Monday 8 December 2008

Life and Literature, by Jens Brockmeier and Maria Medved

The idea that personal identities are to a large extent made from the fabric of narrative has become widespread. In fields as different as literature, history, philosophy, psychology, medicine, and law we find strong interests in the interplay among autobiographical memory, identity, and narrative. Usually the investigative agendas of these fields do not interfere with each other. But sometimes they do. Then questions arise such as: does a literary autobiography and an everyday life story really represent the same kind of autobiographical narrative? Do writers or scholars of literature and narrative psychologists or clinical researchers studying illness narratives mean the same thing when they talk about autobiographical stories?

Of course not. What makes a literary text distinct is its literariness, the more or less successful attempt to use narrative as an art form. It’s not difficult to agree that Nabokov’s autobiography Memory, speak is a successful attempt, whereas autobiographical parts of an illness narrative a cancer patient tells a doctor have no aesthetic claim. However, the aesthetic dimension, as central it may be for literature, is only one aspect of narrative. It is not even exclusively a feature of literature. There are several literary forms, genres, and styles that intentionally downplay their literariness, whereas everyday discourse often displays strong aesthetic qualities. Writers therefore have always—in European literature, say, since Dante—drawn on the resources of ordinary language, absorbing everyday discourse and practices of remembering into their autobiographical writings (and we include here memories, diaries, and other forms of life-writing). At the same time, everyday discourse has constantly soaked up literary and artistic models and forms of self-fashioning. Nowhere is it less clear what imitates what in the relationship between art and life than when we talk about ourselves and our past.

There is a continuum of narrative forms that encompass everyday life and literature; and this is especially true for autobiographical narrative. Yet the idea of such a continuum goes beyond narrative and stylistic terms. It also applies to the autobiographical process itself, the complex narrative mix of remembering, interpretation, and self-construction carried out both in literary and non-literary contexts. Why would the literariness of autobiographical texts by Proust, Nabokov, and García Márquez prevent us from considering them as individuals who were giving shape to real autobiographical remembering? Shouldn’t we assume they were putting all narrative means at their disposal to the effort of exploring themselves and, in doing so, probing the goings-on of the autobiographical process?

We believe that there is a connection between the literariness of their autobiographical writing and the sophisticated way they narratively both unfolded and analyzed the autobiographical process in their prose. Although their analysis has no doubt a literary and aesthetic component, it should not be reduced to that. If it’s good literature it’s almost never just fiction nor just an individual account; it also offers insights into the very nature of the autobiographical process as it also occurs in people who may not dedicate much time, energy, and sensitivity to scrutinize their experiences. If we investigate them in detail, we find that both everyday and literary autobiographical processes are, in principle, carried out along the same lines, within the same narrative and psychological continuum of human past and present experience. That’s why autobiographical prose by Proust, Nabokov, and García Márquez is read (and imitated) by countless readers, writers and non-writers alike. We try to understand it in the same fashion in which we make sense of ourselves and others, employing the same “narrative ways or worldmaking,” as cognitive narratologist David Herman (2008) argues. This implies localizing the narrative text (written or oral), its narrator/author, and ourselves, the readers/listeners, within one intersubjective context that Herman calls an “intentional system.”

Again, there are significant differences in sophistication, particularly, if we consider writers like those we mentioned. But we wouldn’t say to the neuroscientist: well, you have only been able to study memory because you have used all this sophisticated laboratory equipment. So why should we say that Proust has only been able to study the complex narrative nature of the autobiographical process because he developed a complex narrative style to explore it?

By the way, most of the memories Proust dealt with are amazingly unspectacular. What is special about recalling having had a cup of tea and a cake? What distinguishes them from your and my memories is the literary genius that dedicated itself for many years to the investigation and articulation of such (semi-)autobiographical experiences.

David Herman (2008). Narrative theory and the intentional stance. Partial Answers, 6, 233-60.

Vladimir Nabokov (1960). Speak, memory: A memoir. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

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