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  • Coming into the SelfAutobiography and Masturbation
  • Paula Cucurella (bio)

On February 9, 1688, Samuel Pepysthe secretary to the admiralty of the British Royal Navy—writes in his diary:

Lords day. Up, and at my chamber all the morning and the office, doing business and also reading a little of L'escolle des Filles, which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world. At noon home to dinner, where by appointment Mr. Pelling came, and with him three friends …. We sang till almost night, and drank my good store of wine; and then they parted and I to my chamber, where I did read through L'escholle des Filles; a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for information sake (but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharger); and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame; and so at night to supper and then to bed.(emphasis added)

(Pepys 1985, 873;) [End Page 157]

Samuel Pepys writes to himself—as he will do for ten years, from 1660 to 1669—both to recount and to account for the events of his life in his diary, thus, in secret. The diary provides the privacy or the secrecy for him to tell himself—to recount and to justify to himself—what he is ashamed to tell anyone else, a secret the memory of which burns with remorse. Despite the confidentiality of the secret recounted and the ostensibly mute testimony and secrecy of the diary, Pepys feels compelled to write—to tell, to recount, and to account for his shame—in three languages,1 as if he was trying to hide what he was revealing—in principle, just to himself—even from himself; as if he did not trust his diary to keep his secret; as if he was already exposing the secret, even in the privacy of his diary; as if in writing to himself, in secret, he was writing to another. The act Pepys committed with his own hand, the act he wanted to keep secret in the inner chamber of his diary, closeting his masturbation behind his manuscription, nonetheless secretes: Pepys cannot not expose himself in hiding himself. The recourse to codification in three languages betrays the secret he keeps to himself.

In what follows I will draw out the logic of the secret to "expose" its constitutive betrayal, which in this scene appears highlighted by the double role of the hand that commits the act and exposes it—even if in code—in the same stroke of the pen(is). I will draw out the role of writing in the paradoxical logic that marks the secret. Insofar as the constitution of a secret depends on its articulation, and insofar as writing produces alterity, a secret both inscribes and erases, both secrets and secretes, both makes possible and ruins, privacy. In the three different texts commented on in this article, masturbation, secrecy, and alienation are fundamental to the constitution of life writing's primordial scene, the scene of the constitution of a self in writing.


"I am writing about those very things my mother asked me not to reveal." This is how Richard Rodriguez opens "Mr. Secrets," the sixth chapter of his collection of autobiographical essays, Hunger of Memory.

I am not going to address the two most commented upon aspects of this book, its critique of affirmative action and bilingual education.2 From a less polemical [End Page 158] perspective, Hunger of Memory is an autobiographical account of autobiographical writing. Richard Rodriguez becomes a writer by writing about himself, about his assimilation into American culture as a child of Mexican parents. As the son of his Mexican mother and father, Rodriguez both is exhorted and feels compelled to keep the family secrets secret. But insofar as these secrets are the life he is writing, their exposure is inevitable.3 He writes:

I do not make my parents' sharp distinction between public and...


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