- Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography
Marcus Moseley's study of the emergence of the autobiographical genre among Jews is a sprawling, original, and enormously erudite tour of three centuries of literary and intellectual history. Reaching back to the earliest known ego-documents written in Jewish languages (Hebrew and Yiddish), Being for Myself Alone begins by exploring the tensions and possibilities of writing about the self in a pre-autobiographical era. After crossing the Rousseauian divide, it then traces the subsequent rise of a distinct autobiographical literature, principally in Hebrew, and principally among the Jews of Eastern Europe. Apart from Alan Mintz's "Banished from their Father's Table": Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (1989), which overlaps thematically with the second half of Moseley's book, there is no other work like it. Based on deep research in difficult texts and rendered in splendid prose, this magnum opus (remarkably, Moseley's first book) stands an excellent chance of remaining the defining work on the subject for many years to come.
A self-identified methodological "traditionalist," Moseley quickly dispenses with the post-modern disavowal of the autobiographical enterprise. "I believe that there is indeed a 'subject'," he writes (13), "in both senses of the term"—that is, an evolving self whose literary representation forms the core of the autobiographical project, and a topic, an identifiable genre of self-writing with its own distinct history. Drawing on theorists such as Georges Gusdorf [End Page 297] and Philippe Lejeune, Moseley is interested above all in using autobiography as a portal into the history of (self) consciousness, and more particularly, of the Jewish self under the colonizing pressure of secular European culture. To accomplish this, he seeks to reconstruct "the hermeneutic codes prevailing at the time of the initial production and consumption" (6) of a wide range of ego-documents, many of them scarcely known outside a small circle of specialists.
If the theoretical apparatus of Being for Myself Alone is relatively traditional, however, the insights to which it gives rise are anything but. Previous scholars have posited various versions of a longue durée of indigenous Jewish autobiographical expression, extending from the biblical prophets and Josephus to the early modern Gluckel of Hameln and on to the post-Enlightenment Moshe Leib Lilienblum. By contrast, Moseley finds such schemes to be backward projections of a thoroughly modern category. The perception of a long autobiographical continuum is thus an optical illusion fostered by the explosion of autobiographical consciousness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the retrospective appropriation and misreading of earlier texts. Citing Gusdorf, Moseley insists that genuine autobiography is possible only under certain cognitive pre-conditions in which "mythic structures" of thought and dogmas of "eternal recurrence" have yielded to a more or less secular worldview that finds meaning in the transient, the particular, and the individual. By these criteria, East European Jewry—the dominant producers and consumers of Hebrew and Yiddish print-culture—remained an essentially pre-modern society well into the nineteenth century; only a small (and almost exclusively male) minority, the "modernizing avant-garde," had "emerged from the mythic framework of traditional teachings" and "entered into the perilous domain of history" (51, paraphrasing Gusdorf). Far from serving as a source of continuity across the generations, then, autobiographical expression constituted a form of rupture, a "radically new conception of personality" for which there was "no precedent in the Jewish literary tradition" (76).
Moseley is no knee-jerk revisionist. He makes the case for autobiography as rupture via two distinct but complementary methods. The first involves close attention to the publication and reception history of a dozen allegedly "autobiographical" texts known to have been composed prior to the watershed marked by Rousseau's Confessions. These include Abraham Yagel's Gei' hizzayon ("Valley of Vision"; composed in 1578, first published in 1880); Yehuda Aryeh Modena's Hayyei yehudah ("Life of Yehudah"; composed in the 1640s, first published in abbreviated form in 1852); Yom Tov Lippman Heller's Megillat 'eivah ("Scroll of Enmity...