Thursday, June 18, 2015

Q&A with Vincent Crapanzano

Vincent Crapanzano is the author of the new memoir Recapitulations. His other books include Tuhami: Portait of a Moroccan, Waiting: The Whites of South Africa, and Imaginative Horizons. He is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you write this memoir and what does its title signify for you?

A: I wish I could answer your question, but the truth is that I don’t know why. There are so many reasons, and as I think about it, new reasons pop up, often contradicting old ones.

I knew that I didn’t want to write a straightforward autobiography. There has to be something more than simply self-display or self-revelation. It took me a long time to find a justification for writing Capitulations: a way of reflecting on events in my life that pointed to the paradoxes in our lives that we ignore or for which simply accept ready-made solutions that don’t really solve the paradoxes but turn our thoughts away from them.

Of course, as I begin to write, my original intention was too constraining. The events I wrote about soon took control, one leading to another in a sort of Proustian way.

I like to tell stories. I use them in my classes. I sometimes embarrass people by telling stories that break conversational etiquette. Usually this is inadvertent, but there are times when I take pleasure in forcing people to listen. Stories demand an ending. And you have to wait for that ending.  

Am I simply demanding attention? I don’t think so. I do know that I am seeking recognition not in the usual sense of recognition, but that too, I suppose.

Rather I am seeking recognition – and retention – of what I have experienced, and these experiences, like all experiences, are in their way independent of the experiencers. We tend to blur the distinction…especially when we remember. They are like an old shirt that we want to turn inside out – or outside in—as we refuse to take it off.

I suppose I have arrived at one possible answer to why I called my book "Recapitulations" -- a gathering in of what has been experienced but suffers inevitably from summation.

Perhaps it is fear of loss – loss of the story, yes, but also of the experience itself. With that loss comes a loss of self, ensconced in the experiences that nurture it. We cannibalize them.

Do our – do my – stories offer escape from the tenacity of our experiences? All stories require an interlocutor, real or phantasmatic, to be stories. They demand sharing. They bind us to others.

But can the experiences that lie behind them ever be as shared as we would like them to be? I was haunted by this question as I wrote and even more so now that my book is published.

Q: You ask, “Must we begin at the beginning? Can we? Is there ever a beginning?” How would you answer those questions?

A: Of course we always begin at a beginning, but is what we take to be a beginning really a beginning?  There are always antecedents that lead us to the beginning we take to be a beginning.

How can there not be? We live in time. Every event, however contingent, however joyful or traumatic, is always an after-effect of what preceded it. 

We may --indeed we must – claim beginnings. After all we punctuate time, but these beginnings, these punctuations, are always at some level an artifice.

That artifice lies behind our beginnings and destabilizes them. This destabilization that we usually defend ourselves against can be a source of creativity, including creative relations and relationships, if we don’t succumb to the prevailing conventions of beginnings and have the courage to recognize their artifice. I say “courage” because every serious beginning has a fatal dimension, for it sets up what will follow.

This is why, I believe, we tend to sacralize beginnings of social import, like writing a constitution, or personal ones, like marriage.

Q: The book skips around in time. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move sections around as you wrote?

A: I wrote it as it is; that is to say, I didn’t move sections around, but I did delete passages that didn’t feel right. Rarely did I add them to another section. Moving sections around would have been to lose the spontaneity of associations.

Q: How did your work as an anthropologist affect the writing of this book?

A: Working and living in different societies, as cultural anthropologists do, alerts us to what we have ignored or taken for granted in our own society That is a truism that is true.

But, for me at least, it was the intensification of perception, the attention to minor details, and the necessity to remember what I have experienced or heard for long periods of time that is required by anthropological research that had the greatest effect on my book. Put extravagantly, it is mundane details that must become epiphanies.     

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am between projects. It is always agonizing since I never feel fully alive when I am not writing. I am organizing articles I have written for a collection, but this is mechanical and not very satisfying. Perhaps I will write a novel that will treat many of the discoveries I made while writing Recapitulations.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I teach classes on autobiographies, memoirs, and life histories, I always ask my students and myself what must the life of an autobiographer be like when he or she has fixed their past in textual form. I imagined a frozen past to be a burden, but speaking personally, I find that I am flooded with memories that I had not included. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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