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ENGLISH LITERATURE & CULTURE. ‘I’ IS ANOTHER: AUTOBIOGRAPHY ACROSS GENRES Camelia Elias. I and “I”. traditional modes of narration: autobiography in a nutshell radical modes of representation I’m not there review

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english literature culture




Camelia Elias

i and i
I and “I”
  • traditional modes of narration:
    • autobiography in a nutshell
  • radical modes of representation
    • I’m not there
    • review
  • “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he is dead”

Samuel Goldwyn


I is another, “Je est un autre“ (Arthur Rimbaud from his letters (aka The Seer’s Letters) to Georges Izambard (May 13, 1871) and Paul Demeny (May 15, 1871). The following extract is from his letter to Paul Demeny:

  • "For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a bugle, it is not his fault. That is obvious to me: I witness the unfolding of my thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I make a stoke of the bow: the symphony makes movement into the depths, or comes in one leap upon the stage.
  • If the old fools had not found only the false significance of the Ego, we should not now be having to sweep away these millions of skeletons which, since an infinite time,! have been piling up the fruits of their one-eyed intellects, proclaiming themselves to be the authors!
  • (...) The first study of a man who wants to be a poet is his self-knowledge, complete; he looks for his own soul, he inspects it, he tests it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it. That seems simple: in every mind a natural development takes place; so many egoists proclaim themselves authors; there are many others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves! - But the soul has to be made monstrous: after the fashion of the comprachicos, if you like! Imagine a man planting and cultivating warts on his face.
  • I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer."
norbert elias the society of individuals 1991
Norbert Elias: The Society of Individuals (1991)
  • One must start from the structure of the relations between individuals in order to understand the ‘psyche’ of the individual person. (37)
  • this statements situates itself between the idea of an autobiography written by one person and the context on which the person writing is dependent.
  • one of the assumptions in traditional autobiographical studies rests on the idea that the aim in autobiography is the understanding of the individual through the individual’s own understanding. (Dilthey, Pattern and Meaning in History)
  • a retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular the development of his personality.

(Lejeune 1982)

  • the absolute condition of autobiography:
    • there must be ‘identity’ between author, narrator, and protagonist
    • identity as ‘intention’
  • honest
  • truthful
  • serious
  • authoritative
  • honors the signature of a pact/contract
  • sincere (implies a masculine subject; a man by definition is more credible when he says he is who he is)
jerome buckley the turning key 1984
Jerome Buckley: The Turning Key (1984)
  • “The ideal autobiography […] describes a voyage of self-discovery, a life-journey confused by frequent misdirections and even crisis of identity, but reaching at last a sense of perspective and integration. It traces through the alert awakened memory a continuity from early childhood to maturity or even old age […] and as a work of literature it achieves a satisfying wholeness.” (39-40)
  • Robert Southey first uses the term in1809
  • subsequent pros and cons:
    • the author as a genius (beyond outside judgment)
    • the author attains literary legitimacy and a desired subjectivity
    • the author is resituated in ‘his’ work, and thus becomes knowable to his readers
    • the author suffers public exposure of the private self
    • the author lacks integrity if he exposes his self for commercial purposes (pop stars)
traditional modes of autobiographical writing
traditional modes of autobiographical writing
  • author’s life
  • first person point of view
  • author’s feelings expressed
  • author’s attitude toward events of life
  • non-fiction
the author
the author:
  • as hero
  • draws his own portrait
  • describes his likes and dislikes
  • describes what he has done and what has been done to him
  • presents one point of view
  • presents his past from the limited perspective of his present self-image
poststructuralist background
French theory




Common concerns:

interrogate the self-evident nature of the subject and knowledge

de-center the author (who is not a source of meaning)

undermine the unified subject of autobiography

poststructuralist background
  • the experiential I vs. the discursive I
  • authorship
  • selfhood
  • the representation of the division between fact and fiction
open questions
open questions
  • fact or self invention?
  • literary event (whose primary being resides in and through the writing itself) or is it life being represented?
  • the life of the signifier or the life being signified?
  • if fiction is a way of mystifying, is autobiography a way of de-mystifying?
northrop frye anatomy of criticism 1957
Northrop Frye: Anatomy of Criticism (1957)


  • transforms empirical facts into artifacts
  • it is definable as a form of prose fiction
  • it is conditioned on the process of selecting, ordering, integrating a writer’s lived experiences life according to its teleological demands as a narrative
  • relies on an imaginative discourse
  • relies on fictional techniques
self cognitive dilemma
self-cognitive dilemma
  • truth
  • imagined truth
  • designed/written truth
    • manifests a spontaneous, ironic, experimental effort
  • the problem of levels:
    • is the writer’s representation of his experience subordinated to the experience itself, or does memory rule the selection of events?
    • is autobiography a writer’s attempt to elucidate his present or his past?
    • the discursive “I” and the recollected “I”
realization vs representation
realization of the self

vital impulse to order

against fragmentation

guarantee unity

representation of the self

the form of autobiography must provide both conditions and limits

criticism and autobiography are the same: self-conscious discourses about ‘language’

realization vs. representation
roland barthes to write an intransitive verb 1972
Roland Barthes: To Write: An Intransitive Verb? (1972)
  • “when a narrator [of a written text] recounts what has happened to him, the I who recounts is no longer the one that is recounted”
  • the I is always new even if it is repeated
  • the I is an instance of discourse
    • the autobiographer necessarily impersonates the effect of discourse
henry david thoreau walden 1854
Henry David Thoreau: Walden (1854)
  • “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained”
    • a self-conscious insistence on the self-referentiality of the I
    • split intentionality: I becomes he

(Louis Renza: “The Veto of the Imagination”)

d h lawrence helene cixous
D. H. Lawrence & Helene Cixous
  • Never trust the teller, trust the tale.
  • All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another (Rootprints)
jacques derrida the law of genre 1980
Jacques Derrida: The Law of Genre (1980)
  • “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity.”
    • no text can fulfill its own generic designations (autobiography in a title indicates that the statement indicated in the title doesn’t belong to the genre itself)
    • texts are open to transgression
    • genre ‘does’ the subject by ‘undoing’ the subject
paul de man autobiography as de facement 1979
Paul de Man: Autobiography as De-facement (1979)
  • autobiography is self-indulgent and disreputable compared to the novel
  • autobiography is a figure of reading or understanding texts
    • author reads himself in the text
    • author acquires a face through personification
    • “any book with a readable title-page is autobiographical” (922)
  • autobiography reveals that all knowledge and self-knowledge depends on figurative language or tropes
  • autobiography produces fictions or figures
  • the giving of face is the disfiguring of the subject (in the end there is only writing)
john eakin how our lives become stories
John Eakin: How our lives become stories
  • Definitions of autobiography have never proved to be definitive, but they are instructive, reflecting characteristic assumptions about what may well be the slipperiest of literary genre – if indeed autobiography can be said to be a genre in the first place. (1-2)
autobiographical genre s
autobiographical genre(s)
  • subdivision of the novel (Northrop Frye)
  • literature with a difference (Barrett J. Mandel)
  • figure of reading (Paul de Man)
  • neither a genre, nor a form, nor a style, nor even a language, but a literary attitude (George May)
  • autosociography, autoautography, autopsychography, autophylography, autoobituagraphy, autosoteriography (James Olney)
  • not a formal genre but an act (Elizabeth Bruss)
autobiographical modes
autobiographical modes
  • memoir mode:
    • the writer suppresses his evocation of the past by surrendering to the public currents of language.
    • the writer uses language to declassify information about his life
    • the writer doesn’t emphasize his own development but focuses on people he knows, and events he witnessed
  • confessional mode:
    • writing becomes a manifest part of the writer’s performance of his textual project
  • narcissistic mode:
    • the writer introduces signs of vigilance intended to guard against subliminal expressions
j j rousseau confessions 1954
J.J. Rousseau: Confessions (1954)
  • “I may omit or transpose facts, or make mistakes in dates; but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt, or about what my feelings have led me to do; and these are the chief subjects of my story.” (262)
  • “I shall continue just the same faithfully to reveal what J.-J. Rousseau was, did and thought, without explaining and justifying the strangeness of his feelings or ideas or inquiring whether any others have thought like him.” (595)
h porter abbot autobiography autography fiction 1988
H. Porter Abbot: Autobiography, Autography, Fiction (1988)
  • autobiographical narrative begins and ends in the presence of its making
  • to read fictively is to ask of the text: how is this complete?
  • to read factually is to ask of the text: how is this true?
  • to read autobiographically is to ask of the text: how does this reveal the author? (613)
autobiography as anthropology
autobiography as anthropology

(John Eakin, 1999:4)

gendered autobiography
gendered autobiography
  • The Play
  • Surprise
  • Men and Women
eva hoffman
Eva Hoffman
  • Born in Cracow, Poland
  • studied music
  • Emigrated to Canada 1959 and then to the US (1979)
  • studied English literature at Rice and Harvard
  • becomes editor and literary critic for New York Times


  • Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. London: Vintage, 1989.
  • Exit Into History : A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe. New York. N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1994.
  • Shtetl : The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
  • The Secret. London: Vintage, 2001
andrei codrescu
Andrei Codrescu
  • Born in Romania, Sibiu 1946
  • studied mathematics and philosophy at Univ. of Bucharest
  • came to the US in 1966, after a transit period in both France and Italy
  • professor of English and Comparative Studies at Louisiana State University


  • Poetry: Alien Candor (1996); Thus Spake the Corpse (2 vol) 1999-2000
  • Novels: Casanova in Bohemia (2002); The Blood Countess (1995); National best-seller;
  • Essays: Zombification: Essays from NPR (1995); The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans (1995); Hail Babylon! Looking for the American City at the End of the Millenium (1998)
charles simic
Charles Simic
  • born in Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1938
  • came to the US through France in 1953
  • studied at NYU


  • Poetry: The World Doesn’t End (Pulitzer Prize) 1990; Walking the Black Cat (1996)
  • Essays: The Metaphysician in the Dark (2003); The Unemployed Fortune Teller (1994)
raymond federman
Raymond Federman
  • born in France, 1928
  • came to the US in 1947
  • studied at Columbia University (first PhD on Beckett)
  • professor of French, English, and Comparative literature SUNY


  • Criticism: Critifiction (1993); Surfiction (1975)
  • Novels: Double or Nothing (1971); Take It or Leave It (1976); The Twofold Vibration (1982)
common concerns
common concerns
  • the experience of the immigrant
  • double emigration
  • double perspective
    • feel double
    • be double
  • double expectation
malcolm x
Malcolm X
  • Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965)
  • was an American Black Muslim minister and a spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
  • he made the pilgrimage, the Hajj, to Mecca and became a Sunni Muslim (after leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964)
  • founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
  • was assassinated in Washington Heights on the first day of National Brotherhood Week.
  • his politics and ideology — is contested in part because his entire body of work consists of a few dozen speeches and a collaborative autobiography whose veracity is challenged
allen ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg
  • Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997)
  • one of the most celebrated American poet.
  • best known for Howl (1956), a long poem celebrating his friends of the Beat Generation
  • anti-materialist and anti-conformist
jack kerouac
Jack Kerouac
  • March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969
  • American novelist, writer, poet, and artist. Along with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, he is amongst the best known of the Beat Generation writers
  • is considered an important and influential writer whose book On the Road inspired many others.
  • His writing is credited as a ‘reluctant’ catalyst for the 1960s counterculture.
woody allen
Woody Allen
  • film director, writer, actor, jazz musician, comedian and playwright. (won the Oscar 3 times)
  • his many films mix various styles:satire, wit and humor
  • writes and directs most of his films movies and also acts in the majority of them.
  • draws heavily on literature, sexuality, philosophy, psychology, Jewish identity, European cinema, and New York City, where he was born and has lived his entire life.
franz lidz
Franz Lidz
  • a Sports Illustrated senior writer
  • a New York Times film essayist
  • Books:
    • Ghosty Men
    • Unstrung Heroes: My Improbable Life with Four Impossible Uncles (which was made into a 1995 Disney feature film)