Completely Subjective: Vijay Seshadri’s “Memoir”

The world is full of countless opinions and theories on the significance of human life. Studies are constantly done regarding the effects humans have on the environment as well as on each other. Does one thing someone says really affect the way another sees the world? I can only wonder. Vijay Seshadri was born in India and immigrated to the US when he was just 5 years old. He published “Memoir” in 2005 and it was published in the Best American Poetry of 2006 volume. “Memoir” resonated with me through the interesting perspective that it offers on life and its purpose. 

Seshadri begins the poem with the line “Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.” In George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” he discusses his early life and development as a writer and touches on how people generally write to prove a point, not to just document the truth as it is. Orwell seemed to feel that writing was exactly like propaganda, biased and trying to prove an opinion. I find works of literature to be expressions of the author’s opinions and Seshadri’s inclusion of Orwell’s writing is an emphasis on the idea that people don’t showcase their true identities, they write their opinions rather than their raw life.

In the next few lines, Seshadri covers his perception of life as a combination of “humiliations.” Upon first reading this, I found it interesting as I have always viewed life as an accumulation of accomplishments and good moments, moments that make up for the more unpleasant trials in which all must partake. When I think back on the past, I am reminded of minutes of laughter with my friends and family, wins at sports games, and tests on which I got good grades. However, Seshadri states that if people were to read a true story of his life their hands would be “scorched by the firestorms of that shame.” As I continued to read, I saw Seshadri mention times of humiliation in his life. Most of these involved another person. He recalls the time he “[bored] the tall blond to death,” or “accused the innocent.” Simply, each of his humiliations were his negative actions that affected another person. It emphasizes not just an action with consequences, but rather the fact that someone witnessed it.

Humiliations themselves are generally witnessed. Seshadri did not say that life was an accumulation of mistakes, but rather humiliations, or essentially mistakes that another person sees. Seshadri is presenting an idea that life is about the people who see your mistakes and are hurt by them, the people who end up dealing with the consequences for your mess-ups, for the mistakes that you made. 

I can agree with Seshadri’s point of view. Human interaction is important, without it, nothing means anything. However, I do not think that the negative interactions you have with people define you, but rather the positive ones. The moments where you make someone smile or change the course of their day are for what you should be remembered. I personally remember people who went out of their way to say something nice to me on a bad day or when someone did something that no one else thought to do. These are the true reflections of who a person is. All people have darkness; it is a part of human nature, but it is the light in some that makes them different. Even with my disagreement on this part of the poem, I can still understand the point Seshadri is conveying of the all-consuming feeling of mistakes and embarrassment. Maybe he is stating that although life isn’t truly all about the mistakes you make, sometimes that is all you remember. Sometimes your humiliations are your legacy. 

It is important to look into the end of the poem where Seshadri writes “And one October afternoon, under a locust tree/ whose blackened pods were falling and making illuminating patterns on the pathway,/ I was seized by joy,/ and someone saw me there, and that was the worst of all,/lacerating and unforgettable.” This is interesting because it contrasts with the idea of more negative instances as humiliations and instead introduces a positive occurrence that is humiliating. Throughout most of the poem Seshadri was focusing on the moments of pain in his life rather than joy. He now presents the idea that happy moments may be the most humiliating because you feel happiness despite the countless problems in the world and the countless mistakes you have made. You feel happiness despite having no reason at all to feel it. I can infer that he is saying that no matter how pure humans may claim to be, at the end of the day, the desire for happiness is inevitable. This fact, in itself, is embarrassing and leads me to a more universal truth of the selfish nature of humans. Seshadri’s word choice “seized” propels this idea, indicating unwanted joy, joy despite pain and disappointment. I see this illustrated by the description of the locust tree, “whose blackened pods were falling and making/ illuminating patterns on the pathway.” The pods represent the darkness in life and how it spreads. The fact that a person would feel joy despite this darkness is humiliating, even if it is true for all of us.

The poem ends with the lines “and someone saw me there, and that was the worst of all,/ lacerating and unforgettable.” This last line ties up the ideas from the lines prior and explains how the worst part of this humiliation was the witnessing of it, the fact that someone saw the raw and horrible truth of joy, and still had the prospect of happiness. It seemed to me that this moment is a dark secret no writer like Orwell would try to expose as it would be “radioactive to the end of time.”

Overall, I found Seshadri’s poem “Memoir” intriguing in the way it develops and builds on his opinion. His opinion is clear: the broken pieces of a person are their true identity. It gave me an interesting outlook on the significance of human interaction and the general negativity of the human race, and made me understand that sometimes the most things we remember most about ourselves are the things we wish most to forget. They are what we take out of life, bittersweet in a way, for although our trials are hard they make us stronger and they make us who we are.

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