Sublime Inauthenticity: How Critical is Truth in Autobiography?
In the autobiography, time and history, at first glance, seem paramount. After all, autobiography is the account of the things that have happened in a person’s life, selected and made ready for public consumption, usually written in the first person. However, the understanding of autobiographical narratives can vary from story to story. Is the purpose of the autobiography to deduce truth from the myriad of subjective experiences surrounding history? Is it a self-searching exercise taken on by the most poetic and self-indulgent among us? How critical is memory, that fragile function of the mind, to the understanding and acceptance of an audience of autobiography?
It often seems that while truth may be divined from one’s own story, it sometimes is not one’s own truth, but the truth of a culture, a nation, a generation. Self-evaluation, while insightful, is chronically inadequate and often inaccurate, but the true purpose of autobiography somehow escapes this fate — autobiography, the misnomer, frames the self, but its surroundings are what shape it. Discerning how these surroundings create the self is where the true core of autobiography lies.
Augustine’s Confessions is usually considered the first modern biography. He begins the book with an address to God, but this invocation doesn’t echo the calling of muses from Greek dramas. Augustine, unlike the Greek tragic heroes, has intimate and personal conversations with God. His is a radical idea in the 4th century: he speaks to God as though he were speaking student to mentor, and he asserts that his past decisions cannot be ignored, nor is his life preordained. He gives himself agency in his own writing, confessing of the sins of his past but evaluating them within his own heart.
Indeed, some credit Augustine with the creation of the inner self. What is also striking is Augustine’s attention to his emotions in history. He does not excuse himself from past sins but explains them plainly, and, to the best of his memory, apparently does not falsify them (Hevern and Bamberg 2005a). However, he had to be careful when constructing his Confessions: while claiming to be divinely inspired, Augustine’s work could be considered false if it inspired sin in others.
How else might Augustine’s work be considered false? It is apparent that to the best of his ability he recreated a historical and evaluative recollection of his life. But how can we evaluate (a subjective process) our own history (a seemingly concrete, objective artifact)? The autobiographical history, which I’ll call the memory-narrative, must, as a narrative, have some sort of moral end in its plot (Hevern and Bamberg 2005c).
The memory-narrative, as we move into the modern age, is less religious in its morals but no less moralistic. Autobiographers, in order to create an interesting, compelling story, include events that further their principled purpose. Morgan (2002) writes, “In a given autobiographical moment, a narrative speaks a subject into a position within a moral order, and simultaneously arranges historical events as a movement towards a moral endpoint.” The restructuring of history to suit the aims of the author is already happening through his memories as the memory-narrative is being constructed and edited and reconstructed.
The subjectification of history may be happening in memory-narrative, but that does not necessarily make it untrue. Ignoring the concept that truth itself is subjective, we can sympathize with the feelings of someone who went through war or genocide or slavery just as easily as we can sympathize with a child who’s scraped his knee, but in telling us that he has scraped his knee or been through the Holocaust, there is a tacit belief that what we are hearing is the truth.
If the memory-narrative corresponds to our preconceived notions of what it must have been like to be in the Holocaust (which all except those who lived it learn from second- or third-hand experience), then we believe the story and judge it as historically accurate or inaccurate. Still, it seems impossible to evaluate autobiography on the basis of historical accuracy, as everything, including history, revolves around the memory of the self. “Put in the simplest of terms, in autobiographical understanding there is no object, no ‘text,’ outside the self… the phenomenon that is ultimately of concern — namely one’s personal past — must itself be fashioned through poiesis, that is, through the interpretive imaginative labor of meaning-making” (Freeman 2005).
Even if we check all the ascertainable historical facts, there is still memory to deal with. Autobiography is a function of memory, and memory is not always reliable. Starkest is the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments, a tale of a child survivor of the Holocaust. After some private investigation by a Swiss author, it was discovered that the man was not Binjamin Wilkomirski at all, but Bruno Doesseker, born February 12, 1941. Wilkomirski/Doesseker claims that “this date has nothing to do with [his] life history nor with [his] memories” (Boyes 1998). He may not have experienced the horrors he describes so explicitly in his book, but I have to wonder: who are we to tell this man that his memories are not his own? Certainly historical fact can prove someone wrong, but the sheer subjectivity of memory and its framework deny “proving” anything. “‘Memory,’ in this context, becomes a curious amalgam of fact and fiction, experiences and texts, documentary footage, dramatizations, movies, plays, television shows, fantasies and more” (Freeman 2002).
The challenge of modern memoir, like modern drama, is not to mimic reality but to enhance it, to make it realer than real. By this I mean that the point of any memory-narrative — indeed, of any story — is to create a subjective “truth” based on the memory of what happened to oneself. “Creation of truth” may seem like a paradox but it indeed is the only way we can define truth in the absence of divine inspiration. “The truth is not a hidden treasure, already there, that one can bring out by simply reproducing it as it is.
Confession of the past realizes itself as a work in the present: it effects a true creation of the self by the self” (Gusdorf 1980, as quoted in Freeman 2005). Hence, who and what we are, framed by our experiences and surrounding situations, act as a function of our imaginative processes, the “creation of the self by the self.” This is how the self is framed through memory-narrative — by a creation of subjective truth, an enrichment of selected historical background pieces, and a touch of imagination is a good book born.
The breadth of the usual autobiography speaks to the evaluative process only possible after a lifetime of experience. Says Stanislavsky, the founder of the Method style of acting, “We see, hear, understand, and think differently before and after we cross the threshold of the ‘subconscious,’” that moment in history when we harvest all our experiences into a single point in time, the autobiography (Hevern and Bamberg 2005b). “Beforehand we have ‘true-seeming feelings,’ afterwards — sincerity of emotions.” Emotional sincerity — emotional truth — may not have the ring of historical truth, but it can have an effect greater than the ultimate disproval based on mere, unfeeling history.
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