The Self's Others
- Susanna Egan (Author)
Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. University of North Carolina Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bina Toledo FreiwaldI will be teaching a graduate course on postmodern autobiography next term, and Mirror Talk has given me one more reason to look forward to it. Already, reading this book and Timothy Dow Adams’ Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography has made me rethink my syllabus, so that the course is now subtitled "Textual and Visual Self-Representations," and includes film, photography, and comics alongside the literary texts. Egan’s book will be invaluable to us not only for its very fine readings of some of the works we’ll be discussing, but also as an intellectual project that is originally and rigorously conceived, meticulously executed, and engagingly presented.
In the opening chapter, "Facing Off: Genres of Life and Death," Egan guides the reader through the by-now densely populated territory of autobiography theory and criticism in order to arrive at her central concerns. Many of the driving issues in the field converge in Egan’s study: self and/as narrative; the relationship between crisis and the autobiographical imperative; the question of reference; the challenges that deconstruction and feminism have posed for more traditional conceptualizations of the self; the body both as inscribed by the variables of its cultural production, and as "the ground from which personal inscribing begins"; the possibilities of resistance; the reader’s implication in the autobiographical project. In Mirror Talk these concerns are part of the theoretical apparatus that is brought to bear on the central questions Egan asks: what are the modalities of (self) expression used to engage with conditions of unresolved crisis? What opportunities do these modes offer to individual subjects in need, and how do the forms themselves get transformed by such needs? Running through this interrogation is Egan’s founding interest in those encounters that are constitutive of the experience of subjectivity. The "mirror" of her title is "more constructive than reflective of the self. It foregrounds interaction between people, among genres, and between writers and readers of autobiography."
Egan’s approach to the genre is inclusive and polysémie. Commenting on the recent proliferation of terms to designate particular discourses of the self—Stanton’s auto-gynography, Gilmore’s autobiographies, Perreault’s autography, Lorde’s biomythog-raphy, Lionnet’s autoethnography, Couser’s autopathography, Miller’s autothanatogra-phy—Egan suggests that we regard them not as "separate or contested territories but as significant features of the landscape." Such an approach makes it possible for her to cast a wide net. Egan examines a wide range of originary configurations of instability. Chapter Two—with sections on Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, Meigs’ Lily Briscoe, and Breytenbach’s Mouroir—establishes a genealogy for contemporary "mirror talk" by linking experimentation in self-representation with the beginnings of modernism. And if Hemingway’s portraits of Fitzgerald serve to remind us that "the self is constructed in terms of other selves," the twin questions that Egan pursues throughout the book are "why" and "how": out of what needs and under what conditions do self and other(s) become mutually constitutive? And what are the expressive means by which autobiographers have told a story that "in the end is an explanatory myth, explanatory primarily of its own processes"? For Mary Meigs, the engagement with others is necessary in order to construct and validate her own perspective in opposition to that of others. Imprisoned for anti-apartheid activism, Breytenbach needs to reconstitute himself in the face of the brutal severing of his normal ties and connections.
In "Speculation in the Auditorium," Egan looks at some of the strategies that can be found in drama and documentary film for creating the autobiographer through mirror talk. Examples from different genres of filmic autobiography allow Egan to tackle different questions. Her discussion of filmed interview-documentaries like Apted’s 35 Up and Lundman and Mitchell’s Talk 16 and Talk 19 examines the control of the interviewer/editor over the personal narratives presented; in the self-documentaries by Jim Lane and Tom Joslin, Egan finds a more successful exploration of subjective expression in a medium paradoxically associated with the representation of objective realities; and in the Canadian film The Company of Strangers she discovers a controlled editorial vision that, contrary to expectations, works to release intense autobiographical expression in its subjects. The chapter ends with a reflection on that fraught and complex collaborative process between Métis writer Maria Campbell and the white actor/improvisor Linda Griffiths that culminated in The Book of Jessica. Egan suggests that in its dramatization of a struggle for mutual understanding across many barriers (of "race," culture, privilege, age), and in its reaffirmation of a Native voice in the face of the threat of white appropriation, The Book of Jessica transforms the conflictual binaries of the original situation into a continuous and healing circle.
Chapter four focuses on diasporic subjects, the "quintessential autobiographers of the late 20th century," who need to produce and reproduce themselves anew. Drawing on a range of examples—Trinh T. Minh-ha’s film Surname Viet Given Name Nam, Audre Lorde’s Zami, Days and Nights in Calcutta by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Among the White Moon Faces, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family—Egan examines subjects who are positioned between cultures, and thus able to critique both and "choose, accordingly, what complex of hybridity to embrace." The last two chapters discuss limit cases and those genres of mirror talk that seek to represent the unrepresentable. Life writing, Janet Varner Gunn has argued, is a form of survival literature, a gesture of resistance to loss and mutilation—a writing for life. Egan’s reading of Primo Levi’s Holocaust writing and of autothanatography (narratives written in the face of terminal illness and death) engages a question that goes to the very heart of autobiography as a self/life affirming practice: what are the "strategies for resisting extinction both in life and in the text"? Levi counters the horrific human machinery intent on "the death of a man" that is Auschwitz by using language as a tool for comprehension, not only to tell his story but to tell it "in terms of multiple layers of dialogue," resisting the monologism of the Lager with the polyphony of his texts. In narratives like Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum’s Cancer in Two Voices, and Tom Joslin and Mark Massi’s film Silverlake Life, forms of dialogism allow for the reconstitution of self and other, and enable the dying to create the life of the moment over and over, thereby satisfying a desire "to be recognized as fully present."
I have always found powerfully suggestive Emile Benveniste’s reflections on the constitution of subjectivity in language, in particular his observation that there is no / outside of the reciprocal dialogue between I and you that constitutes the subject: "It is this condition of dialogue that is constitutive of person, for it implies that reciprocally /becomes you in the address of the one who in his turn designates himself as /." Mirror Talk makes an important contri bution to our understanding of the ways in which autobiography—which Egan understands inclusively as a polyphonic mode characterized by a "voracious consumption of genres"—enacts and re-enacts such constitutive dialogues: both the dialogues that launch us into crisis, and the kind that promise transformation, a measure of healing, or at the very least the reciprocating gaze of the other.
- Inventer la vie by Jean-Sebastian Ménard
Books reviewed: Je ne veux pas mourir seul by Gil Courtemanche
- Deux textes formalistes et poétiques by Virginie Doucet
Books reviewed: Le facteur émotif by Denis Thériault and Parents et amis sont invités à y assister: Drame en quatre tableaux avec six récits au centre by Hervé Bouchard
- Histoqueerographies by Philipp Maurer
Books reviewed: Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada by Tom Warner and The Pleasures of Time: Two Men, a Life by Stephen Harold Riggins
- The Self's Others by Bina Toledo Freiwald
Books reviewed: Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography by Susanna Egan
- L’Ethos de la fin by David Beaudin-Gagné
Books reviewed: Comme dans un film des frères Coen by Bertrand Gervais and M. by Hans-Jürgen Greif
MLA: Freiwald, Bina Toledo. The Self's Others. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 164 - 166)
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