Decorative Initial One approaches the subject of autobiography in two different ways, each with its own contributions to make. The first conceives of autobiography as a genre or mode, while the second accepts that all self-expression or self-representation is autobiography. The recognition that anything a person says or writes tells us something essential about the speaker or writer is a commonplace of romanticism, which extends it to all areas of discourse, so that not only literature but philosophy and science are seen as self-expression. "When the torrent sweeps the man against a boulder, you must expect him to scream, and you need not be surprised," says Stevenson, "if the scream is sometimes a theory." Nietzsche, who was fascinated and appalled by the screams of moralists, theologians, and metaphysicians, urged that "every great philosophy so far has been . . . the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." According to him, therefore, one can see any theory as a mask‹an ambiguous self-presentation which simultaneously conceals and reveals the theorizer.

One can still always ask: what does such a claim tell us about the man who makes it? There are moralities which are meant to justify their creator before others. Other moralities are meant to calm him and lead him to be satisfied with himself. With yet others he wants to crucify himself and humiliate himself. With others he wants to wreak revenge, with others conceal hlmself, with others transfigure himself and place himself way up at a distance. This morality is used by its creator to forget. that one to have others forget him or something about him. Some moralists want to vent their power and creative whims on humanity; some others, perhaps including Kant, suggest with their morality: "What deserves respect in me is that I can obey‹ and you ought not be different from me."

Even supposedly objective sciences bear the imprint, the desires, of their creators. "Physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world explanation." James Olney, whose Metaphors of Self takes as its point of departure this self-expressive will to order, adds that all psychological theories are also necessarily self-representations: "To write about the self, as, for example, Jung does in his psychological texts, can really only be to produce autobiography (i.e. the writing of one's own life) of a sort.'' And for those literary scholars who believe they can easily avoid seeing their own face in the mirror we have Paul Murray Kendall to remind us how difficult it is to avoid self-portraiture. "On the trail of another man, the biographer must put up with finding himself at every turn: any biography uneasily shelters an autobiography within it. He begins with somebody else's papers, and ends with his own."

Such recognitions have been inevitable since the advent of romanticism, which sees the work of art as an expression of the author's inner feelings and imagination. As soon as readers accept that a literary text expresses, or makes exterior, something within its author, then it becomes inevitable that they will use that text as a key to that interior. As M.H. Abrams explains, "Furnished with the proper key, the mantic extremist was confident he could decipher the hieroglyph, penetrate to the reality behind the appearance, and so come to know an author more intimately than his own friends and family; more intimately, even, than the author, lacking this key, could possibly have known himself. Abrams credits Blake with inventing that radical form of such criticism which holds that "the latent personal significance of a narrative poem is found not merely to underlie, but to contradict and cancel the surface intention."58 Blake's radical approach has become quite common today, and it is not difficult to perceive to what a large extent structuralist, psychoanalytic, and phenomenological criticisms still have the goals first established in the early nineteenth-century. For example, Jeffrey Mehlman explains that his "effort has been, in each case, to reach that level of analysis at which a persistent textual organization is revealed, whose coherence throws into jeopardy the apparent intentions of the author.... In confronting texts, the search for repetitions, aberrant details, seeming contradictions, surprising omissions has, I believe, allowed me to generate between texts the kind of insistent structure for which Freud (and Mauron) used the term 'unconscious.' " In other words, Mehlman, following Blake, seeks that level at which the author "contradicts" his explicit or conscious discourse, and there he locates the author's essential self.

As valuable as are recognitions of such underlying similarities, they have the disadvantage of making it difficult to discern if one can usefully treat autobiography as a clearly defined literary mode, or if it possesses any strengths and weaknesses peculiar to itself. Self-representation is not autobiography, I would suggest. To qualify as autobiography a work must not only present a version, myth, or metaphor of the self, but it must also be retrospective and hence it must self-consciously contrast two selves, the writing "I" and the one located (or created) in the past. If a work does not meet this description, it seems more helpful to see it as an example of self-representation or autobiographicality."

Victorian Web Genre and Technique Autopbiography Literary Technique

Last modified 1988