Coming Back to Me, Part I

I used to carry notebooks full of jotted excerpts from books and cryptic love memos to the authors. These entries feel a little embarrassing now that I’m no longer fully in the throes of my crushes. But I still wonder at them.

Looking through a notebook recently I encountered three pages on Marc Chagall’s My Life and remembered the affection I felt when I read it. At the top of the first page I’d scrawled “Techniques Worth Emulating” and then created three subheadings—“Mixed Address,” “Non-narrative Plotting,” and “Unusual Figurative Language.” Each included breathless citation and breathless praise. “Mixed Address,” referred to the way Chagall suddenly shifts to address his reader, a general you, an absent someone, or some historical, third-person reality. Here’s an excerpt from that section discussing Chagall’s thoughts about missing his father’s funeral and his relationship with his brother David:

In the middle of a first person account, Chagall addresses David, recalling how he painted him with a mandolin. He openly criticizes himself, “It’s wicked that I wasn’t there. He would have been so pleased if I had appeared. But he will not come to life again. I shall see your grave later… I shall lie down full length on your grave. You will not come to life even then” (197). He’s not clear how or when he shifts between his brother and father and creates an odd expansive grief with no specific target. When he addresses his old girlfriends, he says, “No one speaks your names anymore. I shall walk past your streets and I shall transfer the bitterness of dreary meetings to my canvases. Let those mists of our days shine and flicker there. And the spectator will smile” (72). Of course we are the spectators, and, by mixing address so thoroughly and chaotically, he makes us feel pointed to even when he works in third person. That feeling of a continually shifting persona is chronic here. With such unpredictable address, all the participants, especially us, remain present. So, when he addresses his wife Bella and tells someone—her, us?—not to read on because, “I shall write a few words to myself alone,” he is really inviting us to continue. A few sentences later, he says, “My memory is on fire,”  (146) and the statement rings with greater intimacy because he’s told us he’s not talking to us.

Though quoting myself quoting Chagall seems silly and discussing this passage in third person more so, I miss my earlier self’s ambitions. He’s so earnest. He’s so naïve. I still sometimes want to steal the approaches of other writers and make them mine, but Chagall’s voice is his and—I’ve learned since—emulation is risky. My earlier version didn’t worry about risks. He had dreams, and, if his affection was puppy love, he was seeing so much for the first time. He found himself standing at doors having rung the bell despite himself and not really recalling what convinced him to stand there. His undisguised gushing is charming.

I wish I were courageous enough to do what Chagall does, to single out people in my life, to break the fourth wall and turn to them as you watch, but my discretion—well trained by performing my identity, by propriety and by my “voice”—fights me. My inner Prufrock tips his teacup to his lips and, hiding his mouth a moment, sighs. His eyes dip as the ladies talk. The desperation hasn’t waned, but optimism has.

Students often ask, “What’s your favorite book?” and I either avoid thinking about it by answering as I always do, or I avoid thinking about it by reading the title on the first book cover that surfaces in memory. The question is too hard, not because it’s too complicated to consider what constitutes “good,” not because there’s mystery in what makes a book fit our taste, not because just about every book contains something to admire, and not because, with so many types of books, it’s challenging to compare at all.

I do repeat those excuses all the time, and all are all legitimate complications, but actually it’s just impossible to explain how, sometimes, literature arrives in your life like a lover, setting every leaf and twig of you aquiver. Yet your love can’t last.

Even though you can’t remember it vividly, and the memory is sweet.

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6 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Marc Chagall, Memory, Nostalgia, Reading, Recollection, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

6 responses to “Coming Back to Me, Part I

  1. How interesting–makes we want to read Chagall’s book. Also reminds me of how I cringe when I read my old journals, and really struggle with the desire to destroy them so my poor kids won’t feel obligated to having to read them, and also because that person is so earnest and naive and full of angst–not how I wan’t to be remembered. But I can’t quite make myself toss them yet. Still on my to do list 🙂

    • dmarshall58

      For a time, I read only the writing of visual artists, and I remember running into some wonderful meditations on what it means to be an artist in the broadest sense. I remember especially enjoying My Life and telling everyone I knew about it. However, another issue with the question “What’s your favorite book?” is the way your memory of a favorite book fades. Whether my memory of books I love is accurate or not, whether I should continue to love what I once loved… well, that’s the subject of part II. Anyway, I hope you will give Chagall a try. The prose is loopy and floats the same way figures and objects do in his paintings, but then maybe I don’t expect sense in prose the way some of my students do. If you don’t mind unmoored prose, you might enjoy it.

      I have those old journals too. Some are full of poetry I wrote as an adolescent and college student. I never look at them and can’t imagine why anyone would after I’m gone. Yet they persist. I can’t toss them either. They may be more important as artifacts than as documents, I guess. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. –D

  2. Such a lovely and provocative post. I am so happy to be reading a blog that impassions me!

    I so know what you mean about missing parts of your younger self. Your past notes on the work are lovely and honest, you should do something with them. Something. There’s a beauty to not knowing all there is to know, yet thinking that you do. It seems our innocence somehow casts our newborn perceptions in a low and flattering light. All too soon the floodgates open and the light of living rushes in, purges from our eyes these sturdy truths of youth.

    If we can’t be young again, maybe we can at least find ways to be reborn. That’s my hope 😉
    Best,
    Patrice

    • dmarshall58

      Well said!

      That I’m still combing through those notebooks away tells me something might be done with them, but mostly they seem the work of another person. It’s disconcerting to discover I’ve forgotten most of what I find, but it’s impressive that I used to be so diligent and conscientious. Perhaps it means I still could be.

      As a teacher, I have this strange fantasy of meeting my younger self, of having him walk through the door of my classroom, spouting something frightfully clever with his eyes just missing mine and his shoulders stooped in a broody way. He’s carrying Crime and Punishment, which he hasn’t really read well but likes telling people he loves. I wouldn’t say anything to him about the future–that would spoil things and my help wouldn’t help–but I would like to talk to him. I imagine it’d be simultaneously painful and charming. The past meets the present on awkward terms, but the dissonance must mean something.

      Thanks so much for your comments. –D

  3. Thomas

    Stop reading my mind! It’s so easy to relate to what you’ve written here. I wonder how many of us feel the same way? I always thought I was one of a very few (how naïve) to have an “inner Prufrock”. It’s a pleasant surprise to find out that you aren’t alone.

    • dmarshall58

      I always have to remind myself that Eliot was in his early to mid twenties when he wrote the poem–it seems so much the work of an older guy (what I imagine myself being)–and it just goes to show how the Prufrock’s feelings are more common and more ageless than they might initially seem. Maybe we all have our “inner Prufrock,” or some facsimile, that tells us, “The best may already have happened.”

      Naturally, I fight that sentiment, but you can’t help being overwhelmed by it in a world that so values the vitality and freshness of youth.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. –D

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