Is the I international?/Le Moi Est-Il International?

Biography, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Is the I international?/Le Moi Est-Il International?


TRANS. JEAN YAMASAKI TOYAMA

I am honored, happy, and a little embarrassed for having the privilege to address you in French. I thank my translator in advance for performing this difficult exercise, and you for listening. So that this translation be "autobiographical" from the start, I am going to talk a little about my own life and make a confession. I will recall difficulties that are borne of an ignorance of other cultures. Then I will ask three important questions that were suggested to me by the theme of our conference and to which our work will no doubt respond.

First, the confession. In 1990, Georges Gusdorf published in French a monumental book in two volumes, Lines of Life [Lignes de vie]. This is one of those very rare books that try to embrace the whole history of the self in western (occidental) culture. On a secondary note, this book had a polemic aspect, which was to attack me, as a supposed representative of formalist criticism, as one who was ignorant of history and indifferent to the religious origins of autobiography. I would like to say that at least on one point Georges Gusdorf seems to me to have been right. He reproached me for knowing only the first two volumes (on Antiquity) of Georg Misch's seven volumes on the History of Autobiography (1949-1967). I knew the first two volumes because fortunately they had been translated into English. As for the existence of the other five volumes, which took this history through the Middle Ages to the dawn of the modern era, I was completely unaware of them, because they had not been translated.

In spite of not knowing of Georg Misch and his immense erudition, I had nonetheless been able to read certain autobiographical texts discussed in his work in French translation. But Georges Gusdorf put his finger on an important and painful point. In how many languages are we able to read critical texts or original works? Can existing translations really compensate for our insufficiencies?

I would like to begin by recalling my own connection with foreign languages. Those that I learned in school correspond with the professions of my family. My mother was an English teacher, as is my older sister, who often serves as my translator. She regularly sighs, "You are so difficult to translate!" and on days when she can no longer take it, she says, "You are a bad writer!" No one is a prophet in his own family. I didn't learn any other language at the lycee except English. I don't count Swedish, which I intermittently studied at the age of thirteen, since the class conflicted with gymnastics, giving me an excuse to cut it.

I have always regretted not having learned German, but never had the heart to make up for it. I understand a little Italian for practical things. Thus, English is it, but an impoverished English. Lacking an extensive vocabulary I can only read books of information or theory with any facility, not literary works themselves. English only, because I was a good student and at that time in France, the elite, who studied Greek and Latin, had the right to study only one living language (later, this function of selecting the elite was assumed by mathematics). My father was a Hellenist, a great scholar, a specialist of epigraphy. I was brought up on ancient languages, but that didn't benefit me. Champion of Greek composition, I was incapable of reading Homer or Plato with any facility; let's not even talk about Saint Augustine or Marcus Aurelius.

But I'm not going to tell you my whole life! I came late to the study of autobiography. I was thirty-one years old; it was after 1968; a wind of liberty was blowing, and I chose to do from then on only what I wanted to do. The event that brought this about was an offer to write a chapter for the volume "Literature" for a thematic encyclopedia. In the contents of this volume every thing was foreseen: the novel, theater, the essay, poetry. But no autobiography. In France at that time practically no one thought about autobiography. …

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