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John Pilling. Autobiography and Imagination: Studies in Self-Scrutiny. London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1981. 178 pp. $25.00 The inevitable temptation in writing about autobiography is to consider the form as a privileged instance for understanding the relationship between author and text. Nothing could be more obvious than to take a writer's writing about himself as the key to the writer's writing. The hyperbolic example would be Proust, but to some degree the situation is typical of all autobiographers and their autobiographies. What is less obvious, however, is that the very clarity with which the question of authorship is posed in autobiography obscures the considerable epistemological assumptions upon which the capacity to read the text of the author's life is founded. The epigraph to Autobiography and Imagination points to the difficulty with especial succinctness": "This your Narcissus/can no longer be seen/in the mirror/because he is the mirror itself." The quotation apparently collapses the subject-object distinction that founds the herraeneutic situation of reading by asserting the total transformation of the object (Narcissus ) into the subject (the mirror). As the exemplification of autobiographical writing, the lines imply the pure subjectivity of the autobiography itself , and thus the elimination of the ordinary barriers to understanding that separate subject (author) from object (text or life). Moreover, the situation can be further generalized to include the experience of the reader as well, for, as John Pilling often contends, among the characteristic properties of autobiography is the capacity of the author to make the reader complicit in the process of writing the text. On this view, autobiography would seem indeed to be that form of writing in which the ordinary exteriority of reader to text is overcome by the pure interiority achieved in the production of the text itself. Small wonder, then, that the genre has attracted so much attention among phenomenologically oriented critics from Geneva, Switzerland to Hanover, New Hampshire . It will not be possible in a short review to consider all the instances of autobiographical writing treated in Pilling's book. The range is wide, if exclusively modern, and it includes some less familiar examples (Pasternak, Leiris, Henry Green, and Adrian Stokes), along with a number of the classics in the modern practice of the form (Yeats, Henry Adams, Henry James, Sartre, and Nabokov). Despite the modesty of Pilling's claim to be "much less interested in making general statements about the autobiographical mode than in making particular statements about particular works of art which happen to be 'autobiographical '" (p. 6), there does emerge from his readings an outline of a theory of autobiography, which is the very theory of reading enabling the practice of this book. This is inevitable, since to write about autobiography presupposes the capacity to interpret texts, although whether this hermeneutic capacity shares in the supposed power of autobiographies to overcome the distinction between subject and object is just the question that the book leaves unanswered. For Pilling's "studies in self-scrutiny" evidence not the interpretive power transferred from author to reader said to be characteristic of autobiography as a mode, but rather instance the failure to read. One example is the "reading" of a passage from A Small Boy and Others, the first volume of the autobiography of Henry James. The passage is the famous dream of the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre that has elicited so much commentary. Pilling's summary judgment on the function of the dream in James's narrative and on its significance for James's career as a whole exemplifies the theoretical presuppositions that underlie THE HENRY JAMES REVIEW 153 WINTER, 1983 Autobiography and Imagination: The 'final recognition' is that the 'imaginary life' need not be a sterile and frustrating one, but rather a means of creating life, one's own life most of all. The dream becomes in a way the justification for writing the book at all, and is left without comment because it must be allowed to speak for itself. The act of writing Ά Small Boy and Others' stands revealed as a re-cognition, with the end-product being as much a matter of 'reconstituted history' as the paintings of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 153-155
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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