Mendelsohn starts his article with Freud's refusal in 1929 of an advance of $5000 for an autobiography, and he cites Freud's reaction to the invitation. "What makes all autobiographies worthless," Freud wrote, "is, after all, their mendacity." Mendelsohn discusses Augustine's Confessions as the first of the literary autobiographies in the West, and then confesses that he had signed up for a non-fiction book on contemporary gay culture in America, but had found that the more deeply he got into it, the harder it became "to isolate what 'gay identity' might be." Because he did not want to suggest that he somehow stood outside the tensions and instabilities of his subject matter, he thought he would write about himself: a memoir. It was published as The elusive embrace.
In his New Yorker article, Mendelsohn ranges across many issues, including journalists who just make stuff up, and of stories of holocaust survivors presented as autobiographies but written by people who weren't even there. His thoughts in the article conclude with him and his brother, Matt, sitting on a plane when some people behind them, members of a choir, started to sing a song. Matt said: "Remember we sang that in choir?" What Daniel remembered was that he had been in the choir but that Matt had not been in it. Daniel was in the process of writing a book based on people's memories from more than twice as long ago as those of his and his brother's boyhoods.
A psychological study that Mendelsohn mentions is that of Frederic Bartlett (1932). The study is well known in psychology but not nearly well enough known generally. In it Bartlett completely contradicted the idea that we can generally be accurate in what we recall. We can remember certain details, and we store these in memory along with an attitude and a sense of the whole. If we need to recall, we can sometimes retrieve some of the details plus our attitude, along with our knowledge of how the world works, and we construct an account of what must have happened. Bartlett explained that in remembering we are hardly ever entirely accurate, and usually it's not at all important that we be so.
Uncertainty about what really happened is an issue that rightly exercises historians and journalists. But the deeper issue, raised by Bartlett though not mentioned by Mendelsohn, is that when remembering or, indeed, when trying to make sense of anything for the first time, we are constantly engaged in an "effort after meaning" (Bartlett, p. 20). In his refusal to write an autobiography, Freud wasn't worrying about truth and untruth, but about truth and lying. He was suspicious of being cast into a situation in which he would find himself making willful distortions. The pressure to present oneself more-or-less favorably to a readership that could be unsympathetic may be too much. Of course it may. In his Confessions, Augustine made a cunning manoeuvre by taking up a purpose other than mere self-presentation. He depicted his life as necessarily sinful because we are all necessarily human. For the rest of us, it might be possible to confess to a loved one, to a psychotherapist, even to a priest, who will understand us as if from the inside. But confessing to the public about matters that were troubling even to ourselves?
Fiction, then, in which one searches for truths other than those of mere actuality, as if from the inside, may be the real expression of the human effort after meaning.
Image: Saint Augustine, detail from a stained glass window by Louis Tiffany
Augustine (circa 401). The confessions (G. Wills, Trans.). New York: Penguin (current edition 2006).
Frederic Bartlett (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Daniel Mendelsohn (1999). The elusive embrace: Desire and the riddle of identity. New York: Knopf.
Daniel Mendelsohn (2010). But enough about me. New Yorker, January 25, pp. 68-74.