The End of Autobiography, the Opening of Self-Representation

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  • Topic: Autobiography, Memoir, Biography
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  • Published : December 27, 2011
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Tom Smith
Dept. of English
Penn State Abington, USA
215 576-1102

The End of Autobiography, The Opening of Self-Representation

Autobiography, as we have know it, is finished, closed, over, dead, expired, deceased, gone to its reward, kaput. Apart from the fun of imitating the Monty Python skit on the dead parrot, why do I say so? I would not be standing here now had I not read with surprise the following extraordinary announcement in the Call for Papers for this conference: “But in the same year as the publication of Lejeune’s Le Pacte Autobiographique (1975), Roland Barthes published Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes which signaled the end of the classical Enlightenment subject of autobiography and the beginning of a radical autobiographical practice.”1 Prospective submitters to the conference were invited to view 1975 as a watershed year in which the genre of autobiography was codified by Lejeune, whose analysis arguably remains an important touchstone in all discussions of the genre, at the same moment that Barthes was, so to speak, deconstructing Lejeune by writing an autobiography that, in not being a straightforward retrospective prose narrative, refused to display one of the genre’s supposed characteristics. Barthes’ book does, nonetheless, adhere to another of Lejeune’s criteria for autobiography, the identity of the narrator with the name on the title page; that identity mars the perfect opposition of Lejeune and Barthes we were invited to consider. Barthes was playing a game defined by Lejeune, whether or not Barthes knew that as he was writing Lejeune was laying down the rules of that game. In his title, however, Barthes plays with Lejeune’s requirement of identity between author, narrator, and protagonist in suggesting that his book is a biography written by its subject: One does not expect autobiographies to be titled with the autobiographer’s name, but we are not surprised when biographies are titled with the subject’s name. So, in using his own name as his title, as if it were a biography, and adding “par Roland Barthes” to it, Barthes defines his book very clearly as an auto-biography, a biography written by its subject. And by doing so, Barthes suggests that his autobiography is just his version of his life, with no particular authority. He knew, of course, that there would be others, all written by someone other than himself, and perhaps he imagined that many of them would likely to be titled simply “Roland Barthes.”

Pronouncements of a paradigm shift in the academic study of autobiography similar to that of our Call for Papers were in the air in the 1980s and early 1990s, at least in the United States, when Barthes’ book was being looked at carefully by students of the genre, most prominently, to my mind, Paul Jay and John Paul Eakin. I was reluctant then and am reluctant now to accept that the publication of Barthes’s idiosyncratic autobiography in 1975, however much a radical departure it was at the time from current notions of autobiographical decorum, signaled a sharp and significant break in autobiographical practice in general. Making such a statement reminds me of the vatic knowledge Virginia Woolf was channeling when she pronounced in 1924 that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” Yes, perhaps human nature in England changed in the course of a few months around December 1910, but did human nature change in Argentina or Siberia in the same short period of time? And when considering 1975 as a watershed year in autobiographical practice, it must be noted that hundreds if not thousands of autobiographies that hew more closely to Lejeune’s model than to Barthes’ have been published in many languages since 1975. Though my own knowledge of the range of autobiographies published since 1975 worldwide is limited, I do not know of one that imitates Barthes’ mode of writing short essays on apparently randomly chosen themes that open out to autobiographical...
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