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How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves
Paul John Eakin. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. xii + 207 pp.
In this intriguing book, Paul John Eakin problematizes the notion of autobiography as "the story of the self" and argues that in the act of narration one is engaged in a process of making a self. "Self and self-experience [. . .] are not given, monolithic, and invariant, but dynamic, changing, and plural." The traditional model of "life writing," Eakin claims, assumed a self-determined, autonomous self. Now, under the influence of cognitive and social psychologists, clinicians, and others, this model is slowly fading. Much contemporary biography and autobiography reflects a more flexible conception of self.
Eakin puts a fair amount of emphasis throughout the book on the physiological dimensions of selfhood. To this end he examines a number of accounts of individuals afflicted with brain disorders or pathologies of one sort or another, almost as though an understanding of normative [End Page 532] selfhood and its narration will emerge from a study of aberrations. The point, of course, is that the experience of this supposedly intangible thing called self is largely a function of our experience of our bodies. Aphasics and toddlers playing peek-a-boo describe, in their respective ways, a disassociation from their "ecological selves," a term Eakin takes from cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser.
The ecological self, Eakin explains, is simply the physical body at the point of direct sensory observation. But four other selves, of greater complexity, become the stuff of which biographies are really made. Eakin argues that the highest of these selves, the "conceptual self," is ultimately located at an intersection of physical and cultural perception. The most important component of our conceptual self is our body image. Eakin travels quickly from this idea to discussions of everyone from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Oliver Sacks in order to ferret out the conceptual self's psychosocial and political implications. But in a book of only one hundred and eighty-six pages, Eakin simply tries to accomplish too much.
One of Eakin's aims is to dissolve what he considers to be the myth of autonomy. He presents, for instance, as a cautionary tale, the autobiographical account of a young man who died of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness carrying a copy of Walden, apparently in love with Thoreau's ideal of transcendental self-reliance. Looking instead at other models, Eakin valorizes what he calls the "relational life." Autobiographies that foreground this model are developed in collaboration with others close to the self. As one example, Eakin cites Maus, Art Spiegelman's comic-book (auto)biography relating his father's experiences at Auschwitz, a text that focuses on both father and son as collaborative narrators. Maus, in particular, becomes a prime example of what Eakin calls "proximate collaborative autobiography." This subgenre features two first-person speakers: "the 'I' of the proximate other's story and the 'I' of what [Eakin] term[s] the story of the story, the narrative of the self's recording of the other's story."
Eakin goes on to discuss autobiographical accounts by Leslie Marmon Silko and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as examples of how identity shaping takes place in communities. For these autobiographers, the self is clearly situated in a particular time and place. The self, the family, and the community are shaped and nested within one another and the "others" who appear are often just as important within the narrative as the [End Page 533] self. As Eakin puts it, "identity is always negotiated interpersonally, relationally."
Discussions of the very nature of narrative follow in the next chapter. Here, the author contends that narrative is more than just a literary form, it is a mode of cognitive self-experience. Self emerges when language is learned. Nevertheless, self-representation is always culturally determined, so the forms that narrative can take in autobiography are always gleaned from the social environment.
In his final chapter, Eakin considers the commercial and ethical...