Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical by James Olney

By James Olney

Professor Olney gathers jointly during this publication the very best and most vital writings on autobiography produced long ago decades.

Originally released in 1980.

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The subject who seizes on himself for object inverts the natural direction of attention; it appears that in acting thus he violates certain secret taboos of human nature. Sociology, depth psychology, psychoanalysis have revealed the complex and agoniz­ ing sense that the encounter of a man with his image carries. The image is another "myself," a double of my being but more fragile and vulnerable, invested with a sacred character that makes it at once fascinating and frightening. Narcissus, contemplating his face in the fountain's depth, is so fascinated with the apparition that he would die bending toward himself.

This conscious awareness of the singularity of each individual life is the late product of a specific civilization. Throughout most of human history, the individual does not oppose himself to all others; he does not feel himself to exist outside of others, and still less against others, but very much with others in an interdependent ex­ istence that asserts its rhythms everywhere in the community. No one is rightful possessor of his life or his death; lives are so thor­ oughly entangled that each of them has its center everywhere and 30 Georges Gusdorf its circumference nowhere.

Such is doubtless the most secret purpose in every exercise in Memories, Memoirs, or Confessions. The man who recounts him­ self is himself searching his self through his history; he is not en­ gaged in an objective and disinterested pursuit but in a work of personal justification. Autobiography appeases the more or less an­ guished uneasiness of an aging man who wonders if his life has not been lived in vain, frittered away haphazardly, ending now in sim­ ple failure. In order to be reassured, he undertakes his own apologia, as Newman expressly says.

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