Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Writing about Ourselves: Jewish Autobiography, Modern and Premodern

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Writing about Ourselves: Jewish Autobiography, Modern and Premodern

Article excerpt

Writing about Ourselves: Jewish Autobiography, Modern and Premodern Marcus Moseley. Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii + 650.

WE LIVE IN AN AGE of self-writing. It is barely conceivable that any high public official, successful business leader, or celebrity from any area of entertainment or the arts should pass up the chance to tell his or her story to the reading public. Genuine self-knowledge is the goal of few of these efforts, which attempt, instead, to advance careers, stir up scandal, create spin, secure a "legacy," or, in the best of cases, to bear witness to historical events. "Autobiography," as a phenomenon studied by literary scholars, is something else entirely. It is a historically defined genre that was initiated by Rousseau's Confessions in the eighteenth century and then branched out into the literatures of Europe, developing differently according to different norms and cultural pressures. The hallmark of this "classic" autobiography is a reticulated and sophisticated sense of introspection. The autobiographer attempts to account for who he or she has become at the present time of the writing by recalling and examining the succession of earlier selves, with emphasis, pace Rousseau, on the importance of childhood, the candid confession of shortcomings and shameful acts, and the formation of sentiments as well as ideas. The autobiographical writings of Goethe, John Stuart Mill, Henry Adams, Cardinal Newman, Osip Mandelstam, Michel Leins, Simone de Beauvoir, Vladimir Nabokov, and many others made a strong case for the existence of a unique mode of writing, neither novel nor historical treatise, that demanded to be read on its own terms. It was not until the 1970s with the work of Philippe Lejeune m France and James Olney m America that an adequate theoretical framework for describing the poetics of autobiography was developed.

Autobiography as an object of study, however, has refused to remain stable. In the past fifty years the genre has exploded in all directions. It is not a matter of high culture versus popular culture; for it seems as if all serious writers in every field, eepecially academic scholars, are writing about themselves. The issue is that they are often doing so, very unhelpfully for literary critics, in wanton disregard for the canons of the Rousseauean paradigm. The explosion has been retrojected as well. The problem is not just new writing but an ever-expanding conception of what constitutes autobiography in the past. Slave narratives, oral testimonies, diaries, and confessional texts of all sorts composed by subjects who never heard of Rousseau have stretched the category of autobiography to the point of meanmglessness. Racing to catch up, theorists of autobiography have essentially thrown in the towel and agreed to speak of autobiography not as a distinct genre but as vast map upon which a specific work can be located according to a variety of coordinates.

The strongest challenge to the coherence of autobiography as a genre concerns the expectation of truthfulness. In what remains, to my mind, the most durable definition of the genre, Philippe Lejeune argued that a text is autobiographical not so much for what is in it as for the expectations that readers bring to the reading of it. Fundamental to the reading of an autobiography, he proposed, is the existence of an implicit compact according to whose terms the autobiographer presents his or her work as a truthful presentation of experience and the readers agree to approach it as such. Although as readers we do not expect a novel to be factually loyal to the experience of a specific individual, this is exactly what we expect from an autobiography. Yet time after time we encounter autobiographies by prominent writers and intellectuals that have been exposed as containing mistruths, whether small or large, and we feel that the "autobiographical compact" has been abused in these cases and placed under suspicion generally. …

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