To appreciate the importance of this question, consider for a moment an important figure in your family history or memoir. Be sure to choose a living person—the question is still valid when we ponder our memories of the deceased, but its importance is heightened when we apply it to living figures.
Consider this person you portray by means of the written word, this father, mother, brother, sister, enemy, or friend. Consider this person’s essence—the irreducible core of personality and physical presence that comes instantly to mind when you think about this individual. What you have is a snapshot or summation, and no doubt a powerful one. It is akin to the concept of brand, which we apply to celebrities and consumer products.
And therein lies a problem.
When we interact with someone over an extended period, we begin to know that person by their most familiar aspects: those piercing blue eyes, that unruly shock of hair, that quarrelsome nature, or delicious sense of humor. These characteristics become fixed in our minds; others grow less important. The living become statues of themselves.
This effect grows in intensity as we meditate on an individual. It is strongest when we consider a living person in retrospect, say, after a rupture in a relationship. While grief and anger may galvanize our thoughts and lead to powerful writing, they also introduce distortions into our work. At the moment of portrayal, we see our subject in fragments.
These difficulties of conception and characterization are not new or unique to portrayals of living human beings. Writing in a different context, the critic Walter Benjamin explored them in his renowned essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin considered problems in cultural criticism, especially the changes in perception occasioned by lithography, photography, and cinema. He applied his insights to the multiple crises of the era in which he lived: the failures of capitalism, the clash between communism and fascism.
Benjamin distinguished original works of art from their mechanical reproductions by considering the aura of the original work—the interaction between a work of art and its original setting, the physical changes in a work as it aged, or modifications of its status resulting from a transfer of ownership. He also considered historical changes in humanity’s collective attitude towards a work of art. The ancient Greeks venerated a statue of Venus, he tells us, whereas clerics of Middle Ages viewed this same statue with dread and foreboding.
Benjamin formulated his concept of aura as an exercise in cultural criticism and politics, but his insights apply equally to the portrayal of human beings in family history and memoir. To speak of aura in this sense is to refer to the entirety of a person’s life up until the moment of portrayal. It suggests an extended, comprehensive style of characterization—subject, of course, to the usual sorts of authorial selection and culling.
To capture a person’s aura, then, we talk about their physical presence and the way it has changed over time. We talk about a similar progression in our subject’s hair style or manner of dress. We talk about our subject’s relationships—both with ourselves and with others (spouses, children, siblings, and friends). We talk about this person’s self-concept, or at least what we know of it. We talk about how others view this person, and how their concepts have changed over time. We talk about our subject’s memories of people, places, and events. We talk about the way others hold our subject in memory. We examine our subject minutely and from every possible angle.
We reject the snapshot, which is so like the brand applied to a product or celebrity, and embrace instead the larger concept of aura as a means of creating human portraits.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.