- Autobiography as Cosmogram
When we speak of autobiography, what exactly do we think the object of study is? What is self—its primary referent? And what is narrative—its primary mode of expression? I begin by offering a three-phase account of my evolving conception of autobiography over a period of many years. Autobiography, I discovered, is not only a literary text but much more: a daily identity practice, and even an expression of the rhythms of consciousness. Next, embracing this expansive view of autobiography, I focus on the autobiographical act, the nature of memory involved, and the kind of work that self-narration performs. In the third part of this essay I identify three motives for our endless engagement with self-narration: we are trained to do it as children; we use it to explore our deepest existential questions; and it just may confer an adaptive value for the organisms that we are. I conclude by suggesting my sense of autobiography’s place in the larger scheme of things: life writing as cosmogram. [End Page 21]
Autobiography and the Autobiographical Act
My initial approach to autobiography was literary—I was, after all, a literary guy, trained to work with texts. I soon found, though, that autobiography resisted my formalist attempts to classify it as a genre. Autobiographers often insist that they are telling the truth about their lives, yet the fictions in their stories struck me as obvious and ubiquitous. Dealing with such truth claims led me to the work of historiographers such as Hayden White (1987), and to phenomenologist philosophers such asDavid Carr (1986), who probe the tensions inherent in a referential aesthetic—in history, or in biography and autobiography (the so-called literatures of fact). The concept of narrative was central to the debate between White and Carr about the representation of historical reality: was narrative an arbitrary imposition of a culturally sanctioned literary form on an otherwise unstructured world of experience, or was it one of the deep structures of that world? Carr (1986) boldly argued for the essential narrative structure of perception itself. “Before we dismember them analytically, and even before we revise them retrospectively, our experiences and our actions constitute narratives for us” (69), he urged; narrative was not merely about experience but central to experience itself.1 Phenomenology focused my attention on the world of experience, and I began to recognize autobiography’s work in that world, its place in a lifelong process of identity formation: writing autobiography was not only a literary activity but also an identity practice.
This new mind-set about autobiography suggested social and cultural answers to literary questions. Where, for example, do models of life story come from? Literary historians, not surprisingly, argued that autobiographies derive from other autobiographies. But surely, I thought, we don’t need to have read autobiographies in order to write them. Literary autobiography, I now realized, was a rather small part of a much larger cultural practice, the daily self-narration that occupies so much of our social lives. Sooner or later, some of us may actually write our autobiographies, but we all live autobiographically. Despite the illusions of autonomy and self-determination fostered by our culture of individualism, we operate in the US—and probably in much of the West—as players in a rule-governed narrative identity system. [End Page 22]
Because the rules we follow are tacit, we are rarely conscious of them; our constant performance of identity story is instinctive and automatic. We can, of course, say what we like about ourselves, but when we break the rules, there may be consequences; others may call us to account, and we operate accordingly. I’ll just mention three of the basic rules of the game: telling the truth, respecting privacy, and—most interesting of all—displaying a normally functioning identity. Infractions of the first two rules are familiar; these are the cases we read about in the news, fabricated memoirs, scandalous invasions of privacy. The third “rule” is different from the first two, for it involves an infraction that is involuntary, the inability to tell one’s story at all. Because we attach so much importance...