on, and I think we should remove all memoirs to the fiction rack and profit.

Why is it that drugs and sex pose the memoirist's most difficult questions?

Frey is a coward, Oprah is a fool, and Hank Chinaski is a mensch and an immoral fool which takes a swipe at Helena's pluralism and truth and beauty argument.

I'm finding Helena's book riveting, as was Michael Lynch's. These are great reads - that are potentially life-changing works to philosophical novitiates if people take the time.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, May 13, 2022 -- 12:33 PM

OK... I just spent the

OK... I just spent the morning finishing this book... and I will finish my feedback even if it is too late in submitting questions to the author.

First off, what a book de Bres has written, I doubt the show will do it justice.

My question above still holds, even as I read through Helena’s take on Sal Paradise, the not mentioned but more common Jack Duluoz, and others through whom Jack Kerouac wrote his eponymous stream of memoiric writing.

In the ethical spectrum, I don’t see the room for memoir, except in those cases where an author has already created worlds of fiction from which to speak. As Helena so clearly lays out, the issues are too significant to excuse the simplicity. Knausgaard is a cad, and Bukowski has none of that baggage, though both are visceral. In Knausgaard’s defense, he doesn’t sugarcoat his responsibility as Bukowski does with alcohol, sex, and crudity. Notably, Charles was supposedly affected by the presence of women as he was in his writing.

Posing memoir in deniably thin veils of fiction while ensconced in morally rational grounds of discretion further pushes Helena’s explication of memoir as an art form. I’m not clear that a memoir can be done without some frets and regrets. If I were to try this, I would return here first to think this out.

This show was planned too quickly for me to think through the issues involved. Now that I have at least read this book, I’m intrigued.

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Mark P's picture

Mark P

Tuesday, May 3, 2022 -- 8:04 PM

"Art of Memoir" by memoirist

"Art of Memoir" by memoirist Mary Karr also addresses these questions. I'll be interested in hearing this book's own take, comparing/contrasting the two. "Hears" important here, as I only listen to my books nowadays, and "Artful Truths" hasn't published its audio edition yet.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, May 14, 2022 -- 8:45 AM

Karr - Caveat Emptor

Karr - Caveat Emptor

“No one elected me the boss of memoir. I speak for no one but myself. Every writer worth her salt is sui generis. Memoirists’ methods—with regard to handling actual events, memory, research, dealing with family and other subjects, legal whatnot, voice, etc.—differ from mine as widely as their lives do. Where I’ve learned from others, I add it. But this is no compendium of popular approaches to the form.”

de Bres - Chapter 1

“The questions I have in mind are philosophical, rather than primarily practical, historical, descriptive, or evaluative.”

Karr is practical and opinionated. De Bres is philosophical and formative.

Karr, Rousseau, Didion, Doty, and Montaigne are the most discussed, followed by Woolf, Nabokov, Hampl, Frey, and Gornick.

Helena uses Karr often to ground a point on practicality and moves on. Here she finishes a short discussion of Richard Rorty and subjectivity with Karr’s off-the-cuff sensibility.

‘ Responding to the antirealist strain in the culture, memoirist Mary Karr writes impatiently “someone either assaulted the woman in question, or not. It was binary.” ’

Karr may be no boss; she is always suitable for a quote. Helena does just that, contrasting Gornick’s sense of truthiness.

‘ In response to Gornick’s question above about “whose business” the actuality behind her memoirs is, Mary Karr writes: “If I forked over a cover price for nonfiction, I consider it my business . . . inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader.” ’

"The Art of Memoir" doesn't interest me as much as "Artful Truths", or "Liars Club" for that matter, but I would like to hear your take once you give both a listen. I'm no memoirist, which is my bias.

Listening to books is my favorite mode, but studying them requires reading. I’m reading fewer books and re-reading more. The first pass is always audio… if I can afford it. The budget is a budget, after all, for me at least. I don’t know if you’ve found this to be true, but I can play a book at 2x speed and read simultaneously. That forces a different experience. Not great for fiction, but oddly helpful with non-fiction I’ve already read.

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Daniel's picture


Saturday, May 7, 2022 -- 9:59 AM

The difficulty in limiting

The difficulty in limiting the scope of philosophical inquiry is that no prior synoptic view is readily available. Such a domain-preview would have to be based on assumptions which, as such, remain unexamined. Yet as some presuppositions must be made in order to proceed, common or ordinary understanding considered as shared ought to be the place to start. The Memoir as commonly understood is a piece of autographic writing constituting a link between the author's involvement in an event or series of events and the historical context of the respective period. While non-fictional by literary taxonomy, its accuracy or non-accuracy does not impinge on this understanding. As a link between the author and history for the purpose of understanding either or both, the concept of the Memoir contains the comparison between two lengths of time, a small one belonging to the author and a larger one which belongs to history. Further, not only are the lengths different, but also their rates of speed. Historical time moves slowly whereas the time covered in the memoirs and the events they describe are comparatively brief and go by quickly. So it becomes clear that the two time-lengths contained in the concept describe time-types, with the messy, marching backward and forward-historical one, and the comparatively concentrated, single-trajectory-author's one. This also implies that this relation is in flux, so that the link which constitutes it must be an adjustable one. The Memoir-link must therefore be a joint.

A joining or joint-relation associated with the use of language between human individuals and the world could be described as what is meant by the Greek word "logos". It's reference extends over various traditional translations, e.g. word, speech, argument, story, account, report, --without contradiction. Memoir as a joint-connection between the author's time and historical time, then, is an example of what can be called logos. It refers to the nature of the connection without having to say too little.

So what is this nature? The term "logos" in Greek does not mean "language" (gloessa), which refers to the lingual means of inter-individual transmission of semiological contents, together with semiological content-reception capacity, on the one hand, and visual representation of semiological contents in reference-tokens, either directly in pictures or indirectly by lingual directory, on the other. Logos could rather be said to refer to an event, not what that which occurs can do. The event indeed consists in part in speaking, but also in being spoken, in largest part insofar as what is spoken is heard, and what is written is read. But both these latter activities have more the character of preparations than of whole events, as what is understood comes at the end of the series of moments of preparatory comprehension. This has the result that logos consists not in what has been said or written, but the event of its having been said or written, insofar as it is heard or read. But hearing what is said is not passive and is therefore listening; and listening is a preparation for understanding all of what is heard; so that understanding here means bringing all together what is heard, as having been listened to.

Logos, therefore, unlike language, is a preparation for a togetherness of what is scattered around. But the interesting thing here is that this preparation does not have the character of construction, of putting things together. As such it's not an arrangement. It bears more resemblance rather to a discovery, or of seeing something which is hidden in the scatteredness itself, not something about the things which are scattered. Obviously anything which can hide in scatteredness must be some variety of non-scatteredness, but by definition can't be a unity, since unity precludes scatteredness. This means though that the preparation for a non-scatteredness wants or tends to try and prepare for the things present to be one thing, or, said differently, it singularizes. To have them present at the time and not absent is the presupposition in the preparation. As non-scatteredness hides in the scatteredness on account of the singularizing which is listening and reading, it constitutes an indication that the non-scatteredness prepared for is in some capacity brought to the scatteredness instead of being found there. Only here, then, in what is brought to the scatteredness, can one speak of "unity", which is not found in nature and must be artificially generated as a supposition.

Logos on this account is an event which combines active and passive elements, as referring to both speaking and writing together with listening and reading in the event of their combination. The event further must be temporally conditioned as occurring at a particular time. But the time of occurrence of the combination is obviously not limited by its date, so that the presence of what is spoken/written together with what is listened to/read, while it can not be dated, is nevertheless bounded by the preparation-capacity which determines the singularizing of the combination. Fate (moira) ties what's present, as hidden non-scatteredness in scatteredness, to the thing which is present, as presupposed in the preparation for which is the event of its being present. The memoir as a literary form is an example which ties the author's presence to what is present, as a link to history is part of that history, where in this case the history of logos overrides the absence of the parts of history considered more generally, or the things within its context, in their characteristic tendency to be absent. Described as a singularizing preparation for non-scatteredness in which lingual and auditory apparatuses together with visual reference tokens and their ophthalmic reception participate in part, as the fate of the human biological organism in the history of logos. From being understood as a link between two different lengths of time, the Memoir understood as an example of the history of logos, is a joint which joins the other joints, which is another way of saying that the original link drops out in its more comprehensive meaning.

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