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Reviewed by:
  • Stories and Portraits of the Self
  • Deborah Reed-Danahay (bio)
Helena Carvalhão Buescu and João Ferreira Duarte, eds. Stories and Portraits of the Self. Amsterdam: Rodolfi, 2007. 332 pp. + notes. ISBN 978-90420-2328-4, $97.00.

This edited collection cuts a broad swath in dealing with autobiography and visual portraiture from the nineteenth century to the present, and includes twenty-three short chapters. In their insightful introduction to the volume, the editors point to what they label "a democracy of representation" in displays of lives, which began in the nineteenth century and emerged from earlier preoccupations with paradigmatic or exceptional life narratives. Drawing upon Zygmunt Bauman's book Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), Buescu and Duarte point to the growing dissolution of the boundary between public and private spheres, and a commodification of the selves of not just the rich and famous, but virtually anyone who can attain "celebrity" status through media outlets. A major theme of this collection is to examine critically the relationship between "the political" and forms of confession and self-representation in contemporary contexts. The editors cite Foucault in pointing to the paradox inherent in confession: "the more you report about yourself the more you give in to someone else's authority" (9). Here politics is defined as "the public discourse of democratic societies" (5).

The essays in this book are revisions of papers presented at a 2005 seminar with the same title as the book, "Stories and Portraits of the Self," which was sponsored by the HERMES network and took place in Cascais, Portugal. Universities in the UK, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and the Netherlands participate in this network. Because there is no biographical information for the authors of the chapters, little is known about whether they are students or faculty, or what else they may have published, although their institutional affiliations are listed. It would have been helpful to readers to [End Page 542] include such information. Because this volume results from seminar presentations, the chapters vary a great deal in quality, and most of the essays display the unfinished, suggestive nature of conference papers. They vary in length from about five to twelve pages. However, taking this into account, and reading the volume in the spirit of exposure to short yet often suggestive and provocative essays, the reader can gain a wealth of perspectives on contemporary examples of self-portraiture across a variety of literary and visual genres in several different national contexts.

This book is organized into three sections: "The Representational Dilemma," "Signalling Identity," and "Images of the Self Across the Arts." Although these lack their own introductions within the text, the editors explain this organization with a brief overview of the sections in the introduction to the book, which is called "Signposts of the Self in Modernity." The chapters deal with the work of novelists (ranging from Balzac to Henry James and Guimarães Rosa), playwrights (from Shakespeare to Strindberg), poets (from Rimbaud to Coleridge and Emily Dickinson), autobiographers (from Lena Christ to George Steiner), and artists (from Giacometti to Bruce Nauman). Many of the essays embody the overall synthetic approach of the volume quite successfully, but I have space to mention only three (one from each section) here.

In an essay on the novel A Distant Shore by Caryl Phillips in Part I, Jan Rupp explores postcolonialism, migration, and English national identity through the notion of "plural selves." Rupp points to receding and emerging selves in metaphorical border zones. Peter Brooks' essay in Part II on "The Identity Paradigm" examines (albeit too briefly) the eruption of both finger printing and photography in the nineteenth century and their links to a criminology that required the uncovering of identity in an urbanizing world where this was increasingly difficult. By using Balzac's novel Le Colonel Chabert as a lens, Brooks shows the novelist as chronicler of new technologies related to changing notions of individual identity. In Part III, Anke Brouwers writes about the mythology of silent film star Mary Pickford, in an essay that draws upon Barthes and Lévi-Strauss to see the construction of a "democratic individualism" in Pickford. Brouwers sheds light on Pickford as...


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