This week’s text arrived as a quiet capstone to a range of texts that began with Native American and “discovery” narratives and took us–as the title of the course teasingly puts it–from the founding to Facebook. I hope we will get to chat a bit about emerging autobiographical technologies over the coming days–but to tell you the truth, I really was just going for the alliteration! How status updates, Tweets, texts, and the occasional old-school e-mail reflect and shape our autobiographical selves is largely a tale still just beginning to be told, one that I hope we’ll all be more reflective about in the coming years.
Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric proved to be a surprisingly fitting closing text. At first, of course, it seemed an extraordinary downer. The phrase “cultural pessimism” emerged early on, and loneliness saturated the text despite its imploring title. What professor would end a class on a genre that goes by the name “autothanatography”–etymologically, self-death-writing? Well, Nancy K. Miller wirtes that “autobiography–identity through alterity–is also writing against death twice: the other’s and one’s own.” In this sense, she continues, “every autobiography… is also autothanatography” (RA 260). In a way, it makes perfect sense to conclude a course on autobiography at the very limits of self.
This reminds me of a ClassWrap post from a few weeks back where I noted a question that Sacvan Bercovitch asks in relation to figures such as Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau. “There is an invitation lurking in each of them,” he writes: “how would you like to disappear?” Back then, I reflected on how much I loved that question—it perfectly captures a grounding tension in autobiography: while focused on the self, so much of what goes on in autobiography has to do with integration into a broader community, or a broader set of ideals. For Rankine, this moment of disappearing echoes the many disappearing acts we’ve witnessed this semester. But Rankine also takes us somewhere new. Though she harnesses the pathetic force of the confessional voice, we learned from the interview (thanks, Mia!) that much of what happens in this text is not properly autobiographical–it is not her sister whose husband and children died in an accident, for example, and Rankine is most likely not writing a book about the liver. But even as she confronts our traditional attachments to autobiographical truth, she works to offer a deeper truth about any “self”: that it only exists in and through the voices that surround it, hurt it, challenge it, and strive to make it anew.
We are in a similar position in relation to Rankine’s text as her fictional editor is in relation to her supposed book project on the liver: “I understand that what she wants is an explanation of the mysterious connections that exits between an author and her text,” Rankine writes after her editor abruptly leaves their lunch meeting. But rather than substantiate such a connection, Rankine shows us the necessity of a different connection altogether: that between self and world. Autobiographical truth must be intersubjective, she suggests–it must be invested in the significant others that surround us.
Nowhere is this more clear than in her reflection on Levinas and Paul Celan near the conclusion to her American lyric. Levinas, whom she quotes, writes that the “fact of existence is neither being in itself nor being for itself but being for the other” (120). We hold an infinite responsibility for these others–an impossible charge, and one that takes us to the very limits of autobiography. In less philosophical language, she turns in the end to Paul Celan, for whom a poem is essentially a handshake. “The handshake,” Rankine writes, “is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another” (130). So simple and yet so profound–the handshake is a powerful metaphor for the aims of autobiography as well: to declare that the self is present–I am here–and to make that self available to others through the very act of autobiography, of self-revelation, of giving the self over to another. All autobiography is autothanatography: self-writing where the limitations of self are most profoundly felt and, perhaps, transcended.
In class, we organized our conversation around whether or not we thought Rankine was successful in resolving what I termed the “crisis of relationality” that she sets up for herself. We examined numerous moments–her self-interrogating dialogues, her pseudo-autobiographical ventriloquizing of personal experience, her engagement with broader political events, and, finally, that iconic handshake. Though we couldn’t conclude, finally, that Rankine succeeded, I don’t think that was ever the point. As David Shields writes in Reality Hunger, “What you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her own limitations.” The heart of autobiography resides in the struggle rather than any ultimate success. Or, perhaps, the struggle is the success.
As we approach the end of the term here, there are no blog prompts, creative or critical, on which to conclude. I will say, in place of such prompts, that I have been thoroughly–and increasingly–impressed with your blogging over the course of the semester. You have done a great job of engaging each text–on its own, in relation to the unfolding history of autobiography, and in relation to the key concepts that Smith and Watson offer in Reading Autobiography. I loved tracking the unfolding history of autobiography with you in our conversations–both online and in class. And now, I look forward to your own original forays–critical and creative–into autobiography with the presentation of your 20% projects this week. Good luck!