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Authenticity and textual violence: the case for Autofiction

Is it possible for Life-Writing to actually present authentic truths, or do they always fall into the betrayal of inauthenticity? Heidi James-Dunbar looks into these questions while putting forward her case for Autofiction.
Heidi James-Dunbar
6 April 2010

A successful act of Life-Writing could reasonably be described as a reconstitution of facts bound up in a quasi-narrative form, in other words, a life rendered to a story. These ‘facts’ are of course open to interpretation and misrepresentation. And what of the gaps, the holes, the silences - the missing testimonies, lost letters, journals shredded and burnt, and simply forgetting? The spaces that open up and cannot be filled? How can writers piece together the episodes that delineate a life? Conjecture? An educated guess? Can the writer distil and then adequately portray a subject experiencing objects? Is it possible to faithfully recreate the complexity of experience? The multiple channels of information and events in a life?

Serres asks these questions in Who am I? ‘The self,’ he says, ‘is a patchwork resembling a Harlequins coat, a badly stitched tatter, a conjunction of adjectives. The self is ‘a mixed body: studded, spotted, zebrine, tigroid, shimmering, spotted like an ocelot, whose life must be its business’. For Italo Calvino ‘Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable'. How can authors ensure that the reshuffling of these objects, events, loves and adversaries is faithful to their subject? How can we be sure than when the cards land, they land facing the right way up, in the right order? We cannot own stories (not even our own) they are not and can never be possessions, but are ethereal phantoms that split and divide and subdivide as soon as we think we’ve caught them.

It is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of a life-story we flatten it, generalize whilst attempting to particularize, unify fragments that contradict and usurp. The most complex and exquisite stories (and indeed, the most prosaic and banal) must resist interpretation. With the difficulties that dog the task of Life-Writing it isn’t surprising that one doesn’t have to look far to come across the anguished calls of ‘untrue’ ‘unfair’ ‘unlike’ that greets the publication of many works of life-writing, which sometimes, as in the case Augusten Burroughs’ ‘Running with Scissors’, result in legal action brought by the subjects portrayed.

As Levinas writes, the other person ‘escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal.’ This fact of ungraspability, that a person can never be completely known, that in encountering another person, we encounter the limits of our power is what causes the life-writer to falter. In attempting to tell, to speak for, to know the other – our subject – aren’t we flexing our muscles and positioning ourselves as master? Isn’t this mastery of the facts an act of violence and if we get those facts wrong or even just a little skewed, aren’t we then committing an act of betrayal or as Paul de Man has said ‘a defacement’?

So then, if inauthenticity is betrayal, and this betrayal is unavoidable simply because of the impossibility of faithfully rendering the multiple to a single unified narrative, from facts secreted about time and space; what then of authenticity?

For Lionel Trilling writing in Sincerity and Authenticity, violence is central to the meaning of the word ‘authentic’ derived from the greek ‘Authenteo’ meaning to have full power over; also to commit a murder – ‘Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self murderer - a suicide’. So then here is another problem, a violence in asserting one ‘truth’. What Bruner called the ‘tyranny of the single story’. Therefore if neither authenticity nor its opposite, inauthenticity, are standards against which the writer may seek to apply to their work; it is necessary to write our way into another form of revelation.

Objections against forms of representation including all forms of narrative have been with us since Plato. Levinas was especially sceptical of representation and the act of telling tales – these objections can be described broadly as thus: that stories risk fixing others within overarching systems of thought that lead to a kind of inhumanity – a trap that suffocates, that silences. Will Buckingham in Finding our Sea legs writes that, ‘tales it might be argued seek to master others, to control them, to gain dominion over them.’ But the objections also describe another fear. As Plato pointed out, art endlessly reduplicates things, producing copies and copies and copies of copies. Marina Warner writes that ‘Representation itself acts as form of doubling; representation exists in magical relation to the apprehensible world, it can exercise the power to make something come alive, apparently.’

So this doubling, in a sense an idolatry, possesses magic and exerts power. This doubling brings to mind the myth of the Golem from Jewish folklore, a anthropomorphic creature created from mud, by a pious person and animated either by writing one of the names of God on its forehead, or placing a slip of paper in its mouth sometimes known as a shem, or more significantly for the purpose of this article, writing the word emet (אמת, "truth" or reality in the Hebrew language) on its forehead. The golem could wreck terrible havoc, and was often an agent of vengeance or protection. This creature neither alive nor dead, but bearing the word TRUTH on its forehead could not speak, it had no voice of its own, neither did it have intelligence, it could only follow instructions to the letter unable to exercise reason or judgement. A golem would be deactivated by erasing the aleph (א) in emet to form met (מת, "dead"). So, here this paper compares acts of life-writing with the creation of a golem. Both reconstitute beings from inanimate matter via words incanted and inscribed. They form an hermeneutic totality that declare a violent ‘truth’ and if the Golem and the text are ‘truth’ then everything else must be false. Both creations could be described as a moment of saying charged with the ontotheological. This theological connection isn’t new. The act of writing the facts of one’s life for the purpose of reflection and self-scrutiny can be traced back to the Calvinist tradition. A form of diary-keeping that was an act of religiosity. Is Life-Writing disturbing because it is an act of sheer voyeurism or is it something more significant? The golem is troubling because it is undecidable, as is Life-Writing, whether its memoir, biography etc. It is troubling because it is undecidable, neither fact nor fiction, not alive or dead.

Of course for Nietzsche art is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement. In utilizing the tropes of figurative language and imposing narrative form, doesn’t any act of Life-Writing become a fiction anyway? And if so, why not lever that fissure between fact and fiction completely apart to assault the model of authenticity to better express the inexpressible. To expose the silence that attends the words and do away with the fetish of truth. If Life-Writing does indeed reconvene the hierarchy of presence/absence, speech/writing then what this paper suggests is a re-thinking of metaphysics in Life-Writing that is brought about by not attending to facts. But a retelling that unambiguously fabricates and exceeds any hierarchy that pertains to truth.

For if we consider that all ‘stories’ are interlinked by an immanent intertextuality and therefore are perpetually ‘in media res’ they cannot then be closed systems, they evade the tyranny of a genealogical structure. In fact, beyond fact, as selves we are knotted and tangled in multiple times, spaces, with shifting boundaries. We are migrants. There are no self-enclosed unities. Any attempt at telling a factual account, a truth, is therefore always a lie. I suggest we follow Jean Genet, and ‘lie in order to tell the truth’. A truth not bound by the spotlight of fact but a truth that resides in the dark, that is illuminated by the imagination and by art.

Galen Strawson in his essay Against Narrative attacks the ‘fashionable’ obsession with narrative as a means to self-awareness, an understanding of ones lived experience as diachronic. He writes ‘I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none.’ He goes on to argue for an episodic comprehension of self. It is these episodes that we can write as fiction that do not limit themselves to the Hume-like mining of empirical fact and causality. For if we can never truly grasp the other, if we can never test the veracity of moments that in a strange discontiguous bind illuminate a being, then we might consider this as a metaphysical quest. Something beyond reach and appropriation.

Perhaps then we can look to autofiction. A spinning of untruths, lies that achieve an essential distance that may provide us with the ability to look with an unwavering gaze. A sorcery of tale-telling that exceeds language, plot and causality. That looks elsewhere for truth. That for Lyotard would be postmodern ‘The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself’. Work that reveals without committing a singular act of violence by distorting the dialectic between truth and falsehood. The proper condition of truth, that maintains the secret at the heart of every telling.

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