Benjamin Kunkel is a young writer who has been getting a lot of acclaim recently. I heard about him regarding n+1 magazine, profiled I think in the NYT a few months ago. He’s published an essay in today’s Books section that really touched on something I’ve been thinking about this weekend.
It’s been years since I’ve read Thoreau’s “Walden,” but I’m going to seek it out today. The copy I keep with me and read at least once a year is The Fledgling, a children’s book, short novel really, by Jane Langton. Set at Walden Pond, it follows a time in a young girl’s life where she befriends a Canadian goose who teaches her how to fly. But I think it’s time to revisit the primary source.
Today Kunkel laments the absence of forward-thinking, positive life-giving inspirational memoir writing. He notes the proliferation of nostalgia and tragedy-driven chronicles of people’s lifes. Acknowledging their ability to inspire, he nevertheless wishes that what people write about felt more assertive, more in control and above all, more actively involved in engagement. He writes, “Contemporary memoirists have taught us mostly how to survive. They haven’t begun to teach us how to live.”
And that’s a powerful statement. Now, I’m not sure that it’s up to the memoirists at all. However, I understand the attraction to the Romantic kinds of “secular autobiographies,” as he calls them, where a powerful philosophical force comes directly from a person and directly from their personal experience. To take advice from one who knows. (As a side note, there’s also a review of Edward Said’s newest book on musician’s late periods, and he may just be one of these people in our era.)
But this was already on my mind because of last night’s excursion. I watched a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my neighborhood park, and left with that puckish sensation of otherworldliness. That play has always spoken to me; on so many levels do I feel exactly what Shakespeare was trying to convey. The surety of it, and the seamless transformation from his day to ours, is astounding, really. That one moment, I am in a high school play rehearsal thinking one thing, and another, I am on a blanket in a sunset viewing of Pyramus and Thisbe in Seattle, is a strange thing to behold. But works of art connect our experience in ways unexplainable, but always thrilling.
What Kunkel is saying about teaching us how to live is important because AMND shows, rather than tells, the weight of our daily decisions, the motivations behind them, and the mystery implicit in a fantastical dramatization of the real world that we may not believe we live in. Most likely, humans are not at the whim of faeries in the wood, but that does not deny their existence.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Will Shakespeare (amazon)
“Misery Loves a Memoir” – Ben Kunkel (new york times book review)