Thursday, June 20, 2013

Eli Park Sorensen on 'True' Autobiography, Plus a Few of My Own Thoughts

Professor Eli Park Sorensen has written another informative literary-critical article for the Korea Herald, "Fraudulent memoirs and the autobiographical pact" (June 16, 2013). Here are the first four paragraphs:
According to the literary scholar Philippe Lejeune, autobiographical texts rest on the assumption "that there is identity of name between the author (such as he figures, by his name, on the cover), the narrator of the story, and the character who is being talked about." This constitutes what one could call "the basic grammar" of the genre of autobiography, or, as Lejeune puts it, the "autobiographical pact" established among narrator and reader.

Solid as this definition may seem, several critics have pointed out the unintended ambiguity inherent in Lejeune's definition. For what do we actually mean by "identity"? That there is a discrepancy, however infinitesimal, between the writing self and the written self goes without saying (Facebook comes to mind) -- but how large may this discrepancy be before the text ceases to be autobiographical?

One typically thinks of the autobiography as a genre of remembering. As the literary scholar Linda Anderson argues, however, the genre also promotes a narrative desire of "becoming, within the realm of the symbolic, one's own progenitor, of assuming authorship of one's life." In this perspective, autobiography involves less a process of remembering past events; rather, it constitutes an attempt to actively seek out -- and thus become -- the person I really am or ought to be, but perhaps never became. The autobiographical text thus becomes a search for the authentic life. Perhaps one could even say that this is one of the main reasons why people write autobiographies in the first place; to show the world who they really are.

If the autobiographical text simultaneously involves a process of remembering events as well as a desire to discover a self that was never fully articulated -- quite often two conflicting impulses -- it resists clear and straightforward genre definitions like the one proposed by Lejeune. On the other hand, if one cannot define -- in a clear and straightforward language -- the genre of autobiography, is it ever possible to define a fraudulent memoir, a text falsely claiming to be autobiographical?
In these four paragraphs, Professor Park sets forth two different views on autobiography, represented by two different literary scholars, Philippe Lejeune and Linda Anderson, who focus, respectively, on identity and becoming as the crucial mark of autobiography. Park takes this difference in an interesting direction concerning the 'autobiographical' memories of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a strange case that you can read about on your own, but I want to think out loud here about what one might mean by "true."

The most common default position on truth is the so-called "correspondence" theory of truth, namely, that a statement corresponds to something really existing in the world. Another theory of truth is the "coherence" theory of truth, namely, that an organized system of statements cohere logically with one another. Most of us would probably expect an autobiography to correspond to the writer's life, and we would feel deceived if some 'facts' turned out to be "fictions." We might not hold the writer to flawless coherence, however, for who among us has lived a purely rational, self-consistent life? The true story of my life -- in terms of correspondence -- would include the twists, turns, and alterations (and altercations!) that cannot fit a logically coherent scheme.

But there's a third theory of truth, what I like to call a "creation" theory of truth, namely, that truth is created. This sort of truth is not "out there" (correspondence) or "up there" (coherence), but "down here" where we create it. This something like the pragmatic view of truth in the thought of William James. On this see his writings on Pragmatism, especially "Lecture 5: Pragmatism and Common Sense," and "The Will to Believe," and if we combine both writings, we can see that William James defends a belief on the grounds that it can encourage the believer to undertake a risky action that can 'make' something true, which is possible because the universe is incomplete and lends itself to our creative forces, if we believe in ourselves -- and yeah, I need to re-read James to express this more coherently, but I believe this formulation roughly corresponds to his views. Anyway, applied to oneself, this sort of exercise in "becoming" is future oriented and can work because the future is open.

Applied to one's writing of one's own life, however, a creation theory can be problematic, for one writes about one's past, but the past is closed, and re-writing one's life to reflect what one wishes to have been -- which might also offer more coherence -- can only offend against a correspondence theory of truth if fictions are switched for facts, leaving readers deceived . . .

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