LATEST THOUGHTS ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY
I have written several essays exploring the nature of autobiography. These essays introduce the existing five volumes of my Journal or Diary. Other essays explore the nature of journals, diaries and letters as genres that play different roles in my autobiography.
There are endless ways of telling one’s story. For this reason poets and writers like Roger White and Bernard Shaw may be wrong to think that the passive nature of their lives disqualifies them from even attempting to write their autobiography. Roger used to say that he did not think it was possible for a biographer to make anything at all interesting out of his life. I think time will prove him wrong. He, like Shaw, thought his life was in his writing, or as he once put it, quoting Rabindranath Tagore: “the poem not the poet.”
If one does write autobiography, as I do, one can not tell one’s whole story no matter how one tells it. While one tells one’s story, as Montaigne said, one’s story makes oneself and there is so much of tedium, chouder and trivia in life which one simply edits out, out of pure necessity. If you put it all in you’d have a mountain of garbage that even the most assiduous reader could not plough through. You take form as you write and it is fascinating to watch. It feels to me a little like sculpting or painting must feel like to the artists in these fields. It’s part of the magic of writing autobiography. As William Spengemann emphasizes, autobiography is synonymous with symbolic action. Writing is symbolic action. The implications of this idea revolutionizes the experience of writing autobiography. One sees the whole exercise in metaphorical terms. While not possessing the freedom of the novel or the facticity of writing history, autobiography does contain enough freedom and enough truth to give it the best of both worlds. “Autobiographers”, Brian Finney notes in his introductory words to The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography in the Twentieth Century(1985, p.21), “appear to have as many different conceptions of what constitutes the truth about themselves as readers have different expectations of them.”
If parts of our nature are unknowable, if our degree of confessionalism is in our own hands, if others see us quite differently than we see ourselves, there is going to be only a certain aspect of the truth and only a certain degree of it that opens up for the autobiographer. Even if autobiographies are lies, as Shaw said; if they are not to be trusted unless they reveal something disgraceful, as Orwell hypothesized; if they reveal one’s mendacity as Freud emphasized; if they focus on our personal myths as Jung would have put it--they at least pursue the human, the personal, story from within. Even if autobiography is a caricature of sorts, it cannot deny the tyrannical power of basic facts, however interpretive or subjective. There is an inevitable and, to some extent, naive trusting in memory.
There is both historical veracity and artistic creativity, then, in autobiography. The self-portraiture, the process of writing, transmutes one’s life into a verbal artifact. It is difficult to reveal one’s private self to the world; some aspects of that self are better left unrevealed and an ambivalence regarding the revelation of some of that inner life is, it would seem to me, unavoidable. Evasion, euphistic language and diversionary tactics are all part of a process of saying what one wants to say and not saying it all.
George Orwell talks about a certain amount of exaggeration in the process of selection and narration and a type of meaning that emerges by the way one retrospectively chooses to order events. In the process of his own analysis Orwell attempts to come to grips with his buried and not-so-buried motives for writing his autobiography. Subjective self-discovery and the capacity for objective reportage are related; factuality and self-awareness seem to walk hand-in-hand. The reader, too, can often correct the unperceived distortions of the writer when the autobiography embraces fully this subjective element. For the reader and writer become more intimate through this style, this tone, of writing.
Memory is notoriously unreliable; it is like a minefield; it is also the great artist, as Andre Marois once put it. Some see memory as a pandering to the ego; some point out that being told by others what happened is not the same as one’s own account: so that all one really has is memory. “There have been episodes in my life” says A.E. Coppard “which not even the prospect of an eternity in hellfire would induce me to reveal.”(ibid.,p.46) But even then it is very difficult for the writer to hide his true nature. I see all of my own effort as quite a transparent, honest exercise, an exercise which is conscious of a good degree of probing, conscious of style, language and form. I am conscious that my own life has nothing of the great adventures and incredible stories that are at the heart of many autobiographies. Hopefully it has an interesting yarn at its centre and material that will be useful to the Baha’i community as it unfolds its contribution to the globe in the decades ahead. I hope, in aiming to achieve something useful, that I have not poured out a pile of dirty laundry, that I have at least kept the pile tactfully small. Vanity is as common as air and I trust this ubiquitous folly is at least kept to a minimum in the process of all my navel-gazing. The desire to give the reader pleasure and contribute something original and probing lies in the matrix of my motivations to write. Moliere said that what he tried to do was correct men by amusing them. I would like to be able to achieve this, but I am not conscious of much success. I hope I get better at this style of writing, at this comic autobiography. At this stage of my life writing, an autobiography seemed to be something I could do, something I would enjoy doing from among the options one has available in life, something for which there was a place in the burgeoning Baha’i literature of the 1990s and would probably be a place in the decades to come-when and if it got published.
I trust, too, that my writing is not characterized by that romantic flavour that Frank Harris writes with in his My Life and Loves published in England in the 1920s in all its 1100 odd pages. There is romance in my life: a sexual aesthetic, a sensitivity to the beauty of the feminine, of nature and of the intellect; but I trust that it is not removed from the real world, that it is simply part of my experience and not over-emphasized in my narrative, just a part of the intentional and unintentional revelations that add complexity and fascination to the text. The theatrical, the dramaturgical, is present in my work, but hopefully not unduely so. The mock-heroic, the lofty sentiments, the literary and thematic exaggerations and postures I hope are not overly done, stretched too far with too much religiosity as George Moore tended to do in his Hail and Farewell.(1911)
- For Teachers