- Autobiographical Desire
There is a passage in Bone Black where bell hooks speaks of her childhood friendship with an old, crippled man. One day she visited him at his house: “The house was so funny she couldn’t stop laughing, it was half-finished.” She sat on the front steps and she asked him “all the questions about being crippled that she had ever wanted to know. Was he alone because he was crippled. Was he not married because he was crippled . . . Her questions smoothed the wrinkles in his brow, took the tears from his voice, wet his dreams with the promise of a woman waiting faithfully with outstretched hands.”
What is the promise which the autobiographical intention holds, and holds for the writer and readers? In a certain sense it is this promise, this destinal promise, that has always been in the making—or at least whose making has always been anticipated—in each of bell hooks’ previous works. Fidelity to a book as yet unwritten. Because there are some books we so very much want to write, as bell hooks, surely, has so very much wanted to write this, her book. “. . . everyday I’ll fall in love all over again with you . . .” sings Sarah Vaughn in duet with Billy Eckstine.
There are moments when we find the promise kept, when in our writing (or in our reading) we are suddenly brought that kind of aesthetic, affective, and notional warmth and plenitude which is always the other side of that intention about which we still have no real sense or understanding, except that we know that somehow it must be worth, that it must mean everything. To be true to one’s own intentions, or at least to this one, this, this most palpable one. But whatever the autobiographical promise may be, it remains one of the hardest promises to keep. bell hooks tells us that Bone Black is “not an ordinary tale.” “It is the story of girlhood rebellion, of my struggle to create self and identity distinct from and yet inclusive of the world around me.” But her definition belies her affirmation. Elsewhere in her preface bell hooks describes her memoir as an “unconventional” one. “It draws together the experiences, dreams, and fantasies that most preoccupied me as a girl.” And once again her description does not bear out, is opposed to her appellation. Bone Black consists of 61 episodes or moments of life each narrated in 2H or 3 pages; episodes, moments which, she writes, “stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work.” And she concludes her preface: “The prevailing perspective is always that of the intuitive and critically thinking child mind. Sometimes memories are presented in the third person, [End Page 240] indirectly, just as all of us sometimes talk about things that way. We look back as if we are standing at a distance . . . Evoking the mood and sensibility of moments, this is an autobiography of perceptions and ideas. The events described are always less significant than the impressions they leave on the mind and heart.” Of course, that the relationship of event and impression is not at all one that can be reduced to a simple difference, if reduced at all, is something that I do not think bell hooks would seek to deny, but the impossibility of this reduction does nullify the hierarchy she has just established. Yet these discrepancies matter not at all there where an autobiographical prose, indeed, where any prose finds that “rhythm and joy,” but also that “rhythm and sadness” of existential and effective moment both in transit and in arrival. “[My mother] says that a part of me is making the story, making the words, making the new fire, that it is my heart burning in the center of the flames.” Effectivity? That we burn so, desired and desiring—as the song says, “I still recall the thrill/ I guess I always will/ Zing! went the strings of my heart . . . !”
The danger of the fragment, and of all aphoristic and epigrammatic impulse, is that...