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Mementoes from the mist

Mother and Son, 1945

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?

In the mind of a novelist

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9 replies »

  1. Carnival mirrors?

    Oh, I suppose so. With enough scrutiny and venom even our own existence can be called into question.

    “A man without a place, or a man with many places? Is there a difference?”

    The first is simply confused and the second confused in a more complicated manner. Perhaps.

    Philosophy makes one dour faster than a downed bottle of Rum.

    • Ever been inside a carnival hall of mirrors? Reminds me of the vagaries of memory.

      I am still working out what I think about character in fiction as intertwined with place; particularly the effect on a character with one dedicated place (Larry McMurtry’s little Texas town in the last picture show leaps to mind first), and how that is different from a character of many places (and here I think of Hemingway’s later characters).

      Your last line might more accurately read: Philosophy makes one dour faster WITH a downed bottle of rum.

  2. re this and the last entry – i feel very strongly about the relationship between a character and their location. the place defines/dictates motivations, actions and my expression as well…or that’s my belief/insistence until i found myself trapped by these ideas and quite unable to create new characters and plots. which is pretty logical if you think about where i came from – this town is very limited/limiting in many ways.

    talk about one’s identity…my birth certificate was as good as anyone else’s. then there was another legal document which stated that practically, i/my upbringing had nothing to do with my mother. years later, when it shouldn’t have mattered anymore, there’s the last one that said legally i had nothing to do with the said parent. even now i have no idea how valid that one is, since it’s not my idea. my father has all of these papers, though i don’t see/talk to him either.

    i think that’s why, despite being an eccentric, a part of me wants/tries to be rooted somewhere–it’s a very elusive part of myself that i can’t grasp. in the last year though i’ve let go of it a lot more and written a few things…that are looking different from my older work. they’re still in the works though.

    • You wrote this opaquely, Nicole. Maybe you needed to. So until you are more clear, I will answer with something else.

      I understand what you are saying about Hong Kong, although such a polyglot city with such a history should offer endless stories. But that’s not what I’m referring to here. I am from a tiny village in the bottom of a terribly backward state in the US. I have only tried to write about it once.

      There are two aspects here. One is the place of the author, and the other is the place of the characters and their story. They are not always the same. In my case, they are rarely the same.

      I have been writing here about the relationship between the place of the characters and the story more than the place of the story-teller.

      Now, the other element is more personal: the author’s own story. I am curious about such stories because of my own, What does it mean that I was adopted and have no genetic history? What does it mean that it is likely that during the first six months of my life, which experts all say is vital in human development, that I was in an institution, not in the arms of a woman who loved me and put me to her breast? What does it mean to not know so much?

      I think you are working your way into wondering more about this than about the place that sustains your characters.

      Yes?

  3. Coming from a place where my genetic data is as absolute as human relations can be, confirmed by not only my own parents but dozens of relatives and their anecdotes, coming from a place where my great-grandfather homesteaded on the same spot where we his descendants of four and five generations ate hot dogs this Fourth of July, a place whose siren call successfully lured me back from some of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan and exotic spots on God’s green earth, I have no experiential answer to your questions, Don. I have often thought, though, that birth is destiny, and a huge part of that birth-destiny is place, or places.

    So much is sealed in us before we are able to react to it consciously, before we turn four, say. Place prime among them. That combined with the DNA encoding at the moment of conception and the nutritional habits of the mother while we were still gestating means that the lion’s share of all we will ever be is decided long before we get to have a say in the matter.

    It is possible, I think, to read Hemingway corpus as one long response to a cloistered childhood in a Chicago suburb. Hem himself said, likely tongue in cheek, that to be a writer you had to have an unhappy childhood.

    As writers, I tend to think that most of what we write is a working out of all that happened to us, of all that formed us, in the long years before we had any say in the matter.

    • Occasionally I am intrigued by the idea of such continuity and depth of place, but then I face the fact that at every stage of my life I have longed for the view from the other side of the fence, so it is dumb to suppose that now I am going to change. We have been in Buenos Aires for 18 months, and have at least 12 more months remaining in this gig; already, though, I am starting to be curious about what’s next, what will the next place be like? I am ready to move on. I am always ready to move on. I wonder if that is reflected in how I write and what i choose to write about?