- Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self by Peter Heehs
The historian Peter Heehs offers much more than a mere survey of differing conceptions of the self as these have appeared in history. The premise of his Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self is subtler; it recognizes that most of us today do not really question what it means to be a “self,” and yet many of us engage in sustained efforts to express or to affirm such a self in various forms of writing such as diaries, journals, and for some of us, memoirs. Such practices have a history, and illuminating that history reveals an interesting paradox about the development of what Heehs calls alternatively the “modern” or the “Western” idea of the self (4). Though he proposes “two interwoven narratives: a history of the concepts of self and self-consciousness, and a history of self-expression as illustrated by first-person writing” (6), the thrust of his history reveals the rich, creative dimension of [End Page 812] the latter as a contrast to the gradual dissolution of the notion of a substantial self at the theoretical level. As he puts it in the final chapter: “The age in which the self has been authoritatively declared dead is also the age when human beings spend more and more of their time than ever before affirming their personal identities” (226). What is most interesting about this work, then, is the manner in which Heehs traces for us some of the most salient features of these modes of self-writing which, from the sixteenth century, reveal what he nicely names the “fellowship of the first person” (9). His history serves both as a resource for and as a mirror of the practice of relating to one’s self through writing, and provides a remarkable contrast to its theoretical dissolution.
After a brief introductory chapter, Heehs begins with an (admittedly all too brief) chapter on pre-sixteenth century concerns with the soul that point to the self-relation through writing that will be his principal preoccupation. In this chapter, a distinct element of Heehs’s erudition is introduced: succinct contrastive discussions of the relation to self in non-Western cultures (here Indian and Islamic) which will appear in the next chapter and then again in Chapter 12, where the backdrop of evolutionary theory is explored in the writing of William James, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and André Gide alongside those of Sri Aurobindo and Muhammad Iqbal. (Heehs is the author of a book-length work on Aurobindo). These contrastive discussions are interesting in that they hint at reflections on personal identity that take up themes in the self-writings of certain lesser known Western figures like Pierre Maine de Biran, who is given a fairly substantial treatment (115–19). Given Heehs’s previous work, one might have expected more of this kind of juxtaposition.
The core of the book is devoted to the writings of Western figures from the sixteenth century until the present, the selection guided by the revelatory power and function of writing in the first person in evolving social contexts. This proves to be a fascinating vantage point to consider the intellectual and cultural history of Europe, where well-known figures like Luther, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Emerson, and Whitman are discussed alongside the revealing work of people like Ignatius of Loyola, George Fox, Samuel Pepys, Jonathan Edwards, Swedenborg, Constant, Barthes, and Foucault. Perhaps even more interestingly, lesser-known figures like Henri-Frédéric Amiel and his 17,000 page journal intime (126–28), the aforementioned Maine de Biran, and the diary-keeping experiment of Marion Milner (198–201) are given substantial treatment because of their particular dedication to exploring the “first-person” perspective.
The sheer number of writers considered would suggest an inevitably superficial treatment, and yet that it is not the impression one is left with. Heehs, with carefully selected quotations, lets the personality of the historical...