Zither and Autobiography Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

It is rather typical for critics hyperbolically to describe books as being unlike any other. Leslie Scalapino’s poetic and prose meditation deserves this description if anything does. The first part of the book, “Autobiography,” is a narrative, if hardly expository, account of the first fifty years of Scalapino’s life. The second, “Zither,” is an experimental poem which expands on hints dropped in the autobiography but cannot really be said to be derived from it.

There is a prefatory—but crucial—quote from Paul de Man on how the genre of autobiography often determines the content, rather than vice versa, as is traditionally assumed. Then “Autobiography” begins with letters from Scalapino to Norman Fischer, a poet who has been associated with Zen Buddhist monasteries and presses. Scalapino has been interested in Buddhism throughout her career. She is interested in the instability of language and the puzzling nature of the human apprehension of reality. These concepts have analogues in Zen thought, although there are Western philosophical sources on them as well.

Scalapino’s involvement with Eastern thought is not merely an intellectual one. Her father, Robert Scalapino, is an influential American political scientist who taught at the University of California at Berkeley and, as a specialist on East Asia, advised Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. Leslie Scalapino had firsthand exposure to Asia as a child. She saw Noh and Kabuki theater in Japan and watched the film Mother India in India. These early encounters with other cultures presage an interest in the otherness of experience throughout her work. This is not just an anthropological interest in otherness. It is an interest in the otherness of experience itself, even that experience which one usually takes to be nearest at hand. It would be a mistake, however, to see Scalapino’s early contact with Asian cultures as the sole source for these affinities. She couches her memories in letters to Fischer, rather than relating them as a straightforward developmental narrative. Scalapino’s later conscious study of Zen guides the contents of her memories as much as the memories foreshadow the interests.

A subtle sense of the vagaries of specific states of experiences pervades the early portions of “Autobiography.” Scalapino quotes the poet Lyn Hejinian: “Travel is sentimentality.” In other words, to think one can gain any knowledge by going some other place—knowledge of oneself or of that place—may be chimerical. Scalapino, while concurring that the illusion of travel can serve as a substitute for real experience, also asks if experience itself is necessarily real. What she calls “occurrence” may be something one can never know. Experience blocks as much as it reveals. Occurrence itself may be another avatar of impermanence. (This is similar to Scalapino’s insight that objectivity is allusion. In other words, there is no “zero point” of objectivity, no place in which objectivity simply exists. It always alludes, even in its objectivity, to another state of being.)

The apparent influence of Buddhist thought here is presented in the writer’s own register. It is revealed inductively, by watching one’s own actions closely. Scalapino recalls standing on the edge of a school baseball field, after the teacher had excused her from participating in the game because of her obvious physical pain. Scalapino suddenly felt as if she could see the mentalities of other people. This is not something preternatural but a worldly act of concentration.

At times, bracketed annotations describing what the author is doing in 1997, as the essay is being written, appear among the reminiscences. They provide a kind of palimpsest that acknowledges the composed and layered nature of memory. Scalapino also includes photographs of herself and her family, which allow the reader to see the faces of the people described in the text. More subtly, by tracing the changes in clothes, looks, and personal idiom through the decades, the images serve as a visual narrative channel to complement the verbal one that is the reader’s main focus. The photographs of Scalapino’s bright, lively visage also render the voice of the words on the page as less oracular and more individual.

A preoccupation of “Autobiography” is Scalapino’s relationships with men, including her father, her uncle, and her...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)