- Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Wilde
Exploring the notion of alterity in autobiographical writing, this work by E. S. Burt examines the presence of the “other” haunting the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas De Quincey, and Oscar Wilde. Alterity is conceived broadly here as the representation of others in autobiographical narrative, as the text’s address to another, and as the production of a third alterity in the text itself, which records the self’s intimations. Each of the book’s chapters is developed with respect to a particular thematic focus: memory and the sentiment of injustice in an episode from Rousseau’s Confessions, embarrassment in Rousseau’s Quatrième promenade, and dandyism in texts by Baudelaire comprise the first portion of the study, which examines the way identity formation is disrupted and must therefore remain incomplete. The second portion of the study, analyzing hospitality in De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, eating and drug experiences in Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and secrets in Wilde’s De Profundis, brings out the various models of subjectivity at play in these texts and highlights the I’s projection, in the text, to a future beyond the subject, hence the focus on [End Page 601] autothanatography or the writing of the death of the subject. These readings are intricate and erudite, informed predominantly by the theoretical writings of Emmanuel Levinas, Paul de Man, and Jacques Derrida, and attentive to questions of narrative and language.
Yet the specificity of the thematic focus at times endangers the broader argument about autobiography. Even though the introduction attempts to gather these disparate concerns together and to represent them as productive for an overall statement about the nature of autobiographical narratives, more connective tissue is needed to enable the reader to synthesize the highly specialized discussions in the particular chapters, especially in the absence of a conclusion. The author might also have included references to a wider range of autobiographical criticism and theory in order to broaden the focus of the work and to make it of interest to a wider academic audience. More productive than debunking the work of Georges Gusdorf from the 1950s or Philippe Lejeune’s theorizations from the 1970s might have been an examination of the development of the notion of a relational self or a relational identity—the way the self is inextricable from the “other” in works of life writing—as it has been developed in the writings of feminist theorists like Nancy K. Miller and Julia Watson, critical also of Gusdorf’s isolate notion of the self. Burt might also have examined the work of John Paul Eakin, who has used and extended the relational model of identity to discuss texts by Carolyn Steedman, Art Spiegelman, and other writers for whom it is impossible to narrate a self without reference to others. The work of James Olney, an early critic (and translator) of Gusdorf, who has written eloquently about Rousseau and memory and who has insisted, in his work on the creation of metaphors of self in autobiographical narrative, on autobiography as a process rather than as the production of an essence, is conspicuously absent from this text.
Thus Burt’s opening claim and premise that “in the numerous studies that have been devoted to autobiography in the past 30 years, surprisingly few take on directly the question of the other” (1) is not at all sustained if one examines the burgeoning discourse on the problematics of autobiography. It is true that much of this work has been done with reference to contemporary writing and thus falls outside the scope of Burt’s study. But the reason contemporary autobiographical works, such as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Maus, Landscape for a Good Woman, or, most recently, Fun Home, have been of particular interest is because they have themselves theorized notions of the other in autobiographical narrative...