Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Life Stories

Life doesn’t come together, at least not in the living of it. Too many heterogeneous events, too prosaic, too repetitive, too continuous. Things that seem meaningful get buried under an undifferentiated mass of occurrences. It’s like when you move somewhere new and in the background of unfamiliar streets, buildings, and landscapes there is a different smell, a smell that comes with the place. You tell yourself: “I like this smell. I hope I remember it always.” But you don’t. The longer you live somewhere the more you lose the sense of what made it distinct. It merges into the beige of life. That’s the way important events often feel in life, deprived of their color by the mere fact of continuing to live.

And that explains the lure of biography. Biography takes the stuff of life and makes a story. It does so by framing a segment of life as significant. This is not to say that biography selects only the most meaningful events or that it ignores the mundane because it does not make for compelling stories. In fact, nineteenth and twentieth-century literature has taught us that the opposite is true, that the banal and boring are perhaps the only things worth narrating in the prose of modernity. Biography, by selecting, declares the section of life narrated as meaningful. That span of life symbolizes a problem to be resolved by the story. Biography does what life cannot, delimit. It places a starting point and an endpoint on a segment of the incessant continuum of life. Of course life itself starts and stops, but its ending provides something much larger than narrative closure.

By biography I mean more than the kind of formal biographies and autobiographies one finds in book stores. I don’t just mean books about the lives of important people or people that assume that by telling us about their lives they are important. Nor do I mean only novels that are written as if they were biographies, whose organic structures are borrowed from the organicity that we project onto biographies, that they depict the real lives of people. Biography as I’m using the term here means every story we tell about ourselves in writing or in everyday speech. It includes every anecdote that features us as hero or victim. All the stories that we tell about ourselves aim to draw some conclusion by putting a line through life that says “here this began and here it ended.”

So when One Direction sing “The story of my life/I take her home/I drive all night to keep her warm/And time is frozen” they seek to forestall the feeling of aimlessness generated by the pooling of days. In these words life is not a thing whose very magnitude makes it undecipherable or even worse unknowable. Instead life is a story and as a story it at least has a plot if not a purpose. The figure of time as frozen illustrates perfectly the need behind this sentiment: to have life stop long it enough for us to understand it. That this desire is rendered in a bittersweet tone is not significant to the wish-fulfillment that it reveals. It doesn’t matter that life pauses for us to recognize that what we get may not be what we want. All that matters is that it pauses.