You Don’t Know Me . . .

This is Igor.


Igor now hangs in my bedroom, but for many years he hung in my parents’ bedroom along with four other watercolors. Igor and those pieces were painted by my grandfather, Max Bachofen. Igor is unusual because my grandfather mainly painted landscapes. Far as I know, Igor’s one of only two portraits my grandfather ever painted.

In recent years, Papa Max’s artwork has become somewhat collectable. His paintings have shown up at auction and he’s even hung in the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Though that piece is an oil and I think his best work was done in watercolor.)

I never knew Papa Max. I think I met him once when he was very old and my uncle had tracked him down. He abandoned my mother’s family when she was a child. He was part of the WPA program which allowed him to travel around painting during the Depression. He married again and had another family. My mother and her siblings were plenty surprised when they found out about this other family.

I bring this up because as I was reading a bio of Papa Max, I realized that the destruction that he had wrought in his family wasn’t there in that short description of his life. And it got me to thinking about how we tend to imbue artists/writers/musicians with special qualities based on their work. If we like the work, we think we’ll like the person.

And as writers/musicians/artists we tend to think we’re changing the world in some deep and meaningful way through our work, when the best we can expect to do is change ourselves through our work. Yes, there are the rare artists who have really changed the world – but they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Most of us muddle along hoping that we’ll touch someone with our work – and, occasionally, we do.

But the reality is that we aren’t our work. No matter how fantastic we are at our craft, that isn’t who we are. It’s what we do. There’s a real danger in confusing the two. And there’s also a danger for the recipients of the work to think that they have an intimacy with the artist (using this generically here) because of their exposure to the work. From people who think they “know” what you’re “really” writing about, to stalkers who won’t leave you alone, the power of art to affect another person is unpredictable.

And I think the Internet has compounded this problem. The false intimacy of blogging makes people think they’re closer than they actually are.

At a party a couple of years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked me how he could have a “deeply intimate connection” to another person. I told him he needed to stop blogging about what was happening in his personal life. My opinion was that sharing the intimate details of your life where anyone can read them is not going to lead to real intimacy.

He did find a lovely girl. He blogged something personal about her once. She told him if he ever did that again, they were through. He’s stopped blogging, realizing that intimacy isn’t a spectator sport.

As writers, we tend to cannibalize some of our life for our craft anyway. But that work isn’t our life. It’s a cunningly crafted version of our life. And acquaintances and friends may think they know which bits are real and which bits are made up, but they don’t because that’s something only the writer knows for certain.

Brad Denton and I have chatted about this phenomenon before. Brad thinks that the only real truth is in fiction. He thinks that the impulse to hide ourselves and present a particular face to the world makes works of autobiography an exercise in deceit. The minute we start to tell “the truth” about ourselves, we begin to lie. No one wants to reveal those deeply embarrassing or shameful things we’ve all done. We are all inclined when talking about ourselves to dissemble just a little, enough that we don’t appear in a bad light.

I think Brad’s on to something in the notion that fiction is the only way to tell the truth. But the thing with fiction is that the only person who knows what’s true about the author in the work is the author. Everyone else is going to project their own truth onto the work. It’s unavoidable.

So, when you read this, don’t think you know me. This is just a sliver of who I am. And the next time you read a book, love a painting, sing along to a song, don’t think you know those people either. You like their work, but you don’t know them.

P.S. Many thanks to Brad for photographing Igor.

15 thoughts on “You Don’t Know Me . . .

  1. I really like the painting, Caroline. So, to what extent are we constantly lying to the people who read this stuff here? I certainly don’t set out to tell lies, but one can certainly make the point that selectively presenting a slice of your life out of context is a form of lying.

    I’m happy if people are entertained.

  2. Igor was not my real name. I met Max when he was a student at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
    I was a student teacher in Alliance Ohio and we shared many visits together discussing literature, the Americans who were writing from their new homes in Paris and the strange news we were hearing from Germany and England. I actually didn’t like dressing up the way Max painted me, but this was the outfit I wore while teaching. More of personal life later.

  3. I think lying is a little harsh, Steve. I think we choose to show selective facets of ourselves and that can be, intentionally or not, deceptive. (I parse, therefore, I am?) And more to the point, those things that others project upon us because of those facets was what intrigued me.

  4. You’re right Caroline, I was reacting more to the Bradley line “The minute we start to tell “the truth” about ourselves, we begin to lie.”

    I’m definitely not out here to use this Blog as a confessional, that’s for sure. And I will certainly use fiction as a tool as Brad did in the Flying Monkey post. But there is a line to be drawn when talking about oneself. I did not win the Nobel Price for Finger Painting, for instance.

    Mr. Skelley, that’s really interesting. Is there an image available of you in the time period that Max painted you. I’d love to see how well he did.

  5. Although Steve didn’t win the Nobel Prize for Finger Painting, I think he did win the one for . . . Mud Pies!!

    As for fiction vs. nonfiction:

    I guess I don’t think that memoirists or other nonfiction writers deliberately set out to lie (at least not always) . . . but I do think that we Naked Apes are incapable of honestly telling the Whole Story about ourselves.

    A fiction writer doesn’t necessarily manage to crowbar the Whole Story into a novel, either. But there’s at least the possibility of doing so — and no such possibility exists when we try to write about what “really happened” (whether we’re writing about history or about our own lives).

    As long as there are other witnesses, they’ll always see what “really happened” differently — and may well recall details that we chose to forget for very good reasons.

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  7. I knew Papa Max in the late 60s and early 70s – though he was never an easy person to get to know. He was often cranky and self-centred, and I can easily imagine these earlier parts of his life and some of the havoc he may have left behind him. I knew him, however, as a beekeeper, and in that context he was sharing and friendly to me. I think it would be safe to say he did not confuse his artistic life with what he ‘really was’ – on the contrary, he would have laughed at that, I would think. I’m sorry he was never able to be a part of your family – for a ‘non-relation’, I’d have to say he was pretty important in mine. He got me started beekeeping in earnest!

  8. Nick,

    Thanks for posting about Papa Max. He was well-known in Austin around UT during the time period you mentioned. There was even a student documentary made about him that aired on the local PBS station.

    I’m glad that he got you started in bee keeping — it was one of his passions. And I’m glad to hear he made a positive difference in your life.

  9. Destruction on the Family??
    I never felt destructed, and all of his children that I know have been healthy and happy.
    I do not give him credit for that, but destruction is a very strong word.

    I know that Dad was a flawed individual, and I felt sad that I could not get him to return to art in his later years, when I spent a lot of time with him.
    He was not however a mean person.
    During the time he was living near the University many young people spent time talking to him, I have read a lot of what they said, and none of it described a destructor.

  10. Andy,

    Perhaps destructive was a harsher word than you would have liked to describe Papa Max, but his absence for all those years was nonetheless hurtful to his family. Just as the absence of *any* parent would be.

    My main point was that artists of any ilk show only a small portion of themselves to the world.

    As you say, people who knew Papa Max had many wonderful things to say about him — but I imagine there might have been one or two who might have disagreed with that opinion.

    As with *any* human being, artists or fathers, we are all flawed.

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