Two Auto-Biographies; A Contrast of Style and Substance

I deserved kisses. I deserved to be treated like a piece of meat but also respected for my intellect.”

~Lena Dunham

“For I have always held that it is only when one sees one’s own mistakes with a convex lens, and does just the reverse in the case of others, that one is able to arrive at a just relative estimate of the two.”

~Mohandas K. Gandhi

The last two books I read were the auto-biographies of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Lena Dunham.

Not That Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by Lena Dunham is a categorized account of her grappling with the broad aspects of life that every human faces some version of. It is a triumph of candidness. Lena deserves every praise for revealing the tender, honest depths of the human condition. She grants insight into experiences that typically remain locked in the hearts of individuals; be it for personal discretion or linguistic constraint.  Lena drops all discretion, and she paints with words until they say what she needs them to.  Her style has perfect flow, and her content had me laughing out loud at times into the mute pages.

The Story Of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi is an arduous tome detailing the events of his life in chronological order. I chose to read his auto-biography, and not a biography, because I wanted a purer insight into the workings of his mind and motives. This book offers just that. Gandhi’s unwavering resolve, and inhuman adherence to his principles, prominently strikes out from every page. I hold the greatest admiration for his rooting his every action in Truth. So I find it a great shame that his version of Truth was anchored to the religious doctrine of Hinduism. In the more secular society of the 21st century, I believe he might have found Science.

These two pieces stand in such stark contrast in my mind that I felt compelled to write a commentary. Lena’s book is entertaining and hilarious. Gandhi’s is tedious and dense.

But the content in Gandhi’s book often plunged me into deep, honest reflection.  My eyes would un-focus and my surroundings would mute as I contemplated some profound lesson.  It was the feeling that results from interacting with substance.

After finishing Lena’s I felt a literary sugar high.  And I felt the greasy bloatedness of having consumed a guilty pleasure while the ramifications loomed darkly overhead.

Gandhi seemed to exude a self-effacing honesty from every page. He admits to errors even when his compatriots in the narrative, and the reader himself, would find none. Gandhi was able to pin his morality above the firmament of law. His conviction would be appallingly, criminally, arrogant if it weren’t for the accomplishments that vindicate him. He stands as a historical example for all to follow.

Lena effaces herself out of a seemingly masochistic ego-centrism. It appears to be an effort at creating an image that she is a distorted weirdo in a defunct universe. Amidst the decadent anecdotes indeed lie true gems of wisdom, but anytime the story veers toward profundity it quickly hair-pins into mockery. This is understandable given the cynicism that infests her demographic these days.

It is, of course, unfair to juxtapose the writings of Lena Dunham, or anyone for that matter, with those of Gandhi. I only do so because random chance put these works in close succession in my life. And because they starkly illustrate the difference between substance and style.

Gandhi’s story intelligently, albeit blandly, depicts the links between one man’s strength of character, his actions, and the impacts those actions had. There are lessons at every level of human experience; the personal, communal, and societal. Even though I lack his religious disposition, I deeply respect his courage in living Truthfully. His book exemplifies pure substance.

On the other hand, my overall impression of Lena’s work is its amusing content of thin relevance. The pages delivered a dose of entertainment that had me eagerly flipping them for more. But the same edgy diction that jumps out unexpectedly, then topples with hilarity, also corrupts Lena’s credibility as a substantive voice. Her book is one of pure style.

Now I do not disparage any stylistic motivations. My great criticism of Lena’s book is that she portrays it, or others do, as a triumph of women’s progress.

For my part, a writer can invoke the topics of vomit and menstruation to manufacture an easy reaction in his/her audience, but it comes at the cost of serious acknowledgment. Comedy is a virtuous realm I wouldn’t dare to belittle for any of its nuances. But there’s a reason comedians never win Oscars. Comedy is accorded a freedom of expression for the very reason that it is superficial. Lena’s book tries to piggy back on that freedom while maintaining the pretense of relevance.

Lena is widely regarded as being a role-model to the women of this generation. Maybe if Lena had written anything about admonishing or resisting, civilly or otherwise, the institutions that oppress women-kind, she’d hold more ethos in my mind. But instead she wrote brash anecdotes about her life. Her contribution with this book was a mere accounting of one women’s, a privileged one’s, experience growing up in the 21st century.

That book seemed pathetic after reading Gandhi’s sober devotion to his ideals. That reaction is of course a product purely of having read them back to back. But it is nonetheless a shame that today’s culture exalts edgy personalities over noble character. And I wonder what iniquities prevail under such a warped priority.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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