- Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, De Quincey, Baudelaire and Wilde
If writing about autobiography has customarily focused on the narrative of the self, the project of self-knowledge, and self-revelation, E. S. Burt’s challenging new book, Regard for the Other, declares its distinctiveness right up front. By focusing on the question of the other in texts that purport to be about the self, Burt tends to an issue that inflects all autobiographies, whether they know it or not. In so doing, she opens a way of reading autobiography otherwise—by taking into account not only the “I’s” specular relation to another (self), but its relation to the radically other via “autothanatography.”
Burt’s topic is a daunting one. By definition, the other is elusive (the OED calls the other “that one of two” that remains after one is “taken, defined, or specified”). When it is taken into the orbit of the subject and determined or objectified, as happens in the subject-centered narratives of autobiography, the other is no longer exactly “other.” Yet the radically other does inhabit autobiography, according to Burt, although it has gone largely unnoticed in studies of the genre. In addition to the represented other against whom the subject defines itself, and the other to whom the “I” addresses itself as it confesses, Burt puts forward a destabilizing “third alterity”—the uncontrollable effects of autobiographical writing with which the autobiographer must contend. This third term, which exceeds the specular couple and operates as [End Page 850] an impenetrable enigma or secret language beyond the subject’s knowledge and mastery, opens up the genre so that the usual critical standards of judgment—veracity, adequacy, sincerity, and the like—no longer pertain. This radical alterity disrupts (or interrupts, to use Burt’s linguistic term) the “I” as a cohesive, knowing subject responsible for the truthful rendering of his or her life experiences to the reader.
However, even as Burt’s analysis moots the pact that underpins autobiography’s ethical claims, it does not relieve the autobiographer of responsibility. As her title implies, “regard for the other” invites not only attentiveness but respect, concern, and care in relation to the other, which is tantamount to an ethical, political, and possibly even religious response. In this line of thought, Burt looks to Levinas and Derrida, but also to Augustine, as guides. (Augustine recognizes that the absolutely other—God, for him—knows what he as a mortal man does not; and this means, says Augustine, that “I shall therefore confess both what I know of myself and what I do not know” [qtd. in Burt 1]).
Burt’s argument is laid out in two parts. The first, “Autobiography Interrupted,” analyzes the subject’s identification with and suppression of the other in the process of self-constitution, as well as the disruption of the narrative of self when experience and representation or action and meaning fail to converge. Where there is no stable identity, the question that arises is “what is the subject . . . in justice and ethics”? (19). The second part of Burt’s argument, “Writing Death with Regard to the Other,” addresses the autobiographer’s responsibility for the absolute other and its impersonal, unknowable operations within his or her work. Although these mechanical, textual effects are tantamount to the “death of the subject,” Burt ponders the subject’s chances for survival by way of “autothanatography”—“the invention of a testimony of ‘what I do not know’” (10).
Using terms drawn from the work of Paul de Man, Burt also speaks of “irony” and “allegory” to designate, respectively, the interruption and doubling of the subject by what is exorbitant to it, and the introjection of death into the narrative, which opens it up to the possibility of regeneration and “further transformations in subjectivity” (183). In other words, autothanatography hinges on a shift from irony to allegory.
The six chapters of the book focus on works organized chronologically throughout the pre-modern and Modernist period...