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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.4 (2004) 775-778

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Iurii Petrovich Zaretskii, Avtobiograficheskie "Ia" ot Avgustina do Avvakuma: Ocherki istorii samosoznaniia evropeiskogo individa [The Autobiographical "I" from Augustine to Avvakum: Essays in the History of Individual Self-Consciousness in Europe]. 323 pp. Moscow: Institut vseobshchei istorii RAN, 2002. ISBN 594067733.

In this book Iurii Zaretskii enters current debates about the "modern, self-conscious individual," whose appearance Jacob Burckhardt placed in Italy at the close of the 13th century.1 Ever since Burckhardt's seminal work on the Italian Renaissance, historians have been challenging, refining, and reinterpreting the nature and existence of this individual. Autobiographical writings are an obvious source, not only for examining the individual in different times and contexts but also for exploring changing conceptions and representations of the self and evolving dynamic relationships between identities and subjectivities. Continuing interest in the European individual and individualism as a salient characteristic of Western development has contributed to a proliferation of academic works on identity from diverse perspectives and to a growing scholarly interest in autobiography and autobiographical writings in the last three decades. Zaretskii's bibliography offers an excellent guide to begin exploring this literature. It manifests the author's extensive familiarity with the literature, past and current, in an impressive array of languages.

The book comprises 18 wide-ranging essays, linked by a common interest in different aspects of the historical development of individual self-consciousness in medieval and early modern Europe, examined through an analysis of proto-autobiographical and autobiographical writings. Although Zaretskii recognizes (albeit rather sheepishly) some debt to postmodernism broadly defined, and even to feminism (261), he does not substantively engage the issues raised by these movements about the definition of the "modern individual," the nature of the self, or the relation between self and context and of both to text (in this case, autobiographical writings). He assumes that a self-conscious individual is reflected in autobiographical writings and searches in the examples he studies for answers to a series of [End Page 775] questions: What do premodern individuals tell about themselves in their autobiographical writings, and how do they do it? Why do they write about themselves? What is the historical relationship between such autobiographical writings and the much-discussed modern European individualism? What do the autobiographical writings of Europeans from different cultural traditions have in common, and how do they differ? (5, 293).

By training, Zaretskii is a historian of medieval and early modern European culture. In these essays he incorporates Russia into Europe, juxtaposing analyses of Russian and European autobiographical writing. Only occasionally, however, are Russian and European sources combined in a unified analysis (251-60). One might prefer an integrated approach to these sources, but the discussion of Russian and European sources together does argue for a conceptually expanded medieval world, one united as well as divided by Christianity, and this is a very welcome contribution of the collection.

Zaretskii divides his book into five sections. The first two address the context and nature of medieval autobiographical discourse; the remaining sections analyze examples of such writings from the Christian West, from Russia, and from the Western Jewish tradition. An epilogue and an appendix complete the volume.

Zaretskii begins with a discussion of the nature of autobiographical discourse, and obstacles to that discourse, in medieval Christian culture. Autobiographical writings in the medieval period emerged from and operated within the boundaries of available genres. As Zaretskii notes, the ostensible model for medieval autobiographical writings, Augustine's Confessions, was not read by medieval readers as autobiography—razgovor o samom sebe. The book was read as the spiritual journey of a sinner to God, a morally edifying example for others to follow. Writings of an autobiographical nature produced from the 9th to 12th centuries, as well as the more numerous examples from the 12th and 13th centuries, operate within the confines of the available model and present the lives of the authors as morality tales of sinners saved by the infinite mercy of God. Self-conscious...


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