Within a theoretical framework derived from Heidegger, Henri Lefebvre, and others, this essay investigates the way in which the sense of psychological displacement that attends the experience of spatial displacement (what Roland Barthes calls atopia) is repaired by the self-conscious recollection of the places of one's past.
Theories of subjectivity and the self have loomed large over the past thirty years in disciplines ranging from literary theory and psychoanalysis to anthropology, geography, and cultural studies. A common theoretical shift in these disciplines has seen a move away from a model of the self as autonomous or transcendental (the "Cartesian self") to a model of the subject as created within and by language. From the Western point of view, this shift has been momentous, although, as Janet Gyatso has recently pointed out in her study of the autobiography of the Tibetan visionary Jigme Lingpa, rejection of atman 'self' and adherence to a belief in anatman 'no-self' has been central to Buddhist thinking for over two thousand years. Much of this Western work on self and subjectivity has been concerned in some way with explaining the sense of coherence and continuity that appears integral, in a quite pragmatic way, to a conception of self. For Paul John Eakin, the key factors in assuring this sense of the continuity of the self over space and time are memory and narrative. Eakin works in the field of autobiographical studies, but scholars in other fields, such as YiFu Tuan working in geography, Oliver Sacks in psychology, and David Lowenthal in cultural studies, have also explored the intimate connection between a relatively stable sense of self and a sense of continuity imparted by recollection. There is further agreement among these writers that this intimacy is such that whenever the activity of recollection and the forging of continuity are, in some way or other, fractured or impaired, then the sense of self is also threatened (Eakin 224; Sacks 28).
I argue here that, within this broad theme of the relationship among sense of self, memory, and narrative, it is possible to distinguish a subset in which continuity is imparted to the sense of self not just by narrative, as Eakin argues, but more particularly by the narrative recollection of place. In recent years, almost as much attention has been focussed on issues of space and place as has been focussed on issues of self and subjectivity. I argue that the recollection of place functions in narratives of the self, both oral and written, as a means of composing, and re-composing, a sense of continuity in the self and of averting and repairing the sense of the death of the self that is a consequence of a fracturing of the links that bind self to place. In making this argument, I draw particularly on ideas of place and habitation found in the work of Heidegger, Bachelard, Lefebvre, and Deleuze and Guattari. As such, my essay relates to and develops work done in two main fields: that on narratives of the self and autobiographical studies; and that on place and its relation to cultural and personal identity.
By focussing in this essay on a number of texts that record the experience of a sense not of the continuity of the self but rather of its disturbing discontinuity, I hope to provide a clearer understanding of the function of the recollection of place in relation to the construction of a sense of self that is relatively stable over space and time. Reading texts by Marcel Proust, Oliver Sacks, and Edward Said, I trace the representations of experiential discontinuity they offer, in different genres of the narrative of the self and in the nature of the threat that this is seen to pose to a sense of self. I go on to examine the role of the recollection of place in these texts as a means by which a sense of placement is recuperated from the experience of displacement and a sense of self is once again gathered into narrative form. …