David Herrle reviews Mathias B. Freese’s TESSERAE

Tesserae-front-cover-large-edit-689x1024published by Wheatmark


I am spent, I am wrung out. I need to be cared for. I need to be vulnerable, to relent, to surrender all my stiffened defenses and deliver myself over to the person who would love me as I am. I am something of a mortal shipwreck. – from Tesserae’s afterword

(Read an excerpt from the book.)

Tesserae: A Memoir of Two Summers
is “the remaining juice” of an “orange” quartered by two life-changing summers author Mathias Freese spent in Woodstock, New York in the late 1960s, and the interior of that “orange” is anything but clockwork. This memoirist turns himself inside-out and reveals biology and soul, the lost person in the persona, the ultra-subjective and exclusively human vehemence of memory.

After growing up “suppressing feelings and sexual urges,” young Freese “drank deeply at the well” of the summers of 1968 and 1969 and savored “an ineffable moment…of feeling at one with my disparate selves.” Tesserae was written, I assume, to somehow feel at one with countless disparate memories. Eventually, if given the luxury of lucidity and time to reminisce and inventory our pasts, we seek to encapsulate everything for epitaphic effect, and, no matter what, we live to die, and gravesites are never far from our introspective insights.

“It is in the telling of it that I catch now and then, here and there, like shagging a fly, a glimpse of what I was experiencing and what I was feeling then,” writes Freese. In a sense, similarly to how orgasms are called “little deaths,” clear but fleeting memories may be called little lives, sudden and evasive miniature lifetimes in themselves that spark long enough to prove that the past still exists and breathes. “The past is never dead,” as Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” Then again, Eugene in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons blows that idea apart: “There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.” So, which is it? Or are both views true? I can say this: In Tesserae there is a sense of simultaneous total loss and emotional resurrection through recollection and unsure evaluation.

W.S. Maugham was right in his memoir masterpiece The Summing Up when he claimed that “no one can tell the whole truth about himself,” so memoirs, of course, are always suspicious – and should be. In a chapter called “Et Al.,” Freese essentializes this autobiographical handicap, which is aptly analogized with the unsavory process of autopsy:

Autopsies are best performed by a dispassionate party. A self-autopsy of a relationship such as a love affair is vastly muddled, grossly misunderstood, lacking in nuance and subtlety, without perspective and basically without objectivity…All of us see through a glass darkly if that, make mine the bottom of a Coke bottle.

With shared self-analysis there’s always the danger of whitewashing, but notoriety also can be fabricated for shock or thrill, which is the case for, say, Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways and Klaus Kinski’s Uncut. But perhaps that’s part of the fun of memoirs. Whether we admit it or not, we self-dramatize, since human existence is naturally dramatic. With Freese, however, there’s a sharper sense of trust for the reader, an assurance that there is a modicum of CGI and masks. There’s mostly effective design, editing and chiaroscuro, just like a Welles film. And, also like a Welles film, there is no real central point or graspable lesson, or even a plot that matters very much. Instead, it’s more about the sound and fury rather than the significance, poignant incidentals rather than dramatic universals.

Just as Nabokov control-freakily interviewed himself and planned all other interviews completely, we tend to prefer to be the ultimate last word on ourselves and our lives, whether we admit it or not. What is memoir if not a reflecting pool rather than a film projector? Autobiographical stuff is self-dialogic. It’s all about the person writing the book; readers are bystanders. And real-life cast members within are more means than ends. For instance, in “Matt’s Son” the first-person narration is given to Jordan, Freese’s actual son, recalling a father/son day back when he was only nine years old (the recollection happening after Freese’s death, curiously enough). “Jordan’s” observations and evaluations are undeniably Freese’s, broadcasting his own wishes for how the son might/should assess the father.

My late father was a philosophical ham, and he spoke as if what he imparted was to be inculcated in me for all time (it often was)…My father only asked the big questions, hoping, I imagine, that I would then pose them to myself in words I could manage. Art of all kinds was my father’s pleasure and at nine I knew that already.

This also is so for an earlier piece, “On Naomi,” in which the narration is done by the title character, a former lover. Again, her analyses of Freese are Freese’s analyses of Freese. It’s as if the author uses this biographical character as a mirror or, better yet, a therapeutic sounding board – or a living written statement, so to speak, composed by someone who is too embarrassed to face the crowd about certain topics. For example, the piece begins: “I’m Naomi, and this part will be mine as Matt is uncomfortable with it after all these decades…”

Again and again Freese returns to psychological motifs through reconstructions of past people, places and events. Those filtering elements don’t strain out the dirt, however, because his foibles and miserable failures of himself and others are never concealed or downplayed. In the case of Naomi, Freese reacts selfishly and neglectfully when she reveals that she was raped while he slept elsewhere in the house of a friend: “[W]hen I needed him most critically he was unreliable.” Insensitivity is perhaps his biggest regret, and it certainly is the cause of many negative chain reactions throughout his life. This is summed up perfectly near the end of the Tesserae: “Was I thoughtless about people over the years? (Most definitely. And hurtful.)”

You can take the therapist out of the psychotherapy, but psychotherapy can’t be removed from the ex-therapist, and Freese, who once worked in that very career, wouldn’t be able to take off his professional eyeglasses if he wanted to. Tesserae is primarily a therapy session, with the author doubled: one on the listener’s chair and one draped over the patient’s couch. Though psychotherapeutic style pervades the entire book, this situation is literally rendered in two therapist/client sessions, at the beginning of the book and one near the end. Amidst the free association and dredging of discontent there are stark statements of psychological symptoms’ why rather than what, and it is Freese himself who is both diagnosed and diagnosis giver:

I had not acquired, nor was I shown, the tools of exchange, of embrace and engagement. I was not open to the world…I will get to it quickly for after that is mostly commentary. I feel I was not cared for by my mother nor did she engage me as her son.

Also diagnosed is the recent dissolution of his last (third?) marriage: “I lost my wife Jane because I fled from myself. At moments repression turns us into cowards. I have been a coward in my time.” Such honesty about his folly and sins contradicts an uncharacteristically self-forgiving line in an earlier piece: “So I’ll say it to myself and you: I’ve matured into a good man.” The contrast between that line and the frequent self-damning lines is emphasized best in the most excruciating and affecting chapter of Tesserae, “A Father’s Confession to His Daughter,” in which Freese acts as his own spiritual executioner:

I destroyed something vital in my daughter, something unforgettably unforgivable. A father does not do this. And if he does strike out the soul of his child, may his heart forever shrivel, may his hand become biblically palsied and may he blame himself to the end of his days.

I’m surprised that this particular horror wasn’t mediated by another narrator or the useful therapist. Also surprising is the fact that, despite the gravity and pain of this confession, Freese concludes that “the greatest pain I live and have is the loss of Rochelle,” his second wife (of almost 30 years), who died in a car accident in 1999. “When she died I died too,” he writes in the Afterword, which means that this memoir is told by a dead man, or a spiritually dead man at least, making the posthumous (post-Matt) telling of “Matt’s Son” more understandable. Appropriate that Freese wants this to appear on his gravestone: “HE LOVED ROCHELLE.” If a gravestone is analogous to a book or memoir of sorts, a tablet bearing final words or a “Rosebud”-like summing up, perhaps this inscription can be seen as the radically boiled down and truer draft of Tesserae.

Anyone familiar with his other work isn’t surprised by Freese’s ability to always dig deeper through apparent bottom after bottom of self-analysis. People who haven’t the capacity or are too fearful to analyze themselves refuse to or don’t even think to notice themselves (their many selves) in surrounding mirrors, as is illustrated in the famous Citizen Kane scene of the title character walked obliviously down the mirrored hallway. “Fearlessness makes for authenticity in writing, so I can measure myself and not be a crybaby about it,” he writes near the end of the book, and fearlessness is necessary to face one’s own face, which is surely a dark abyss. Darkness persists in much of Freese’s literary output, but, despite that darkness, that tendency to descend into the psyche’s hell, there is some rejuvenating illumination. In contrast to a fundamental sense of shame and ominous Rorschach perceptions, there also are “non-maudlin memories”: childhood movies and radio shows, makeshift slingshots and scooters, esteem-affirming Surprise Lake Camp, the unintentional comedy of scolding adults, Coney Island (and its frankfurters, root beer, ice cream and cotton candy), good and liberating friends, Brother Theodore and his “Quadrupedism,” and “tumultuous sex” with “fantasy personified” Marlene (the lover of his life).

Though writing may be therapeutic for the author and serves as his or her purgation, there is an undeniable inadequacy in language, a basic falling short, an ephemerality. As usual with Freese’s work, there’s evident ambivalence and frustration in regard to both the power and powerlessness of the written word, literary communication’s simultaneous magic and futility, its being both gold and grass. “Maybe I write because it is in the word that we find our worth, we become,” writes Freese. This is all nice and good, but, as Freese realizes, “we must admit as writers that words cannot say it all. The best we can ask for is an approximation of the felt truth. Krishnamurti said it best: ‘The word is not the thing.’” And later: “Words fail me as I write, for I have to be sensible to you, and yet I feel tongue-tied about what words or expressions I can use.” Freese nails linguistic limitation most succinctly this way: “I cannot say what I need, but I feel it.”

I return to Maugham’s Summing Up for a key passage about the idealistic concept of genuine purgation in writing: “Nothing befalls [the author] that he cannot transmute into a stanza, a song or a story, and having done this be rid of it. The artist is the only free man.” At first this rings true and elevates a writer’s spirit with the belief in a salvational power in art and hippie-dippy visibility “thro’ narrow chinks of [her or his] cavern,” to evoke Blake, but implosions like the brutal ones excerpted above obliterate any lasting metaphysical peace. I’ll go far into corny territory to say that Tesserae sounds and looks like tears array, a basic lamentation. Yes, the Sixties were a “liberating” and magical time, and Freese owes so much to those two fateful summers, but no era and no special seasons can bury unsettled ghosts or prevent the ultimate imprisonment of mortality and the “not to be” inherent in being.

(Read an excerpt from the book.)