The daguerrotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw nature. . . . [It] gives her the power to reproduce herself.—Louis Daguerre (1838)
Autobiography, like photography, has held out this tantalizing promise since its infancy: the power of self-reproduction. Indeed, Daguerre’s grandiose sales pitch for his invention reveals the remarkably similar paths taken by photographic and autobiographical theory. Both arts have had a long history of stubborn devotion to reflectionist theory, and both have only relatively recently felt the effects of poststructuralist critiques of that theory and its deep-rooted assumptions. There are, of course, differing foci; if recent photographic theorists like Alan Sekula, Victor Burgin, and W. J. T. Mitchell have emphasized the cultural, ideological codes involved in the act of representation, autobiographical theory of the last decade has productively queried whether there is a self to reproduce and whether, if poststructuralism deems that there is not, political agency is possible for the autobiographical subject. It is precisely at this juncture of photographic and autobiographical theories that I wish [End Page 643] to place my discussion of Timothy Findley’s Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Workbook (1990).
Although criticism which brings poststructuralist and, specifically, post-modernist thought to bear on Findley’s novels and short stories is not scarce, there seems little inclination among critics to engage in a similar analysis of this collection of journal entries, radio scripts, speeches, reminiscences, and occasional essays. Indeed, I was struck, reading reviews of the book, by how perplexed, uncomfortable, and even shamefaced most reviewers sound when they are faced with Findley’s life writings. Brian Fawcett, writing for Books in Canada, ends on this note of puzzlement: “Since he has seen, been, and done a great deal, maybe we should be content with that” (42). Ending a rev iew with a sentence that contains the word “maybe” is the reviewing kiss of death, but it is perplexing to boot when that reviewer acknowledges, earlier in the review, that the work under discussion is “an interesting read and a valuable book” (42).
Of course, as with any example of life writing, that more inclusive designation, generic prescriptions account for a good part of the reviewers’ puzzlement. Just what the hell is this?, one can hear these reviewers muttering under their breath. Patricia Morley opens her mainly positive review of Inside Memory in The Canadian Forum almost as shakily as Brian Fawcett ends his: “Inside Memory is an autobiography—of sorts—along with a meditation on human nature and on the craft of writing” (60). Fawcett asserts, on th e other hand, that it is “not a true memoir” (41), and the language that he then adopts to describe the contents of the volume is laden with negative canonical associations: “a collection of journalistic pieces and essays, with a smattering of diary entries tossed in to authenticate it as memoir. . . . Like most of the rest of the book, the chapter is largely cadged from magazine articles he’s written” (42). As Paul de Man wrote in “Autobiography as De-Facement,” canonizing autobiography (or, for Fawcett, memoir) as a genre “does not go without some embarrassment, since compared to tragedy, or epic, or lyric poetry, autobiography always looks slightly disreputable and self-indulgent in a way that may be symptomatic of its incompatibility with the monumental dignity of aesthetic values” (919). I think that something of this embarrassment at the “slightly disreputable and self-indulgent” and a concomitant nostalgia for “the monumental dignity of aesthetic values” is at work in the reception of Findley’s Inside Memory. [End Page 644]
Generic puzzlement has also dogged the history of photographic discourse, though it takes somewhat different forms. Is photography an art or no? Is it nature or culture? Barthesian analogon or inherently coded discourse? Faced with these recurrent questions, photographic theorists have repeatedly made reference to the fundamental undecidability of the medium. “Photography is an uncertain art” (18), writes Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, and Susan Sontag finds much that is ethically disturbing in its “contingency,” for “the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable” (80). Autobiographical theory has reacted to this kind of never...