- Alternative Histories of the Self: A Cultural History of Sexuality and Secrets by Anna Clark
The constitution of the self has done more to orient—and disorient—Western philosophy, art, and culture in the last several centuries than just about anything else. Rapid economic and social change and the proliferation of encounters of difference within and between cultures have destabilized or shattered inherited certainties about the self and identity. Anna Clark's Alternative Histories of the Self contributes a compelling close study of five key personalities, the Chevalier/Chevalière d'Éon, Anne Lister, Richard Johnson, James Hinton, and Edith Ellis, whose biographies are mapped against the radical rethinking of subjectivity that spanned the eras from Rousseau to Nietzsche. The stories of these personalities are told sympathetically and lucidly and with emphasis on their courage and agency in different personal and historical circumstances.
Clark is most interested in agency, something often overlooked in the rush to explain large and anonymous cultural and historical forces. Her focus is on "how my subjects defined themselves as unique or unusual subjects with transgressive opinions" (4) rather than on how they were simply exhibits of the historical currents working through them. It is the logic of "queer reading" (5) that makes this approach possible, because it shows the complex ways that individuals negotiate the gender, sexual, class, and racial contexts in which they are situated—how they are not mere products of their circumstances but adapt, amend, reinvent, and represent their own complex lives. One of Clark's historical figures was in uniquely complex circumstances: the Chevalier/Chevalière d'Éon not only faced intimidating and variously policed gender binaries but also engaged in highly dangerous political and diplomatic enterprises. James Hinton and Edith Ellis, on the other hand, were themselves engaged in radical rethinking of gender and [End Page 108] sexuality, some of which we have inherited, and some of which—Hinton's views on polygamy, for example—have not survived.
Along with her five biographies, Clark provides a wide-ranging account of various investigations of the authentic and individual self, particularly detailing the influence of Rousseau but also that of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, and others. Unfortunately, she fails to bring the same nuance to these philosophical interventions that she deploys in her five biographies. The philosophers were themselves no less engaged with the fluid process of self-remaking than Clark's subjects, and to understand the fluidity of thinking about the self through the entire post-Enlightenment period, it is important to appreciate the uncertainty and provisionality—in other words, the anxiety, experiment, and creativity—that theorizing about subjectivity as much as living it always entails. In fact, across the period she explores, the two became inseparable. Clark deals only tentatively with the thinkers who problematized this entanglement most thoroughly: Nietzsche and Freud.
That instability and uncertainty were always already present both in thinking and lived experience of the self raises other questions. First, it complicates the very claim that there was ever an established sense of the self that was later interrogated, deconstructed, or dissolved. The disillusionment of the self can be found in various aspects of modern science, politics, and culture: the romantic sublime (manifest in individual narcissism, nationalist passion, and much in between); Nietzschean self-overcoming in various combinations of the aesthetic and the political; or the track running from psychoanalysis and surrealism through to Bataille, Deleuze, and art brut. Whether in religious ecstasy or drug-soaked counterculture, the deconstructed self is the modern self. This emerges most clearly in Clark's emphasis on the secrecy of the self. Nineteenth-century readers, she argues, enjoyed the fancies of the Romantic poets while not living them out. Yet this is not mere dishonesty, as radicals hypersensitive to bourgeois hypocrisy contended. It is instead indicative of how the secret or double life became normalized in modern subjective experience. We have to acknowledge that while Clark's subjects were all exposed to greater risk than their contemporaries...