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Part II examines how the anxieties and restrictions attendant upon the idea of self-writing are reflected in published texts, which present themselves as autobiographies. Part III focuses on readings of autobiographical works, exploring some examples of their representations of the situation of self-writing, and considering what sort of readings are involved when we interpret a given text as an autobiography. Overall, the book emphasizes the uncertain and contested transactions between Romantic autobiographical writing and the literary public sphere. Keywords: autobiography , self-writing , Romanticism , genre , literary public sphere , Coleridge , Byron , Lamb.
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Anandalingam and Henry C. Lucas, Jr. Speelman, Kim Kirsner. Howard, Brian J. Depth perception. Title: Binocular vision and stereopsis Ian P. Biodiversity Ecosystem health. Title: Biography and the question of literature in France Ann Jefferson. Title: Biology and conservation of wild canids edited by David W. Macdonald and Claudio Sillero-Zubiri. Conservation biology. Sutherland, Ian Newton and Rhys E. Blind Neuropsychology. Literature and science Flowers in literature. Plants in literature. Title: Bracing for Armageddon?
Van Zandt. Mental health services. Counselor and client. Solution-focused therapy. Cognitive therapy. Comparative organization. Title: Can Latin American firms compete? Dampness in buildings. Take, for example, an article in the Anti-Jacobin Review of September Some have applauded them with boldness, and others have defended them with diffidence: some have regarded them as a proud monument of his magnanimity, and others as an irrefragable proof of his modesty: some have admired them as the efforts of a hero who, undaunted by vulgar prejudice, and in defiance of popular opinion, courageously comes forth to avow his errors and his faults, and others have approved them as the declarations of a sage who, actuated by the love of truth, and regretting his aberrations from the path of rectitude, unveils the recesses of his heart to expose his most secret failings: none condemned him, but all were satisfied with his acknowledgment; and, though none praised him for extraordinary virtue, yet all joined in palliating his misconduct, and all believed that, as his weaknesses were only these which are inseparable from our nature, no one possessed more integrity than Rousseau.
His admirers and the world, however, judged differently. It is curious, then, that the issue is left open. The author is fully convinced that the true Rousseau was a monster of vanity and appetite. The argument whose two sides he summarizes is instead over the act of confession. In this case it is clear how the ad hominem interpretation is in fact a disguised extension of a critical reading. The first camp bases its praise 36 Anti-Jacobin Review, xxi. Where the issue becomes confused is in the weird alchemy by which the work apparently changes the public proclamation of error into the mark of virtue, so that autobiography transmutes vice into honesty.
Once again, the antithetical judgement of his character is really a reflection of the strangeness of the work. It is not my purpose anywhere in this chapter to deal directly with the work; the classic account of the issue is Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans. See also Thomas M. Kavanagh, Writing the Truth Berkeley, Calif.
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The case of Rousseau 47 Yet if this gesture is supposed to declare that the text is a transparent window on to the identity of its author, its effect is something like the reverse. The scene of judgement becomes a literary one; the uniqueness readers encountered in this opening flourish is really the uniqueness of a textual performance lying well outside their existing horizons. The first stress exerted on implied generic assumptions comes through a complication of the idea of truth.
This notion of course underpins contemporary approaches to life-writing, albeit as argued above with an awareness that not all truth is per se valuable. Rousseau, however, shifts the emphasis from truth to sincerity. This article extends the arguments about the literary genre made in Bruss, Autobiographical Acts, 4— This was the man whose vanity and presumption so imposed on his understanding, as to lead him to imagine that mankind would lend a ready ear to the most trifling, to the most dull, to the most impertinent, to the most disgusting relations, because they concerned ROUSSEAU!
Truth is still the basic standard of judgement, but it has divorced itself from utility, reaching for an autonomy which makes truth itself look egotistical. There could be no reason to know things which it alone was able to tell. If, as the rhetoric of sincerity implies, truthfulness is its own justification, that reason seems pertinent only to the individual author compare the closed-circle self-interrogation of Rousseau juge de JeanJacques.
Even sympathetic sensibility, the readiest model for reading the Confessions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reaches a limit here, since Rousseau positively denies fellow feeling at the moments when he accuses himself of negligence and error. The only recourse left is to appreciate singularity itself.
New Review, i. The case of Rousseau 49 truth has an inherent significance distinct from its details. Again, the question of uniqueness is what creates difficulties. If the individual is to be treated as a kind of case study, what are the prospects for instructive generalization? The narrative keeps returning to feelings and situations which are interesting to the author precisely because they are inexplicable. Erotics and paranoia—the two major psychological themes of the Confessions, respectively dominating the first and second parts—both powerfully challenge the idea of the text as an instructive case study, because they both rest on the impenetrable opacity of fundamental causes.
They show the self in fascinated or bewildered conflict with itself. For all its professed sincerity, then, the narrative cannot be transparent to itself. It can record experience in exhaustively minute detail, but always with a sense that what matters about those experiences— what constitutes the uniqueness of the subject—is the way that no generalizing synopsis can account for them.
Rousseau says he wants to leave 47 48 49 Analytical Review, vi. Rousseau, Confessions: Part the First, i. Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva: Part the Second, 3 vols. Robinson, , ii. As we saw in Chapter 1, this aspect of reading autobiography is closely woven into the emergent awareness of the genre, always accompanied by a degree of anxiety. Rousseau exposed the temptations of voyeurism very clearly. Too clearly, in fact: no commentators openly admitted to enjoying the intimacy his book permitted.
One might argue that transparent self-exposure defeats the pleasure of voyeurism, which depends on a prurient interplay between the desire and the difficulty of access. The resulting pleasure is never purely aesthetic, of course. The conventions of reading practice in the literature of sensibility are well described in Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction London: Methuen, For a study more specific to the immediate context of the Confessions, see C.
Jones, Radical Sensibility London: Routledge, For one thing, it foregrounds the erotics of the body which impassioned writing more conventionally sublimates. Such considerations may well account for the fact that very few British contemporaries were willing in print at least to give the Confessions credit for the eloquence of its language of feeling. Sincerity ends up interfering with sensibility by intruding the ambivalent character of the autobiographical subject into his expressive voice. Without this interference readers might have read the work as they read Julie, enraptured by second-hand passion.
Instead, they always risked being betrayed into the position of a reluctant witness to the eccentricity of a singular figure. To be fascinated is, as the writer in the Monthly implies, to experience attachment and horror at the same time. The constitution of the Assembly, as well as its actions, horrify him so much that he claims scarcely to be able to observe them, even while his essay lingers on the subject. In less extreme versions, many different responses to Rousseau resolve themselves finally into some such mixed experience of reading.
Attraction and repulsion are not in themselves problematic ways of encountering the autobiographical subject. In fact, they can be understood easily enough as equivalents in the field of reading to two quite conventional—even foundational—conceptions of life-writing: the individual as model and as counter-model. It was not just openly exemplary narratives like the spiritual autobiographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which invited this stance towards their subject.
Rousseau confronts these assumptions with typical gusto, inviting every reader in the world to gather at the seat of ultimate judgement, and then turning their stance against them and daring them to come to a conclusion: 57 See OED s. The case of Rousseau 53 Power eternal! Like so many invitations to the reader in the Confessions, though, this one is double-edged. It appears to revert to a relatively straightforward solution to the issue of how to read this text. The singular self is there as a moral benchmark. In this light, the absolute distinctiveness and originality it claims and the reactions of sympathy or revulsion to the particular episodes it narrates can both be interpreted according to the conventional scheme.
One cannot be entirely like or by extension entirely unlike Rousseau, but one can take his story as a prompt to consider whether one wishes to be more or less like him at particular moments. This, however, is as far as those mixed feelings of attraction and repulsion can be rehabilitated as elements of a familiar approach to life-writing.
It is an extremely limited compensation. Ultimately, it is not a challenge to decide whether they are better or worse than Rousseau, but a challenge to speak at all; the clear rhetorical implication is that no one will dare respond. The passage provoked many accusations of blasphemy from contemporary reviewers. Such were the fruits of my reading and declaration. Unlike the confessor, formally obligated to respond by imposing penance and granting absolution, those sitting in judgement on Rousseau find their authority disabled.
All they have is a private reaction to an individual who can be read as neither model nor counter-model: he is just there, his text communicating the singular fact of his identity apparently unencumbered by any scheme of judgement. Attraction and repulsion have a strangely intimate air, as if reading the Confessions were a personal encounter or, more worryingly, a vaguely sexual one , where moral evaluation of the work is no longer relevant. When reviewers and commentators blustered that the book should never have seen the light of print, they were not just taking offence at the intrusion into public notice of sordid details of private life.
More essentially, they revealed the disturbance caused by the circulation of privacy itself, an individuality whose appearance in print could not be explained with any reference to its public function or place. Monthly Review, lxvii. Burke, Letter, The case of Rousseau 55 of intimacy or privacy. The result is a prominent and unsettling overlap of public and private spheres, or a reconfigured relationship between them, in the literary field.
The book confronts the public with autobiographical writing in all its raw fascination, independent of prescriptive or theoretical models. Prescriptivism contains and delimits; the Confessions is habitually about excess and the rupturing of boundaries. In the contemporary commentary the favourite trope for this aspect of autobiographical writing is unveiling or disrobing.
Here again Rousseau is exemplary, thanks to the persistently erotic tenor of his narrative. There is a great deal of undressing in the Confessions, literal and figurative needless to say, reviewers loved to focus their outrage on these passages. No readers felt themselves screened from the frank sensuality clothed by the language of sensibility or romance. These erotic episodes, though, are symptoms of a more pervasive exposure which is autobiographical not sexual.
He observed no measure with the world when he broke through its shackles. Ordinarily, both attraction and repulsion are moderated by screens between the viewer and the object. What makes the mixing of the opposed responses so acute in this case is the apparent absence of those screens. Rousseau makes readers unprecedentedly aware of their discomfort at the prospect of torn and discarded garments, a discomfort which tends to present itself as disgust, or perhaps as mingled interest and condemnation, but which is most characteristically manifested in the sheer sense of strangeness.
The great risk run by all life-writing, says an essayist in the Edinburgh Magazine in , is the danger of forgetting that there are attitudes and positions in which we may allow ourselves to appear before a very intimate friend, at the moment when restraint is banished. Whatever sense of genre there might be is thus founded on a fascinating disturbance in the way reading happens.
Nothing seems as characteristic of autobiography to contemporaries as the threat or promise of unveiling, whether or not it is carried through in any specific publication. Rousseau was not the first to provoke these anxieties but his book certainly brought them to prominence and intensified their ambivalence. After the Confessions the world of letters contained a permanent association between autobiographical acts and the set of concerns the book so consistently raised. As I have already argued, the Confessions straddles this horizon, extending it and in the same process making it visible as a prescriptive limit.
At the same time, though, the Confessions repeats at a basic thematic level this same pattern of transgressing and so reinforcing a limit. Rousseau also straddles the horizon of privacy, removing a veiling barrier in front of his readers and so making them acutely conscious of the line that he has so 69 70 71 72 Edinburgh Review, xxvi. Monthly Review, NS xx. Two aspects of the story stand out. These two points need stressing before we turn to look more closely at the criteria used in the period to think about autobiographical writing.
Otherwise, one might be tempted to treat those criteria as if they were definitions: as if the terms used to discuss the emergent genre—terms like veracity, impartiality, public interest or eminence, historical value, and so on—told us what autobiography was, or is. What were they, though? When prescriptive attitudes closed ranks to protect the good order of the literary public sphere, how did they typically present their claims? This means closing the gap between the two, however insistent contemporaries were on preserving it as a shield.
In this chapter I will sketch out the challenges attendant on autobiography as they appeared in relation to those autobiographical acts. In the most straightforward terms the question is: What exactly did people object to? For this reason, most of the evidence offered here is drawn from review periodicals.
In many ways this is an unrepresentative and perhaps misleading sample.
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Furthermore, however fiercely they differed with each other politically, they shared some fundamental interests. Even if one is thinking only of literary public spheres—the arenas of textual publication and circulation—the model Habermas proposes was, as Jon Klancher says, more a representation than a reality. This is a pertinent consideration since, as I will shortly argue, readings of autobiography invoke the decorums of middle-class, gentlemanly social intercourse. Only in the major review periodicals can we see the genre being read and written about with any consistency, and they are thus the best available window on to the encounter between the world of letters and specific autobiographical acts, despite all the factors limiting the way they imagined such texts being read.
Furthermore, it would be unhelpful to try and provide a full survey of all forms of autobiographical reading and writing in the period. Correspondingly, the literary public sphere within and around which such a genre formed is the one which included Coleridge semi-professional man of letters, the son of a country priest , Lamb 7 See Jon Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, — Madison, Wis.
Autobiography and the literary public sphere 63 India House drudge, son of a scrivener , and his Lordship. Their concerns about autobiography are very close to the anxieties displayed within many autobiographical texts themselves, as we will see in Chapter 4. This fact implies that the interrelations and exchanges between inscription texts and prescription commentaries which shape the emergent genre are at their most intimate in the major monthlies and quarterlies.
Autobiographical writing and British literature, - James Treadwell - Google Books
The accumulating mass of autobiographical ephemera would never have made its way to the farm in rural Dumfriesshire where he had been living for the previous six years; it was his regular access to the Edinburgh and the Quarterly that allowed him to scan the features of the world of letters and characterize the spirit of the age.
However distorted such a perspective was, it defined the arena of literary production and reception more effectively, and perhaps also more widely, than any other. Here one can be completely confident that the review periodicals reflect the literary environment as a whole, for accusations or at least mentions of egotism appear everywhere, attached to autobiographical writing like its shadow. Any volume sullied with the mark of self-writing is liable to be reviewed this way. Charges of egotism are as much a reflex in the s as in the s.
Nor is it only spokesmen for the proper conduct of the literary public sphere who use the word. The strength of its hold over the domain of autobiography is best illustrated by the way many autobiographers themselves acknowledge—defiantly or apologetically—the egotism of their enterprise. Prince observes, they expect the charge of egotism as a matter of course: It has also been objected, that the narrator of his own life must necessarily be guilty of so much egotism as to make his work preposterously ridiculous, and insufferably disgusting.
Egotism is so intimately associated with autobiography that it can just as easily seem to inhere in the act of writing. I am self-devoted to little else. Prince London, , The word has come to denote a quality of character; its meanings currently lie in the domain of psychology or personality. Reiman ed. New York: Garland Publishing, , pt.
A, Indeed, its vaguely radical veneer of insouciant indifference to the decrees of fashion is paper-thin. Coleridge, Complete Poetical Works, ed. Coleridge, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, , ii. Vanity is error. Egotism, the language of autobiography, is a matter of how the writing and written self presents itself to the community of readers. The review begins, as so many do, with some general thoughts on the practice of what was just coming to be called autobiography: THERE is certainly no figure in rhetoric so difficult to manage as that of egotism.
So few people, either in speaking or writing, succeed in the use of it, that some critics have proscribed it altogether. For the same reason that the letters of eminent men, written without disguise from the present impulse, are always exceedingly interesting, a narrative of the principal occurrences in the life of an individual, drawn up by himself, is commonly read with eager attention.
I am most grateful to Jennifer Koopman for drawing my attention to this review. Egotism is, after all, originally the name of a social offence. Critical Review, 2nd ser. Habermas, Structural Transformation, 51—6. Autobiography and the literary public sphere 69 for the rise of a civic public sphere. Via this conversational metaphor the charge of egotism links writing with decorum: autobiographies are texts that do not know how to behave in public.
Texts need more than technical management, according to the Goethe review: they need breeding, manners, propriety in the social sense. The author, brother to the painter John 29 Edinburgh Review, xxviii.
Minimally educated, he was pressed into the Navy in his early twenties, converted to Methodism, suffered from apocalyptic delusions, was confined at least twice for insanity, and eventually set fire to the roof of York Minster. It is only when a writer from the excluded classes adopts the formal manners of the literary public sphere that the issues surrounding autobiography come into play.
Concerns over autobiography therefore occur in relation to fairly specific, fairly exclusive social and cultural practices—practices which are also constitutive of the literary field as it was constructed in the Romantic period and, it bears repeating, it is the literary field which concerns us throughout this study. To return to the questions proposed at the start of this chapter, then, the basic criteria applied by prescriptive discourses must be understood primarily as social ones.
The writing self is expected to conduct itself properly. To an extent though, as I will shortly argue, a more limited extent than is often assumed to be the case it is judged by its right to a place in the conversational gathering: Is the author the kind of person who deserves to be admitted and listened to?
Egotism always begs for an excuse. Autobiography and the literary public sphere 71 conversation, it has to be worth listening to, by virtue of possessing unusual knowledge which is in the public interest as is the case with travel narratives, for example. Women writers, therefore, are admitted in so far as their self-writing is visibly determined by appropriate sociocultural roles. Monthly Review, NS xxxvi. As a category, it does not override the wider prescriptive considerations of autobiographical propriety.
More challenging positions occupied by workingclass autobiographers can also enter the literary public sphere, as long as the challenge is presented in something approximating the correct language. Autobiography and the literary public sphere 73 Briton. The literary public sphere was perfectly capable of extending itself to include female and lower-class autobiographers—under the right circumstances.
This is not to deny the existence of a general assumption that literary decorum, like its social counterpart, belongs by right to certain kinds of people, more probably lords than labourers. Both authorial egotism and readerly curiosity are somewhat mitigated within the higher circles of that sphere. Ginsberg ed. London: T. Dolby, , i. Justifications for autobiography along these lines are fairly common in the period.
Clearly, the notion they depend on is a hierarchical arrangement of the right to be heard. Compare the list of criteria cited in a review in the July Quarterly as now forgotten standards of life-writing: The eminence of the person—the splendour or utility of his or her life—the information it may convey, or the lesson it may inculcate, are by no means—as they used formerly to be—essentially conditions in the choice of a subject.
In this case the reviewer is talking about biography in general, but the principle is the same: knowledge of private experience, and therefore by extension the act of selfwriting, is acceptable when the self occupies an elevated social place. I am grateful to Jennifer Koopman for locating this review. Rank is no guarantee of gentle treatment in the reviews, either: a baronet like Sir Egerton Brydges can be accused of rampant egotism as readily as anyone else.
To some limited extent this is a function of the different political stances of the journals, but their broad consensus around a gentlemanly public sphere certainly overrides their disputes over qualifications for social eminence. Everyone seems to recognize that the public status of a person is not a matter of class. Usually public interest is construed in the sense of benefit rather than mere curiosity that which concerns the interests of the public, not just that which piques its interest.
Once the justification for autobiographical writing is transferred from the status of the author to the interest of the public sphere, it finds itself mirroring the debased criterion of curiosity: whatever interests the public is in the public interest, and therefore any instance of egotism is proper as long as there is an audience for it. With the completion of this shift, greatness or eminence is indistinguishable from notoriety or fame. The legitimate authors of autobiography would therefore be those whose lives are perused with interest—who are already in the grip of the greedy, nosy public sphere.
As much as the reviewers presume that eminence authorizes egotism, they cannot avoid the implication that eminence itself turns out to be a function of not a precondition for general curiosity. Their autobiographies are acceptable, even valuable, because their greatness makes them common property just as their egotism is acceptable because greatness is allowed to hog the conversational limelight.
Once, however, the concept of greatness is aligned with mere fame, private experience is everywhere vulnerable to the incursion of an interested audience. He begins with the usual sarcastic survey of what Marcus calls the extended autobiographical franchise: Modern primer-makers must needs leave confessions behind them, as if they were so many Rousseaus. Our weakest mob-orators think it is a hard case if they cannot spout to posterity. Cabin-boys and drummers are busy with their 47 Monthly Critical Gazette, ii.
Autobiography and the literary public sphere 77 commentaries de bello Gallico. The inappropriate self-importance and egotism of nobodies finds its match in the degraded appetite of the literary public sphere, which 49 Ibid. Hereafter cited by page number only. It is not in his view a public—a specific constituency—at all, since it apparently comprises everyone equally and consumes everything indiscriminately.
Autobiography testifies particularly well to this morass of undifferentiated speakers and listeners. Hence Lockhart identifies it as a threat to social interaction itself. What makes the article so interesting is the way it never touches on the issue of what autobiographical texts ought to look like. It offers no prescriptive indications, nor any suggestion that the books under review might have been conducted differently.
Lockhart understands instead that as a genre autobiography is about the nature of social space as it is reproduced in the literary public sphere.
No offence is intended to scholars of the history of agricultural technology. Autobiography and the literary public sphere 79 positions. As the world of letters discovered with the appearance of the Edinburgh and the Quarterly in the first decade of the nineteenth century, exaggerated polemic makes for livelier journalism. The problem is not just that autobiography gives cabin boys and drummers the same platform as a Caesar or a Wellington.
More disturbing is the way such writing threatens to confirm its levelling pretensions by addressing a level of private experience where, as Dr Johnson suspected in Rambler 60, people are not so different from one another. Compare a review in the London Magazine of March The desire to pry into the private actions of illustrious persons has perhaps become a disease of our times. Egotism is complicit in this process, needless to say.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Pocock Indianapolis, Ind. In the end, then, gradations of class and distinctions of gender are largely irrelevant to the fundamental prescriptive attitude, or at least not primary considerations within it. The essential yardstick for autobiographical publication is decorum, manners which in theory are available to anyone, though of course determined by gentlemanly and masculine notions of propriety. Compare a comment in a broadly sympathetic review of The Spirit of the Age in the Monthly: Perhaps the ungentle and deformed character of many of Mr.
Personal writing is inherently threatening here. Inwardness of that sort is, again, a private matter, and in so far as autobiographical writing draws thereon it does not belong in print. As I have already argued, this is largely what turns autobiography into a visible genre. In this light, reading autobiography is simply another way of acquiring information, and the egotist is a useful authority. These ought to be contradictory positions. On one side stands the Burkean position that in certain fields knowledge is a positive evil, that certain privacies should be inviolate.
In practice, however, the different attitudes not only coexist but overlap. There is certainly no correlation between the politics of any given periodical and its tendencies when reviewing autobiographical works. The literary public sphere, after all, functions as a site for opening and distributing all kinds of intellectual and cultural material. The economics of the market control this to some 55 57 59 56 Ibid. Edinburgh Review, xxx. Imperial Magazine, v. Autobiographical writing signals the reconfiguration of the relations between what happens behind closed doors and the open arena of textual circulation.
The question of how the new relation works out—which is also the question of how to manage the figure of egotism, the individual speaking of himor herself in public—remains negotiable and uncertain. It is, once again, a matter of proper management, however much prescriptivist stances imply that absolute rules can be applied. The periodicals show the literary establishment reacting to autobiographical acts case by case, each instance in practice often generating unexpected or contradictory responses even as the reviewer pronounces on how autobiography ought to be.
With a particular volume open before them commentators often find that the new kind of knowledge or access it provides becomes its own justification. As time passes on, the traits of egotism are softened down, we forget that the writer is the hero of his 60 61 Quarterly Review, xxxv. Autobiography and the literary public sphere 83 own tale, and at the same time we enjoy the rich stores of information, to which his own peculiar circumstances had given him access. A closer look at the central prescriptive assumptions illustrates their difficulty in containing the discourse of privacy.
Bearing in mind that the readiest way for Romantic-period writers to talk about the value of nonfiction was the amusement-and-instruction formula, it is obvious that amusement is the riskier of the two terms, since the pleasures of autobiography might seem all too straightforwardly akin to those of the eavesdropping lackey or the greedily prurient public ear.
We might call these the criteria of truth and objectivity respectively. Together they turn autobiographical writing into something very like reportage. An review in the Quarterly makes the equation explicit. So straightforwardly pragmatic an understanding of the genre is unusual in the commentary the fact that this review speaks of a decline in the volume 62 Monthly Review, NS xx.
Still, it suggests a basic idea of instructive value which was widely shared. The truth criterion, curiously, is less often invoked than one might expect. What this primarily means is that self-writing should suppress the self in favour of what the self observes as in newspaper journalism, the reporter is supposed to function only as witness to the events. The model form of autobiography here would be travel writing. An article in the April Edinburgh explains the criterion very fully: Life has often been compared to a journey; and the simile seems to hold better in nothing than in the identity of the rules by which those who write their travels, and those who write their lives, should be governed.
When a man returns from visiting any celebrated region, we expect to hear much more of the things and persons he has seen, than of his own personal transactions. In the same manner, when, at the close of a long life, spent in circles of literary and political celebrity, an author sits down to give the world an account of his retrospections, it is reasonable to stipulate that he shall talk less of himself than of his associates.
The criterion of objectivity works the same way, not surprisingly. In this view the perfection of self-writing would be to efface the self altogether, and some reviewers point out with evident relief that purely anecdotal memoirs achieve this by compiling reminiscences of other people. Theatrical memoirs in particular offer the chance to read autobiography as pure journalism. However much such texts aim to be pure reportage, they cannot escape being read to some extent as personal documents. Monthly Review, NS vi. The criteria of truth and objectivity thus inevitably come under pressure, and need to be modified somehow to make room for the idea that personal or private experience is instructive too.
When we consider how many temptations there are even here to delude ourselves, and by a seeming air of truth and candour to impose upon others, it will be allowed, that, instead of composing memoirs of himself, a man of genius and talent would be far better employed in generalizing the observations and experiences of his life, and giving them to the world in the form of philosophic reflections, applicable not to himself alone, but to the universal mind of Man.
One observes oneself, but from a distance, purged of autobiographical intimacy. Before reaching this point, however, the argument pictures an individual life in terms of a scientifically observable trajectory. The scale measuring this individual progression, meanwhile, is in no sense personal. In general, then, prescriptive requirements of instructiveness depend on reading autobiography in journalistic fashion as the record of events whose significance comes not from their association with the author him- or herself but from some shared or public field of value.
This is not the same as the more straightforward exemplary reading of the genre: Wilson is not imagining that it exists to show others the path to the top. Privacy is not an issue, because the life is understood as a legible, utilitarian, historical movement. Any event, interior or exterior, marks a stage in the overall journey, so nothing is actually located in any properly private sphere.
Domestic circumstances and influences, eccentric opinions, or any other aspects of what might look like a personal life are turned into events in the communal plot. For our purposes, though, the important point is the vulnerability of his argument. Narrative content is the key hence the model of reportage or travel writing : autobiography is a way of telling us things.
How, then, does one account for the pervasive intuition among reviewers and commentators that such texts are not reducible to their content, to events and facts, to the materials of the truth and objectivity criteria? It is something existing in excess of factual, public truth, some value not reducible to the narrative order Wilson takes as his standard. The author, that is, ought to admit his intimate relationship with the truth of his narrative.
Wilson wants all events to take place in the public domain, but many readers in the period seem to interpret the contents of an autobiographical record as being distinctively inflected by the person they as it were belong to. For Wilson this shift of emphasis must be anathema, since it reinstitutes the person of the author as the subject of self-writing rather than the trajectory of a career.