The portrait was once a primary tool for the shaping of public perception. You can argue with me about the competing roles of banquets, weddings, coronations, and edicts but the point is that a picture, an artwork, has a historical sticking power. Images, like the distinctive visage of Henry VIII (wide, smug, magnificent), echo across time. But fashions change and the inception of the photograph has somewhat depreciated the value of a painting. It is more and more common to see the autobiographies of politicians and celebrities published, almost as a formality of fame.
Ulysses S. Grant penned his memoirs because he was broke and dying of throat cancer; he needed to provide for his widow, but nowadays the hands of prime ministers and presidents do not need forcing to produce autobiography. Writing one’s own story is a milestone, the cementing of an illustrious career. Though as replicable as a picture, a written work has its own allure. The autobiography is the work of its writer and in recent centuries we’ve developed a tendency to admire more fawningly a self-made man. A self-made narrative suites the heroic individual perfectly.
There is too the rise of literary non-fiction, the literary memoir and the personal essay. More and more authors have chosen themselves as their subject, perhaps heeding that ancient advice: “write what you know.” But there is an undeniable power to the personal voice. Experience, be it biting a pear or being hit by a car, is the route by which we know the world, each other, and ourselves. The authenticity of one’s own account lends it credence, especially for authors who find themselves at the margins, where their understanding of things is unbelievable without strong evidence. Using your own voice is also sticking your neck out. You must be accountable for what you say. You must say the right thing.
These two, I think, are the halves of self-writing in our contemporary world. One, an instrument of power and prestige. Two, a technique for truthful and beautiful expression. As with all binary distinctions, it is really is more mixed than that. Still, the rising prevalence of the auto presents us with difficult challenges: questions of who gets to decide what is authentic, disturbing confusions of the actual vs the textual, and the fact that people can just make stuff up (often about other people and events they have no right to) and call it my story. I would like, for the sake of both brevity and my sanity, to avoid the topic of the publishing industry. Undoubtably, it is a powerful arbiter of the public effects of personal writing, though we see those effects in what goes unpublished. Setting that aside, we are left with the record that we can see, which I think can be well explicated by two works: Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies and St. Augustine’s Confessions. My goal isn’t to answer the contorted questions I posed moments earlier, but to see how those contortions affect us as readers.
One of the oldest and most famous memoirist must be St. Augustine, the 4th to 5th century theologian and one of the Fathers of the early Christian Church. His Confessions were a necessary piece of public relations work. The guy had an unscrupulous past. He was a party rat, a celebrant of non-Christian religions, and had a hearty appetite for the pleasures of the flesh, all before he committed himself to Christ, of course. The Confessions explain the journey from sinner to saint. The whole book is fraught with moments of intense vulnerability and humanness. By becoming so acquainted with the tumult of St. Augustine’s soul and his doubt, we are convinced of the intense reality of his faith. But then there’s the moment when he sends his common-law wife away. Common-law was a word for concubine; a Christian man needed a proper Christian wife. She, who even bore him a son, is given no name, says no lines, and disappears from the city of Rome and the text equally as easily. Augustine preserves his choice and how it weighed on him, though his wife is felt more as an absent presence. The writer Suzanne M. Wolfe wrote a historical novel, The Confessions of X, to save Augustine’s concubine from obscurity. All the characters—the saint, his mother, the wife herself—are rendered lovingly and fully. Still, the work of imagination is unable to take us back in time. The story of the autobiographer remains his own while some are forced to settle for silence.
Surely, Homeland Elegies will go down in the canon of literature as a work of personal writing to match The Confessions in its ambition and effectiveness. The novel first presents itself as an autobiography. The book was written by Ayad Akhtar, the Pakistani-American Pulitzer prize winning playwright and author. The book is about a certain Ayad Akhtar, a Pakistani-American Pulitzer prize winning playwright and author. So, it seems pretty straight forward, until you google the names of characters (tenured professors, stock market moguls, notables) and come up with nothing. Much like St. Augustine, Akhtar (which one?) wins his reader’s trust by exposing his worst side to us. He admits to losing his way, to being beguiled by the glitter of wealth, to becoming a “pig to women.” To be fair, some of the book’s events are farfetched enough to raise doubt (he claims his father treated Donald Trump for a rare heart condition and to know Pakistani-Americans assassinated by the CIA), yet their reality is unquestionable. Would a guy who admitted to being so gross lie about anything else? But the book itself will never yield a final answer about its relationship to the nitty-gritty facts of history. Akhtar is so eager to achieve the effect of reality to make a broader point. By convincing us (if only briefly) of his narrative’s facts, he convinces us of the economic and political reality he represents. Akhtar traces the financial woes of America to the administration of Ronald Reagan, to the loosening of regulations that allowed corporations to absorb smaller businesses, which lowed the cost of commodities but also workers’ wages. What matters is not that the people and events of the novel exist, but that the socio-political context which created their resentments, their moods, and their feelings about the American project is real.
Often, we underestimate our agency as readers. A writer is a formidable opponent in the arena of their text, true. A second opinion is difficult to find once time flies by, yes. But we can always take a step back. We have an option other than being pulled along. Augustine’s decision to bid his wife adieu has been subjected to much scrutiny, even as it serves as another stone in the building of the saint’s fraught internal life. Was it really that unthinkable for a Christian man to have this sort of relationship? The Bishop Ambrose, who Augustine greatly admired, allowed unmarried couples to partake in the Eucharist, for instance. For Akhtar too we can question past the sturdy reputability which self-deprecation creates. A beloved teacher of his, a lesbian, remarks to Akhtar that, “Exile’s hard.” He replies “Exile?” And that’s exactly my response too. Sure, Akhtar can’t solve his problems by going back to his father’s country, but is he exiled? The man won a Pulitzer prize. He’s in one of the most elite positions in American society. And the professor friend owns land, she has acreage. Buddy, what are you talking about? Then the pupil and instructor share a drink to celebrate their truly untenable, unbearable, impossible position.
The works of St. Augustine and Akhtar are both delightfully effective at producing personalities and histories through the reality of the personal voice. But no technique is iron-clad. The self-criticism that auto-writing engages in can be our own gateway into greater scrutiny. But I must admit that my heart felt touched when Augustine’s wife leaves for good and heartened by Akhtar’s toast to alienation.
A writer is a formidable opponent in the arena of their text, true. A second opinion is difficult to find once time flies by, yes. But we can always take a step back. We have an option other than being pulled along.