Is writing inherently narcissistic? Even when writing in the third person, can the writer ever fully disappear from the page? Is the personal “I” more trustworthy in journalism because it acknowledges the reporter’s presence? Is the personal “I” in literary fiction more prone to becoming an unreliable narrator than a third-person narrator?
Lorin Stein, editor in chief of The Paris Review, sat down with Donald Antrim, Elif Batuman, and Jessica Moss to tackle the question of how writers interact with the mirror of the page in the panel Narcissism & Literature at the Onassis Festival‘s Narcissism Now: The Myth Reimagined on October 10, 2015.
Jessica Moss, professor of philosophy at NYU, opened the dialogue up by discussing Plato’s Republic. She discussed Plato’s thoughts on writing in the first person versus the third person, literary concepts that didn’t quite yet have terms at the time. She revealed that Plato believed that a first-person narrator should be “a good, noble person.”
The author of The Possessed, Elif Batuman is also well-known for her journalism for n+1 and The New Yorker. She related that she likes putting herself into her journalism pieces because she feels she will be perceived as more trustworthy. Her editor, at times, disagrees, telling her to remove herself from the story. Batuman transitioned the conversation from the Greek Plato to the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky. She told how Dostoyevsky — or as Jack Kerouac would call him, Dusty — originally wrote Crime and Punishment in first-person diary form before switching to the third-person narrator of the published version. In discussing this, the panelists agreed that the third-person showed the story through more action.
Donald Antrim, who also frequently writers for The New Yorker, is the author of the memoir The Afterlife, which deals with his relationship with his mother, Louanne Antrim, and resulted in him writing in the third person to tell her life story. Antrim explained that one of the pitfalls of the first-person narrator is that he or she is constantly in the reader’s ear, justifying his viewpoint. Antrim said, “We’re not interested in a narrator who’s telling us all the time what to think.” Antrim brought the conversation from the Greek Plato and the Russian Dostoyevsky to the English Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, an interesting exploration of narration, which starts out as a letter from a sea captain, transitions into Victor Frankenstein telling his story, and then transitions into the story of the monster.
Antrim said, “The third person doesn’t require having things figured out”; he explained that, in contrast, a first-person narrator either is telling the reader exactly how he or she feels in that moment or is reflecting on that moment. Stein said the first-person stories that interest him are the ones where there is dramatic irony because the narrator doesn’t know something. He suggested French novels use more immediate first person than American novels do. That reminded me of how Darcey Steinke once said French authors think American writers write “close to the house,” an expression, if I remember correctly, that suggested American authors over-explain themselves. As a memoirist, this is something I’ve spent significant time thinking about and working out in my writing. I once had someone in a workshop come up with what they thought was a revelation about why I acted and thought the way I did and she asked me if I realized that thing about myself, and I, frankly, was surprised that she’d asked me that because I had purposely written to reveal that very same thing. I had thought my subtlety was a sign of good writing, but their question made me wonder if people would think I’m not self-aware if I don’t spell things out for them. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Q&A for the panel because I would’ve been quite curious to hear the panelists thoughts on immediacy and self-awareness in memoir writing. I was surprised there wasn’t more talk about memoir, personal essay, semi-autobiographical writing, and the insertion of the personal “I” in journalism in a panel on narcissism. The discussion of narration in literature, however, was riveting.
Happy Earth Day! …Unless, like me, you love Greek yogurt.
I just found out it takes 90 GALLONS of water to produce one teeny tiny container of Greek yogurt.
But if you are looking for a few Greek yogurt recipes, try these delicious recipes I made:
Easter was a special time in my family when I was growing up. And by Easter, I of course mean Greek Orthodox Easter. Every year, we’d pile into the station wagon and drive down to Baltimore to spend the most important religious holiday for Greek Americans with my father’s side of the family. There would be a whole lamb out on the spit, a symbol of Jesus Christ as the sacrificial lamb, and we’d crack red Easter eggs, a symbol of the crucified Jesus breaking out of the tomb and overcoming death.
I’m all grown up now, and my family is spread out between three different countries. Holidays can be a tough time for singles — especially those in the city, who don’t have family in the area and can’t get to their family. Protestants and Greek Orthodox believers follow different liturgical calendars, and since this year our Easter celebrations didn’t align, I decided to reach out to my American friends in the city who might not have family in the area.
After inviting friends from all walks of life, none of whom were native to New York (two of whom are not even native to this country!), I started to plan the menu only to begin panicking about what to serve for an American Easter. I certainly wasn’t going to roast a lamb out on a souvla on the city sidewalk! In the end, I made egg salad, which one friend said was the best she’d ever had! Secret ingredient: LOTS of mayonnaise! I also made cold carrot ginger soup with goat cheese and carrot curls. My friends said I saved the best for last: cheesy hash browns!
The other day a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook about how his friend, a New Yorker of Greek descent, has taken to the internet because his wife doesn’t doesn’t want their unborn baby to be named Spyridon. Here’s how the headline read for the Daily Mail article:
Couple launches online campaign to decide if their unborn baby should be called Michael or Spyridon – after failing to reach an agreement despite months of arguments
A couple basic facts:
- The husband’s name is Nicholas. A common name. An easy to pronounce name.
- The name Spyridon is Nicholas’ father’s name. In Greek culture, it’s common to name your first child after the husband’s side of the family. Though a familiar Greek name, Spyridon is not common even in the diverse city of New York … well, unless you go by its diminutive, Spyro. Nor is it obvious to nonGreeks how it should be pronounced.
- The wife’s name is Kseniya, a name I’ve never heard of until reading this article. A name I’m not quite sure how to pronounce. Kseniya thinks the name Spyridon is too “archaic.” If it’s a boy, she wants to name it after her own father, Michael.
Some have posited that the husband has “the right” to name “his” son after his father. Here are a few questions to consider:
- Should the New York couple follow Greek tradition?
- Would it make a difference if they lived in Greece?
- Why should the couple follow the husband’s tradition over the wife’s desires?
- Does it matter that the child in question is a son*? Should a father’s opinion matter more for the name of a son?
- What makes the child “his” son and not “their” son?
- If the child is a daughter, would this be as big of an issue? Would you still say the child should be named after the father’s side of the family or if it’s a daughter would you side more with the mother?
- Does Kseniya perhaps know better than her husband the frustration of growing up with a a difficult-to-pronounce first name?
*Here’s the kicker: they don’t even know yet if the baby is a boy or girl!
So yeahhhh this type of marital spat is kind of how I ended up with my name. In Greek culture it’s tradition to name the first child after the father’s parents so my father just assumed I would be named after his mother. My mother (a Midwesterner who is not Greek) didn’t want me to have two “weird” names. The result? The night I was born my father ended up storming out of the hospital when the nurse came around to ask for my name and my mother refused to name me after my father’s mother. While he was out in the midst of a New York City snowstorm, my mother named me. For the record, my mother compromised by naming me after my dad’s stepfather instead of his mother and gave me his mother’s name for my middle name.
As Shakespeare would say, “What’s in a name?”
My friend and I attended Kuros Charney‘s play “The Humanist” the other night, and it resonated ever so profoundly. Here’s the synopsis:
A comedy about the corporatization of higher education. When his old flame becomes his new boss, a classics professor at a public university must fight to keep his job in the face of state budget cuts and profit motives, while defending the humanities as the foundation of democracy.
It’s widely acknowledged that the Beat Generation writers experimented with drugs, which influenced both the content and style of their writing. I’ve written before about how Allen Ginsberg’s drug use shaped his writing when he had a vision while reading William Blake, forever guiding his poetry.
But dear old Allen Ginsberg was also leery of America’s hand in the drug trade.
Let me backtrack a moment. In 1960 Allen Ginsberg became friends with Timothy Leary. Timothy Leary was an American psychologist born on October 22, 1920, in Springfield, Massachusetts—meaning he’d been born near Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac, and John Clellon Holmes a little after Huncke was born and a little before Kerouac and Holmes were born. At Harvard University—which William S. Burroughs also attended—Leary conducted experiments involving psychedelic drugs for the Harvard Psilocybin Project.
The friendship between Ginsberg and Leary led to the psychedelic revolution, with Leary popularizing the phrase:
“Turn on, tune in, drop out”
Timothy Leary invoked Socrates when he said:
The irony of this, though, is that Leary didn’t drop out or subvert authority. Much like the way the CIA funded abstract expressionism, Leary was doing research at an ever-prestigious Ivy League college which consisted of experimenting on prisoners (see the Concord Prison Experiment). This isn’t all that different than in the 1950s when the CIA launched Project MKULTRA, which administered LSD to unwitting participants as a means toward experimenting with mind control. In fact, prior to meeting Leary, in 1959 Ginsberg participated in experimental studies of LSD at Stanford University, which it turned out were administered by psychologists working for the CIA to develop mind-control drugs. Leary also began experimenting on writers.
Peter Conners’ book White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, published by City Lights in 2010, alleges that Leary used Ginsberg to further publicize his studies. Here’s the marketing copy for the book from City Lights:
In 1960 Timothy Leary was not yet famous — or infamous — and Allen Ginsberg was both. Leary, eager to expand his experiments at the Harvard Psilocybin Project to include accomplished artists and writers, knew that Ginsberg held the key to bohemia’s elite. Ginsberg, fresh from his first experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico, was eager to promote the spiritual possibilities of psychedelic use. Thus, “America’s most conspicuous beatnik” was recruited as Ambassador of Psilocybin under the auspices of an Ivy League professor, and together they launched the psychedelic revolution and turned on the hippie generation.
White Hand Society weaves a fascinating and entertaining tale of the life, times and friendship of these two larger-than-life figures and the incredible impact their relationship had on America. Peter Conners has gathered hundreds of pages of letters, documents, studies, FBI files, and other primary resources that shed new light on their relationship, and a veritable who’s who of artists and cultural figures appear along the way, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Thelonious Monk, Willem de Kooning, and Barney Rosset. The story of the “psychedelic partnership” of two of the most famous, charismatic and controversial members of America’s counterculture brings together a multitude of major figures from politics, the arts, and the intersection of intellectual life and outlaw culture in a way that sheds new light on the dawn of the 1960s.
Years later, 1967 to be exact, this conversation between Leary and Ginsberg took place about “dropping out”:
Ginsberg: For instance, you haven’t dropped out, Tim. You dropped out of your job as a psychology teacher in Harvard. Now, what you’ve dropped into is, one: a highly complicated series of arrangements for lecturing and for putting on the festival…
Leary: Well, I’m dropped out of that.
Ginsberg: But you’re not dropped out of the very highly complicated legal constitutional appeal, which you feel a sentimental regard for, as I do. You haven’t dropped out of being the financial provider for Milbrook, and you haven’t dropped out of planning and conducting community organization and participating in it. And that community organization is related to the national community, too. Either through the Supreme Court, or through the very existence of the dollar that is exchanged for you to pay your lawyers, or to take money to pay your lawyers in the theatre. So you can’t drop out, like DROP OUT, ’cause you haven’t.
The year after that, Ginsberg penned an article called “Remarks on Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy” for The Village Voice, in which he suggested the American government was trying to silence Leary:
Timothy Leary quit public life to write a book in Mexico some years ago, but he was searched by Agents of Government as he went to cross borders, arrested for possession of some herb, and thus forced to interrupt his writing, return to public action, and defend his person from attack by the State. So he traveled to academies and lectured to the young, & thus he paid large legal fees required by the State & thus maintained an Ashram of fellow seekers well known in Millbrook. Agents of Government raided and repeated abused the utopia, whereupon Dr. Leary was obliged to be Dr. Leary and lecture more to raise money for his family of imprisoned friends. Agents of Government concluded this phase of prosecution with a piece of Socratic irony so blatantly echoing an old Greek injustice that the vulgar rhetoric of a Tyrannous State would need only be quoted to be recognized, were it not for the fact that these States are by now so plagued with Tyrannously inspired chaos and public communication so flooded with images of State Atrocity from the alleys of Saigon to the parks of Chicago that official public conscience here now, as memorably in Russia and Germany, is shocked, dumbed & amnesiac.
Ginsberg grew to become leery of the government’s hand in drugs. Researching, Ginsberg became convinced that the CIA was involved in drug trafficking. Ginsberg’s poem “CIA Dope Calypso” uses the following refrain:
Supported by the CIA
Wikipedia gives a quick summary of Ginsberg’s conspiracy theory that the CIA profited off of drugs:
Through his own drug use, and the drug use of his friends and associates, Ginsberg became more and more preoccupied with the American government’s relationship to drug use within and outside the nation. He worked closely with Alfred W. McCoy who was writing The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia which tracked the history of the American government’s involvement in illegal opium dealing around the world. This would affirm Ginsberg’s suspicions that the government and the CIA were involved in drug trafficking. In addition to working with McCoy, Ginsberg personally confronted Richard Helms, the director of the CIA in the 1970s, but he was simply brushed off as being “full of beans”. Allen wrote many essays and articles, researching and compiling evidence of CIA’s involvement, but it would take ten years, and the publication of McCoy’s book in 1972, before anyone took him seriously. In 1978 Allen received a note from the chief editor of the New York Times, apologizing for not taking his allegations seriously so many years previous.
Despite our notions of how counter-cultural drug use is its history is steeped in academia and politics. Even so-called counter-cultural writers theorize the government is behind drug trafficking.
Of course there are others who’d suggest that it was Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg who were conspiring to change the world.