Those American Lives
It’s like in that scene in Citizen Kane. You know, the one where the reporter David Thompson–in tracking down what in the world Kane could have possibly meant when he uttered, at the very moment of his death, the word “Rosebud”–visits the archives of Walter Thatcher, the man who adopted Kane as a child and is hence responsible for Kane’s wealth if not his empire. The manuscript attendant at the Thatcher Memorial Library reminds Thompson, when she admits him to the room where Thatcher’s unpublished memoirs are to be read, “You will confine yourself, it is our understanding, to the chapters in Mr. Thatcher’s manuscript regarding Mr. Kane.” Thompson comes back with, “That’s all I’m interested in,” and the stuffy, self-important librarian shoots him an offended look. Before leaving the room she reminds him, by way of confirmation, “Pages 83 to 142,” and that’s when Thompson begins to read: “I first encountered Mr. Kane in 1871….”
That manuscript passage, of course, contains the source of the “Rosebud” mystery, even if it remains deeply encoded to Thompson and, until the film’s very end, to the audience as well. There’s nothing at all wrong with indulging in a bit of self-conscious escapism, and thinking of this movie moment anytime you’re reading an autobiographical account and find yourself travelling deeper into the center of an enigma, embarked on a quest to the furthest reaches of human experience–the homo sapiens explained and illuminated in his perplexing profundity.
Or take Apocalypse Now. Captain Willard motors upriver on a boat toward the compound of Colonel Kurtz, where, when he finally reaches him, Willard’s going to kill him. But in the meantime, 0n the journey up that “river that snaked through the war like a circuit cable, plugged straight into Kurtz,” Willard steals moments of silence away from the crew to pore over the dossier he’s been provided on life he’s about to end: a man’s whole life, analyzed and summarized, the distilled digest of one strange human’s strange existence on planet Earth. Like the raw document in Kane, this dossier contains the riddle’s solution but keeps the ultimate explanation somehow embedded and unresolved; it remains implicit and elided, unidentified and out of certainty’s reach.
These two forms, the raw document and the dossier–or, to speak of their most prominent published equivalent, the memoir and the biography–are often the most rewarding experiences reading has to offer. Any book that’s been published is, by definition, no rare manuscript or confidential report, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be imbued with the same mysterious potential for revelation and discovery–for eavesdropping and eye-witnessing vicariousness. We’re not supposed to be susceptible to these kinds of impulses, but anyone who tries to tell you that has never bothered to recognize auto/biography’s potential for instruction and enlightenment–for edification in what it has to suggest, for consolation in what it has to share, and, in general and in short, for high-literary otherness in what it has to tell.
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