All of the Self You Can't Leave Behind

Then went one of the twelve,
who was called Judas Iscariot, 
to the chief priests and said to them:
What will you give me, and I will deliver him unto you?
But they appointed him thirty pieces of silver.
And from thenceforth
he sought opportunity to betray him (Matt 26: 14–16).

As the dismay of Spy Wednesday segues into the deep embrace of Maundy Thursday, followed by the horror of Good Friday and the shocked silence of Holy Saturday, we are participating in the drama that is faith at its most intense. All we can do now is surrender to the inscrutable ways of God. The eucatastrophe will follow, we know, after forty days and forty nights of scrutinizing the self and all its doings. Because faith, in the end, is always rooted in the personal. And if one had no faith—what then? The pattern of pain, disaster, and—we hope—the return of joy: all these are inscribed in human experience, wherever we stand on the religious spectrum, or none. Introspection is a universal human trait.

That mystical number of forty also applies to the years that Benvenuto Cellini, one of the early practitioners of modern autobiography, suggested one should wait before telling one’s life story. The Duke of Sussex did not receive this memo. I finally read his youthful memoir Spare, not out of curiositas, so much as a genuine desire to understand. After putting it down, I wished that the young man with uncanny similarities to an earlier monarch nick-named Harry—another passionate and impetuous red-beard with a penchant for kicking over the traces—had paused before rushing into print fresh off his flight from jungle to wilderness.

Harry’s account of his youthful traumas, served scalding hot, is admirably frank. But it is also soured by side-servings of resentment. Mocking descriptions of an ugly teacher at primary school or his father’s eccentric personal habits don’t help his case. The attractive side of the swashbuckling warrior-prince gets eclipsed by what feels like a protracted (not to mention rather privileged) adolescence. An outcome that could have been avoided, perhaps, in the hands of a ghostwriter with a sense of personal responsibility for his client.

The boy tried hard to be a man,
his mother let go away of his hand . . . 
walk away, walk away . . . 

To speak of the self is a risky enterprise, opening the door to forces beyond the control of the writer. The authorial ego is laid bare on the page, its innermost thoughts rustling in the long grass, giving away their location to any raptors circling above. This, at least, is the thought that occurred during an episode of David Attenborough’s celebration of British wildlife, Wild Isles, in which a vole foraging for food whilst feeding her young attracts the attention of an owl. “Her only defense is . . . to freeze.” Watching this in the midst of reading Spare immediately put me in mind of Harry’s mother, Diana Spencer. Freezing in front of relentlessly clicking cameras is not where you would want anyone to find themselves. The Machiavellian maze created by a toxic mix of celebrity culture, mass media, and modern royalty takes no prisoners. Put your head above the ramparts, and you are dead meat. Thirty pieces of silver have passed, like blood laced with liquid mercury, through too many hands.

It’s like the room just cleared of smoke
I didn’t even want the heart you broke
it’s yours to keep, you just might need one.

So much for the perils of autobiography in the age of the tabloid mentality. But even in quieter ages, the reflective self has never operated in isolation from the agendas of the other. Even before the personal story was elevated to its present high literary status, first-person accounts were always swayed or censored. One of the most famous examples of the religious autobiography, Story of a Soul, is an obvious example. The wings of the hothouse saint from Lisieux were clipped by well-meaning textual meddling on her behalf. It took nearly a century before her authentic voice was liberated by Carmelite scholars working from the original manuscripts.

Another example is John Henry Newman’s Apologia. Ostensibly an intellectual memoir, its subtext is the constant struggle with the wearying predation of prejudiced observers on a well-intentioned life. Even a man who has devoted himself to God—perhaps especially a man who has devoted himself to God—cannot escape the malice of an unsympathetic culture. The Catholic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have brought some restitution from the damage initiated in the Tudor period, but it was not without its white martyrdoms. Apologia is actually a heartbreaking book. Its deep sadness and gentle contention belong not just to its protagonist’s life. It is also part of a wider story, that of a religious sensibility literally hanged, drawn, and quartered, not just for decades, but centuries.

Every breaking wave on the shore
Tells the next one there’ll be one more
Every gambler knows that to lose
Is what you’re really there for.

The sins of the fathers are apt to be visited cruelly on later generations. In a Christian heart, the suffering caused by this should incite more compassion than judgment. How could Harry have made his case better, given that he felt the burning need to make it so soon? He is at his best when rocking back on his sense of humor (arguably the saints are too—a close reading of Thérèse tells us that she had a wicked one). And this is what saves another celebrity memoirist: Bono kissing the blarney stone in his aptly named book Surrender, which came out last year. This has now been accompanied by a new album of the same name, in which forty (that number again!) U2 songs have been reworked in a quieter, acoustic vein; many of the lyrics are re-written since even short historical hindsight always offers more questions than answers.

Here at the murder scene
the facts will not come clean
. . . where is the victory Jesus won?
Sunday Bloody Sunday.

The recollections of a larger-than-life celebrity from working-class Dublin offer some interesting points of congruence with the trashing of the gilded cage over on Big Brother land. The devastating loss of a mother at a vulnerable age, leaving the younger son in the shadow of a father who is unable to process the fracture and nurture his child. The finding of a woman whose love redeems the dark night, and for whom the angry young man is prepared to re-order his life. The deep desire to build a new and functioning family. The celebration of Africa, which Bono describes as the continent that would lift him out of himself, and which provides some of the most moving scenes in Harry’s book. And, of course, the inevitable Messiah complex. Both Bono and Harry have tried to outface their demons by hitching their stardom to good causes.

But you cannot save the world if you are not prepared to be saved yourself, and here the comparison stutters. Bono, for all his rock-star posturing, has an irresistible itch: the desire for God. It is his most interesting feature, and arguably part of what has given U2 its longevity as a band. In the midst of his grandiosity (to which he freely admits), it gives him a crucial humility. Why does this make for a more readable autobiography? Partly because of the generosity it unleashes.

Lights go down and all I know
Is that you give me something, I can feel
Your love teaching me how
To kneel . . . 

There are many situations in which Paul Hewson came into sharp conflict with others—starting with his father Bob, a frustrated opera singer who constantly put his younger son down. “Quite the manipulator, he could crack open a heart like it was a boiled egg with some high falsetto singing. He really was a fine tenor and once told me that I was ‘a baritone who thinks he’s a tenor.’ One of the great putdowns and pretty accurate.” But in relating these moments, the son avoids the trap of bitterness. Whatever Bono’s faults, his strength lies in trying to understand the point of view of his opponent, to rise above the damage. And to contextualize the art born in adversity.

You can see the through line of this melodrama. Son blames father for the loss of his mother and the ending of his home life. The young buck takes on the old buck. Patricide. The stuff of the great operas. U2’s music was never really rock’n’roll. Under its contemporary skin, it is opera—a big music, big emotions unlocked in the pop music of the day. A tenor out front who will not accept that he is a baritone. A small man singing giant songs.

Wailing, keening, trying to explain the unexplainable. Trying to release himself and anyone who will listen from the prison of a human experience that cannot explain grief.

Maybe Bob did not take me too seriously as a teenager because he could see I was doing a great job of that myself.

There are many people, especially in his native country, who view Bono with a certain skepticism these days. He has rubbed shoulders with the enemy, for one thing. The account of him letting Senator Jesse Helms “lay hands” on him is not exactly the stuff on which the woke world loves to feed. “I’ve deprived myself of a core weapon of the most combatant of political activists: animus toward the enemy.” The rebellious violence of youth seems to have given way in the older Bono (I am sure he would not want to be insulted with the word “mature”) to a fascination with spiritual combat.

If it can sound a little Onward, Christian Soldiers now, in some ways I still see the world as at war with itself. What’s different is that these days I’m more likely to try and see something off my in own behaviour than in someone else’s. I’ve slowly come to see that if we want to understand the forces we’re up against, then it helps to befriend the idea in opposition to the one you’re pursuing. Before you do battle with it. The devil you know. Climbing into the ring, the best-prepared fighter is the one who has tried to understand their opponent. Especially if it’s yourself (Surrender, 192).

As a writer (and he is the writer here, even if he had editorial support) Bono is readable because he knows how to tell a yarn against himself. Through all the big-namedropping: from befriending Condoleeza Rice to meeting John Paul II, who famously insisted on trying on the trademark shades—one thespian signaling to another, perhaps—you cannot help laughing at the sheer surreality of the man’s sheer gall. And for an English reader, there is a certain poetic justice to the scenario in which a leather-clad Irish gadfly buzzes into the courts of the mighty to point out that under his robe of office, Emperor Palpatine is stark naked. And then shame his minions into multi-million concessions over AIDS and debt relief.

I’m more than you know
I’m more than you see
I’m more than you’ll let me be . . .
There is no them
There’s only us . . .

These days, the art of autobiography is branching out. “Creative non-fiction” now involves many different kinds of selective memoirs. Examples of this are Keri Ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, or Tara Westover’s Educated. One of these forms is what the Iranian writer Dina Nayeri calls “implicated witness,” of which her most recent book, Who Gets Believed?, is a fascinating example.

Using her previous work on the refugee experience as a jumping-off point, Nayeri weaves a masterly narrative that explores what the least powerful have to do to get their stories heard and believed. This may seem easy for big hitters like Harry and Bono, but it is far from straightforward if you are a torture victim from Sri Lanka, trying to convince home office officials that the lacerations on your back are not self-inflicted. Or a black person suffering from sickle cell disease being denied painkillers because someone confuses you with an addict (the latter is apparently a common example in American emergency rooms). The balance between empathy and skepticism is skewed not only among tabloid journalists but also throughout the legitimately stressed sectors of health care and immigration. Holocaust deniers are only the extreme tip of this iceberg. Nayeri observes:

The known world is too precious. We devote ourselves to protecting it. We try, most urgently, to bind our myths by some tendril to reality, a fraught scramble back to the steady state. After a lifetime of faith in God, country, and human goodness, if thousands of emaciated prisoners stumble out of ghettos claiming to have suffered monstrous atrocities, believing them requires a Herculean override of instinct—the mind is trying to explain away the plainly visible.

Nayeri’s book qualifies as a memoir and is raised above average political commentary on the dispossessed by the fact that she unflinchingly uses her own life story, and that of her British brother-in-law, who committed suicide after many years of depression, in spite of his loving and supportive family. As a refugee who has witnessed appalling suffering in other parts of the world, Nayeri admits that she found it hard to take his problems seriously. What is fascinating is that she uses her own skepticism—her own blinkers—as another way of exploring the very empathy gap she is investigating.

Even more fascinating, from my point of view, is her religious background. One of the reasons her family left Iran is because her mother and grandmother converted to Evangelical Christianity. After they arrived in the U.S., they lived in the Midwest, amidst a close-knit Christian community given to speaking in tongues and keeping its adherents in the fold. It was here that Dina Nayeri’s own habit of skepticism took root, and yet . . . she cannot quite let go of her fascination with what constitutes religious faith, which has led her to Simone Weil: the prophet of those who live on this threshold.

Weil, a Christian mystic, writes that false things give the impression of truth and that true things seem false. That the ability to receive truth requires work. When I failed to speak in tongues, I thought I hadn’t done the work of receiving God, that I was missing a muscle or a gene. Later, I believed it all a scam. Was that survival instinct?

In order to survive, writes Weil, we use falsehoods like armor "secreted by what is unfit in order to ward off the danger." Without this armor, the unfit thing would meet a natural, Darwinian end, so it toils to ward off truths that might destroy it. "There is as it were a phagocytosis in the soul: everything which is threatened by time secretes falsehood in order not to die, and in proportion to the danger it is in of dying." The pride survives many humiliations, Weil writes, thanks to this armor of lies. If we allowed ourselves to truly see our worst selves, we might crumble. My pride, too, secretes lies, delusions that I’m desperate to see as plainly as I see my mother’s armor or my grandmother’s.

And so Nayeri bravely serves her readers up with her worst self. She is unflinching in her appraisal of her own motives, her lack of empathy towards her brother-in-law, and even her husband’s protectiveness of him. She reveals herself learning at once how to be a mother (her daughter was born in the midst of this period, which also coincided with the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic) and a spouse, and struggling with both. This is the autobiographical method at the cutting edge; political engagement at its most open-minded. Here she is on remorse, and Weil, again:

Maybe I should just let it die, whatever it was in me that failed. Weil compares the not-yet-understood and the incomprehensible to dust on a window and the view beyond. Reason makes the glass transparent. But we don’t see the glass (reason), only the dust or the view—we wipe the dust off the glass in order to see the view. "The uncomprehended hides the incomprehensible and should on this account be eliminated.”

If you do not have the patience to read the celebrity memoirs, do at least read this one. It repays careful attention: and is not that what sharing the self is all about, in the end? Because, as Nayeri puts it:

To be seen and believed, what do you do with your vulnerability? The powerful upper classes hide it: subtlety is the long-term absence of every need. The bourgeoisie curate it as a part of their fire and potential (try, burn, roar). The vulnerable have no options: they dramatize it. Naked at the fringes, they have only their need, displayed like entertainment for the top, judged on its authenticity by the middle.

Most autobiography courts public opinion, forgetting that in this court the Devil is king. But in the quiet communion between thoughtful writers and readers, perhaps another power can prevail?

One man comes in the name of love,
In the name of love . . .
what more in the name of love?

Featured Image: Paul Signac, Sunday, 1890; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Leonie Caldecott

Leonie Caldecott is a writer based in the West of England. With her daughter Sophie Caldecott, she is involved in a new podcast which they have called The Anatomy of Tenderness.

Read more by Leonie Caldecott