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136Philosophy and Literature TravelasMetaphorwould be more readable ifthe copy-editors ofthe University ofMinnesota Press had taken greater care to emend its highly Gallicized diction and frequently unidiomatic style. University of Puget SoundLisa Neal The New Art of Autobiography: An Essay on the "Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself," by Donald Phillip Verene; xi & 263 pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991, $39.95. Donald Verene's admirable study ofVico's Life makes ambitious but troubling philosophical claims about autobiography. While no previous book-length commentary of Vico's life exists, Verene contends that it should be valued as a classic and a model of philosophical practice because it not only elucidates and applies the principles that Vico set forth in The New Science, but also inaugurates a new mode of"genetic autobiography," or lifewriting as developmental history. Vico, not Rousseau, Verene argues, should be considered "the father ofmodern autobiography" (p. 81). These are ambitious claims; Verene seeks to reclaim autobiography for philosophy as the locus of a special kind of truth that he finds undermined in the "barbarian" postmodern world. Verene is an erudite and meticulous scholar, admirably versed in the languages and meditative traditions of dominant Western cultures from Antiquity to the present. His discussion of Vico's life and writings, and their reception, is valuable to scholars for both his considered judgments and his copious documentation and bibliography. Verene's Viconian method offers a multilayered exegesis of Vico's brief (under a hundred pages total) Life, first written, in the third person, in 1728 and continued and revised in 1731. In crisp, cogent prose, Verene considers the history of philosophical autobiography and Vico's centrality to it, exemplifying his view of human history in his own life. For Verene, Vico demonstrates the autobiographical basis of philosophy, as he does the philosophical core of autobiography. Verene gives a detailed account of the biographical details of Vico's life, then locates the text with respect to other autobiographies of philosophers and "the idea of autobiography." He emphasizes Vico's character as an autodidact; his view of all history, including his own, as a providential manifestation of the order of history; and his quest for the origins of human history in the poetic form of the metaphor recaptured as narrative. Verene's embedding of Vico's Reviews137 life at the center of Western culture is extended in a chapter probing its exemplification ofthe Socratic dictum to know thyself, and establishingits parallels to the Confessions of Augustine in representing autobiographical consciousness as a manifestation of divine will. Verene emphasizes Vico's critique of the Cartesian "I," reading it as a comic prelude to Vico's tragic enunciation of modern subjectivity. Verene's final chapters ascend his metaphysical ladder to explore Vico's Life as, first, a series of philosophical thoughts, and finally, a series of textual structures that encode primal myth in the narrative form of the fable. But for this reader, Verene's conclusions too often foreclose the pleasures of dialogical speculation. I found most satisfying his detailed reading, late in the book, ofthe first paragraph ofthe Life, in which he points up its oppositional style and searchingly probes Vico's alteration of his date of birth and other well-known details of his early life. Verene works ingeniously to reconcile such discrepancies to his view of Vico's fidelity to symbolic truth. Exploring their potential as strategic fictions might have yielded a different reading. For readers of autobiography engaged in debates about the construction of the subject and the inevitable fictions of autobiographical "truth" that were spurred by DeMan and Derrida, Verene's essay on Vico may seem a totalizing project. In both his rhetoric of transcendent universale and his humanist canon of autobiography, Verene reinstates the human subject as unproblematic agent, life writ large as Idea, a timeless form of self-knowledge manifested as human wisdom. But his catalog is normative and exclusionary. It admits no women, although, for example, Simone de Beauvoir's multivolume autobiography is assuredly a philosophical quest, in time and about time. Similarly, the modernist autobiographical experiments of Gertrude Stein and the multivolume autobiographical quest for liberation of Frederick Douglass have no place in his pantheon. Verene...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 136-137
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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