Of Candor, Perfect and Imperfect
July 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
“All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor,” wrote Walt Whitman. I wonder if he’s right. I’m thinking of the public disclosures of autobiographical essayists. Readers prize the light shone into corners the writer might have preferred be kept dark. We quickly sense the inauthentic, fearing, when a writer indulges, the quick tip from earnestness into solipsism. We want the essaying to be truth-seeking in the old Saxon sense of truth as faithful — in this case faithful not only to the author’s biography but to the artistic imperative to render and interrogate one’s life meaningfully and memorably.
What interests me in Whitman’s claim is the danger of self-indulgence. “There is, of course, such as thing as a rhetoric of sincerity,” Phillip Lopate insists, “and the skilled essayist can fake a vulnerable tone.” The result of manufactured openness, Lopate warns, is revulsion on the part of the reader. Essayistically, candor originates in one of two sources, self-interest or self-effacement. In Riding Toward Everywhere, his recent Kerouacian memoir of hopping trains, William T. Vollmann mines both sources dangerously (and entertainingly); in the book’s best moments, Vollmann blends the contemporary confessor’s desire to be center-stage with the artist’s recognition that a fault-finding vulnerability is a humane gesture toward the universal. That’s a hard balance to strike, and Vollmann’s book characteristically falls over itself in a lot of places. But I appreciate the tumble-and-get-up energy that propels it.
Though nearly three centuries separate Whitman’s preface from Montaigne’s, the similarities are striking. Montaigne: “Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows….” And Whitman: “I will not have in my writing any elegance, or effect, or originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains…. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.” Two writers, two impulses to essay the self, and some coyness: both are consumed with the formal properties of their writing, both knowing that there’s value in editing as well as in confessional sprawl.
What’s Whitman’s “perfect candor” anyway? I’m interested in an imperfect candor, hesitant, skeptical of immodesty, equally concerned with the rigors of art and the illicit pleasures of confession. My faults are interesting and worthy in as much as I can essay them artfully as landmarks in human topography, permanent things that outlast the weather, that will be here for the next generations to be troubled by, maybe care about. An imperfect candor might know when to shut up, or when (and how) to unpack a fault and rummage inside, and find something beyond the shock or the titillation of confession. The autobiographical essayist dwells in the differences, and the distance, between frankness and art.