Memoirs of Everyday Life/Mumford

A few years before Dave Eggers wrote AHWOSG, I read an article about how lots of Czech writers in their thirties were writing memoirs, and that these memoirs were selling well. At the time I wondered whether there was some link between Czech-ness and interest in half-lived lives. But then came Eggers.

Then I began to think: perhaps we crave the telling of the lives of the unfamous (Note to self: ugh, that is so “history of everyday life”-ish and thus so French, and in any case, so done!) (Retort to self: everything is so done! That is no reason not to act. All creativity is recombination of old ideas. Cynicism destroys all beauty.)

Speaking of the self and its inner conflicts, remember that scene in the much-overlooked movie Mumford (by Lawrence Kasdan, I think) where the Loren Dean character tells his mentally suffering love interest that he can easily give himself a headache by thinking two contradictory things at once? The movie, in its cute Capra-esque way, tries to tell us to slow down, to enjoy what is not-famous and not even worthy of being mentioned in a magazine—enjoy those parts of life, because, strangely enough, those will be what your life amounts to, or at least what will have made you happy, in the end.

Thus one of Mumford’s other patients cannot be well until she weens herself off of fashion magazines, as the magazines make her think her own life could never measure up to the glamour of those pages. And of course it couldn’t, and neither could the lives of most of the people involved in those pages. The movie Mumford, then, might tell us that it is a good sign that we are interested in the everyday lives of the unfamous. Those lives are ours.

But having two ideas at once, how is that to be avoided? That is the modern, human condition, methinks: self-contained dialectic. We always know that our truths are not the only truths, and that the world is full of conflicting ideas, and that justice comes from the marketplace of ideas and all that democratic jabberjabber. And self-contained dialectic must be better than self-righteous (or at any rate self-certain) belief in one truth and one truth only. I mean, if Mumford is right, perhaps intolerance is only an over-reliance on aspirin! Stay away from the pharmacy and the world will be a better place....

But that’s not Mumford’s point. We don’t have to choose between the two extremes. We can read the lives of the unfamous (who often then become famous, à la Eggers—I don’t know what has happened to the young Czech memoirists, as it was just a passing interest), compare them to our lives, realize that all lives are both similar and different, and move on.

And that realization, that all lives are both similar and different, is what dissolves the tension between avoiding two thoughts that contradict each other and embracing the self-contained dialectic which undergirds tolerance in complex modern society. Every life is similar: it has joys, griefs, loves, friendships, troubles, petty disagreements, obsessions, irrational hatreds or desires, goals, detours on the way, and so on. But every life is also different. None of the content of any of the above joys, griefs, etc., will be exactly the same from life to life.

Within my own head I often think two contradictory thoughts, as did Mumford: “Am I taking you on these walks because it is good for your health, which would mean I am a good doctor, or Am I taking you on these walks because I enjoy this time with you, which would mean my medical ethics are suspect?” The answer was, for Mumford: both. The answer is often both. The movie isn’t telling us to stop taking aspirin. It’s saying go for the Excedrin, dude. Its message, in the end, is that (as I learned from the armchair rhetorician), posing a problem as a dilemma or contradiction avoids the problem, whereas noting the paradox leads you to the heart of it. Mumford wanted to help his patient, and Mumford was falling in love with the women his patient happened to be. Oh how those two didn’t go together. So he avoided thinking about it and, because of this neglect of thinking about it, zany Capra-esque filmic hijinx in which true love was almost lost but then was, thankfully, regained at the last (and precisely the right) moment ensued.

It all ended well because it was a movie, and a movie in the vein of Frank Capra. I advise you flesh-and-blood types against relying on the same filmic conventions to save you. Give thought to your everyday lives. Think your way through your contradictions. May it lead you to love! —AS