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Notes on the Autobiographical Mode

for Jane Brakhage

         I'm telling you a
        story to let myself
        think about it. All

        day I've been
        here, and yesterday.
        The months, years,

        enclose me as
        this thing with arms
        and legs. And if

        it is time
        to talk about it
        who knows better

        than I?

There was a time—primary but not primitive—when experience of consciousness did not separate it from the sensory and perceptive as an agency somehow isolated from those other situations of experience. I mean, the concept and location of mind is relatively 'new' to us as people. Some obviously felt it a significant step forward, as Bruno Snell in his book The Discovery of the Mind . Others were less happy, feeling that the isolation, thus, of the mind in

Black Sparrow Press, Sparrow 14 (1973).


body, and its use as a decision , call it, for all that otherwise constitutes body information, overweighted the mental as against what I'll call the physical .

Mental and physical are aspects, clearly, of one primary unit or organism called a human. But, curious now to realize, there was a time when the eye saw, the hand held, the skin felt, ear heard, nose smelled, etc., each in a primary input to the body as total organism. There was no debate, so to speak—the thought occurred in the experience: Bang! Once mind could think of itself, and so propose an extensive condition of its own function, these primary inputs—and they must remain so, no matter what's 'thought'—seemingly yielded to the mind's activity. Thus, if one were cold, the trick was 'not to think of it' or else 'to think one was not very cold,' hence warmer than one was apparently feeling.

I love these tricks of the mind, yet feel increasingly uneasy concerning the impact upon us of their authority. A few years ago Tuli Kupferberg promoted a lovely, if terrifying, slogan: Kill For Peace. How could that be? Well, you had these bad guys, that is, one thought they were 'bad,' and these good guys, similarly created, and if you killed all the bad guys, then of course the good guys were 'free'—as they had been to kill—to live in peace. Get the appropriate context and anything in the world can be very simply thought of as 'true.' I smoke, for example, not because it may give me cancer and kill me, but because I like to, or I have it as a habit, or I think it gives my hands and mouth something to do. I—what I experience as my mind thinking of me —have no problem in removing the causes of possible distress. After all, it's only my body that dies in any case. My mind never will, etc.

Auto-bio-graphy I translate as a life tracking itself. One interesting factor here is that bios (life) did not initially extend to animal life but was involved with human only. Later, in compounds, its meaning is made to cover organic life in general: biology. It would seem that even at this point life had something very significantly to do with life thinking of itself. What is my life to me? Is it a good life? Organic or animal life happened . It could be acted upon, even obliterated—like the dodo bird, but its occasion seemed inextricably involved with its event. There's a large lion in the forest, said the man to his wife whom he had thought of one night in April and thus married. It's me, she said, looking at him. What does it mean: there's a large lion, anywhere, and has anybody told the lion?

I want to think for a while, of anything. Say birds—I like them. People—terrific, if they like me. What a great life we're having, if


comfortable in our seats and minds and hearts. Or horrible,—rejected, unloved, in pain. I want to think it over. And over and over and over. Will thinking get me anywhere? To Detroit, possibly. Or here, for those of us who came from elsewhere, truly another abstraction.

In fact, it was that we could haul it away, like some ultimate garbage crew, that we came to be here at all, in this place with heads alert to learn, aching for information: The New-s. Abstraction, that yanking from one thing—call it organic life—just enough of it to let it still be there somehow, like the Venus de Milo, and then to use the arms to indicate the whole, so to speak. Obviously she was a lovely woman and her arms were really great to have around you. Once home, with them safely tucked into bed beside you, it possibly occurred to us, as to you, that something precisely to be desired had been left behind.

So what happened? That's where one possibility of the autobiographical can clearly enter. Try to remember. Statue. Arms. You. What did you do with them? What day was it, or night? Think. We'll give you all the time you need. "Lives of great men all remind us/ we can make our lives sublime/ and departing leave behind us/ footsteps (prints?) on (in?) the sands of time . . ." I can't remember. Simply write as clearly as you can what you think was the situation. It's your life.

Or, paradoxically, it may have little at all to do with memory. Or let's say, memory is a source of material, fantasy as well as fact. I remember! "I remember, I remember/ the house where I was born . . ." Like a movie my wife told me of in the old days, of doctor coming home in carriage with horse through driving rain, finally pushing his way through door into house, wife all excited and waiting for his first words, which are: Tonight history was made. I have just delivered Louis Pasteur!

You begin at any point, and move from that point forward or backward, up or down—or in a direction you yourself choose. In and out of the system, as Buckminster Fuller would say. It's a system—of valuation, habit, complex organic data, the weather, and so on. Usually the choice is to track it backward, that is, most autobiographical impulse tends to follow this course. One can think of one's life as not worth remembering, in fact one can want to forget it—but if what has constituted it, the things "of which it was made up," as William Carlos Williams says, are dear to your memory and experience of them, then it may well be a record of them, a graph of their activity as 'your life,' is an act you would like to perform.


This mode of autobiography is close to our usual senses of history, his story as we said in the fourth grade, and it is also useful here to note history comes from a Greek root, historein: to go find out for yourself. This was Charles Olson's clear point of emphasis in his own procedures, that self-action —the middle voice—was crucial in human existence. Why he so insisted, I think, comes of his belief that humans get truly lost in thought and language insofar as no substantiating act, particularly from and of and to the human itself, takes place. You can't be taught if you won't learn—just like the horse who won't for whatever reason drink.

So here then is possibly a motive, as well as a mode, for a kind of autobiography that might well be interesting to any of us. Olson also said, we do what we know before we know what we do. That's deeply interesting to me—it's where our bodies return to our minds, among other things. I feel a threat, not a pleasure, in Descartes' statement: I think, therefore I am—if that experience is felt to be somehow the most significant thing we can do. Again it's the situation of the abstract that I am uneasy about, that we can be here as thought , and that we will so be , with primary reality—which of course we also have thought—no matter what else may prove our actual state of being. Or it may be that he was just defining the word 'I'—that I thinks, and me is otherwise the case.

Me leaves many traces. Diter Rot made works of art the accumulation of what me -ness in the physical world is: rooms or apartments which slowly filled with casual input, bags, papers, garbage, junk, and when they were no longer habitable, being simply too full, he sealed them, then left, deeming them actual in a way another record of his existence within them could not accomplish. Another man suggested taking daily pictures of one's physical self, face or whatever, at a photomat, say, so that a 'track' of that aspect of one's life might be documented for referral. In each case it would seem that the point is not the thought of one's life but rather the fact which no situation of 'I' can gainsay.

Autobiography in this circumstance might be very interesting indeed. You know the way people say, we all have a story within us—something specific in our lives that would, could we only get it said, be something worth hearing. That may well be true but I don't think art is particularly involved by it. Writing, for example, is an activity dependent on words as material. It may be felt that it matters what they 'say' but far more decisive is the energy gained in the field or system they are used to create. Small hambones versus big beef cutlets . That is, you may see literal things thus sug-


gested, but you are hearing also a system of sounds and rhythms that these materials are effectually creating. In like sense, the "Chef's Special" may sound good to you—but it may be awful to literally eat, and you won't know what it is until someone who does know tells you.

Again—stop it all. The boat's left, it's gone, nothing comes back from that place. You can run the film backward but it won't be the same. E.g., Ken Mikolowski has a lovely poem simply of the fact you can reverse linear patterns: Oh say can you see becoming See you can say oh . Time is either an imagination or else a phasing inherent in the system, organic or inert (including abstractions). What is your life that you're going to write it down, or make films of it, or whatever it is you had in mind. The one thing clear about your life is that you are living it. You're here—wherever that is. Whitman was quick about it, saying, "Who touches this book touches a man." He knew that whoever was holding the book to read it would physically be there. And that, believe it or not, is really fast thinking. I write these words , muttering, thinking, to myself. Cross fingers and I may well be dead before I ever chance to read them to you—a powerful and dangerous thing ever to say even to oneself. Witness what the words have done to me as I gains locus.

We—that unimaginable plural of I!—want our lives to be known to us, we don't want it all a seeming dream, back to Plato's cave again. We want the light —even a rock band or particularly a rock band called Plato's Cave, if nothing else seems to get it on. We don't want to hang around waiting to be x'ed out at some 'later date.' Henry M. Yaker writes: "Certain primitive cultures have no past or future tense in their language, and express all events of life, real or mythological, in an 'eternal now' . . ." That sounds fair enough. Everybody's here at this point, and they always were—despite the lack of communication. Of course a 'we' will still be found to flood thousands of acres of forest at the headwater of the Amazon, regretting they haven't means to inform the divers people living in those forests of the impending 'event.' That's another mode of autobiography, 'think big.' This will really get them in Des Moines. And so I tell you, friends and neighbors, although I come from humble origins, early in life I took the big chances—and won. You want to work for someone like that? Don't—even if you have to. Fuck him up, like they say. He's taken everything else.

Is autobiography, at least the written, just a means of self-justification, the 'facts' that excuse you? A few days ago in New York I got five parking tickets in forty-eight hours. When I put that


into my linear patterning, it fair broke my mind—and I felt like leaving for California that very night. The car, happily, was already there, viz. California license plates—so, I'll be back. But not always to say, gee, I'm sorry, or, wasn't it nice yesterday. Shucks.

Too often we are told to generalize ourselves in the pattern of an idea that may or may not have specific relevance for what we feel as persons otherwise. The imagination of a commonwealth must make that sharing literal—there cannot be an invested partiality hidden from the participants. When the New York Police Department has persons within it who will literally threaten to run other persons down with trucks in order to gain their compliance, no matter how 'guilty' those threatened may be, one cannot accept the agency. Realize that the general , the we-ness proposed in various realities, may well prove to be this kind. Obviously any 'we' must, willynilly, submit to the organic orders of its existence: must sleep, must eat, must drink, must move, must die. But that is very nearly the totality of the actual demand. Elsewise, the "geography leans in," as Olson put it. Place is a real event—where you are is a law equal to what you are.

To discover a precision in this situation, to act in the specific context, takes all the wit and alertness any one of us can bring to it. You'll recognize that people tend to check one another out, coming from divers places. With hitchhikers a few nights ago, I had an extraordinary information of routes that can move us across this country, bypasses, numbers, weather, places—and the people to be met with in every major nexus of persons from here to L.A. Time as well was particular—as it is insistently for the Guatemalan Indians, who have a precise vocabulary of explicit measures for the way in which you are moving—on foot, say, or on horseback, truck, etc. And these are not interchangeable, only translatable.

What the autobiographic does, primarily, is to specify person —at least it has that capability. Reading, for example, Mandelstam's widow's book, Hope Against Hope , persons become actual—there is no generality of impression such as, Russia is hostile to the Jews. A literal man is demonstrated as experiencing a viciously insistent persecution, finally resulting in his death. One can, of course, feel the report exaggerated, simply that it is his widow who relates the story. But her words are again, literally, a person saying them. You, as person also, can make up your own mind—and the question isn't one inviting you to feel that poetry in Russia should be more respected. The fact is, it is respected—so much so that Mandelstam dies because the power of his gift is so feared. Think: scrawled on


the wall of a death camp by someone waiting to die, a line of Mandelstam's, one not even to be found in a so-called book but carried in the ear, mind and mouth, person to person, all that bitter distance.

One time, years ago now, Allen Ginsberg was at a party in New York talking with a young woman about the apparent hostility publishers then felt toward the younger American poets, myself in particular. She was, as it happens, a junior editor at Harper's, and listened patiently to his irritation. Then she said, we've been in business for over eighty years and I think we know what we're doing. At which point Ginsberg naturally flipped—You? You've been in business for over eighty years? Why you're only twenty-two years old!

Why not speak for yourself. Sooner or later you'll have to. There are no sure investments. Watch the dollar do the dirty float—like a mind, a dead idea, fading out.

I'm tired and I want to stop this mumbling. But I've made a commitment, and I want to respect it. That's true. What other experience of 'I' is interesting, except that which manifests its patterning, the laws of its own imagination and possible experience. Tell me who I am. Amnesia, but the person continues eating, sleeping, begins again. In group therapy investments of the experience of 'I' are relinquished, even forced out. Richard Alpert recalled his first experience of LSD as being a loss of all ego support—his sense of himself as a brilliant young psychologist, a professor at Harvard, a successful son, and much more, melted like ice in hot sun. Can you melt yourself, 'autobiographically,' can you stand, literally, not to be some absent dream of glory, just what your mother always wanted.

Or consider Gregory Corso's reaction to people talking about the joys of ego loss: lose your egos? You're not even good enough to have egos. Agh.

So keep on tracking—life. "To measure is all we know . . ." You want to use somebody else's ruler, that's your business. I don't know that all the emphasis upon individual sensibility isn't some simple con game, simply 'divide and conquer.' But who are you, and why does your life propose itself as a collective. Is it a premise got from the fact we constitute a species, 'we are many'—which is certainly attractive to any me of myself I can experience as I . There's no pleasure in being by yourself finally, always alone.

I love the possibly apocryphal account of nineteenth century people in Russia going up to absolute strangers in the street, grabbing them by the knees, and then confessing to them some incred-


ible act. Like Dostoyevsky's account of the rape of a child with which he had been involved. Or Ginsberg saying to the old poet in Peru, I want to know your dirtiest secrets. We've had a lot to do with those 'secrets,' lately. In the My Lai inquiry soldiers told humanly awful stories in seemingly unquestioning tones of voice—such as giving a pesty kid a spam sandwich with a thermal device inside it, which then flared in the kid's throat and stomach, killing him. What gave them containment was the general —the United States Army in this instance. You give each of the six men of the firing squad a gun, only one of which has a live bullet. You shuffle the guns first of all, so that even you can't identify the lethal weapon. Then you check your own commands, and then you give the order to shoot. No one has killed anyone, specifically—he's just dropped dead. Suddenly I think of the general of an army, old Mr. Abstraction himself. Ours not to reason why—ours just to do it, and let those mothers die.

Autobiography might be thought of, then, as some sense of a life responsive to its own experience of itself. This is the 'inside out,' so to speak—somehow reminiscent of, It ain't no sin/ to take off your skin/ and dance around in your boh-hones . . . Trying to take a look, see what it was all about, why Mary never came home and Joe was, after all, your best friend. Not to explain—that is, not to lay a trip on them—rather an evidence seems what one is trying to get hold of, to have use of oneself specifically as something that does something, and in so doing leaves a record, a consequence, intentionally or not.

The sculptor Marisol speaks of using herself, over and over, in her work. "When I show myself as I am I return to reality." When one wears a uniform or otherwise generalizes the condition of one's experience of oneself, that "reality" is most difficult to enter. There was, sadly, a professor employed at the University of New Mexico who one time began a lecture with the statement: As I was shaving this morning, seeing myself in the mirror, Professor Jones, I said . . . That is the end of the story, just another professor, no one otherwise home. There can be a different experience of that situation as one of the earliest discovered occasions of written language makes clear: I, John, foreman of Pit 7, hereby testify . . . Or words to that effect. This is the responsibility of identity, not its specious investment. Do you know how to drive the car, can you stop this bleeding, are you a competent doctor, lawyer, teacher, father—or are you just out to lunch.

There must be times when the experience of being oneself is al-


most unendurable—by which I mean, something has happened, oneself being the agency, and it is unspeakably difficult to accept what one has thus done. Williams, a markedly autobiographical writer, spoke of poems as "capsules wherein we wrap up our punishable secrets." That is a Puritan sense certainly, but Puritans have been great practitioners of autobiography—Thoreau, D. H. Lawrence and Edward Dahlberg among them. Any context which makes one feel singular in life, a specific isolated consciousness in the universe, intensifies the attraction of this situation of statement. Camus' first draft of The Stranger uses an I which is markedly himself, I am told, and certainly 'existentialism' is a Puritan stance.

No doubt there are clear signs of a kind of paranoia in this mode, just that the I feels itself surrounded by a they to which its experience of itself cannot easily refer. Paranoia in the arts is by no means unfamiliar. The artist must often feel that he or she has been deliberately cut off from some generality of social grouping, and so must both state, and implicitly justify, the fact of his or her 'life.' Since no one else apparently cares, I will speak of myself to myself. I know that I, as an artist, have never dared to imagine in working that an actual audience might be literally attentive to what I have to say. Therefore my primary experience of an audience has been my own eye, or ear, listening to what it was that was being said. My wife tells me that I often mutter when writing, and also frequently laugh—both instances of the situation I am describing. Now, older, when I am at times asked to say something specifically to an audience, I am still dependent primarily on what I hear in saying it, not what the audience may hear. In that respect I am very thick-skinned, and can take a good deal of abuse, as long as that which is getting said is of interest to me. Another situation of statement would obviously stop, confounded, when it found that response, apart from its own experience of itself, was hostile.

When Angus Fletcher speaks of the change in the imagination of how persons may experience the world, from Marlowe to Bunyan, say, he is emphasizing the shift in consciousness from a communal locus to a singular one, to an I that has discovered the possibility of its own assumption of the right , self-defined and self-asserted, to be an I co-present and equal in that sense to all other possibilities of reality. It is a giddy moment, and perhaps a deeply tragic one. Bunyan, despite the fact that Pilgrim's Progress uses the form of autobiography, is far indeed from its literal experience as we would now define it. He is a deeply communal man and cannot speak as one . Marlowe, on the other hand, seems very present in Dr. Faustus —we


think of his literal life, witnessing that play. With Goethe, we are in a different 'place' entirely, far closer to social 'mythology.'

It is Castaneda who 'autobiographically' tells us of Don Juan's teachings. Don Juan is not interested in 'himself' in that way, as those teachings, even so filtered, make clear. I think it wise to be aware of this problem, so to speak, insofar as any autobiographical mode can seem to be significant in itself —just as the I of its creation has assumed, ipso facto , that what he or she has to say is significant. If, by significant , one means that the statement signifies something, no matter what, then all seems well and good. Anything that happens 'signifies.' But if there is otherwise an intention, an ulterior motive as it's called, then the problem is very much more complex. Is that great man's life, which reminds us, in itself directed to do so? That is, did he literally live it for that purpose? Possibly yes. But what he thought he was doing, no matter how directed, can never to my mind be as actual or as significant as what he was , literally, doing. Which is to say nothing more than that Hitler must have been no less possessed by an idea than was Jesus, and we know that what affects us is the event of that fact in each case.

When people are very old, and there is the consciousness of death coming upon them, a very marked impulse to tell what their lives have been occurs. I don't think it is simply loneliness in that situation, or that they have lost otherwise a place . The grandfathers, and grandmothers, are the great storytellers—and in societies alert to that human need they are of course so used. They tell a life of I that becomes more than singular consciousness in isolations of intent or assertive energy. They are, as it were, taking the I back to its center. Olson once told me that the initial sign for the pronoun I was a boat. Insofar as I is a vehicle of passage or transformation, its powers are clear. Realized as will or personality, that 'mealy seal' as Olson called it, the power vitiates as soon as the energy necessary to sustain it exhausts itself. "L'état, c'est moi" is truly the end of a period.

Those of us who came of age in the forties remember the extraordinary turmoil within human consciousness, which was, on the one hand, the Second World War, and, on the other, existentialism. We saw what Jung might call the 'individuation process' enter the nightmare of 'divided creation,' torn from centers of physical reality. The heroism of Allen Ginsberg in the fifties cannot be overemphasized: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical . . ." Come back into the body. We do not go 'backward' or 'forward' in the mind—we live


and die. Olson, dying, was relieved, almost to delight, that the fundament , that physical thing we are, had not been lost in the firmament , that mind world of stars and extensions.

What can one do? "Tell the story." "To tell / what subsequently I saw and what heard / —to place myself (in / my nature) beside nature / to imitate nature (for to copy nature would be a / shameful thing) / I lay myself down . . ."

To bear witness. To be here, to hear. To tell.

Buffalo, N.Y.
March 22, 1973


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