American Critics at Work: Examinations of Contemporary Literary Theories

By Victor A. Kramer | Go to book overview

PARABIOGRAPHY:
THE VARIETIES OF CRITICAL EXPERIENCE*

by
lhab Hassan

The varieties of critical experience are endless. I shall speak only of three: desiring, reading, acting (which here includes making). These are all fragments of an autobiography, itself but a sentient reed in the universe.

Autobiography has become rife, running both in high and low repute: it enjoys the sublime attention of literary theory, suffers the base association with cultural narcissism. More to the point: it has become the form that the contemporary imagination seeks to recover, as recent works of Saul Bellow, William Styron, John Barth, Bernard Malamud, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Michael Herr variously intimate. Yet autobiography remains an impossible -- and deadly -- form.

Impossible: how can a life come alive to itself without winding in the infinite folds of its own hermeneutic circle? How can self apprehend itself in the very act of its flight from death? But deadly too in this sense: autobiography is abject unless, in the words of Michel Leiris, it exposes itself to the "bull's horn." For writing about ourselves we risk cowardice and mendacity; and more, we risk changing ourselves by that writing into whatever an autobiographer pretends to be.

Grazing the bull's horn, we become, Leiris says, tangents to ourselves and the universe. I have no access to such grace.

____________________
*
Ihab Hassan, 1980. This essay was first presented in November 1979 at a conference on "Autobiography", sponsored by the Center for Twentieth Century Studies of the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee, and appeared in The Georgia Review ( Fall 1980).

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