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The Ghost in the Political Memoir

Watching The Ghost Writer last night, I thought about a couple of sentences that have been obsessing me for months:

“Twentieth-century America produced no major right-wing novelist... The conservative emphasis on precedent and experience...leads conservative authors to autobiography.”

This was written by an academic, Michael Kimmage, in A New Literary History of America. (Full disclosure: I’m also a contributor to the volume). Kimmage, the author of The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, is onto something interesting here, though I don’t think he has it exactly right.

There may be something innately conservative about the memoir as a literary form: It usually describes a coming to maturity or awareness. Often this is associated with a farewell to one’s wild days and an acceptance of a place in the social order. And the popularity of the memoir—arguably the dominant literary genre of the last few decades—may tell us something about the real trend of American society since Reagan. Vast—and desirable—social changes in the position of women, minorities, and gays have taken place since the 1980s, but our master narrative for a good life is still the same.

Even Obama felt obliged to produce two memoirs—in fact, it’s hard to imagine him having been elected without them. Dreams From My Father
raises as many questions as it answers, but I liked the modest, serious, self-scrutinizing Obama of this book far more than the vain, disconnected man I saw on television. I also found the trajectory Obama described in his own life far more reassuring than the empty calls for “change” of his campaign.

The Ghost Writer
says some interesting, if not particularly novel, things about political memoirs in the language of film. The autobiography Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan) is writing with the help of the Ghost (Ewan McGregor)—or is it the other way around? —is aimed at rounding up a career, not jumpstarting one. But it is an anodyne example of the genre, filled with clichés. The young, ironic, indeed almost Bond-like Ghost sneers as he reads one sentence written by his predecessor: “The Langs are Scottish folk.”

By the end of the movie, the Ghost understands that this and other corny phrases were chosen to reveal the hidden truth of Lang’s career. Lang has been betrayed by his isolation, the isolation of great power; if he’d written the book himself, or even looked at the manuscript, this couldn’t have happened. But ultimately, the ghost speaking from the memoir seems not to matter. The form has trumped the content.

Polanski’s movie is politically even-handed about the issues of rendition and interrogation surrounding Lang, but the plot that the Ghost discovers is the stuff of the most tired lefty clichés. (If only the CIA were a fraction as competent as the film would have it!) The idea that a tiny cabal is actually running the world—whether they are “the Jews”, “the Trilateral Commission”, or “the CIA” —is especially ridiculous at a time when it is clear that no one’s span of control is very large anymore. But to some, this reductionism is comforting.

Come to think of it, that may be another reason for the popularity of the memoir: Like a conspiracy theory, it reduces a frighteningly complex reality to a single, comprehensible point of view, usually the author’s. Most writers of memoirs, political or otherwise, assume that they are the masters of their destiny. Movies, with their ability to show different, conflicting points of view on the same events, often suggest otherwise.

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