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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 295-299
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By the Sea
For six months I live in a small village by the sea. A village where old men in baggy pants fish from the jetty that juts out into the Mediterranean. A village where a sleepy white dog lies languidly in a wooden chair beside my favorite boulangerie. When I look out my window, tiny sailboats ring the canal, a practice run before the thrill of deeper water. Surfers straddle their boards, waiting anxiously for the next big wave. Gulls caw as they dip toward the sea, then vanish into the sky. It's a village in southern France where I live while teaching women's autobiography at a French university.
"What do you mean write about our lives?" my French students ask, looking perplexed and worried when I tell them we will both read and write autobiography. "What can we say about ourselves?"
"Anything that interests you," I reply, but of course, this is insufficient, perhaps even false, since what interests you is not really the point. What you say about yourself has to be much more than that. Autobiography, I tell them, draws on what compels you, frightens you, embarrasses you, what pushes you headfirst into black water.
"Writing requires risk," I add, and yet what I want to tell them is this: We carry a double history inside our heads—what is and what could be; who we are and who we want to be. Autobiography tries to explain that history, that doubleness, and in the process we try to reconcile the disparity between the two. And yet autobiography itself carries an inevitable doubleness: promising closure while opening wounds, questioning love and the desire for intimacy [End Page 295] while exposing the illusions of both. Autobiography engages in truth but depends on the imagination, on the life just beneath the skin, a fragile life.
"Writing autobiography is an intellectual act," I say finally. I want to insist on this for the very reason that personal writing is anathema to the French system of university education. It's considered a subgenre, an indulgence. "The only thing that matters in France is success," a colleague informs me, and in the intellectual domain success means critical thinking rather than dramatic expression. To write means to write history, philosophy, or literary criticism. In France, there is still the concept of the public intellectual, the writer whose words influence social policy, whose work is political as well as literary: consider Voltaire, Balzac, and Sartre.
And yet I want to close the gap in the hierarchy, to explain why writing autobiography is an intellectual feat. I admit that this is, in part, a defensive gesture. And yet the ranking of knowledge is an act of power, and to my mind, autobiography has been given short shrift.
To begin with, there is the naive perception that writing autobiography is merely an emotional act, a cathartic revelation, some offshoot of the therapeutic movement: the write-about-myself-and-feel-better school of thought. It's true that autobiography—as well as poetry, fiction, and drama—can engage in this way. Writing is an act of self-representation, and occasionally of self-transformation. But it is much more than that. Writing is not only an engagement with the emotions but a definition of a "sequence" of emotions. That's a whole new can of worms, for understanding sequence is an intellectual act. Understanding sequence means recognizing the progression of thought and feeling, perceiving not only one's response to an individual event or perception but seeing this act within a continuum of events and perceptions. What makes one book shrewd and another predictable is often the clarity and vitality of that sequence. It's what writing teachers spend much of their time addressing, whether they call it momentum, sequence, or the management of narrative time. To my mind, one reads autobiography for the depth and precision of its psychological acumen, and that acumen is most often articulated through sequence.
A second misconception is that autobiography—because it refers to the real events of a...