The Person Is Not The Same As The Character
Now it may still be a piece of cant in the academic circles I used to frequent 15 years ago that “the personal is political”, or it may be that academics have found some newer, more fashionable, cant to wave at one another, but I have never been in doubt that the personal and the political are two distinct things, though I was too polite to respond to the cant in those days with anything but a sage nod. I needed to be, if I wanted to keep my cohones intact.
These last two paragraphs are exemplary of the literary interweaving of my personal life and my political views. In the first paragraph I describe something that happened to me personally in a way that implies that the events were far more structured and coherent (“I returned in my mind”) than they actually were. What it was really like is captured in James Joyce’s Ulysses in the interior monolog of Leopold Bloom—much more fragmented and scattered than my description of it implies. Joyce is a permanent master of English for the ages so I will not try to imitate him, for the Bloom monolog requires nothing less.
In the second paragraph, my political view of academic cant is punctuated with a Full Stop formed from a literary exaggeration of my actual academic experience (“keep my cohones intact”) which, even metaphorically, was not exactly the case. I was actually far more aggressive in the academic world towards such cant, and my regular readers probably have guessed this. I’ll also leave my readers to guess exactly what academic “movement” the cant sustained. The readers, after all, ought to do as much work as I do.
So are either of these paragraphs “true” about Joseph Marshall?
To ask this question is to misunderstand my literary form. The concept of “truth” is beside the point, nearly as much beside the point as if you asked it about Leopold Bloom. Nearly, but not quite. And that ambiguity is the real literary pleasure involved. I write in the tradition of the twentieth century familiar essay, particularly in that of such masters of the form as G.K. Chesterton and E.B. White, for whom personal narrative was a foil for abstract political, cultural, or social views.
As a literary device, the personal narrative is actually about a literary character, about G.K. or E.B. and not about Gilbert Chesterton or Ted White. It is not about “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”. The phrase, by the way, is from Yeats, W. B. Yeats, I would point out. The features of the character are made up more vividly than the actual man, the incidents detailed are rearranged in a more dramatic form than is usual in life, and the line between fact and fiction is constantly blurred.
I occasionally have dopey confrontations, or field hostile questions almost as dopey, usually on the comment pages of other blogs, about whether what I write here is “true” or not.
Our literary taste in America has coarsened and, in some cases evaporated. The antonym of fiction is fact. The antonym of truth is lies. These pairs of antonyms are not intersynonymous and a developed literary taste is perfectly aware of this. I write with fact that is lightly fictionalized, to make a political or cultural point.
Since this literary form is not common in blogging circles, I have named the personal character doing the narrating here Joe Claus. Some folks can’t understand the literary distinction even then, so I have attached a broadly comic autobiography for Joe Claus at the head of my blog. Some of the things in that autobiography are true about Joseph Marshall. All of the things in it are “facts” about Joe Claus. And the narrative is so obviously fictionalized that all but the dullest should get the point.
Even then, some people escape this fine-meshed a net and get all frazzled about my so-called lies here. Such things come with the territory, I suppose.
I write familiar essays because I loved to read them, want to read some more, and can hardly ever find good new ones these days. Google and Blogger allow me to indulge this taste for free, and without literary scutwork, for which I don’t have time.
I write about politics because I care about politics. And that, at least, is “true”.