Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, de Quincey, Baudelaire, and Wilde

Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, de Quincey, Baudelaire, and Wilde

Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, de Quincey, Baudelaire, and Wilde

Regard for the Other: Autothanatography in Rousseau, de Quincey, Baudelaire, and Wilde


Although much has been written on autobiography, the same cannot be said of autothanatography, the writing of one's death. This study starts from the deconstructive premise that autobiography is aporetic, not or not only a matter of a subject strategizing with language to produce an exemplary identity but a matter also of its responding to an exorbitant call to write its death. The I-dominated representations of particular others and of the privileged other to whom a work is addressed, must therefore be set against an alterity plaguing the I from within or shadowing it from without. This alterity makes itself known in writing as the potential of the text to carry messages that remain secret to the confessing subject.

Anticipation of the potential for the confessional text to say what Augustine calls "the secret I do not know," the secret of death, engages the autothanatographical subject in a dynamic, inventive, and open-ended process of identification. The subject presented in these texts is not one that has already evolved an interior life that it seeks to reveal to others, but one that speaks to us as still in process. Through its exorbitant response, it gives intimations of an interiority and an ethical existence to come.

Baudelaire emerges as a central figure for this understanding of autobiography as autothanatography through his critique of the narcissism of a certain Rousseau, his translation of De Quincey's confessions, with their vertiginously ungrounded subject-in-construction, his artistic practice of self-conscious, thorough-going doubleness, and his service to Wilde as model for an aporetic secrecy.

The author discusses the interruption of narrative that must be central to the writing of one's death and addresses the I's dealings with the aporias of such structuring principles as secrecy, Levinasian hospitality, or interiorization as translation. The book makes a strong intervention in the debate over one of the most-read genres of our time.


I shall therefore confess both what I know of myself and what I do not
know. For even what I know about myself I only know because your
light shines upon me: and what I do not know about myself I shall
continue not to know until I see you face to face and my dusk is noonday.

Augustine, Confessions X, 5

Between us, I have always believed … that the absence of filiation
will have been our chance. a bet placed on an infinite, which is to say
a voided, genealogy, in the end the condition for loving one another.

Jacques derrida, La Carte postale

In the numerous studies that have been devoted to autobiography in the past 30 years, surprisingly few take on directly the question of the other. the reason for the surprise is simple enough: One can hardly envision the self without the other against which it is defined or an autobiography that does not involve the other both in its narrative and as the one to whom the “I” addresses itself in its act of confessing. in representing itself, the I must not only represent the others encountered in life, but must also address that representation to another. What is more, such representations are confided to an indeterminate third thing: a text, which is to say, to an autobiographical writing both fictional and documentary in nature. There is thus, if not exactly a third other, at any rate a third alterity to contend with whose effects the autobiographer has to calculate. Why, then, has there been so little direct critical attention to the problem?

A look at the term in a dictionary suggests one reason why it is difficult to center a study on the other in autobiography. There is a paradoxical logic to the concept that makes it all but impossible to make it a proper object of study. By the other, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we mean “that one of two which is remaining after one is taken, defined, or specified.” the other is its remainder, what is left after the operation of determining. But when, having seized one through determination and left . . .

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