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When memory speaks : reflections on autobiography /

Main Author: Conway, Jill K., 1934-
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998
Edition: 1st ed.
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CHAPTER ONE MEMORY'S PLOTS Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers? Why are so many people moved to write their life stories today? And what is it about the genre that makes it appeal to readers not just in the Western world, but also in non-Western cultures, like those of Japan and India or the many cultures of Africa? Since the 1950s literary critics have written hundreds of volumes about autobiography as a genre. The questions they ask come from literary theory. Is autobiography just another form of fiction? A bastard form of the novel or of biography? What sort of story can anyone tell about her or his life when its end is as yet unknown? Is it possible to translate the chaotic ebb and flow of experience into a narrative form with a beginning, a middle and an end? When so much of our consciousness is visual, or nonverbal, how much of it can we convey through the limited medium of words? Can anyone be both subject and object of the same sentences--the speaker and the subject spoken about? Why is this drive to engage in scrutiny of one's own life so characteristic of the West? Another set of theoretical issues is raised by the study of gender. Given that Western language and narrative forms have been developed to record and explicate the male life, how can a woman write an autobiography when to do so requires using a language which denigrates the feminine and using a genre which celebrates the experience of the atomistic Western male hero? Can such literary and linguistic conventions possibly convey the bonding of maternity, or grant integrity to an experience marked by the traditions of Western misogyny? If the autobiographer gazes at himself in the mirror of culture, just as the portrait painter must when working on his self-portrait, how should a woman use a mirror derived from the male experience? If the painter or writer is female, the mirror she holds up comes from a culture that assumes women's inferiority, a culture that has shaped modern women's inner consciousness through the internalized male gaze surveying the female as sex object. For the woman autobiographer the major question becomes how to see one's life whole when one has been taught to see it as expressed through family and bonds with others. How can she convey its authenticity when linguistic convention subsumes the female within the male? How can she construct the life history of someone other than a sex object whose story ends when soundly mated? These theoretical issues are important, but they beg the question of why readers like to read autobiography, and why individuals are moved to write their life stories. Theory can help us read autobiography with more critical awareness. Gender studies can help us pay attention to when and where women autobiographers seem to have trouble with their narrative. But the answer to the question of why we like to read it, and why individuals sit down at desk or table and begin to tell their story, lies not in theory but in cultural history. It has to do with where we look when we try to understand our own lives, how we read texts and what largely unexamined cultural assumptions we bring to interpreting them. Moreover, while the theoretical categories defining a genre may be fixed, its forms and stylistic patterns vary profoundly over time, and these variations constitute a kind of history of the way we understand the self, and what aspects of it we feel comfortable talking about. This book is about readers and writers of autobiography, and about the history of self-narrative in modern and postmodern times. It is written with that comfortable fiction "the general reader" in mind. It should be taken as a background monologue to the enjoyable task of browsing the shelves of bookstore or library, or as a helpful companion on the long plane journey with a fistful of paperbacks, a fellow guest on the weekend at the beach, or even a guide in the hustle of the morning traffic, where many readers now listen to books on tape. It is hard for us to imagine today the passion for fiction which led crowds to gather at the docks in New York in the 1840's, awaiting the arrival of the ship which was to deliver from London the latest installment of Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop, recounting the fortunes of its long-suffering heroine, Little Nell. Many eyewitness accounts describe the shouts as the ship carrying the next installment hove in sight. "Does Little Nell yet live?" the cry would go up, to be answered for many months in the affirmative from the decks of the approaching boat. We don't care quite that way about fiction today Dickens's writing was reaching a popular audience which was newly literate and not yet sated with the devices for suspense developed by the serial writer. The Old Curiosity Shop was appearing many decades before Freud's analysis of the creative process and of the psychodynamics of fantasy, which made people view fiction as the projection of unconscious processes rather than the gifted writer's inspired reconstruction of reality. We are still interested in the projections of gifted writers' unconscious processes, but we are unlikely to model ourselves on their fictional characters, or to surrender disbelief for long enough to be concerned whether the heroine of some popular print series is still alive and well. Of course many viewers do still feel that suspense about the characters in popular television series such as General Hospital or Days of Our Lives, but for readers of print the response is to refuse to surrender disbelief about fiction, and for writers of fiction, to move more and more into the mode of fantasy because realism is no longer accorded the attention it commanded in the great era of the modern novel, the nineteenth century. So virtually the only prose narratives which are accorded the suspension of disbelief today are the autobiographers' attempts to narrate the history of a real life or the biographers' carefully documented historical reconstructions of lives in times past. Even this concession is not made by readers influenced by postmodern criticism, which calls into question the possibility of apprehending reality from a single point of view. Hence the convention in many forms of modern narrative of switching points of view, and leaving open the possibility of many endings for the story. But we remain, as a species, embodied as single fleshly beings. and we experience life as though reality could be apprehended from the single locus which is the point from which we view the world. So, just as many of the truths of quantum mechanics confound our senses of the way the real world behaves, many of the justified postmodern criticisms of Western personal narratives as representations of reality seem to confound our way of seeing and feeling. We want to know how the world looks from inside another person's experience, and when that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying. The satisfaction comes from being allowed inside the experience of another person who really lived and who tells about experiences which did in fact occur. In this way the lost suspension of disbelief disappears and the reader is able to try on the experience of another, just as one would try on a dress or a suit of clothes, to see what the image in the mirror then looks like. We like to try on new identities because our own crave the confirmation of like experience, or the enlargement or transformation which can come from viewing a similar experience from a different perspective. When we read about totally disparate experience, say as Christians reading about a life lived by a believer in Islam, it is as though the set designer and the lighting specialist had provided us with a totally different scene and pattern of light and shadows to illuminate the stage on which we live our lives. When, for instance, we encounter a world of arranged marriages, we see the Western conventions of romantic love differently and begin to ask ourselves where those romantic feelings come from, since in another culture they simply do not occur. Whether we are aware of it or not, our culture gives us an inner script by which we live our lives. The main acts for the play come from the way our world understands human development; the scenes and key characters come from our families and socialization, which provide the pattern for investing others with emotional significance; and the dynamics of the script come from what our world defines as success or achievement. So the inevitable happy ending of the Hollywood movie makes us feel guilty if we find ourselves unhappy or unsuccessful in life's enterprises. The Western tradition of romance makes people believe that somewhere there really is the life partner who will provide the ecstatic happiness depicted in opera, drama and fiction, so Westerners tend to become easily discouraged when such transports don't appear and may begin to keep an eye out for a new partner. If we study the history of autobiography in Western Europe and the white settler societies that are its offshoots, it soon becomes apparent that there are archetypal life scripts for men and for women which show remarkable persistence over time. For men, the overarching pattern for life comes from adaptations of the story of the epic hero in classical antiquity. Life is an odyssey. a journey through many trials and tests, which the hero must surmount alone through courage, endurance, cunning and moral strength. Eventually, unless the hero has displeased the gods through some profoundly shocking violation of taboos, he is vindicated by his successful passage through his journey of initiation and returns to claim his rightful place in the world of his birth. His achievement comes about through his own agency, and his successful rite of passage leaves him master of his fortunes, though, of course, still subject to the whims of the gods or the turning of the wheel of destiny. So some of the shaping male narratives of Western culture adapt this classical pattern to Christianity by moving the odyssey from the external world to the inner consciousness of the narrator. and making the journey of initiation the journey of conversion, with the narrator poised between sin and damnation, or belief and salvation. St. Augustine, in his Confessions (c. 400), keeps the Greek hero's agency throughout hundreds of pages as he seeks to control his wayward senses, overcome the intellectual obstacles to belief in the Christian revelation and accept subordination of his will to the will of God. Even in the act of surrendering his sense of agency to God's providence, Augustine stops to review the problem of how men have knowledge of God, wondering how a man may apprehend that which is beyond the recording of the senses. In the epic description of his conversion, very much like the turning point of a battle, he makes us believe that his inner struggle is of vast and world-shaping significance. His rhetoric makes us accept that his inner struggle has ramifications which reach beyond him to the boundaries of his fourth-century world, so that though the man may surrender his will to God, his life has agency to shape the world around him. Indeed, most of us, when we read Augustine's account of his youthful sin, the theft of some ripe pears from a neighbor's orchard, and his joy in the moment, think not of the insignificance of this adolescent lark but rather of the epoch-making significance of this man's slowly developing sense of property and of sin. In his Confessions (1781) Jean-Jacques Rousseau produced a new model for the male life history. His Confessions tell the story of the secular hero creating himself. Rousseau keeps to the Augustinian inner story of the hero's emotional life and conflicts, but his account is without St. Augustine's sense of sin and the trajectory of his life moves not toward God but toward worldly fame and success. Rousseau plays his moral transgressions against his picture of a corrupt aristocratic society which scorns him, and which he rejects in favor of the new democratic man, of whom he declares himself to be appropriate model. He presents himself as a man of natural manners and morals, whose transgressions against aristocratic mores are not sins but merely expressions of a new view of what is important in life. Rousseau was also the first exponent in autobiography of a new definition of the human emotions, a definition which allows a man to be governed by his senses and feelings, these being seen as more human and more authentic than externally imposed laws of conduct. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed to Augustine's fear of the senses, and worry that his eyes. ears, senses of taste and smell and sexual drives may distract him from God and embroil him in the things of this world. In Rousseau's man of sentiment and natural feeling, we have in embryonic form the modern concept of id and ego at war with one another, feeling and culture at odds, the child surrendering innocent perceptions and feelings to enter the prison of custom and culture. Thus the democratic man claims agency through refusing to accept cultural convention and by asserting that when emotions and social prescription conflict, a man must act upon his emotions. When Rousseau becomes a thief, it is not because the devil tempts him but because he hates the master who beats him wrongfully. When he is given shelter by a Catholic woman, he pretends an interest in Roman Catholicism, not out of deceitfulness but because of a natural wish to please someone who has been kind to him. In Rousseau's life plot the classical journey of epic adventure has become an emotional one, carried on in defiance of society. It is a journey nonetheless, and one in which the hero is still an atomistic individual. Rousseau tells us, "I am made unlike any I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world." The hero is still the agent of his destiny, though the forces which drive the action of his life are not the classical fates but the war of the individual against society. The dynamic of the action comes from human passion struggling to break through the confines of inherited convention. With the focus of attention directed to this world and the life of the emotions, the stage is set for the emergence of the Napoleonic hero, who embodies the feelings of his people in the battle for political and economic freedom; the working-class rebel, who seeks to overthrow a corrupt system of production, and the Utopian socialist hero, who is able to reconcile emotional and economic freedom. Alongside these romantic types comes the self-created economic man, first given full expression by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography (1818). The successful accumulator of wealth, who makes the journey from poverty to worldly success and triumphs through the economic disciplines of thrift, industry and deferred gratification, is a figure given archetypal form in American popular culture in the writing of Horatio Alger and in the autobiographies of captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie. In the later twentieth century, such figures blend in with the culture of celebrity created by film and television, as exemplified in the autobiographies of figures like Lee Iacocca or Katharine Hepburn. American myth and popular culture also produced a native version of the classical odyssey, in which the frontier hero battles the wilderness, fights against savage non-Western warriors and opens "virgin" territory to white settlement. The physical struggle with the forces of nature and with "uncivilized" peoples redefines the hero's journey in Western imperialist mode, a mode that takes different forms in terms of the wilderness to be conquered and the relative degree of sophistication of conqueror and conquered. Thus we have the Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a man of little learning and less sophistication, recording his astonishment and wonder at the riches and achievement of the Indian civilization he and his fellow Spanish invaders of Mexico were laying waste in an adventure of unmitigated greed carried out in the name of Christianity. In similar mode we have Christopher Columbus's account of his first encounter with the New World and the Carib people he thought might be the fabled Amazons, John Smith and Pocahontas, the Jesuit narratives of New France, Captain James Cook's reflections on Australia and its aboriginal people and travel accounts of the wonders of India, to be followed by countless narratives of discovery, conquest and eventual European settlement. In these stories of conquest the Western European male, and occasionally his female counterpart, is engaged in a literal and psychological journey. He is tested by the forces of nature and by cultural conflict, and he acts as an agent of the Western concept of progress, a god as impersonal as any Greek deity, the dynamic of history which Europeans thought promised perpetual social improvement and gave them the right to "civilize" the world in their image. By the turn of the twentieth century, a new quest for authenticity emerged in Western European culture. The new concern with authenticity was the product of multiple interactions between economic and cultural forces. The wealth created for Europeans by the economic and technological capacity to exploit distant regions fostered the world-weariness of fin de siecle decadence. The transfer of scientific skepticism to the newly developing social sciences resulted in the idea of cultural relativism. This reductive view of culture was the framework within which materialist economics combined with the first efforts to develop comparative studies of religion to define religious belief as a form of neurosis. And the visible and cultural effects of a fully articulated urban industrial production system raised for the first time the possibility of a radical break between nature and the engineered environment. Decadence, cultural relativism, lost belief and the break with nature were major themes of modernism which gave rise to a new type of autobiography, the story of the modern quest for meaning, given classic form in narratives like James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and poetic expression in T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" (1930) and the Four Quartets (1942). In the late twentieth century, after two military catastrophes in which Europeans consumed their wealth and undermined the central values of their Judeo-Christian roots, witnessed or were participants in the evil of the Holocaust and fostered the invention of atomic and biological weapons, the confident European imperialist narrative was replaced by the postmodern refusal to recognize a central point of view from which the world is to be seen. This refusal has been accompanied by an outpouring of autobiographical statements of ethnic identity, which have their most striking form in English in the writing of African-Americans like Malcolm X and James Baldwin, or in the narratives of Westernized leaders of other cultures like Jawaharlal Nehru or his Muslim counterpart, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The same cultural forces have encouraged assertions of sexual difference, as in James Merrill's recent classic account of a homosexual coming of age. The history of women's autobiographical writing in Europe and its offshoots underlines the extent to which experience is both shaped by gendered difference and subject to the same economic and cultural forces which influence the shape and style of male narratives. To begin with, women inherited a different tradition from classical antiquity and early Christianity than the one which shaped St. Augustine's consciousness. Classical antiquity provided only the myth of the Amazons for the image of female heroic action and saw the image of the physically powerful female as monstrous rather than admirable. The fabled Greek democracies revered by the post-Renaissance West did not count women as citizens and left them out of the political theory which was central to the Western ideal of democracy and of citizenship. Although the women of the Hebrew Scriptures gave ample evidence of the power to rule, and to bear witness, the Pauline influence on the Christian Scriptures gave early Christianity its fear of the senses and the injunction that women should keep silent in church. Thus the problem of voice for European women was acute since their culture defined them as incompetent in or irrelevant to two core areas of speculation about life, politics and theology. Nonetheless the monastic tradition provided women with enclaves of self-direction, albeit at the price of entry into a closed religious community. It was within the special enclave of religious life that the tradition of Western European women's autobiography was first established, in narratives about the autobiographer's relationship with God. Such a tradition, involving a relationship with a first cause, did not permit the development of the sense of agency and acting on one's own behalf with which the Greek ideal of the hero is infused. Instead, it promoted meditation about the nature of God and the recording of direct experience of divine illumination. This tradition is manifested in the writing of medieval women religious like the twelfth-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen. A composer of liturgical music and songs, a playwright, a healer and a builder of institutions, Hildegard records an inner life devoted to surrender of the will and to ecstatic visions such as the sycamore tree she observes dancing outside her window on a gray winter day. The totally nonverbal visionary experience gives her the sense that she and everything she knew or could imagine are present in the sycamore's preternaturally beautiful movements. Dame Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century British religious, gives her reader the same sense of rejoicing in intense and deeply reassuring nonverbal contact with God. In her Book of Shewings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich (1393), she doesn't engage in mental calisthenics about how it is possible to know God. Instead she provides a record of the visions she has received during her life of prayer and meditation, and some practical encouragement to others to follow in her footsteps. She is highly literate and possesses a formidable knowledge of Scripture, but it is the vision of God she wants to convey rather than how she felt about it. She can speculate about God's being a point fitting within the palm of her hand and yet present everywhere. or some other equally abstract object within whom all human affairs are subsumed. She conveys wonder, delight and confidence in God's Providence ("And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well") but shows no concern for her own agency. St. Teresa of Avila, a High Renaissance Spanish mystic, extends this tradition in her beguiling Life of St. Teresa by Herself (1562-65). In it she uses the image of a garden being fed by streams of water to convey her sense of the operation of grace in her consciousness. Her guide to her readers on the techniques of prayer and meditation is practical and vividly written. Her entire history is a story of a relationship with God, although her powers of expression make every monk, nun, confessor and family member live in the reader's mind. She is direct and plainspoken about the insignificance of the will in coming to know God: All that the soul has to do at these times of quiet is merely to be calm and make no noise. By noise I mean working with the intellect to find great numbers of words and reflections with which to thank God for this blessing.... The will must quietly and wisely understand that we cannot deal violently with God; and that our efforts are like great logs of wood indiscriminately piled on [a fire], which will only put out the spark.... Let it speak any words of lore that suggest themselves, in the firm and sure knowledge that what it says is the truth. But let it pay no attention to the intellect, which is merely being tiresome. The mystic's direct experience of the springs of life which flow through a divinely created world came to men also. as the writing of St. Teresa's friend and protege St. John of the Cross demonstrates. But women's accounts of their mystical experience set the pattern for describing a woman's life in a way that shaped women's subsequent narratives as definitively as the odyssey gave the underlying form to male autobiography. The secularization of European culture produced no female Rousseau, claiming to be the model of a new social and political type for a life to be understood in terms of this world. Even had she existed, we may argue that the silencing of women on matters of politics and theology would have required a structure for her story different from Rousseau's self-absorbed narrative of his own creation. The secular form of women's narratives emerged in the bourgeois preoccupation with romantic love, marriage, family and property. We see the transitional version of this life plot in the narratives of women like the Duchess of Newcastle, intent on presenting the history of her family and her own aspirations as aspects of family history. Though her concerns are political and intellectual, and always highly individualistic, she relates them through family and marriage. Hers is an aristocratic voice: secular, ambitious, strong-willed, finding a place defined by family and status on which to stand to comment on her experience. The archetypal form for the bourgeois female history came in the early nineteenth century from the secularized romance, the life plot linking the erotic quest for the ideal mate with property and social mobility. Within the ideal type of the romantic plot given early expression in Rousseau's Emile (1762), the female heroine is a creature of pure emotion and little intellect, who exists to become the perfect mate for the self-creating hero. Her life history ends when she encounters him, because her existence thereafter is subsumed within his. The consuming bourgeois preoccupation with erotic adventure, family, property and the primacy of the emotional fulfillment of private life led to the transformation of the female life plot from the visionary encounter with God, a God often viewed in extremely abstract terms, to the quest for the ideal hero, a quest which gave shape to the fiction, theater, opera and ballet of nineteenth-century Europe. In that story what is important about the female is not her agency but the quality of her emotional response, a quality celebrated in opera and dance, or in fiction as passionate as Alessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi (1825-1827) or as cool as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813). The conventions of the romance require that the heroine be courted, and the dynamic of the plot comes from the way in which the barriers to expressing her response to the hero--scheming relatives, class constraints, opposing political forces, the social prescriptions of race and caste--are progressively removed by fate. destiny or other external forces over which the heroine has no control, so that the final ecstatic union with the beloved may occur. This shaping romantic myth is, of course, a Western creation; it is a source of puzzlement to members of non-Western societies, in which marriage operates to link family, property and political or religious groups, or else as a prudential institution guaranteeing personal service and the care of one generation for another. What is important about the Western romantic heroine is that she has no agency, or power to act on her own behalf. Things happen to her--adventures, lovers, reversals of fortune. She has an antitype, the scheming woman, who does try to create her own destiny, like Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847-48), or the kind of woman concerned with politics who made her way to the guillotine during the French Revolution, whether monarch like Marie Antoinette or liberal reformer like Madame Roland. But such figures were held up as negative models of unseemly ambition. The wave of humanitarian concern for human beings exploited by slavery the cruelties of child labor or insensitivity to the feelings and needs of the insane did give indirect encouragement to a new kind of woman autobiographer, the escaped female slave who could ignore the social taboos governing speaking about female sexuality by recounting histories of sexual exploitation by white slaveowners. Abolitionists encouraged memoirs of the slave-woman's journey to freedom, often epic in its privations and dangers. These stories by strong women presented no threat to gender categories because they fit with the image of the slave as victim, and because white readers could feel secure that such strength was safely contained within the boundaries of racial subordination. The frontierswoman's narrative, a counterpart to the male imperial experience, could not be so fully embodied as the slave-woman's, for the proprieties required that women never speak of' the dangers of giving birth far from the services of midwives or the suffering of the breast abscess which had to be lanced by the patient herself. So, although the frontierswoman's strength was called upon daily, she never recorded it, and in keeping silence allowed her life to seem like a domestic romance. By the second half of the nineteenth century, women's access to education and the emergence of the women's professions provided a new social territory from which women could examine the meaning of their lives and comment upon their society. Many stories of women's struggle for education and successful battles with discrimination might well have fitted the Horatio Alger model of a life devoted to the unremitting quest for success, for many educated women gained national stature and exercised considerable power through the institutions they founded, colleges like Bryn Mawr, hospitals like the renowned Philadelphia Hospital for Women and reform associations like the National Consumers' League. But they did not create or control great fortunes, so their power was discreetly veiled in good works. Like the frontierswomen silent about their physical strength and courage, pioneer women professionals were silent about their ambitions and recounted their lives as though their successes just happened to them, rather like the soprano's chance meeting with the tenor in the first act of an opera. So the woman professional, actually a new and potentially revolutionary social type, told her story as a philanthropic romance: she seems to have chanced upon the causes which elicit a lifetime commitment from her. She never acknowledges strategizing about how to advance the cause; she is as surprised as anyone else when success is at hand. The life plot contrived by these silences is not one of rags to riches but rather a modified romance in which service motivations replace erotic passions as the governing force in life. What are we to make of such silences? Should we agree that the Western cultural mirror distorts women's self-perception so that they cannot see their own agency? Can women really not adapt Plato and Aristotle to suit themselves so that they can reflect on their own political life? Are they not capable of forging their own tradition for the expression of political motives? Clearly this is not the case, because frontierswomen and pioneer women reformers kept diaries and wrote letters which dealt with their physical bodies, openly acknowledged the wish for power and depicted the writers as political beings. So the problem is one of censorship for public self-presentation. Every autobiographer wants to persuade others to learn from her or his life. Most aim to convince their readers to take up some important cause, follow a new spiritual path, be aware of particular hazards, develop a new moral sense. To achieve this they cannot depart too dramatically from popularly accepted stereotypes which affirm the man of action and the suffering or redemptive female. To do so is to risk losing their persuasive power. So the private mirror works as well for women as for men. but the public one may be another matter. Of course men may also censor their softer selves when describing their life journeys, editing out the tears or despair, eliding the help of others, making the hesitant course seem the path of firm resolve. Rembrandt's sixty-two self-portraits suggest that the cultural mirror could give trouble to men also, even so gifted and original an artist as Rembrandt. Of course, in theory the modern practice of psychiatry encourages the most rigorous scrutiny of conventional life plots, so that the public and private selves can negotiate some sort of entente cordiale. But the founders of psychiatry, Freud and Jung, inscribed the conventional mate and female life scripts so thoroughly into the practice of their art that a profession based on scrutiny of life histories has not yet come up with more accurate or revealing cultural mirrors. What makes the reading of autobiography so appealing is the chance it offers to see how this man or that woman whose public, self interests us has negotiated the problem of self-awareness and has broken the internalized code a culture supplies about how life should be experienced. Most of us, unless faced with emotional illness, don't give our inner life scripts a fraction of the attention we give to the plots of movies or TV specials about some person of prominence. Yet the need to examine our inherited scripts is just beneath the surface of consciousness, so that while we think we are reading a gripping story, what really grips us is the inner reflection on our own lives the autobiographer sets in motion. But why should just one literary genre preempt this area of self-reflection today? Our grandparents and great-grandparents were moved to it by reading the Bible, and by reading the works of Dostoevsky, Dickens and George Eliot. They could reflect on causation in human affairs by reading about Darwinian biology, geology, the observations of field botanists. They could, if they chose, read philosophers like John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell or John Dewey, who wrote a kind of standard English which any educated person could understand. If they were of a psychological bent, they could read William James; if literary, Matthew Arnold. The entire span of humanistic inquiry about what it means to be human, how the individual is shaped by society, whether she or he ever has free will, what shapes the imagination, what talents are valued and what misunderstood, how great political figures are formed and how they resonate with their followers--all such questions were, until recently, analyzed in a humanistic discourse which was accessible to an interested reader. Today, autobiography is almost the only kind of writing which tackles such questions in language a nonspecialist can read with ease. The technical language of history, psychology, literary criticism, philosophy is a necessary accompaniment of the effort to reach an ever more exact formulation of complex problems. But it also shuts out the nonspecialist, and makes it nearly impossible for such a person to draw on those modern disciplines for the scrutiny of her or his own life. If we think of St. Augustine's Confessions and try to imagine him using the language of cathexis and significant others to convey the experience of conversion, we know he would not reach the audience he has for some 1,600 years. If we imagine readers of The Old Curiosity Shop grappling with the concept of alterity, we know they would not have been there poised at the dock, waiting for the next installment of Little Nell's life. If we think of Rousseau offering statistical calculations of the likelihood that his experience correlated closely with that of other men of his generation in France, we see his claims to be a "new man" differently. But his autobiography tells us, sometimes in too much detail, just how it felt to him. And that magical opportunity of entering another life is what really sets us thinking about our own. Copyright © 1998 Jill Ker Conway. All rights reserved.