2nd Installment on Autobiography
Andre Malraux once said that what interested him in any person was "the human condition." Malraux was interested not so much in people's personality but, rather, in their "particular relationship with the world." He went on to say that he was interested in the "form and essence" of anyone with claims to greatness. If a person was saintly, what was the character of that saintliness. It was not only things, events in a person's life, that mattered to the exposition and analysis of the character, of the person--in determining the overall result of the autobiographical exercise. Perhaps the reason Malraux found the wider world, society, crucial in any delineation of autobiography was that he actually found himself uninteresting. Perhaps, writes the editor of this book Ralph Cohen, this was because Malraux had not learned the art of self-recreation.
To H.G. Wells an autobiography was a description of a man's effort to achieve his persona. This was no easy task because the persona changed frequently in life even in a day for some people. It was rarely a whole, a singular entity, he thought. So the autobiographical journey was an imperfect one or at least there existed various tensions between the inner and outer, the subjective and objective, the cross-cultural perspectives, that made the achievement of this persona, even in the long term into the evening of a person's life, difficult, complex and sometimes impossible to do through the written word. The explorer Scott, for example, gave up his journal because he felt it was making him into a solitary egoist. Anais Nin was advised to give up her diary because it caused her to withdraw and to be preoccupied with her own completeness. T.E. Lawrence wrote that living in two cultures, English and Arab, resulted in his loneliness and a certain madness, certainly no sense of wholeness.
"The suspended and wandering tonalities of the past," wrote Nabokov, are gathered by memory into its fold and memory makes innate and densely particularized harmonies from them. These harmonies are memory's supreme achievement. Writing an autobiography could be described as a rapid invention of the universe; all space and time, or at least selective portions of space and time, participate in the emotion of the autobiographer. An utter degradation, ridicule and horror is experienced, according to Nabokov, as a part of the infinity of sensation and thought that is the writer's experience--within the finite existence that is hisw or her life.
This infinity of sensation and thought is dealt with by autobiographers in different ways. A sense of place informs the memory of writers like Gide, Ruskin and Yeats. This sense of place usually has a human aspect or connection but, to writers like Sartre, the facts of place, of his life, make an imperceptible and shifting frontier. A sense of mission, a sense of that most familiar trio family-work-friends, a sense of obsession: there are various driving forces and activities that take that infinity of sensation and thought and skew it down some track. Memory, a frequently emphasized aspect of experience, provides the writer's only reality no matter what fills the spaces. A panoramic visual impression, an intense and mysterious continuity of sensation comes to replace past reality by means of the mechanism of memory. Perhaps part of this mysterious continuity provided by memory is conveyed by Dahlberg when he writes that "precisely as my life ceases to be solitary, it ceases to be distinct." For others, though, I think this distinctness is achieved as a result of the social not the solitary. Human interaction gives distinctness and specificity to life. For still others it is a mix of the two. Perhaps part of this mysterious continuity is the intermingled discontinuities which form autobiographical truth and these discontinuities can be born in many birth canals.
Some autobiographers are preoccupied, obsessed, with form. Memory imposes for each autobiographer spacial form. Gibbon found form so problematic that he left six "finely formed, differently focused, and overlapping fragments" or drafts or editions of his autobiography. Nothing was finalized. Henry Adams, who idolized Gibbon, wrote that "from cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has been?the task of education." It is also the task of autobiography to achieve rich coherences, elegant if whimsical patterning and focusing and a working out of the laws of history, if any in fact exist.
Selectivity, of course, changes as memory's focus moves from childhood to adolescence. "The self," wrote Goethe, "is an irregularly moving expansion" an "ever-widening arc." Goethe had a lifelong tendency to use his imagination to put his mind at rest. He used poetry to fix that which was confused or unstable in himself, to repossess the past world, to achieve stasis through form. Writing autobiography involves a continuous refocusing of expectation and intention as each autobiographer "discovers his own fluctuating mixture of confession, apology and memoir."
In some ways an autobiography is a retrospective personal account of events that are unique and cataclysmic, significant and not-so-significant, experiences in a single life in the flow of history. Sometimes this autobiography is translated into the form of a memoir: Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and Mailer's Armies in the Night are examples of "personal accounts of events that are unique and significant parts of their lives." Each of these books centres its chief attention on the life of the author as it was lived. Not all of the life of the author is involved but, then, not all of a life is necessarily involved in any autobiography.
An obvious part of the life that is lived is the perceptions, the changes and varying intensities that make up that life. In some ways the task is like searching for a missing person, a buried treasure, a corpus delecti. The life of the subject lies in waiting to be discovered. Inevitably there are questions that can not be answered, aspects of life that are conjectural, portions of life that can not be recalled, no matter how much we discover and recollect. There are also facts that are beyond doubt, although their meaning is often multiple. Autobiographers are caught between two poles: the interest of the reader and the facts of their life, a certain inevitable thrust that the autobiography takes and the vast array of unobtrusive and contingent facts which send a life in a thousand directions. As the autobiographer writes, the reasons for things sometimes protrude, like previously unobserved finger posts. Causes, where they were never seen before, swim like a swarm of possibilities, like shades which might eventually cease to count or which might become significant, often nebulous, part of an endless exercise, give rise to the old tennis game: 'What would have happened if?' It is unavoidable.
Although I have pointed this out before, the social nature of our being, the sociological nature of our reality, needs to be given more stress than it normally is by autobiographers. Much of what we are, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, comes to us from the outside and is beyond our control. We are determined by what is within as well as what is without, by grand passions as well as large impersonal forces. "We are all prompted," wrote Dr. Johnson, "by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, seduced by pleasure." Of course, within this overall sameness and pattern, the degree, the extent, the variability is enormous. Autobiographers often underestimate the explanatory power of various factors in their lives: money, sex, ambition, history, etc. It would be difficult to overestimate these factors. Even when alone, for example, individuals are enclosed in a social group and "determined in their behaviour by the nature of their social being." The nature of the individual is intimately connected with group affiliations. For people like Cezanne the social world is seen as a mirror reflecting the glory he saw in himself.
Coleridge noted that people often strain after an unlivable identity, strive for what cannot be attained. Many aspects of life can only be achieved or known vicariously through some form or medium of the arts. However much the person strives for progress, coherence, a unified self and closure, disorder, discontinuity and patterns of distortion face the individual along the road. Mindless detail, sudden vivid glimpses even epiphanies exist along the same road. And we have to watch we don't overplay the epiphanies, as Bertrand Russell did in his autobiography. In some ways it is not what happens to us but what we make of what happens that is crucial. However important childhood is, autobiographers must watch they don't marginalize their adult experience. It is difficult to balance the various aspects of one's life; in many cases balance is not important.
It is not easy to alter habits and patterns of behaviour, what some might call one's nature. It is also not easy to set up some pattern of behaviour that allows one to persist in the study and development of a chosen line of work or interest and thus achieve that fulfillment that comes from love and work, two of the crucial aspects of life. Much attention can be devoted to this theme in an autobiography since this feature of life often occupies so much of the individual's attention. I trust in my third edition I can elaborate on this theme as well. Some are able to do it and not be distracted, Cezanne for one. He was able to withdraw from the group but yet remained dependent on it.
It is difficult to know what people really think of us; it is also difficult to know what we think of ourselves because this changes with the time of the day, the month and the years. William James says there is "a certain average tone of self-feeling" which we carry with us. As we chart our inner life often we pay little attention to the wider society. Jane Austen is a good example. In all her novels she hardly ever refers to what was going on in European history at the time. In her case it does not seem to matter.
The autobiographer can immerse himself in diaries and letters to give the account a strong sense of individual control. "Private documents are redolent with the feeling we almost all have of making choices and exercising our free will in ways that shape our lives," writes David Ellis. And so, he continues, "the impression these create must be balanced by a consideration of all the determing factors of background?.which suggest that the subject is not, and never has been, free at all."
Finally, autobiography serves as a stimulant, not an inhibitor, to biography. And so, I trust, all that I have put together here about my life may be useful to a future biographer as he attempts to discover the relationship between an emerging world religion and an individual caught by circumstance and by some element of personal choice in its world-embracing fold.
31 August 2002
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