Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

Achieving Form in autobiography/Die Bereik Van Vorm in Outobiografie

Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

Achieving Form in autobiography/Die Bereik Van Vorm in Outobiografie

Article excerpt

Introduction: McDonald and Leighton on form

It is my contention that significant autobiographies achieve significant forms, never static in their potential or reception, yet peculiar to themselves alone. Peter McDonald, in a consideration of 'remorse' in Yeats, offers an important insight about the factual nature of literary form, which leads to the issue of formal significance:

In reading Yeats, the poetry's complex relations with facts, whether these are facts of the poet's private life or of the life of his times, are always critically relevant. Acknowledging this, and acknowledging the difficulty of understanding these relations with the necessary fullness, it is vital to add that the poetry itself is another fact in the matter, and that it too demands respect. (McDonald 2002:49)

If the 'poetry itself is another fact in the matter' along with those facts of 'the poet's private life' and 'the life of his times', the form of the writerly expression becomes as significant as the themes presented. The distinction between thematic material and the expression thereof can be viewed in various ways, ranging from the new critics' intermeshing of form and content to Emmanuel Levinas's ([1974] 1997:5-7, 44-49) distinction between the 'saying' and the 'said' where (in basic terms) formed expression (the 'said') is always open to reinterpretation, is never finalised (the 'saying'). Susan Wolfson (1997:1-30), in her seminal book Formal charges, discusses in fairly exhaustive fashion the critical approaches to this distinction. She is led to conclude, however, that, though prose in comparison to poetry 'involves form', 'the modalities--macro-structures of plot or argument, medial structuring in paragraphs, local syntaxes and verbal patterns--do not confer the kind of discursive identity inscribed by poetic forms' (ibid:3). Whilst this is undoubtedly true, I argue that autobiographical prose can be as singular in its form as poetry. Prose, though it is not as 'precisely and inescapably defined by its formed language and its formal commitments' as poetry, is yet made distinctive by its various authors. This happens not through its unique accounts of various lives (which have their own particular thematic strands) but because of the way these lives are given substance through the writing. The resultant work has a formal significance peculiar to itself, differing from discursive prose, historical prose or fiction though it might contain elements of all of these.

As McDonald (2002:49) also points out, the writing's 'complex relations with facts', private and general, needs to be considered. Overlooking the complexity of these relationships, which must include autobiographical elements (the poet's own response to the facts of his or her 'private life or of the life of his times'), leads to generalisations or convenient simplifications--convenient, at least, from an antagonistically sectarian point of view. In this regard, McDonald (2002:53) takes a passage from Marjorie Howes's Yeats's Nations and criticises 'the prevailing habit of seeing ideological sermons in the stones of poetic constructions':

One recent study, for example, speaks of how 'Yeats's Anglo-Irish nationality ... deliberately and elaborately exposes itself as a construction', and notes how 'the original vitality of the house also contains an original impulse towards crisis and disintegration'. But the theoretical import of the metaphor here is false to its literal source: houses don't (or shouldn't) have impulses towards disintegration, and the views of a property surveyor on the matter might properly command more confidence than those of a literary critic. (McDonald 2002:53)

What McDonald does in this instance is, precisely, to consider 'the poetry's complex relations with facts' 'with the necessary fullness' (McDonald 2002:49) to disentangle critical imposition from poetic fact by the exposure of the critic's flawed metaphor. …

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