Form's Life: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer
[This is the second half of Form's Life, a thesis written in 1986. The first half appears in Readme 3.]
Eruditio Ex Memoria
Memory, history, personal history, autobiography, metaphysical autobiography, Eruditio Ex Memoria is all of these. Yet this book projects a memory not of the self, but of the self as defined by the knowledge which makes up the self, which perceives the world in which the self lives. And in this sense Bernadette Mayer's new work is a cosmology, an encyclopedia, an anatomy ... Unlike the picaresque which is a satire of society, of its structures ... the anatomy is a satire built up through a presentation of a vision "of the world in terms of a single intelletual pattern." Northrop Frye continues (in Anatomy of Criticism) "The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that results reflects only the carelessness of the reader of his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction. The shortest form of the anatomy is the dialogue, but there is a strong tendency toward a display of erudition, of encyclopedic knowledge, of complications, catalogues and lists ..."
Douglas Messerli, "Anatomy of Self," L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, #7, March 1979
In his review of Eruditio Ex Memoria, excerpts of which I've quoted as the epigraph to this chapter, Douglas Messerli defines very concisely the character of the book. He describes it as an objective documentation of the self: "the self defined by the knowledge which makes up the self." It succeeds in this project as Studying Hunger was unable to. The perspective of Studying Hunger was to look at the self from the inside out; Eruditio Ex Memoria is more epistemological, a deconstruction, followed by a reconstruction, of the building blocks of knowledge.
Mayer's compositional method for this book is to rescue the reams of documentation she acquired throughout her academic life, and to reformulate them as art. I have never seen old school notes put to such fruitful use. Walter Benjamin said that "boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience"; in this case it hatches the egg of art. As a student, I many times wandered off the linear path of the professor's discourse and aestheticized my notes as I took them; Mayer creates an entire book from this technique. The result is a book of facts and reflections which, although they are multivalent, are more straightforward to read than any of her previous works. Eruditio is essentially a list, with no logically necessary order; Mayer published the book without pagination like knowlege, it is contained in one "place," but it need not be retraced in a straight line. New combinations (and hence new insights) are always possible. Eruditio is a monadology of knowledge, whose units (epistemes, really) combine like those of the DNA spiral to make a life. The convergences that create dynamism in this text come from many different orders of things, and so sometimes sound fanciful, but never arbitrary. We do not merely witness the chance meeting of umbrellas and sewing machines on dingy operating tables. Mayer culls the book's substance from facts and ideas deliberately taught and learned, then altered by Mayer's art, will, and humour:
Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms. Stanislovsky, etc. Add up a column of numbers, it comes to William Carlos Williams to me. What are the spiritual heights, she said. Just as Uncle Vanya looks like a dial, Paris comes and goes, prissy, lightfooted and beautiful-looking, but, by and large, the outside forces come to the surface. By the same token, we seem fully uneven, without the bones and stays. The homecoming: she opened and closed her conversation with adequacy. There's a picture of a woman dancing with a leaf for a hand, her head on a string, hanging forward. It's Madam Shaw. relevant is relevant, irrational knot, unsocial socialist, unpleasant and pleasant Madam Shaw. Oh Shaw, polygmammalian, the candidate, there's heart and a louse on the skunk.
Stanislovsky, Williams, Chekhov, and Shaw meet here in Mayer's mind, the "outside forces" (knowledge) having "come to the surface" (Mayer's attention). We are privy to the explosion of poetic language this encounter permits. Without the "bones and stays" of narrative logic, the text might "seem fully uneven," but in the form of a list, everything counts ("relevant is relevant") and the side of the brain that adds up numbers has to be willing to concede they come out "William Carlos Williams" to the other half. Like all of Mayer's works (because she places such an emphasis on intention), the book is profoundly self-aware; it is its own best critical authority. But it is deliberately not authoritarian; it refuses to close the vital questions of writing:
Literature is a way of behaving: you commit suicide (if you're a surrealist, who told me this). The tragic view of life has something to do with laughter and the phrase "wretched idiocies." The poet inspires events (Son of Sam). The little words are tenuously connected containers, little communicating vessels, they are strong moral bricks, they are none of these. We have a big vantage point within or without them, within or without the world, Without the world, what does that mean? Does that mean I remember everything? Everything is then coherent?
"Everything" is at least coherent within the stapled boundaries of the document, which refuses to settle on any glib classroom definition of how a text operates. Instead, Mayer provides the shocking example of David Berkowitz to underscore and ironize one fo these easy formulations. Here she is also in a veiled sense referring back to a previous work. That David Berkowitz should have been a poet is not inconsistent with the violent narrative of Studying Hunger; his crimes were the enactments of his literary efforts, whereas Mayer's literary efforts are tehenactment of her crimes. Literature is thus "a way of behaving," rather than a monolith upon which words with undisputable meanings and functions are inscribed. Mayer means, of course, not to valorize Son of Sam, but to underscore the function of writing as an active force, so active that words cannot be characterized as containers (which are hermetic, and which concept separates the "meaning" from the "word"), as vessels (also containers, although they can move), or as too-too solid "moral bricks."
As in Memory, Mayer never presents the memories here merely "as was" but always layered with knowledge from the vantage point of the present moment of writing. They accrue to give an almost cubistic by which I mean composite portrait of a self, as Messerli, of course, points out. Mayer knows she is making a self-portrait; Messerli rightly calls it "an unveiling." Mayer also knows that the sources of her knowledge are inaccessible to many readers, and this is a problem for her, for she desires communication. Her sentences and statements sometimes become very simple, particularly in these passages from the book's coda:
I am of a different generation from my parents and from my children. I have had a father and an uncle. And some men and women of my generation are of a different age from my own. I am of the female sex, I the speaker. I have a husband who is perhaps your son or brother, or friend. I have a blood relation in my sister and in my daughter. Perhaps you knew my mother or my father. My name is Bernadette Mayer ...
... There is a problem in writing and in writing from my notes I am beginning to see that I make some assumptions about my age and about my language. I expect something and I think you know exactly where I am and what I am doing when that might not be so. I have a memory and a backlog of knowledge and information that is not necessarily complete for you.
Such concern is unusual in the avant-garde tradition, but it is characteristic of the New York School's tendency to disguise their erudition. Ezra Pound, as an extreme example, would not have been quite so accommodating; we either would have been privy to his "backlog" or we would have been cretins. Some of Mayer's contemporaries (Clark Coolidge and Charles Bernstein are some that I've cited in these pages) value the obfuscation and complexity in their writing, and rarely unveil its sources; Mayer herself could hardly be held up as an example of clarity. But her concern here is one that every avant-garde writer has to face, for no matter how one explores the materiality and resonances of langauge, it is still an instrument, and one does, after all, have "something to say." Also, having written in difficult forms for years, Mayer may have felt the weight of some of her readers' perplexity. Possibly the experience of motherhood, of reading to her children and teaching them language, had something to do with her concern. She sounds almost guilty when she describes her rich learning and her awe of language:
I have feelings about words and my mind plays classical tricks with them, tricks of conduct, rites of vice, figures of virtue, associative ideals, Greek and Latin studies, the Bible comes in here. Medieval authors wrote to glorify God, some wrote to teach moral lessons, some to earn a living and that's all.
But Mayer's not a medieval writer and her audience is not a medieval audience:
The bourgeois audience is accustomed to listen, at least for a while and it is a useful and understandable act, an art in itself, to be alerted to levels of meaning, to expect to understand.
Mayer too, though, is excluded from some varieties of knowledge, as she tells us, consoling and allying herself with us, those people left behind:
I do not understand the Norman influence on literature, the time of the courtly romance, I do not understand the language of nobility, I understand better this bug on the table. This florid bug.
Her present knowledge of the objects before her attention is more comprehensible, of course, than the "backlog" of human knowledge that is inaccessible to her; likewise, the book in its materiality, taken as "a florid bug," may be more accessible to us than the labyrinthine knowledge of hers the demonic cast in which she presents it:
... and there is the face of wickedness, again the face of my education upon me which I walk backwards like a devil on a moral precipice to cast off. I am loosely guarded, I have a response of love. I cannot be artful yet I cannot fight.
In a painting I am a Chinese woman turning away from a bowl of fruit.
Messerli asks of this last sentence if "this [is] an Eve with a second chance, this time redeeming by giving up that knowledge, by releasing it?" Given Mayer's Catholic background, such an interpretation is probable. But Messerli rightly rejects the limits of that interpretation: "To pin the image down that way is to miss the point, is to turn back to the fruit and eat it." Most readers will not, I think, insist on the Biblical analogy, or at least not merely on it, for they will have been admitted into the mystery of a human mind, formed of knowledge they will have penetrated
the loosely guarded ring of thought that is my assurance, my goodness, my rock.
Previous Chapters (Readme 3)
Current Chapters (Readme 4)
Eruditio Ex Memoria
The Golden Book of Words
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