Stanley Fish On Three Popular Narratives and Their Limits

Stanley Fish in yesterday’s New York Times writes about a recent essay by Charles Van Doren in the July 28 issue of The New Yorker.  If you saw Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford, you know that Charles Van Doren disgraced himself, his family, and perhaps even academic life, by participating in a rigged quiz show on early television (1956) before an audience of 50 million.

Fish first flips Van Doren’s clever title “All the Answers” on its head by telling us that we will find “None of the Answers” to the obvious question of “why did you do it?”  However, instead of excoriating Van Doren for failing to deliver, Fish chooses to praise him.  In the end of his article, he makes comments very relevant to the current state of memoir writing.  They are worth quoting in full:

“He does not cast himself as a victim, or as a reformed villain or a misunderstood hero, three narratives that are quite popular in these days of compulsive self-discovery. Now in his 80’s Van Doren still hasn’t discovered himself (do any of us?), still hasn’t been able to plumb the depths of his motivations for actions that remain unfathomable, even to him, especially to him. The best thing about the essay is its refusal to claim self-knowledge while still desiring it. He imagines someone asking, “Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?” — and implying by the question knowledge of what being Charles Van Doren means. Certainly it means that he is the person who did what Charles Van Doren did — “the man who cheated on ‘Twenty-One’ is still part of me” — but it also means more, although the bearer of the name is not sure what that more is. “That’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am–or, at least I don’t want to be.” It’s that last bit — “at least I don’t want to be” — that is so in keeping with an autobiographical writing that tells and hides all at the same time. It is what makes the essay at once maddening — because it tantalizes without finally delivering — and affecting — because you sense that the author is not playing a game or laboring to reclaim a lost honor, but trying, as best he can, to live out a life.”

Honesty, modesty, the refusal to conform to the three popular narratives already proven at the box office, these are qualities Fish admires.  I do also.  But I wonder:  if our greatest human failings are, in the end, unfathomable to us, why do we always come back to them?  Are readers so eager to fathom someone else’s failings (in popular memoir) because they cannot do the same for their own?

Shirley Showalter

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