Character and Conversion in Autobiography: Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, and Sartre
Patrick Riley's study of autobiographical writing in early modern and modern France focuses on conversion as a schema used by authors to structure both their life and their writing. The archetype for this organization of self and text is Augustine's Confessions. In this precursor to the autobiographical genre, Augustine recounts his early life as a spiritual journey leading to a profound religious conversion, a transformation of the self whose nature is in part conveyed to the reader through a transformation in the text itself: at the end of Book 9, the Confessions shift abruptly from the narration of Augustine's early life to an atemporal introspective exploration of spirituality. Riley claims that Augustine's use of conversion in shaping both the form and the content of the Confessions was imitated or recast by many writers in the Western tradition, including the four he has chosen to illustrate his thesis. In the least compelling of these four studies, Riley describes Montaigne's Essais as a counterpoint to Augustine's model of the self; according to Riley, Montaigne replaces Augustine's dramatic moment of conversion with a multitude of 'micro-conversions': 'Montaigne is able to reject the subjective break that radical conversion demands only because he views experience as an unbroken continuum of micro-conversions' (p. 61). However, it is not clear that the Essais are a response to Augustine rather than simply being a different way of writing about the self. Riley's argument focuses almost exclusively on one essay, 'Du repentir', where Montaigne discusses his self-portrait and the notion of repentance, but even here neither conversion nor repentance strike us as central to Montaigne's project. Riley's thesis is more intriguing with respect to the autobiographical texts of Descartes, Rousseau and Sartre. However, he does not analyse conversion's role in shaping the form and content of these works in sufficient detail. Riley summarizes the content of these works at length but does not adequately explain how these summaries [End Page 385] contribute to his overarching argument. In addition to a more detailed analysis of the texts it treats, this book could have also benefited from a more fully developed theoretical frame. Riley does not thoroughly define and explain the concepts of conversion and character as they relate to his thesis. He does summarize some of the theoretical and historical work that has been done on the concept of conversion in the book's notes, including some that claim it is inappropriate to use the concept of conversion as an analytical tool, but he does not explain or defend his own use of this concept in any detail. Rather he leaves this task to the reader: 'It is for the reader to decide whether the use of the term "conversion" in this book, both as a tool and a subject of analysis, as a rubric for thinking about a genre and the contours of a life, appears legitimate' (p. 180). In this book, Riley presents an intriguing thesis and some interesting insights, but he does not defend his thesis thoroughly and conclusively.