Bits and pieces from this appeared in the old, disappeared literary blog. What follows is something of a prologue to a consideration of a vagabond’s life and the effect of both place and placelessness in the writing of fiction.
Of course I don’t remember anything from the year of my birth. I think anyone who claims memory from birth is mistaken or fantasizing. I could be wrong about this – there’s no way to prove it. There are people who remember more, and more thoroughly, than others. I am not one of them. I have a wonderful abundance of memories, but they exist in a real mess of time, place, possibility, fantasy and lie.
That I was born at all is acknowledged by my presence in the world; that I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on 18 February, 1945, is a less substantial fact. The only record is a suspect birth certificate filled with prima facie lies – the names of my “parents” (who were in fact not my biological parents), their address, my newly adopted name, maybe even the hospital in which I was alleged to have been born. That information had to have been added to the certificate at least six months later, at the time of my adoption from the Baptist Orphanage in the nearby town of Monticello. Because key pieces of information are evidently incorrect, the entire document can be doubted. Sometimes I have wondered if I was given a name when I was born? A name used when whispering soothing words to me during the first months of my life. Was I held? Was I fed at a breast? Was I loved?
My chain of memories is linked some distance into the past, but loses strength and veracity when extended backwards much beyond 1955, when I was probably ten years old. Before that time there are few clear, dependable memories, and the ones I do have are corrupted by the ravages of time, the distortion of photographs, and the misdirection of second or third hand accounts. The events of my childhood exist as vignettes and isolated scenes, like lights of various intensities scattered throughout an otherwise impenetrable mist of space and time. There are no patterns from this constellation of light specks until I am old enough and experienced enough to create and sustain them for myself.
Does it matter where or when or to whom I was born? In the scheme of our short lives, when stacked against a flagrant eternity, lives that we know, in spite of our desperate wishes otherwise, will come to an unalterable end one fine day, this kind of particularity is probably just whimsy. Although it does matter (to me) that I am.
What does a mysterious birth say about the nature or character of my life? Or any person’s life? Is the ambiguity I feel about my early life the result of a congenital disconnect, a life begun in a whopping lie? What is the effect resulting from knowing so little of what most people depend on for both substantiation and consolation during their lives? Most people can at the very least, in spite of all else, cling to their hard bureaucratic data when navigating through the mist; I have only fantasy, only “maybe.” Adrift without the anchor of knowing my true origin, I am flotsam bobbing around in the chaotic ocean of space stretching to the unseen horizon.
A man without a place, or a man with many places? Is there a difference?
There is not a single shred of credible evidence that would cause me to believe that human life (all life, of course) does not end in a return to the condition of absolute nothingness that seems to have been the case prior to the sheer accident of some particular egg and some particular sperm joining to begin some particular person. Human life is an absurdly brief trek – although for many an endless slog and for some a madman’s dance – along the desperately short path between one nothing and another nothing. The real miracle is that there is life of any kind at all, since the continuing endurance of nothing is the obvious, self-perpetuating and simple necessity of this unimaginably vast, dark, and cold universe. The random appearance of life and its struggling persistence has not lead me to fall for any of the vast variety of notions we humans come up with in order to believe that an omnipotent god of some sort is responsible for everything. Isn’t this only an element of the sustaining superstitions we have historically created to provide a false escape clause from our obviously terminal form? I find it far more marvelous and intriguing that the human condition more than likely exists without a breath of divinity, in an unknowable vacuum. Admittedly, a good deal scarier, but also profoundly existential, existence must precede essence.
Because I believe that geography is ontology, this memento mori should concern itself with my places; I am the aggregate of those places; the stories I write and how I write them is also threaded through my relationship with places, as densely and completely as fine cloth. Place and the novelist are sustained by memory, but isn’t memory a room of carnival mirrors?