Wednesday, March 6, 2013

I [Doubt It], Claudius

Every now and then one is prodded to think hard about something one has previously thought about hardly at all.  This can be a somewhat disconcerting experience.  I find myself in the throes of thinking about autobiography.  Don’t worry.  I have no intention of writing one.  Even were I so inclined I would shrink before the menacing fact that it turns out that I don’t know what autobiography is.  Nor is it particularly comforting that very few other people seem to know either.

            A friend seeking a favor called me up a few weeks ago.  She is a heading a project, now in an advanced stage, to bring out a Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.  You may know the “Cambridge Companions,” which are collections of essays offering for the general reader an introduction to an author, field, or topic.  There are so many of them by now that we need A Cambridge Companion to Cambridge Companions.  I have contributed to one of them myself: the companion to C. S. Lewis.  As I chose to receive the miserable guerdon for my task in books rather than money—I think the option was £100 cash or £200 worth of books--I now own among others the companions to Ovid, Rabelais, Cervantes, and Tolstoy.  So I know, too, that the quality of the essays is variable.

            Well, as the copy deadline for Autobiography approached, the person (identity to me unknown) who had agreed to write an essay on “European Autobiography before 1600” or some such title had found it necessary to withdraw.  Could I, on an emergency basis, help out an old pal by whipping up pronto six thousand words on “Early European Autobiography”.  A piece of cake, I thought, I mean how hard can it be?  You have Augustine, you have Guibert of Nogent and Peter Abelard in the twelfth century, you’ve got Dante and Petrarch in the fourteenth.  By then you’re home free.  After all I know the female mystical autobiographers from Julian of Norwich to Teresa of Avila like the back of my hand, if you will forgive the indelicacy.  So I said yes.

            But then my personal motto is “Sin in haste, repent at leisure”.  The first downer was that Augustine was already dealt with.  He is so important that he already has a chapter on his own—written by somebody else.  Medieval autobiography without Augustine is sort of like King Lear minus Cordelia and the Fool, but I soldiered on.  I started reading theories of autobiography.  Yes, there are such things, beaucoup thereof, mainly by Frenchmen, of course.  In one of them (The Autobiographical Pact, by Philippe Lejeune) I find the following comprehensive definition.  An autobiography is “a retrospective narrative in prose which a real person creates of his life, placing the emphasis on his individual lived experience, and particularly on the history of his personality.”  In another, I find the emphasis put on a “contract” between autobiographer and reader, a contract demanding “unambiguous veracity” and “full disclosure in essential matters.”  
 Spiritual finger-pointing

            That made me feel better about losing Augustine’s Confessions, since by these definitions it cannot be an autobiography.  Augustine had no word for “personality” in the modern sense, because the thing it means had not yet made its public appearance in the European consciousness.  As my late, great teacher D. W. Robertson used to say,“you cannot play hopscotch until the rules for hopscotch have been invented.”  And as for the “complete disclosure” part, do you really believe, as literal truth, the last two paragraphs of the eighth book  in which Augustine for no particular reason sits down beneath a fig tree with a copy of Paul’s epistles on his lap, hears sing-song infantile voices instructing him to “pick it up and read it”, and opens the book at random to find before him the service reading for the first Sunday in Advent, the “New Year’s Day” of the Christian calendar?  If so, you will have no trouble crediting the literal autobiographical truth of pp. 316-319 of Petrarch’s celebrated “Letter on the Ascent of Mont Ventoux”, in which the flabby poet, having huffed and puffed his way to the top of the highest mountain in Provence, whips out his handy pocket edition of Augustine’s Confessions, opens it at random, and, well, you know…?

 Francis Petrarch: a man with a big pocket, though not a deep one

Not a single one of the early writers I am dealing with abides by the “autobiographical pact”.  They all subscribe to a canon of strict veracity, but one founded in the useful paradox that fiction is often truer than “what really happened”.  If you can throw in a bit of what we would be inclined to call plagiarism, it only stiffens the truth.  More modern writers who have tried this have come up with mixed appraisals.  Most people, including me, think that Gertrude Stein was rather brilliant in calling her memoirs The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—her lifelong companion.  But as I pointed out in The Anti-Communist Manifestos, fictive autobiography in the contemporary period is likely to be judged on political grounds.  Rigoberta MenchĂș, an indigenous Guatemalan activist, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Peace, was easily forgiven for making up various important details of her autobiography I, Rigoberta MenchĂș.  On the other hand James Frey, author of a memoir entitled A Million Little Pieces, was effectively rendered an un-person by Oprah in a scathing interrogation on live TV; she was irate at having promoted his somewhat fictional autobiography unawares on an earlier program.

            I’ll leave you to ponder that one.  I’m too busy pondering the eleventh-century monk Otloh of Saint Emmeram, who relates in full autobiographical frankness numerous encounters with the corporeal devil.