Monday, October 13, 2008

Performance, repetition, and imitation in the memoir

This NY Times article about John McCain's Faith of My Fathers should be required reading for studies in the memoir:
As he recounted his history to his speechwriter and co-author, Mark Salter, Mr. McCain echoed their stories; his memoir incorporated some of the defiance of Marlon Brando’s outlaws, the self-discovery of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and the stoicism of Ernest Hemingway’s dying hero in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” (“You know he is a fictional character?” Mr. Salter said he once asked Mr. McCain, who replied, “I know, but he was influential!”)

Mr. Salter, taking a little literary license, assembled from Mr. McCain’s recollections a neat narrative that he had never before articulated. It became a best seller, a television movie and the first of five successful McCain-Salter volumes. And on the eve of Mr. McCain’s 2000 Republican primary run, its story line reshaped his political identity. In interviews and speeches, Mr. McCain has increasingly described his life in the book’s language and themes, and never more so than during his current campaign, which has turned back to the story of “Faith of My Fathers” for everything from its first television commercial to his speech at the Republican convention.

Politics was imitating art, said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown who has studied Mr. McCain’s career and memoir. “It is almost as if McCain had described himself as a literary character,” Professor Wayne said, “and then he tried to be that person in real life.”

It would be instructive to read it along with sections from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography to think about how one practices style by imitation, and how that imitation can take different forms that are more performative than authentic of some separate, actual self:
About this time I met with an odd Volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the Writing excellent, & wish'd if possible to imitate it. With that View, I took some of the Papers, & making short Hints of the Sentiment in each Sentence, laid them by a few Days, and then without looking at the Book, try'd to complete the Papers again, by expressing each hinted Sentiment at length & as fully as it had been express'd before, in any suitable Words, that should come to hand.

Then I compar'd my Spectator with the Original, discover'd some of my Faults & corrected them. But I found I wanted Stock of Words or a Readiness in recollecting & using them, which I thought I should have acquir'd before that time, if I had gone on making Verses, since the continual Occasion for Words of the same Import but of different Length, to suit the Measure, or of different Sound for the Rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for Variety, and also have tended to fix that Variety in my Mind, & make me Master of it. Therefore I took some of the Tales & turn'd them into Verse: And after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the Prose, turn'd them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my Collections of Hints into Confusion, and after some Weeks, endeavor'd to reduce them into the best Order before I began to form the full Sentences, & complete the Paper. This was ot teach me Method in the Arrangement of Thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discover'd many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the Pleasure of Fancying that in certain Particulars of small Import, I had been lucky enough to improve the Method or the Language and this encourag'd me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English Writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.

(This isn't, of course, a comparison of Franklin and McCain; it's just interesting to think about how one goes about creating a style for presenting oneself and rehearses it in different contexts.) Franklin used this lesson of imitation in many forms, whether in his narrative personae in the Philadelphia press, in the Autobiography itself, or in his political career as a diplomat. Here's Adam Gopnik on Franklin's talent for theatrical scene-setting in his descriptions of his electricity experiments and his ability to make that talent work in diplomacy:
Franklin’s essentially ironic, distancing turn of mind, which was often so baffling to his literal-minded American colleagues—Isaacson’s funniest pages are supplied by John Adams’s stunned and alarmed accounts of Franklin’s nonchalant diplomacy on the Paris mission—gave him a kind of second sight into the minds of his hosts. There is little sham in French life, but a lot of show, a lot of rhetorical gesturing. Franklin understood the style instantly. He was pretending to be a naïf (he left his wig and powder, which he normally wore, back home in Philadelphia), which the French knew to be faux, and they were pretending to be worldly, which he knew to be an illusion.

Franklin was not just shrewder than he seemed, having the measure of his host very well down. He was also politically far more skillful. As Morgan points out, there was no necessity for the French to side with the Americans, whose cause looked like the longest of long shots and involved making league with a frankly king-hating new republic. Adams and the ornery Arthur Lee, another member of the French mission, were exasperated by Franklin’s attention to social trivia. Why didn’t he just bluntly insist on the power political formula that stared them in the face? America is the enemy of England, England is the enemy of France. Franklin understood that the “realistic” formula was essentially empty, and that there was, and is, no more maddeningly fatuous cliché than that nations have interests rather than affections. It was in France’s interest to supplant the British, against its interest to support a republic, in its interest to form an alliance with the Spanish and leave the Americans alone, and on and on. But the logic of power depends largely on the perceptions, and feelings, of the people who have it. Franklin understood that, above all, the good opinion of the French mattered. It paid to be liked and admired, and he made sure that he was. He knew that he could not make his country, and its needs, inescapable if he did not make himself, and his cause, irresistible.

And here's a piece in a similar vein from Jill Lepore about Poor Richard's Almanac and Franklin's imitations.

That Jay Gatsby's journal revealed that he imitated Franklin's Autobiography down to the lists of self-improvements makes for an interesting triangle of literary and political self-presentation.

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Anonymous k8 on Thu Oct 16, 01:33:00 PM:
I read that McCain memoir article with interest, mostly because McCain seems to me to have failed colossally at transmitting a coherent, catchy life-story that brings him up to the present. I don't think that's a bad thing, mind you, but it's not an election-winning attribute. The prize generally goes to the best story. Both Clintons had a great story, Obama's got a great story, McCain had a great moment (being tortured in 'Nam) and a reputation as a Maverick that gets weaker every time his team repeats (screams) the word. I'm trying to pin point that failure on his part -- is it that he looks so weird when he talks? That he's focused on smearing Obama at the expense of positively presenting himself? That his effort to please the right-wing base seems (is) contrived? The main features of his caricature are being a) old, and b) too easily ruffled. But maybe I'm missing something. (I did swear off reading about the election for three months when I was trying to finish three scripts.) My mom, a self-described Washington DC independent, loves McCain and thinks he's very brave, but doesn't understand what he's doing with his campaign. My brother, a Navy guy, was inclined to support him until he picked Palin.

I think the same issue of the Times carried this article on political caricature --
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/arts/13conn.html -- which argues more or less that the most appealing cartoon wins the day, so campaigns are really in the business of inventing and upkeeping the best cartoon candidates. Slogans, sound-bites, and, most dangerously, political promises that can be packaged and sold as slogans and soundbites blaze the campaign trail, not efficacious policy or nuanced opinions.

So for me, the article describing how McCain has striven to grow into his memoir persona failed to meter one thing: does the public perceive him as that person, and if so, do they actually like that person?

-Kate

PS -- Go Obama!