Sep 242010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.


Life is not a constant thing, it’s only made of short stories
I couldn’t even tell you where I’m from…I’m guided by the voices I’ve perfected.

Neko Case, “Guided by Wire”

I have to admit I totally cribbed the title for this part from John D. O’Banion’s book Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story,  a review of which is linked in an early Numero Cinq post. I’m currently ingesting this book, which attempts to reclaim narrative discourse  (which he dubs “story”) as an essential half of the dialectic of rhetorical theory, the other half being analytical thought (he calls this “list”). I’ve found it mind-expanding on every level of my own writing – I just replace “rhetorical theory” with “creative nonfiction.” I also wrote an earlier post called “7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 ‘List Essays’” which explored this dialectic before I actually started reading O’Banion’s book.

Montaigne understood this dialectic intuitively centuries before it was given a name. Every essay of his I’ve read (I’m now up to eleven) sidles effortlessly between his own thoughts and condensed narratives, so much so that the two are sometimes indistinguishable. His thoughts range from the aphoristic to personal (the subject of last month’s post), and most of the narratives are either summaries of things he’s read or accounts from his own life. One result of the fluid shifting from systematized “list” (his own thoughts) and “story” (which are, again, mostly short and condensed narratives) is that Montaigne’s essays don’t really seem like “essays” in the modern, systematized sense, but neither do they seem like narrative memoir or history . They are in effect, to borrow from Shklovsky, enstranged – they seem not normal, not scannable, not easily explained or summarized.

Perhaps this has something to do with Montaigne’s own reading habits.  Despite dying  roughly 400 years before the advent of the internet, Montaigne managed to surround himself with continual media stimuli. A gregarious, well-traveled statesman during a time of civil war in France before settling into mayorship of his hometown of Bordeaux, he also was an early beneficiary of the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press 80 years earlier, with a library with which he converses in his essays as fluidly as the many contemporary, living people in his town and country at the time. Thus, writers, statesmen, and local townsfolk bustle in and out of his work, sometimes seemingly without thought to logical or narrative structure – that is, until readers—and millions have read him in the last 430 years—realize that the structure is uniquely Montaigne’s. By the end of his three books of essays, Montaigne changes his mind about some things, solidifies his opinions and viewpoints on others – all within the confines of his strange, shapeshifting, personal systematic method of thought.

Take briefly, for our purposes here, “To philosophize is to learn how to die” from Book I of his essays. Though he begins the essay with three pages expounding on pleasure as the ultimate goal of wisdom, Montaigne’s melancholic mood while writing the essay is quite obvious from the fourth page on, as he approaches death from every angle he can find:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. (24)

And with this singular determination of thought, Montaigne tells of Egyptians bringing mummified corpses to the dinner table with them (24); the pagan practice of placing their graveyards next to the temples “so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human condition” (27); his own personal admission that he most fears death when he’s at his healthiest (28); tiny creatures in the Hypanis River who live only one day (“those which die at eight in the morning die in youth; those which die at five in the evening die of senility”) (30); Chiron refusing immortality when he found out how long it would last (35); and many, many more examples – too many to list, really. All of this is of course unified not by a specific thesis but by the Great Unifier itself:

Yes, but all leave life in the same circumstances, young and old alike. (21)

For a great majority of Montaigne’s essays I’ve read so far, narrative plays a subservient role to Montaigne’s personal system of discourse – he has thoughts and runs with them, employing personal anecdote and epic story in service to this thought. One notable exception I’ve found so far is “On the Cannibals,” which seems to do the inverse. Most of that essay – about 80% by my estimation – gives extended narratives of warring “savage” tribes in Palestine, the continent of Africa, and elsewhere that European explorers where writing about in disgust at the time. He keeps his own comments relatively infrequent. Actually, his “comments” are mostly stories from European antiquity that mirror the acts that his contemporaries were dismissing as savage. Interestingly, in Chapter 8 of Reorienting Rhetoric , “The Rejection of Narration,” O’Banion speaks to a tendency among sociologists  to rely too heavily on listing and systematizing tribal cultures, most of them oral cultures whose primary mode of thought is narrative. This attempt to systematize tribal narratives leads to ethnocentrism:

By ethnocentrism [sociologist Jack Goody] means a “framework” of thought, including presuppositions, preconceived classification systems, and unnecessary and unconsciously held limitations of perspective. (156)

Compare this, then, to one of the few instances of commentary in “Of the Cannibals”:

…every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. (82)

Here, then, is an example of Montaigne traversing the limitations of his own culture’s systematic thought by employing, when writing of “savage” tribal cultures, their primary mode of discourse – narrative. While this example reveals the limitations of systematic thought, the modern example of I Remember tells Joe Brainard’s own personal narrative as a list.

It’s not surprising after reading even one page of I Remember that Joe Brainard was primarily a visual collage artist and secondarily a writer (to his own mind, at least) – his list-memoir is a pastiche of over a thousand descriptive images, short narratives, inversions, fantasies, revelations, and name checks, all tied together only by the fact that all begin with the words “I remember.” Brainard arranges them rarely with any apparent care for narrative cohesion – rather, he piles image upon image, memory upon memory, until the memories, almost by sheer weight, combine and condense into a vibrant, sometimes hilarious, sometimes gross, sometimes heartrending portrait of a gay youth in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the Fifties who moves to New York City and becomes part of a major art movement.

When reading various “list essays,” one question continually nagged at me: Could anyone pull this off in a book-length work?  I asked this question to Patrick Madden at the July residency, and he asked me if I’d ever heard of Joe Brainard. I’d heard the name, but didn’t know much about  him – to my shame, it turns out. Brainard was an integral part of the New York School of poetry (not the New York School of art and painting, to whose aesthetic movement his artwork bore little resemblance) and, living in New York City and fancying myself a novice historian, I’m now duly embarrassed that Brainard has eluded me until now. I Remember is not just a book but a compilation – he published many of the entries in smaller, chapbook-like editions through the Seventies, including I Remember, I Remember More, and More I Remember More.

If Brainard’s memory is a wide horizon, he swathes  the disparate elements into bundles in multiple ways. Due to the list format he uses to relay those memories, I found in myself a tendency to delineate his memories into categories, or simply “areas.” I’ll attempt to and elucidate many of these areas in due time, but before that it’s important to grasp two elements they all share:

  1. Brainard is a lingual minimalist. All of his memory-paragraphs are short, with almost no modifiers (i.e., adjectives or  adverbs).
  2. Every memory is separated by both an tab indent and a line break.

Now, to briefly return to Shklovsky. These two stylistic choices work together  to remove each memory from the linear horizon, to decontextualize it, to make it strange:

The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which the image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short, to lead us to a “vision of this object rather than mere “recognition.” (Shklovsky, “Art as Device,” Theory of Prose p10)

Brainard frees each individual memory  from its original context, and forces it to stand naked, competing with thousands more naked memories before and after it for the reader’s attention. Sometimes there is a vague, free-associative sense of the memories’ relationships to each other, as in these four short paragraphs:

I remember chalk.

I remember when green chalkboards were new.

I remember a backdrop of a brick wall I painted for a play. I painted each red brick in by hand. Afterwards it occurred to me that I could have just painted the whole thing red and put in the white lines.

I remember how much I tried to like Van Gogh. And how much, finally, I did like him. And how much, now, I can’t stand him. [28]

But much more often the memories are estranged from each other, leaving the associations to the reader. These reader associations can be personal, whether a recognition of objects, emotions, or references in the memories. They can also be connections inferred between the memories – I, for example, noticed that Brainard remembered “the outhouse and a Sears and Roebuck catalog “ on page  24, then on page 60 “a ringworm epidemic and being scared to death that I would get it,” and I remembered a recent show on NPR where a scientist described his lifetime contribution to his field – the discovery in the fifties that ringworms were spread primarily through fecal remnants that bare feet stepped into on their way to the outhouse.

Now, about those categories. At first I was going to number each memory and list the occurrences of each major area of experience, maybe even make a nice circle graph that would reveal something about the balance of the memories or some logic in their ordering, but I soon realized that 1) that’s a lot of work, 2) it would be a little too nurturing of my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and 3) most importantly, such itemization would do a disservice to the intuitive, spontaneous quality of the work Brainard has created. So instead, in light if the impulsive nature of the book itself, I decided to simply open the book at random with my notecard of categories/areas in hand, pick a memory, and explain how it elucidates at least one of the categories I’ve deduced from my first reading. (The categories are in italics.)

  • “I remember a tower on top of a building in Tulsa that changed colors every few minutes. But only green and yellow and white.” (104)
    This simple, airtight description of an object is something Brainard repeats many, many times throughout the book. Sometimes these objects come before over after an event or action that gives them context, but many times, like this one which comes right after a series of memories involving the barber shop, the context is quite loose. It’s followed by a memory about the hat store, so the only inference I could imagine would be an aesthetic or metaphoric connection of the tower atop the building and the hat atop the head. Which actually makes a strange sense, given Brainard’s penchant for visual collage which is apparent here and elsewhere in the book though his visual description of colors.
  • “I remember (after school) soda fountain shops with booths, and a jukebox, but only in the movies.” (143)
    I really love this one, because it does, in three lines, many of the things Brainard does so well throughout the book – he remembers something from his childhood, then inverts it into something else, thus commenting in the influence TV had (has) on his perspective (he was, after all, raised in the golden age of television).
  • “I remember a boy I once made love with and after it was all over he asked me if I believed in God.” (20)
    Actual self-contained narratives are relatively sparse in the book, and as seen here, are sparse within themselves when they do appear. But here we have a story, in a sentence, that merges (so to speak) two of Brainard’s main concerns throughout the book, sexual discovery and god and religion. While many of his other descriptions of sexual encounters are graphic and non-erotic, this one is actually both sweet and ironic. It’s one of the few times his idealized view of love and romance shares space with the reality of his own experience.
  • “I remember a story about a couple who owned a diner. The husband murdered his wife and ground her up into hamburger meat. Then one day a man was eating a hamburger at the diner and he came across a piece of her fingernail. That’s how the husband got caught.” (59)
    This might be called cheating, if there were rules – not an actual memory but a memory of a communal myth, made especially delectable  by the nature of the myth. I mean, who hasn’t heard a story, growing up, about something disturbing going on at the fast food joint? (My mother used to tell me McDonald’s made their burgers from worms, a legend so ubiquitous that devoted a page to disproving it.) This memory/legend also combines Brainard’s fascination with the disgusting and his sense of humor with his sometimes morbid, sometimes elegiac, always matter-of-fact mention of death.
  • “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly.”
    Holy mackerel. I have to say, this one actually made me stop reading for a minute when I first read it. Here is something you’re not supposed to admit remembering, a racially charged episode where the primary cultural plotline of his time, the Civil Rights Movement, assumes secondary importance to the child’s simplistic, external view of the world. More than most, this particular memory walks a fine line between honest and asinine.

The wonderful irony of both Montaigne’s essays and Brainard’s I Remember is that both, through intuitive enstrangement of normal, everyday language, achieve their own sort of “magical realism,” for lack of a less-used term. Where Montaigne achieves this through seamless juxtaposition of the personal narrative and grand, almost omniscient statements, Brainard makes his own personal experiences epic by singling them out and alienating them from each other, and using clean, sparse language to relay them.

Serendipitiously (for me, if not for the topic of the piece), I read a recent article on about Kevin Morrissey, the Virginia Quarterly editor whose suicide has attracted national media attention. In this devastating, sad essay, Steve Almond uses a list format similar in style to Brainard’s to trace the narrative of Morrissey’s death and the aftermath, and also to question a publishing industry that’s becoming more and more bottom line-driven, writers and editors – himself included – who sometimes forget amidst the seas of rejection letters (and our own narcissism) why we write:

We’re going to destroy ourselves as a species if we lose the capacity to imagine the suffering of others. One way to do this – the best way – is via our imaginations, via storytelling. It’s our job to help spread that particular virus, in our work and our lives. The point isn’t to take sides. There are no sides. There’s just the one side. And we’re all on it. [Read it all]

—John Proctor

  11 Responses to “Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 2: The Dialectic of List and Story, with Joe Brainard in Tow — John Proctor”

  1. Really thoughtful and expansive, John. It’s great to watch you work your way through the texts and your own thoughts about writing. An example to us all.

    p.s. Montaigne’s cannibal essay always seemed to me completely ironic. The lists are so top heavy that they topple over and invert themselves. At the end of the essay WE are the cannibals. Yes, it’s not his usual structure.

  2. Very nice, John, and this takes me in so many different directions.

    “Montaigne’s essays don’t really seem like “essays” in the modern, systematized sense . . . they seem not normal, not scannable, not easily explained or summarized.”

    My thought here is that when a form is defined in such a way that it excludes certain desires and types of writing, there is something wrong with the way the form is defined. Who wants to write a “normal” essay, and what is “normal” anyway and who has decided this? In society, “normality” often veils pathology.

    • Good call, Gay. And keep in mind that I’m still learning and exploring the personal essay as a form, so who am I to say what a normal essay looks like anyway? That was one reason I chose the Neko Case quote (from one of my favorite songs of hers) – I decided against including the line that followed, “I’m guided by the voices I’ve perfected,” but I’m thinking I should have left it in. It addresses the issue of how to bring all these strands together. I think I’ll add it back, actually.

  3. I of course meant “Gary,” not “Gay.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  4. [...] Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 2: The Dialectic of List and Story, with Joe Brainard in Tow [...]

  5. [...] Montaigne’s “Of Experience,” is more interested in connections than endings. Like Joe Brainard, who was a visual artist first and a writer second, Albert Goldbarth is not known primarily as an [...]

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