Autobiography: Installment No.3
Writing an autobiography involves a matching up of a specific plot-structure with a set of historical events. The autobiographer wishes to endow these events with a particular meaning. Some writers see this process as "essentially a literary, that is to say, fiction-making operation." The document, the autobiography, is still a historical narrative. It is one of the ways a culture has of making sense of both personal and public events. For it is not the events of a life that are reproduced through the writer's description; rather, it is a direction to think about these events, a charging of the events with "different emotional valences," that the writer produces. Of course, a writer does not like to see his work as a translation of "facts" into "fiction." But the crisis in both historical thought and in the writing of autobiography may be illumined by the insights gained from this perspective.
The ordering of events in a temporal sequence does not provide any necessary explanation of why the events occurred; for a history, an autobiography, is not only about events, it is also about possible sets of relationships, only some of which are immanent in those events. For the most part they exist in the mind of the writer and the language he or she uses. Hayden White argues that "if there is an element of the historical in all poetry, there is an element of poetry in every historical account." History is made sense of in the same way that the poet or novelist tries to make sense of it. The unfamiliar and mysterious is made familiar. Both the real and the imagined are subjected to a process aimed at making sense of reality. For this reason history often appears fictionalized and poetry often appears like reality, like history. Writers of poetry and fiction, says Hayden, impose formal coherence on the world in the same way writers of history do.
Such a view, if taken seriously, would go a long way to freeing historians from being captive of ideological preconceptions. Drawing historiography closer to its origins in literary sensibility, in the literary imagination, may help to increase understanding. For an increase in facts does not necessarily bring understanding. Chronicles of events, the sense of 'what really happened,' types of configurations of events, the emplottment of sequences of events, are determined as much by what facts are put in as what are left out and by the extent to which the writer can engage in constant currection and revision, in tireless seeking out of new information.
Aristotle saw poetry as unified, intelligible and based on the subordination of the part to the ends of the whole. History on the other hand was organized around continuity and succession, a congeries of events and is not intelligible in the same way as poetry is. He associated history with the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the unsystematic. Poetry he saw as part of an ordered and coherent schema. Poetry was, to Aristotle, a more serious, a more philosophical, business than history. It speaks of universals; history of particulars.
About the Author:
How to Catch the Writing Bug
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