Academic journal article The Comparatist

(Im)possible Representations: The Place of Negativity in Autobiographical Writing

Academic journal article The Comparatist

(Im)possible Representations: The Place of Negativity in Autobiographical Writing

Article excerpt

The notion of apophatism is generally associated in contemporary discourse with the medieval Scholastic approach to Christian doctrine, more often referred to as "negative theology." Negative theology, claiming the impossibility of fully knowing or naming transcendence or God, proposes alternative ways of giving expression to this ineffability, unnameability, and unknowability by using a series of rhetorical devices, such as negation, paradox, and ellipsis, to name only a few. What is less emphasized is that both classical and contemporary critical discourse tried to work apart from the theological and uncover in various ways an apophaticism or negativity inherent in any textuality, consisting in denial, silence, substitution, or renunciant minimalism. (1) The efforts of a Derrida, an Iser, a Blanchot, a Foucault, or a Culler to appropriate negativity as an omnipresent trope can be appreciated as an act aimed at recuperating a rhetoric of negativity as a proper domain of critical study. Although recent studies have insisted on identifying the presence of apophaticism in literature in general, an inquiry into how negativity can be located specifically within the space of the autobiographical genre yields rewarding results. I intend to put under scrutiny specific apophatic manifestations written into autobiographical literature in order to examine through a negative lens issues such as presence versus absence and visibility versus invisibility. In the last part of this article I will inquire about the effectiveness of the negative apophaticism as a theoretical concept in relation to other critical approaches in the field.

I begin with a chronological incursion into a few early apophatic moments and follow with a more detailed analysis of two contemporary autobiographical texts by women writing in French, Assia Djebar and Annie Ernaux. My goal is to address the possible existence of a constant negative autobiographical continuum.

In discussing the apophatic approach it is necessary to understand the functioning of the via negativa in Christian theological rhetoric. This rhetoric proposes to define a concept by what it is not. Based on the principle that it is impossible to know God directly, the negative way cultivates a negative linguistics through the use of adjectives such as "incommensurable," "unnameable," and "unknowable," for example, when conveying the nature of God. Its counterpart, cataphatic theology, affirms God in a positive, rational, and logical language, stressing the possibility of interpreting or defining God in His knowable dimensions. These two modes of interpretation are not necessarily antithetical; scholarly patristic studies comment on them as being complementary in nature.

It is remarkable how consistently overlooked is the fact that although negative theology is as old as Christianity, preoccupations with the apophatic are earlier than the religion's advent. Andrew Louth, a professor of patristic and Byzantine studies at the University of Durham, goes to great lengths in his article "Dionysios the Areopagite and the Terminology of the Apophatic" to argue that the apophatic is found "in both the traditions that converge in Christianity--the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and that of Greek philosophy" (Louth 29). He indicates that "one of the prophets whose oracles are preserved under the name of Isaiah represents God as saying: 'To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?' " as representative of the impossibility of a cataphatic, positive, or linear definition of God's identity (Louth 29). He argues that even God's revelation to Moses "invites or requires an apophatic interpretation, however it is translated," namely, "I am what I am," or, more literally, "I am that I am" (Louth 29). From Louth's essay the reader also finds out that one of the first distinctions between apophatic and cataphatic statements--between negative and affirmative assertions--was made by Aristotle in his Categories, without reference to God. …

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