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An autobiography in its entirety constitutes the full cry of an earthly individual, within an intrinsically unified species, beneath the invincibles of the universe. Gusdorf’s “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” grant this art form its place in the civilized, intellectual world; the author ultimately distinguishes the literary genre for its difficult center—“the effort of a creator to give the meaning of his own mythic tale” (48). Wise to credit autobiography for its breadth of opportunity for self-definition, Gusdorf supposes that it is the author’s “struggle with the angel” (48) that necessitates attention; that the reader ought not to expect a mystical end of “ultimate, conclusive authority…to this dialogue of a life with itself in search of its own absolute” (48). Autobiography cannot be valued for any efficiency in pinpointing an individual’s absolute properties; this artistic creation blazes the fire of human virtue singularly through the author’s effort to find that eternal identity, and not necessarily his success—the creator’s artistic project to “reassemble the scattered elements of his own individual life and to regroup them in a comprehensive sketch” (35). The reader of autobiography makes a grave mistake to examine an author’s self-defining endeavor without first considering the looming finitude that each person seeks to supercede. This literary genre takes its honorary place among the human race, for it allows reader and writer to both embrace and elude death; the autobiographer purposefully creates a representation of his life and times, impulsively thwarts his own demise, and frees his soul from extinction. On these grounds, the history of one man or one woman becomes the history of all, and the certainty of future death generates an incontestable unity among all who live and breathe the air of individuality.
What Jean-Paul Sartre illuminates in his autobiography, The Words, is deeper-rooted than pointing to truth in a human’s dying moment. While some morbid oddities certainly exist in his way of becoming “completely posthumous” (199), Sartre intrigues the reader with the realization that every minor action has a distinct, epic essence, each motion fully truthful when taken in the context of individual lives as a whole, and thus, in the context of human finitude: “This is not surprising: in a life which is over, the end is regarded as the truth of the beginning” (200). What is eerily accurate about Sartre’s childhood prophecy is that he did, in fact, come to be widely influential posthumously, and for this very manner of acting as if his life were already over. Because of this truth, it is difficult to decipher the worth or fallacy involved in his self-defining view of death. While he describes the meticulous process of trying to “live backwards” (199), it is apparent that in light of the expected downfalls of this strategy, he nonetheless chose that path as a child, and unconscious of its psychological repercussions. He lives posthumously, solemnly noting, “always before or after the impossible vision that would have revealed me to myself” (208). He lives in anticipation of his posthumous distinction with the goal of greatness in mind, and upon the somewhat uncanny realization that he could will his own destiny by submitting completely to the confidence of the adults. Jean-Paul believes that the adults somehow have the ability to foresee his end, and he thus lives as if he is gradually filling the autobiographical pages of a great man already dead. Interestingly, he vows not to live in a “state of error” (204)—that is, he will not make the slightest move without premeditating his personal life’s end, realizing that at that apocalyptical moment, everything in his life will have meant something.
In a grounding, sober conclusion, Sartre puts forth, “since I’ve lost the chance of dying unknown, I sometimes flatter myself that I’m being misunderstood in my lifetime” (254). In the inability to “meet [his self] face to face” (207), he finds weary comfort in the notion that his death will bring about his proper recognition; since he cannot recognize himself, he spends his life becoming his “own obituary” (206), in hope that he might catch the person he will soon be known to emanate. But most importantly, Sartre resolves that this manner of living “did not [raise] [him] above anyone” (255), and he thus finds himself to be the epitome of one who strives only for earthly immortality—“A whole man, composed of all men and as good as all of them and no better than any” (255). Here, Jean-Paul casts a sad light on the humbling reality of writing autobiography, the quest to find what is definitive enough to be immortalized becoming finally a conclusive yet limiting statement of human interconnectedness.
The concept which Vladimir Nabokov makes the center of his fictional biography, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, exceeds the intrigue of simple “reality”; in this novel, Nabokov offers special insight into the split identity of an autobiographer, for V.’s promise to capture the deceased Sebastian’s “realness” mirrors that probing of an autobiographer, searching for the truth of the self that will soon be physically gone. This author’s portrait of a person’s history on earth is importantly titled to signify Sebastian Knight’s “Real Life,” suggesting the narrator’s righting of a wrong rumor. Nabokov associates the delicacy and unpredictability of a bird in flight with his notion of “realness”—at least as far as the “realness” of Sebastian Knight is and is not conveyed in this book. But can a person’s true essence be more fully captured in an autobiography than by another person’s novel, or in a messy unraveling of different points of view and varying emotional reports of Sebastian Knight’s true likeness? Nabokov intentionally gives V.’s character predictable frustration in order that the reader can empathize with the difficult and vain task of communicating another’s real identity. The narrator’s depiction of “something real” (32) as being “something with wings and a heart” (32) strikes the reader to be an easily—and overly—romanticized idea, and bakes the reader’s suspicion that little will come out of describing paramount events and touchingly inaccurate memories. A note of satire from Nabokov bleeds through these narrative words, suggesting that what is real captures only the fleeting beauty of a bird, because “realness” will slip through the fingers as easily as if it had wings to fly away on contact. The suggestion that something real must be something so swift sets the tone for autobiography as well as biography; the difficulties V2E will have in his efforts to discover Sebastian, and thus Sebastian’s own absence, will mirror that separate autobiographical self’s apparent diffidence in being sought out, if Sebastian’s “real life,” in fact, embodies a thing with wings and a heart.
One of the most convincing arguments V. puts forth is in his reflection on Sebastian’s mysterious character, stating, “…as was often the case with him, the ‘why’s’ of his behaviour were as many X’s, I often find their meaning disclosed now in a subconscious turn of this or that sentence put down by me” (34). Statements such as these suggest Nabokov pulling the strings of a puppet-narrator, V., and V. pulling the strings of his puppet-self, Sebastian; the reader can find in these words an insight into both Sebastian’s intrinsic absence and the half-brother’s present naivete in his hope of defining a self that is never fully in view. The psyches of these individuals, when taken as the function of two different souls, may in fact be related, but this does not stop the narrator from being curiously allured, perhaps deluded, by Sebastian’s dark exterior and outright aloofness. V. looks for meaning with the “why’s” and is met with as many “X’s”—letters of the English language, referential to Sebastian’s literary identity, signs commanding the narrator to turn away, “X’s” impeding him in his search for answers. Through the brother’s generosity in praising Sebastian’s literary talent and V.’s hesitancy to raise himself to that high pedestal, Nabokov pokes fun at the very genre of autobiography in general. The reality that the narrator’s curious attention to his brother’s essence is founded more in what he doesn’t know than in what he does know about Sebastian leaves the reader to consider the full breadth of Nabokov’s message: that Sebastian’s life is truly no different intrinsically than any other; that the narrator has no less writing talent than Sebastian; that Sebastian, too, took up the pen “hypnotised by the perfect glory of a short story” (35); finally, that V.’s only real lack, when measured against Sebastian’s intrigue, is that V. is not dead yet. Sebastian is, in fact, dead, maddeningly out of reach, and his leftover writings ferment as do dismal remnants of artistic ambition, made to look triumphant in the hands of an emotionally dedicated biographer who struggles to discover his own immortality as much as he does Sebastian’s true identity.
Not surprisingly, Nabokov concludes his novel climactically with a scene conveyed entirely by the use of descriptive language. Interestingly, not only does V. state, “Thus—I am Sebastian Knight” (205), but he follows with, “I feel as if I were impersonating him on a lighted stage, with the people he knew coming and going” (205). Clearly, Nabokov has arrived at several difficult paradoxes in his search for the truth of identity. While “the soul is but a manner of being” (204), “any soul may be yours” (204), V. states. Nabokov’s narrator unveils more than a shred of authenticity in the act of impersonation. With V.’s attempt throughout writing to grasp the spirit of Sebastian, he finds that the very gesture of “acting Sebastian” (205) is truth in itself; although the reader might hold that impersonation cannot at all embody a “Real Life,” Nabokov argues that an actor presented on a lighted stage is the closest to truth one can come. The author of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight builds up to a revelation in the close of his mystery novel, and one that is paradoxical only in claiming reality to be purely real in its clarifying obscurity—the obscurity that each soul shares, connects with, and struggles to get to the bottom of, whether or not Nabokov’s maze leads anywhere but back to its confused beginning. Most importantly, what V.—or Sebastian—acknowledges is that “the hereafter may be the full ability to live in any chosen soul, in any number of souls” (204), and what must be acknowledged by Nabokov’s readers is the generosity this novel gives to the notion of multiple identities within a unifying sense of immortality.
The irony of autobiography lies in the fact that despite a supposed “accuracy” or lack thereof in the self-definition of an individual, the base goals of the art are met; it cannot be said that V. or Sartre have not created for themselves a lasting absoluteness or an earthly unity, the imminence of mortality nipping closely at their heels. In this contemporary Freudian society, autobiography remains to be a widely-accepted form of publicized contemplation, and what must not surpass general perception of the art is its irrefutable psychological service to mankind. By providing whatever convoluted insights one can in assuming the peculiar pose of trying to see oneself, the autobiographer thus faces, acknowledges, and works through the reality of his own mortality. As Gusdorf affirms, “The author of an autobiography masters this anxiety by submitting to it; beyond all the images, he follows unceasingly the call of his own being” (33). The multitask of autobiography persists against the grievous ultimatum of life on earth, the rush to self-define aggravated by Freud’s “instinct of destruction” (Civilization, 82).
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.
Gusdorf, Georges. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” 1956. Trans. James Olney. In Olney, Autobiography 28-48.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. New York: New Directions, 1941.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Words. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1964.
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