I’ve been thinking about truth-telling in first-person narratives in preparation for a class I’ll be giving in a few months to so me fellow MFA students. How do you follow a first-person narrator who needs to reveal something, but can’t or won’t actually admit that thing to himself? What does a narrator talk about when she’s not talking about the thing she’s avoiding? What does he inadvertently let slip when he’s strenuously not discussing this other thing? And how can we use a narrator’s language to show his awareness of what he’s hiding in spite of his efforts to steer his thoughts, as well as the reader’s attention, away from it?
I’ve been reading Elaine Scarry’s wonderful book On Beauty and Being Just. In her section “On Beauty and Being Fair: Beauty Assists Us in Our Attention to Justice,” Scarry wonders what it means when a person actively seeks out beauty. She meditates on the pursuit of truth in order to get at this question through contrast. She says, “If one pursues truth, one wishes to make oneself knowledgeable. There is, in other words, a continuity between the thing pursued and the pursuer’s own attributes” (87). Later, though she thinks that the mechanism of pursuing beauty differs from that of pursuing truth, she summarizes three ways in which continuity between beauty and its beholder might be said to exist: the beholder of beauty usually wishes to replicate it, to bring new beauty into the world and distribute it as widely as he can; the interior life, if not the exterior shell, of a beholder of a beautiful thing becomes beautified; and the object of beauty and its beholder confer life upon each other in various ways. She implies that these three mechanisms are consistent with continuity in the subject of truth, as well as in the subjects of justice and goodness. In other words, the pursuer of truth wishes to replicate and distribute it; hypocrisy diminishes in his interior life as he advances in his pursuit; and the pursuer and the knowledge pursued affirm the aliveness of each other, either, again, through the perpetuation of that truth through distribution, or by the mere surfeit of energy potentiated in the effort of pursuit and released in the moment(s) of discovery.
Yes. Okay, I thought. But to what conclusions does Scarry’s prescription lead us about a narrator who actively pursues the opposite of truth ? Will he, too, strive perpetually to augment and reproduce his falsehoods? Will his efforts at concealment invigorate him ? Or will he crenate around the dark muck of inconsistency at his story’s center that he fundamentally can’t ignore?
I work as an accountant for the MBA program at Arizona State University. The other day, I was at my job puzzling over my nascent lecture topic while simultaneously trying to reconcile a local account, all the time reminding myself that no one’s ever died of boredom. It’ s a big account, about three hundred tran sactions per month. I was off three cents and couldn’t find where. I’d been working on it for about two hours. As background to all of this, I had Best of Bowie playing quietly on my speakers.
The song “Ziggy Stardust” came on. Normally I like this song, but at the moment I was feeling about as much like a rock star as—well, an accountant. A ballad about a glamorous, left-handed guitarist who could lick ‘em by smiling wasn’t something I was feeling. I was about to turn it off and sulk when I noticed something I hadn’t before in that first shift when Bowie’s voice goes shrill and there’s that lyric about crushing Ziggy’s hands. I noticed the first-person pronoun: “We bitched about his fans.” Maybe it’s because I was feeling like a cog, but something in the bitterness of Bowie’s delivery struck me.
For the first two verses, you think the song will be a ballad narrating the movement from zenith to nadir of Ziggy, epic hero of glam rock. But soon Bowie makes two weird moves: first, the speaker suddenly becomes aggressive. Next, a curious bit of intertextuality—the strange leper-Christ comparison—swiftly returns the song to that epic, heroic scale again. Those swings between reverence and hostility continue to occur. When Ziggy dies, we are reminded of the filtering consciousness of the speaker when the narration shifts to first-person singular—“When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band.”
This last shift changes the song in a curious and unsettling way. The speaker knows where The Spiders were because he was one of them. He knows they were off in a little group together bad-mouthing Ziggy because they felt inadequate to him. He knows, if he only inconsistently acknowledges it, that he and the other Spiders made an embittered choice to let Ziggy effectively dig his own grave.
(What happens when you’re trying to find three missing cents in an impossibly long report while listening to David Bowie is, though you can’t find the three cents, other things line up.)
As preparation for giving a lecture, analyzing “Ziggy Stardust” at this kind of length might seem somewhat misguided, if not shamefully uncool. It does, though, reveal t he constriction and expansion that can occur in t he narration of an avoidant character struggling against a truth that will change him in ways he refuses to entertain. The song is, arguably, less about Ziggy than about a truth the speaker both admits and obscures with his heroic tone and slippery use of pronouns: that the things he did in reparation for Ziggy’s death—break up the band, write this song— he did too late.