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Witnessing Philosophers

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 22, Number 2, October 1998
pp. 309-327 | 10.1353/phl.1998.0049

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Philosophy and Literature 22.2 (1998) 309-327

Even at their most meditative, autobiographers are actively engaged in trying to persuade someone of something. Witness Timur the Lame (a.k.a. Tamberlane the Great): "I have written my memoirs in order that . . . my posterity may, by divine aid, succeed to [the] sovereignty which I obtained by labor, toil, marches and wars, so that they may put in practice those rules and regulations by which their . . . Dominion may be preserved" (Memoirs). De Quincy: "I present to you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period of my life . . . I trust that it will prove . . . useful and instructive" (Confessions of an Opium Eater). Joseph Priestly: "I hope this account of myself will not be without use . . . especially in promoting virtue and piety" (Memoirs of Dr. Joseph Priestly Written By Himself, 1787).

Like most rhetoricians, autobiographers claim trust by announcing artless truthfulness. Witness St. Teresa of Avila, "I write about my way of prayer . . . I beg anyone who reads this account of my life to bear in mind how wicked it has been. . . . May it lead my confessors to know me better, so they may help my weakness" (The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus). Witness Montaigne: "[I would] portray myself entire and wholly naked." Lord Herbert of Cherbury: "I have thought fit to relate to my posterity those passages of my life which I conceive may best declare me, and be useful to them, in the delivery of which I profess to write with all truth and sincerity, as scorning ever to deceive or speak false" (The Life of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury). Tolstoi: "When a man writes his life, he should write the whole and exact truth" (Autobiography). Ruskin: "I have written these sketches of effort and incident in former years . . . frankly, garrulously . . . without endeavor to conceal . . . very carefully of what I think may be useful for others to know" (Praeteria). Rousseau: "My purpose is to display . . . a portrait in every way true to nature. . . . I have displayed myself as I was." Gandhi: "I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth . . . I am not going to conceal or understate any ugly things that must be told" (Autobiography: My Experiments with Truth).

Of course we know better than to take what people say at face value, least of all when they are talking about themselves. Secret diaries without apparent rhetorical purpose -- the self artlessly talking to itself and for itself at 16, at 25, at 33, at 50, and reflecting on it all at 75 -- enact an internal dialogue, one part of the self presenting itself to another, often exhibiting a singular lack of cohesion, even when there is continuity of style. Like the last thoughts before sleep, introspective self-revelation expresses the images of the day. Witness Leslie Stephen: "The autobiographer . . . is writing about a topic in which he is keenly interested . . . It [is] a special felicity that an autobiography may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation which it contains. . . . It is always curious to see how a man contrives to give a false testimonial to himself . . . [casting] his own shadow upon the discolored and distorting mists of memory." Going beyond Stephen, himself a biographer never shy about encapsulating lives, we know better than to imagine that a life can be summarized, let alone evaluated by an omniscient observer. Not even the portraits of close witnesses -- the person as seen by parents, friends, colleagues, lovers, students, patrons, enemies, children, all actively intent on their own concerns -- can be projected to form a coherent composite picture. And what is true for the subject is true for the interpreter: readers of self-presentations bring their own active preoccupations to their reading. If autobiography cannot be taken at face value, if friends and relations have their own directions, if scholarly biographers have their preoccupations, then certainly we latter-day curious and casual readers are also carried by our own currents.

For all of that, we understand one another reasonably well, at least for practical purposes; and perhaps, when we are lucky, we also have reasonably reliable self-knowledge. Except for dramatically dark moments...


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