“Solipcism!” someone yells at the memoirist from behind a tree. Solipsism is the theory that only the self exists and to be called solipsistic is to be accused of seeing things through the too-narrow focus of the self.
Here I sit at my desk, examining my fingernails, my moles, my split ends—And what’s that little pimple on my chin?–because I am more interesting than anyone else. You may accuse me of being this way, of gazing at my own navel or thinking only of myself, but I say it really isn’t the case. The last person I really want to write about is myself, but I just can’t help it. I’m all I’ve got. My inside information into the human condition can only come from me.
It is true that one can decide to write about other people’s lives, to shine a light on others as an ethnographer does, or to write fiction, but those are other tasks. At its best, memoir provides an arc of light from a single person out toward the majesty and hugeness of the world.
Farman-Farmaian writes this of the self-contained universe inside her father’s walled compound in Iran. Her father had nine wives and thirty children:
Everyone there was linked with everyone else, for “family” in our small universe meant not only our father and mothers and brothers and sisters and other relatives who lived in and around the compound, but all the other people inside our walls: our nannies, our lalehs or male caretakers, the cooks, guards, porters, stewards, secretaries, artisans, old military pensioners, and everyone else my father supported. They and we all belonged to him, and were fed, protected, and cared for by him. This supreme bond with our benefactor, which Iranians call “the bond of bread and salt,” gave us all an indissoluble connection. No one in the compound, from the most decrepit ex-sergeant to the youngest school-child, ever forgot this allegiance for a single moment. I seemed myself to remember it almost hourly.
Farman-Farmaian is not naval-gazing, but transporting us to a vanished time, a world we’d otherwise never know.