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  • The Ethics of Life-Writing
  • Leona Toker
The Ethics of Life-Writing, ed. Paul John Eakin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. viii + 271 pp.

If one reformulates the Socratic belief that an unexamined life is not worth living in positive terms, one might say that any life is worth examining —either for the person himself, or for the history she witnessed, or for the culture that he came to represent. In an era when actual events and developments surpass Utopian and, in particular, dystopian imagination, it is not surprising that life-writing has resumed its competition with fictional narratives. An important chunk of contemporary life-writing is devoted to the lives of what may be called "ordinary people." This is a partial counterweight to the mass depersonalization and dehumanization involved in the atrocities of the twentieth and, much as one hates to admit it, the twenty-first centuries. It is also part of concerted attempts to reverse the persistent tendencies of dismissing the severely handicapped and socially powerless as autonomous moral subjects —the ethical standards of a society are bound up with the ways in which it responds to its least fortunate members.

Yet if the celebrities whose lives have until rather recently provided most of the matter for life-writing (biography, memoir, autobiography) inevitably belong to the public sphere, the relative obscurity of the lives of ordinary people is partly compensated for by their privacy. What one might call ordinary-life writing raises a spectrum of ethical (let alone legal) problems by subverting this privacy —though perhaps, at the same time, it makes up for its transgressions by reducing the obscurity of the life, thought, culture, and suffering of those who would not otherwise have left a mark on the public sphere.

An array of such problems is dealt with in the excellent collection of essays edited by Paul John Eakin, himself the author of several important books on life-writing. Part I of the collection discusses what is involved in the choice of genre and the blurring of genre borderlines: the passing of fictionalized material for first-hand testimony in a book of memoirs or that of study-inspired fiction for first-hand testimony (Paul Lauritzen on, respectively, the books by Rigoberta Menchu and Binjamin Wilkomirski); the use of privileged-access first-hand information for a book that fictionalizes its subject in ways discreditable to the protagonists (Diane Middlebrook on Emma Tennant's Ted and Sylvia ). Part II, "Life Writing as a Moral Enquiry," combines an [End Page 205] article (by David Parker) that reads Edmund Gosse's Father and Son in the light of Charles Taylor's philosophy with an article (by John D. Barbour) that draws theoretical conclusions from the juxtaposition of three books —by Paul Auster, John Wideman, and Kim Chemin, who write, judgmentally or otherwise, about their parents; these conclusions are then brought to bear on the philosophical issue of "moral luck" as discussed by Thomas Nagel (1979) and Bernard Williams (1981). The problem of writing about one's parents or other significant people in one's life is also taken up in Part III, "Representing Others: Trust and Betrayal," which opens with Claudia Mills's article on her children's fiction —fiction which draws on her life but handles the names of the characters and details of their experience in ways that reduce the possibility of their being identified with their real-life prototypes. Richard Freadman, whose work prominently includes Threads of Life (2001), a study of reflective autobiography, discusses the ethics of his own writing about his father, who had always been concerned with the standards of decency and might have regarded the discussion of private matters as falling below those standards. Against the background of other filial narratives, and enlisting discussions of trust as an issue in ethical theory, Freadman self-consciously introduces a touch of fiction into this discussion of factography: he imagines a dialogue in which he persuades his father of the decency of his narrative choices in the book.1 Further experimenting with the genre of academic essay, Nancy K. Miller uses the form of a diary to present her reflections on the danger and limits...


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pp. 205-208
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