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Essay on Autobiography

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I have written several essays exploring the nature of autobiography. These essays introduce the existing five volumes of my Journal or Diary. Other essays explore the nature of journals, diaries and letters as genres that play different roles in my autobiography.

There are endless ways of telling one’s story. For this reason poets and writers like Roger White, one poet whom I knew personally, and Bernard Shaw, one writer whose letter-writing capacity impressed me, may be wrong to think that the passive nature of their lives disqualifies them from even attempting to write their autobiography. Roger used to say that he did not think it was possible for a biographer to make anything at all interesting out of his life. I think time will prove him wrong. He, like Shaw, thought his life was in his writing, or as he once put it, quoting Rabindranath Tagore: “the poem not the poet.”

If one does write autobiography, as I do, one can not tell one’s whole story no matter how one tells it. While one tells one’s story, as the first essayist Michel Montaigne said, one’s story makes oneself and there is so much of tedium, chowder and trivia in life which one simply has to edit out, out of pure necessity and out of sheer kindness to one’s readers. If an autobiographer or memoirist put it all in he’d have a mountain of detritus, literary garbage, that even the most assiduous reader could not plough through. The autobiographer takes form as he writes and it is fascinating to watch. That’s how I have come to find the process after more than 25 years of written efforts in the direction of the examination of my life. It feels to me a little like sculpting or painting must feel like to the artists in these fields. There is a certain magic of writing autobiography.

As William Spengemann emphasizes, autobiography is synonymous with symbolic action. Writing is symbolic action. The implications of this idea revolutionizes the experience of writing autobiography. One sees the whole exercise in metaphorical terms. While not possessing the freedom of the novelist or the facticity of the writer of history, the autobiographer does enjoy enough freedom and enough truth to give him the best of both worlds. “Autobiographers”, Brian Finney notes in his introductory words to The Inner I:British Literary Autobiography in the Twentieth Century (1985, p.21), “appear to have as many different conceptions of what constitutes the truth about themselves as readers have different expectations of them.”

If parts of our nature are unknowable, if our degree of confessionalism is in our own hands, if others see us quite differently than we see ourselves, there is going to be only a certain aspect of the truth and only a certain degree of it that opens up for the autobiographer. Even if autobiographies are lies, as Shaw said; if they are not to be trusted unless they reveal something disgraceful, as Orwell hypothesized; if they reveal one’s mendacity as Freud emphasized; if they focus on one’s personal myths as Jung would have put it--they at least pursue the human, the personal, story from within. Even if autobiography is a caricature of sorts, it cannot deny the tyrannical power of basic facts, however interpretive or subjective. There is an inevitable and, to some extent, naive trusting in memory even if memory is a mine-field which, if one steps in the wrong place, can make a mess of your familiar body-parts.

There is both historical veracity and artistic creativity, then, in autobiography. The self-portraiture, the process of writing, transmutes one’s life into a verbal artifact. It is difficult to reveal one’s private self to the world; some aspects of that self are better left unrevealed and an ambivalence regarding the revelation of some of that inner life is, it would seem to me, unavoidable. Evasion, euphuistic language and diversionary tactics are all part of a process of saying what one wants to say and not saying it all.

George Orwell talks about a certain amount of exaggeration in the process of selection and narration and a type of meaning that emerges by the way one retrospectively chooses to order events. In the process of his own analysis Orwell attempts to come to grips with his buried and not-so-buried motives for writing his autobiography. Subjective self-discovery and the capacity for objective reportage are related; factuality and self-awareness seem to walk hand-in-hand. The reader, too, can often correct the unperceived distortions of the writer when the autobiography embraces fully this subjective element. For the reader and writer become more intimate through this style, this tone, of writing.

Memory, as I imply above, is notoriously unreliable. It is also a primary source behind the great artist, as the French-Canadian novelist Andre Marois, once put it. Some see memory as a pandering to the ego; some point out that being told by others what happened is not the same as one’s own account: so that all one really has is memory. “There have been episodes in my life” says A.E. Coppard “which not even the prospect of an eternity in hellfire would induce me to reveal. But even then it is very difficult for the writer to hide his true nature. I see all of my own effort as quite a transparent, honest exercise, an exercise which is conscious of a good degree of probing, conscious of style, language and form. I am conscious that my own life has nothing of the great adventures and incredible stories that are at the heart of many autobiographies. Hopefully it has an interesting yarn at its center and material that will be useful to the Baha’i community as it unfolds its contribution to the globe in the decades ahead. I hope, in aiming to achieve something useful, that I have not poured out a pile of dirty laundry, that I have at least kept the pile tactfully small.

Vanity is as common as air and I trust this ubiquitous folly is at least kept to a minimum in the process of all my navel-gazing. The desire to give the reader pleasure and contribute something original and probing lies in the matrix of my motivations to write. Moliere(1622-1673), the French playwright and actor who is considered one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature, said that what he tried to do was correct men by amusing them. I would like to be able to achieve this, but I am not conscious of much success. I do not possess that wit and charm of some modern essayists like Clive James and Joseph Epstein. Perhaps I will get better at producing that particular charm and style of writing, a style that would make for a more comic—and therefore pleasing-autobiography.

“Reading books,” as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once emphasized, “is not the same as the appropriation of their contents.” The extent to which memory and understanding combine is the extent to which one gains the benefit of a lifetime of reading. Most of us can remember only so much. As Schopenhauer also emphasized: “the limits of one’s own field of vision are, for the most part, the limits of our world,” Vision, like understanding and memory, has for each of us its limits. And finally, to draw on another aphorism of this pessimistic philosopher: “Happiness for most people, consists in the frequent repetition of pleasure.” While I find pleasure makes for a part of happiness, happiness is much more.

At this stage of my life, the middle years(65-75) of late adulthood(60-80) writing an autobiography seemed to be something I could do, something I would enjoy doing from among the options I have available to me in the evening of my life, something for which there was a place, a niche, in the burgeoning Baha’i literature of this third millennium. I felt, too, that there would probably be a place in the literary landscape of the expanding Bahá'í community in the decades to come-when and if, of course, this work ever got published.

I trust, too, that my writing is not characterized by that romantic flavor that Frank Harris writes with in his My Life and Loves published in England in the 1920s in all its 1100 odd pages. There is romance in my life: a sexual aesthetic, a sensitivity to the beauty of the feminine, of nature and of the intellect; but I trust that it is not removed from the real world, that it is simply part of my experience and not over-emphasized in my narrative, just a part of the intentional and unintentional revelations that add complexity and fascination to the text. The theatrical, the dramaturgical, is present in my work, but hopefully not unduly so. The mock-heroic, the lofty sentiments, the literary and thematic exaggerations and postures I hope are not overly done, stretched too far with too much religiosity as George Moore tended to do in his Hail and Farewell(1911).

“The truth is”, J.D. Bereford, an English writer(1873-1947) remembered for his sci-fi and short stories, tells us that “my single pleasure is in the continual retelling of the story of my own intellectual and spiritual life.” Beresford’s creative energy goes into interpretations of what is going on and that is the case with me as far as I am able. Frankly, I do not have that singleness of pleasure that Bereford seems to get. This autobiography has occupied a good deal of my time since the mid-1980s, but it is only one part of a multifaceted life. It is clearly not ‘my single pleasure,’ as it was for Beresford.

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  1. jtbrazil's Avatar
    I think you may like one of the stories im in the process writing. If you would kindly look at my blog post and state what you think it would be much appreciated.
  2. RonPrice's Avatar
    Belated apologies, jtbrazil, but I just saw your post today, some 18 months later.-Ron