The invention of the human is the title of a book by Harold Bloom (1998) on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in which he sets forth a similar argument for the English language. The scenarios of human lives and experiences unfolded by Shakespeare—who already drew, besides his own experiences, on a variety of historical and literary sources—essentially defined Western ideas of character and passion. They shaped the imagination of many generations of readers and audiences of theater, opera, and film, including countless writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists. Fusing these traditions of imagining human life with their own experiences set free a continuous discursive interplay that created what Richard Rorty would call the autobiographical vocabularies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and finally of modernity. In other words, what we see emerging here is the cultural repertoire of contemporary autobiographical self-understanding in the West.
This repertoire, like language in general, is used and modified in the exchange of a great variety of cultural discourses in which our lives and their meanings are constantly re-described and re-defined. If we look at this cultural continuum of autobiographical self-practices, literary or not, from an historical point of view —comparing, for example, the ideas of memory and self in Dante’s world with those in Shakespeare’s and in Proust’s world —we see that the difference between life and literature dwindles even more. When those writers, psychologists, and clinicians meet, they should be able to quickly figure out what they mean by autobiographical narrative, and indeed, usually they do.
Erich Auerbach, E. (1961). Dante, poet of the secular world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (German 1929).
Harold Bloom (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead.
Keith Oatley (2007). Dante’s love and the creation of a new poetry. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 140 –147.