Biography 24.4 (2001) 925-927
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An important key to Richard Freadman's new book on autobiography can be found in his critical analysis of postmodern (in particular, "constructivist," antihumanist) theory in the 1992 book (with co-author Seumas Miller) entitled Re-thinking Theory: A Critique of Contemporary Literary Theory and an Alternative Account. For Freadman, contrary to the dominant postmodernist view, writers are, to some extent, agents in their own texts; the self is "a weaver who is possessed of certain innate powers to shape and create," and the autobiographer is "a weaver at a second remove, shaping an account of the life that he or she has played a significant part in shaping" (284). AlthoughThreads of Life is not primarily a theoretical or polemical book, Freadman is steadfast in his assumption that the reflective autobiographer (his term) can achieve "a reflective distance from conventional ideological attitudes" and use autobiography "to explore, critique, and sometimes reformulate cultural understandings of the world" (283). In choosing to focus on the concept of the human will, Freadman wants to explore a topic that has been largely ignored or slighted in recent scholarship on autobiography. Indeed Threads of Life offers a refreshing, new exploration of what Freadman calls "an inalienable power of the self" that is "instantiated through engagement with particular psychic faculties" (283-84).
In his first chapter Freadman introduces the philosophical framework of his study by surveying concepts of the will from ancient times through the nineteenth century, and in an appendix that summarizes "Some Earlier Conceptions of the Will: Maimonides to Mill," he refers the reader to helpful background information. Freadman particularly admires Augustine's Confessions, which "depict something that is absolutely fundamental to human life: that process of existential positioning in which the self forms a conception . . . of its place in the world--a conception that depends heavily on its understanding of the powers of the will" (27). However, in spite of his traditional,"humanist" perspective, Freadman is interested primarily in modern autobiography, and it is precisely his eagerness to apply his knowledge of the history of philosophical positions on the will to the intricate theoretical and ideological issues raised by late-nineteenth and twentieth-century autobiography that makes his book essential reading for scholars and critics in the field.
After a discussion of "Late Modernity and the Will" in chapter 2, Freadman launches into discussions of autobiographical writings by a variety of late modern figures. In the third chapter, he considers works by Louis Althusser, B. F. Skinner, and Roland Barthes, with frequent references to the [End Page 925] "three great prophetic figures of cultural late modernity--Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud" (84), as well as to the analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle and the postmodernist literary theorist Jacques Derrida. Even here, Freadman is still engaged in preliminaries. He is not so much interested in the individual autobiographies of Althusser, Skinner, and Barthes as in demonstrating how even autobiographers who in theory reject the concept of the will are finally unableto do so in practice. For example, "There is a will to power among the Barthesian fragments; a will to extend the influence of this way of being, this way of seeing" (116).
In the subsequent chapters, Freadman finally gets into highly developed, substantial readings of autobiographies by Ernest Hemingway (chapter 4), Simone de Beauvoir (chapter 5), Arthur Koestler (chapter 6), Stephen Spender (chapter 7), and Diana and Lionel Trilling (chapter 8). Among this group, the chapter on Hemingway's Moveable Feast seems least satisfying. Freadman is not sympathetic to the historical Hemingway, the "Hemingway legend," or the book itself. Early in the chapter it becomes clear that Hemingway is not the kind of reflective autobiographer that Freadman admires. The writer's persona "lacks the capacity for reflexive interplay with the moral code in which he is embedded" (135), and his "emphasis on action constitutes an effort of simplification...