Paul de Man on ‘Autobiography as Defacement’
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Paul de Man’s essay on ‘Autobiography as Defacement’ focuses mainly on Wordsworth, but he also makes some interesting general points about autobiography.
de Man begins by suggesting that the treatment of autobiography is ‘confining’ and that it makes many problematic assumptions. One problem is ‘the attempt to define and treat autobiography as if it were a literary genre among others’ and the difficulty in it being a genre that supposedly brings together history and the aesthetic (919). Autobiography may seem whimsical and indulgent in comparison to other genres of art
Can autobiography be written in verse? Even some of the most recent theoreticians of autobiography categorically deny the possibility though without giving reasons why this is so. Thus it becomes irrelevant to consider Wordsworth’s The Prelude within the context of a study of autobiography, an exclusion that anyone working in the English tradition will find hard to condone. (920)
de Man concludes that it is redundant to define autobiography as a ‘generic definition’ (920). Perhaps a comparison of fiction and autobiography might be more fruitful, since autobiography depends on ‘actual and potentially verifiable events’, doesn’t it (920)? Could it be ‘a simpler mode of referentiality, of representation, and of diegesis’ which is ‘rooted in a single subject as in Rousseau’s Confessions? de Man is unconvinced.
We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium? (920)
Proust quotes Gérard Genette’s analysis of Proust, which suggests that Proust’s writings are ‘an endless discussion between a reading of the novel as fiction and a reading of the same novel as autobiography’ (921). de Man concludes that autobiography is ‘a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts’ (921). This is not to say though that all texts are autobiographical, but rather the importance of autobiography ‘is not that it reveals reliable self-knowledge—it does not—but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure and of totalization (that is the impossibility of coming into being) of all textual systems made up of tropological substiutions’ (922).
de Man, Paul. ‘Autobiography as Defacement’. MLN. Vol 94, no. 5, Comparative Literature. (Dec., 1979), pp. 919-930.