Memory, history, personal history, autobiography, metaphysical autobiography, Eruditio ex Memoria is all of these. Yet this book projects a memory not of self, but of the self as defined by the knowledge which makes up the self, which perceives the world in which the self lives. And in this sense Bernadette Mayer’s new work is a cosmology, an encyclopedic anatomy, which as a genre is related to Menippean or Varronian verse satire, from the Greek cynic Menippus and the Roman satirist Varro, both of whose works are now lost. The anatomy has continued in Lucian, Petronius, Apuleius, Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Rousseau, Peacock, and, in our own century, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, and, most recently, in Seeking Air by Barbara Guest. Unlike the picaresque—which is a satire of society and of its structures—the anatomy is a satire built up through a presentation of a vision “of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.” Northrup Frye continues (in Anatomy of Criticism), “The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction.” The shortest form of the anatomy is the dialogue, but there is a strong tendency toward a display of erudition, of encyclopedic knowledge, of complications, catalogues and lists (see Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Tristam Shandy, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet, Norman Douglas’s South Wind, and portions of Moby Dick).
Reprinted from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, no. 7 (March 1979).
Collected in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984).