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When I began to write this book, I viewed it as a satirical attack on the recent fashion for memoirs, for nostalgic, first-person reminiscences. Avoiding the personal point of view, I wanted to examine my behavior impersonally, to write the memoir of a nameless individual, the autobiography of both no one in particular and everyone in general. Rather than casting wistful glances back at my past and presenting a narrative account of my psychological development, I wanted to step out of my shoes and adopt the unsparingly objective stance of an observer in the monkey house, a bespectacled primatologist studying the curious antics of a creature in captivity scurrying around its cage. I would use myself as a pretext for probing the banalities of daily life, for rediscovering the unexplored territory of the commonplace and the habitual, for snooping around my messy desk and unmade bed, spying into what I keep in my junk drawers and beneath my kitchen sink, and staking out the shady goings-on in my bathroom and clothes hamper. I did not want to write a nonfiction novel, a docdramatic recreation of my unhappy childhood, troubled relations with my parents and two sisters, failed love affairs, battle against depression, midlife crisis, brush with alcoholism, but rather a type of anthropological bildungsroman that would tell the story of how I occupy a specific set of rooms, how I interact with the things I possess, how I cook and bathe, laugh and make faces. Mine would be a memoir without time, an account of a man without a past, a perverse behavioral experiment that concentrated only on thoseaspects of daily living we all share, on how we groom ourselves, wash our clothes, cheat, make love, laugh, lie.
But as I began to write, I found myself asking if it wasn't a little disingenuous of me to pretend that I was "no one in particular," if my experience of life was as universal as it should be for such a project, and if a statistical sampling of one—and a somewhat idiosyncratic statistic at that—was sufficient to draw credible conclusions about our most mundane behaviors. It became increasingly apparent that I was an unlikely guinea pig for my anthropological study, that the way I live only occasionally reflects the way the majority of people live, that an effete homosexual who spends six days of the week reading and writing, who lounges around for most of his waking hours in his house robe and pajamas, and who ekes out a subsistence living working one long shift as a word processor, scraping by in America's most expensive city, may not, in the final analysis, be an ideal candidate for the starring role of Everyman.
My conception of what I originally characterized as an "anti-memoir" thus began to change in order to accommodate my specimen's shortcomings and eccentricities. I decided that I would incorporate more personal commentary than I intended, that I would indeed present a schematic chronology of how I developed, but that I would do so only secondhand by recounting the history, not of myself, but of an inanimate object or activity pivotal to my life, as I do in my two most conventionally autobiographical chapters, "Writing" and "Reading." Instead of starting at birth and ending at the age of forty-three, I would examine how my wardrobe and sex life have evolved, how my relationship to books has changed, how I cannot lie with the same poetic license that made my childhood fibs so colorful nor write with the same degree of hysterical animation. In this way, by telling my life story vicariously through things rather than events, through prose and facial expressions, underwear and book bags, idioms and in-jokes, I would at once retain the high level of objectivity I sought as an antidote to the traditional memoir and yet avoid presenting myself as something I very obviously am not, an ordinary Joe Blow with a family, mortgage, and nine-to-five job, a type of man who would never even think of undertaking the sort of self-dissection I set out to perform armed with a computer, some tape cassettes, and an appalling lack of shame—for that matter, of taste.
Something deeply personal lies behind this cinéma vérité experiment. The thick armor of vanity that protects my ego from the knowledge of its own insignificance has at last been pierced by the dawning realization that my literary ambitions may remain unfulfilled and that I will probably never secure the audience I once believed I would reach. Perhaps even here I am simply making a case for myself, expressing resentment, railing against the injustice of neglect, begging for my fifteen minutes of fame. But if there is a chip on my shoulder, I must remove it. Having waited nearly twenty years for that most fickle of Godots, a readership, I find myself at a typical midlife crossroads in which I am beginning to look for happiness outside the frustrating business of "making it," an enterprise that has consumed so much of my time and attention, leading me to neglect my enjoyment of the world for a hypothetical future. By reducing myself to nothing more than a kind of living camcorder, an intellectual device for exposing the method and meaning of the prosaic, I undertake a search-and-rescue mission to recover what remains of my life after I have stripped it of all illusions of wealth, fame, and glamour, refusing to live in a constant state of deferred gratification. My efforts to reengage with what I call my material unconscious, with what I eat and how I clean my apartment, can be understood as a Cartesian quest for absolutes, for truths that rest on foundations more secure than my aspirations. In the course of this experiment, I transform myself into the Robinson Crusoe of the quotidian, a shipwrecked castaway who must relearn life at its most basic physical level, explore its fundamental premises, teach himself all over again how to talk, dress, write, read, and bathe.
Such a thorough undertaking requires strong measures. My most incriminating observations rest on a truism that has governed much of my adult life: that articulating a secret robs it of its power over us, that the unutterable cannot withstand its utterance. Much of the behavior I discuss is a source of acute embarrassment for people, who cannot bring themselves to admit that they examine the tissues on which they blow their noses, lie constantly, and adore being dominated in bed, even though feminism has taught them that the pleasure of submission is, on ideological grounds, inadmissible. My tendency to hack my way through the thicket of taboos that has grown up around a culture naively convinced of its permissiveness rests on my heartfelt conviction that silencing fears only intensifies them, that the hygienic rite of confession makes one strong, and that the rattle of skeletons in one's closet provides the softest and most soothing of lullabies.
The memoir continues to enjoy enormous popularity among readers because we are a prurient culture and enjoy watching people bare their souls, confessing their adulterous affairs, attempted suicides, incarcerations in asylums, incestuous relationships with their fathers, and reconciliations with long-lost illegitimate children. There is nothing that can shock us when it comes to the secrets of the heart, but this is not the case when it comes to the secrets of the body, to the positions we prefer during sex, to our hygiene, to the nasty habits we engage in behind closed doors, what we sniff and where we scratch, subjects about which the less said, the better, which are none of your business and, what's more, too trivial for serious discussion. We pride ourselves on being unflappable, on having seen and heard and even done almost everything there is to see and hear and do, and yet we rarely discuss with others the messy biological realities of our lives, which we conceal behind a veil of discretion and taste.
Some will undoubtedly find my book too detached, and still others, because I look so closely at my habits, self-indulgent and narcissistic. I am at once impersonal and too personal, treating myself as a specimen in an experiment and yet forcing the reader to get too close for comfort to the minutiae of my life.
I grew up in a liberal, middle-class family. My father was a disaffected Jew who, much to his mother's anguish, married a disaffected Southern Baptist, a country girl who found God in a revival tent in rural Missouri after she mistakenly raised her hand when the preacher began roaming the audience in search of sinners who had not been saved. She lost God only a few minutes later when she exited the tent, and so my sisters and I were spared any religious education whatsoever—a great blessing, in my view, even though my father regrets our lack of faith now that he is retired and, like so many aging Jews, is prone to waxing sentimental about the idols of the tribe. He was first the dean of a university in Wisconsin (on a hunch, he left his job in the late 1960s only to see his successor burned in effigy the following year during campus riots) and later became a therapist who lived modestly so that his low-income clients could afford his fees, which they often paid with the barter of their handicrafts—paintings on pieces of driftwood, lopsided clay pots, and macramé plant hangers. My mother was the director of a large day care center located in a crime-ridden, drug-infested housing project in the heart of Appalachia. Here, as a volunteer, I attempted to give the children the physical affection that many of them were not receiving at home, kissing every sore thumb, scraped knee, and snotty nose within a ten-mile radius. My parents were outspokenly antimaterialistic and lived more frugally than they needed, perhaps out of respect for their own humble beginnings—a lesson that has served me well ever since, given that, after leaving graduate school in 1985, I have refused to work more than two days a week as a word processor. Politically, they were both left of center, and they instilled in me strong democratic principles, discouraging me from viewing myself as superior to others and welcoming my eclectic set of friends, often drawn from the dregs of humanity: a wall-eyed Seventh Day Adventist; a fourteen-year-old black unwed mother; and, much later in life, an alcoholic prostitute and daughter of a Mafioso.
My parents' belief in the importance of social service organizations, along with the radicalism of the counterculture (by the age of thirteen, I was a gangly hippy with a huge Afro of frizzy split ends), fostered in me a fiercely egalitarian commitment to helping the poor and fighting for minority rights. My politics, however, simply did not jibe with an aspect of my life that pulled me in exactly the opposite direction: my homosexuality. I grew up taunted by the very people I now hoped to serve, the sons of Wisconsin farmers, gang members in Buffalo, and rednecks in Appalachia, bigots whose scorn I met halfway with my own contempt, a self-protective superciliousness I cultivated by embracing the very things my peers despised, most notably, literature and art. I became a snob, an elitist, a dandy who, during one mercifully brief period in early adolescence, adopted a cane and, during a much longer period—in fact, for the rest of my life—a faint British accent.
But at the same time that I was looking down my nose at the unwashed masses, I was kissing their children, malnourished six-year-olds who came to the day care center starving, with black eyes, distended bellies, and rotten teeth. Early in my adolescence, I was torn between the political lessons of equality that were a key part of my moral education and my survival tactics as an effeminate teenager—my use of books, culture, and an air of sophistication to project the kind of power my heterosexual schoolmates found on the basketball court and the football field.
As an adult I experienced this tension in another way. After five years in graduate school, I fell through the cracks into a cultural limbo, the ill-defined realm of the "independent scholar," that elephant's graveyard of Ph.D. dropouts who, the victims of either the tenure crisis or the civil wars decimating humanities departments, found work as temps and taxi drivers, waiters and word processors. I became an autonomous intellectual in the age of the academization of belles lettres, a decision that has consigned me to the Gulag of the intelligentsia, an isolation in which I keenly experience the lack of literary companionship. My disenchantment with the university has only intensified my alienation from my culture, which is rooted both in my sexuality and in the fact that I have no institutional affiliation whatsoever and have been forced to pursue the life of the mind under nearly monastic conditions.
The tension between my elitism and my liberalism, my at best marginal standing as a freelance writer for literary quarterlies, and my desire to be part of a larger community, appears in the unlikeliest places. It works itself out in my wardrobe, sense of humor, voice, and prose style. In fact, it underlies the very structure of this book, which often becomes a dialogue between the separatist and the democrat, the memoirist and the social scientist, the biographer who thinks of himself as a unique individual with a highly personal view of the world and the zoologist who looks at himself purely as a specimen. In respect to many of the fears, desires, and routines I discuss, I could easily be describing not an East Coast intellectual but a truck driver from Peoria; both read in the bathroom, leave the cap off the toothpaste, refuse to discard broken answering machines, suffer from catastrophic name blocks, smell their own farts, launder their sheets less often than they should, and pick their scabs.
It is unlikely, however, that the truck driver from Peoria suffers from my own morbid fear of botulism, buys his gym trunks from the women's section of sporting goods stores, or worries about the unsightly gray hairs spreading over his shoulder blades and sprouting out of his nostrils and earlobes. The point of view of my book thus oscillates between the specific and the general, between my life story as told through inanimate objects and a careful analysis of behaviors characteristic of the species as a whole. In this democratic exercise in self-demolition, this act of public suicide, I reduce myself to the lowest common denominator and attempt to reestablish my connection with others. It is difficult, after all, to harbor any illusions of your grandeur when you admit to thousands of readers that you are a nose-picking, toenail-biting sufferer of gas attacks who, in your youth, wrote—worse, preserved—reams of egregious nature poems.
In many respects, I am the perfect consumerist human being: I have stuck myself together like Mr. Potato Head from traits I purchased in stores and pulled off book shelves. I have divorced myself from my family and my past and reinvented who I am, what I look like, how I act, eat, talk, dress, gesture, and even decorate my apartment. I am a typically modern, deracinated person with no moorings in history, religion, community, class, clan, nor even the corporation, the major institution from which people now derive their sense of purpose. I have turned my back on every single presupposition that once lent structure to our lives: I have no religion; grew up in an entirely secular household devoid of rituals; feel deeply alienated from the materialism and conventionality of my minority group, the so-called gay "community"; am revolted by the pervasive postmodernism of the university; and, although I have a steady job, now work only one twelve-hour shift on Sundays, scarcely enough time to provide me with a very strong feeling of mission.
Excerpted from A Memoir of No One in Particular by Daniel Harris. Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Harris. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|6||Moving and Making Faces||109|
|8||Farting, Pooping, Peeing, and Bathing||151|
|9||Cleaning and Decorating||169|
Posted June 14, 2010
No text was provided for this review.