| This paper was translated in English with kind permission of the Editions Nota bene.
First published in French under the title "Dynamiques de l'autobiographie : De l'ancrage anthropologique aux horizons interculturels"
|Gulfs and paradoxes|
The genre of autobiography, and more broadly autobiographical writing, is characterized by a tension which is as fundamental as it is paradoxical: the omnipresence in all cultures of, on the one hand, the desire to talk about oneself, to tell the story of one's life to other people in a more or less fragmentary or chronological way, which is a desire that cannot be dissociated from the forms in which one introduces oneself and meets the Other, particularly in everyday life; and on the other hand, the late emergence and relative historical rarity of the genre of autobiography itself, which appears to be intimately linked with the materiality of writing and the transformation of public space in the 18th century, although it is possible to find, as did Michel Foucault (1978) and, in his wake, the German sociologist Alois Hahn (Hahn and Kapp, 1987), antecedents of autobiography in the oral (or semi-oral) practice of confession which was adopted and quickly made compulsory by the Catholic church as of the Council of Latran in 1215.
Linguists such as Konrad Ehlich and anthropologists such as Bernd Jürgen Warneken in Germany were interested in the socio-anthropological anchorage of this desire to talk about oneself in everyday life in order to determine the pragmatics of its enunciation and its formal structures. These are, in fact, much less linear and much more paratactic and dialogical than in autobiographical writing. In the introduction to his collective work entitled Erzählen im Alltag (Raconter au quotidien , 1980), Konrad Ehlich in fact stressed the fundamentally dialogical character of oral narration (such as the oral autobiographical narrative) during which the narrator, as a general rule, sees himself being constantly interrupted, challenged and criticized by the interlocutor to whom he is recounting his life. The reader of a written autobiography, however, in contrast with someone listening to an oral autobiographical narrative, is condemned to passivity, devoid of any possibility of intervening in the narrative, or in other words of "applauding the narrator, encouraging him to make improvised narrative development, or letting himself become involved by him in his common activity" (Ehlich, 1980: 11 - my translation). In this way he is confronted, as emphasized also by the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ in his reflections on the workings of oral memory and the ways in which it operates, with narratives that are detached from their social base and hence their pragmatic anchorage, in the linguistic meaning of the term: "And if a narrative has been related to me by someone, it is not just the content of the narrative that my memory has registered, but rather the whole scene: the narrator's attitude, dress, gestures and mimicry, the ambient noise, for example the sound of his guitar" (Bâ, 1991: 13).
Between these two modes of articulating the autobiographical narrative, the orality of everyday communication on the one hand, and autobiographical writing on the other, connections and bridges nevertheless exist. The German writer Sten Nadolny, for example, in his novel Netzkarte (Carte du réseau , 1981), which recounts the aimless travels of the protagonist across the German railway network, attempted to grasp the profusion of oral communication forms created by such a trip and the encounters it generates. The oral autobiographical narrative, which is often fragmentary but always dialogical and interactive, answering the interlocutor's expectations and questionings, appears here like the most adequate discursive form for presenting one's identity to others. However, in contrast with argumentative discourse (which would develop, for example, the thoughts of a person in relation to an interlocutor) and descriptive discourse (which would describe, for example, his character or feelings), which are equally amenable to giving discursive expression to a personal identity, the autobiographical narrative extends in time and in this way retraces the stages of lived experience. Consequently, it is less economical, but at the same time much more convincing, as clearly shown by Sten Nadolny in the narrative of the daily verbal interaction experienced by his protagonist.
A good number of oral narratives are also created and this is a second form of connection between the oral and the written in the field of autobiographical narrative by institutions seeking to transcribe them for pragmatic purposes: such as autobiographical narratives generated in a legal context, particularly those of defendants called upon to give account of themselves, where written transcription of the narrative has been an on-going practice of the courts since the 16th century; such, also, as the narratives of militants accused of treason, which have been encountered ever since the French Revolution (Lüsebrink, 1989) and for which autobiographical narrative serves as a justification at the same time personal, public and institutional (with regard to clubs or political parties, for example); or such as the autobiographical narrative engendered by psychoanalysis, which is transcribed for the purposes of therapeutic analysis.
Finally, there exists a third case of dialogical articulation in autobiographical narrative, represented for example by Rousseau's Dialogues with himself (Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques). As shown by Michel Foucault in his introduction to the edition of the Dialogues that was published in 1962 in the "Bibliothèque de Cluny" series, Rousseau's Confessions and Dialogues oppose but at the same time complement each other as two radically different forms of autobiographical narrative, where the written and the oral are closely intertwined:
For this man, who always complained that he did not know how to speak, and who turned the ten years he worked as a writer into an unhappy parenthesis in his life, speeches, letters, [...] addresses, declarations operas too defined throughout his existence a language space where the spoken and the written intersect, challenge and reinforce each other. In intertwining, they object to each other but are at the same time justified by being opened up to each other: the spoken word to the text that ties it down ("I will come with this book in my hand"), the writing to the spoken word that makes of it an "immediate and burning confession" ( 1994: 173).
Born of forms of oral narration that exist in all societies and that therefore have an anthropological dimension, autobiographical writing creates through its form, its linearity and its monological character, which positions a single individual at the centre of the discourse, a distance and deep gulf in relation to everyday oral communication. Writing about oneself and publicly expressing, in an autobiographical narrative, one's most intimate thoughts and feelings for a faceless and voiceless interlocutor, constitute a fundamental paradox in which the size of the stakes can be fully appreciated only from a cultural and historical perspective. It is, in fact, in the emergence of autobiographical writing, on the border between the traditional oral cultures and the developing written cultures that we are able to appreciate this provocative and at the same time compensatory dimension of the autobiographical genre, the full imposture of which is revealed by the opening words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions: "I am planning an undertaking that has no precedent and that will have no imitator. I want to show my fellow-men a man in the whole truth of nature, and that man will be me" ( 1964: 3).
|Dynamics of imposture|
Autobiography is one of the genres that are characteristic1 of all emerging literatures, particularly in the colonial context of the 19th and 20th centuries and in literatures produced by cultural and linguistic minorities in contemporary Western societies. L'enfant noir by Camara Laye (1952), Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1944), the autobiographical poem by the West Indian writer Aimé Césaire, Le fils du pauvre (1952) by the Algerian Mouloud Feraoun and Confessions d'un immigré (1988) by the Algerian Kassa Houari are among the many examples of this emergent dynamic of autobiographical writing which aims to tell of the cultural experience that has been garnered and to take voice in the literary and cultural field that was hitherto occupied only by the literature and culture of the mother country, in this instance France. To these could be added the manifesto-like autobiographical texts of the "Beur" generation in France, such as the ones by Azouz Beag (Le gône de Chaâba, 1988) or yet again the ones by Quebec's immigrant cultural minorities since the 1960s. The fictitious autobiography by the Lebanese-background writer Abla Farhoud, Le bonheur a la queue glissante (1998), which traces an immigrant community's collective experience from the first-person narrative of the illiterate Doumia, who recounts her personal journey between Beirut and Montreal, is in this regard exemplary. Since the protagonist can neither read nor write, and can speak only Arabic properly, the writer chooses, through the form of the fictitious autobiography, to be more the transcriber of speech than the creator of a personal narrative, more the witness of a collective experience than the author, following Rousseau's example, of a singular narrative.
Of all the literatures written in the French language, francophone African literature is not only the most recent (since it dates from the 1920s) but also the one that has been the most deeply marked by the gulf between oral cultures and written cultures, the African continent having been the only one to be broadly dominated until the end of the 19th century by forms of oral culture, at all levels of cultural expression (administration, justice, arts, literature, etc.) (Goody, 1986; Lüsebrink, 1990). Within the African literatures, the autobiographical genre has played a comparable role to the one it has played in other new literatures formed in colonial contexts. It was particularly important for the first two generations of African writers who took the floor (and took up the pen) at that time and in the context of the colonial cultural field.
The two major autobiographies by the first generation of francophone African writers, born around 1900 La plume raboutée by the Senegalese writer Birago Diop, and Mémoires, published in two volumes (Amkoullel, l'enfant Peul and Oui mon Commandant!), by the Malian Amadou Hampâté Bâ have numerous points in common, despite the differences in their content and orientation. Firstly they trace, in the form of an account where the narrative very broadly dominates the descriptive and argumentative dimensions of the text in a form hence approaching the genres of the chronicle and the personal diary , the authors' experience within colonial society, its forms of political domination and cultural hegemony, and their accession to the culture of writing and the printed book through colonial acculturation. Both authors give their autobiographies, which moreover correspond, in the main, to the classical definition proposed by Philippe Lejeune, the explicit name of "Memoirs", to ensure that their (auto-)biographies are inscribed in the historical movement in which they see themselves as both witnesses and active participants. Finally, both these major autobiographies belonging to written African literatures assign a significant part not to the life of the author, but to the life of his family, in the very wider meaning of the term, including an account of the ancestors, the clan-based network of sociability and, in the case of Amadou Hampâté Bâ, the description of the waaldé, the associations of young people of the same age sponsored by an adult, of which he was a member, following the family tradition (Devey, 1993: 26-27). This three-fold anchoring of the autobiographical narrative in forms of collective sociability significantly reduces the strictly subjective and intimate aspect of the narrative. Birago Diop, author of La plume raboutée, begins his autobiography with a vast genealogy of his family, taking it right back to the mythical ancestor of Senegal's dominant Wolof ethnic group, N'Diadiane N'Diaye. Transcribing the family and more broadly genealogical memories of his older brother, Youssoupha Diop, "the caretaker of memory and shepherd of remembrance", who makes him "learn and keep hold of the paternal line of descendants", a lesson he had heard "hammered out so many times in his childhood" (1978: 11), Diop endeavours in this way to respect family and clan tradition. To recount his own life without making it flow from the memory of his ancestors would, according to the expression he uses, both "spoil the song" of memory and lose the poetry attached to its evocation. "In Senegal, and in Mandingo country", as Birago Diop explains at the start of his autobiography,
[...] what makes the mental strength of our griots, singer-historians and chroniclers, is that they know us better than we know ourselves. For all our history, the subject matter of their songs, is made up of this poetry of family names, Senghor will say, the names of the ancestors, which moves you to tears. To be held in abomination by the griots is to "spoil the song" (Yax Woï). A "song spoiler" is a person who has acted reprehensibly and tarnished the line of descendants, the lineage, the most beautiful poem that a man from Sudan's savanna can hear, as told by his griot or a relative. Names that move you, that "make your body race" and link you to those who have gone before (1978: 10-11).
Similarly, in the very first sentences of the first chapter of his autobiography, in the chapter as a matter of fact entitled "Roots : The Dual Inheritance", Amadou Hampâté Bâ stresses the need to anchor the narrative of personal life not only in that of the family in the narrow meaning of the term, but also in the narrative of the lineage, its memory and history:
In traditional Africa, an individual is inseparable from his ancestral line, which continues to live through him and of which he is merely an extension. [...] It would therefore be unthinkable for this old African, born at the dawn of this century in the town of Bandiagara, in Mali, to begin narrating my personal life without first evoking, if only to locate them, my paternal and maternal lineages, both Peul, which were both closely entangled, although in opposing camps, in the sometimes tragic historical events that characterized my country during the last century (1991: 17).
Written traces and memorization of a cultural trajectory, from the traditional forms of culture and sociability to the imposed western culture, both these autobiographies hence prove to be extremely sensitive to the provocation, indeed the trickery, constituted by the imported western genre of (written) autobiography which, since its appearance in the 18th century, has specifically focused on the individual, on his inner experience and his inner depths. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, keen to abide as closely as possible by the rules of thematization of oneself in one's own culture whilst at the same time resorting to the imported form of the autobiography and a foreign written language, apologizes for example for having placed his mother's story after his father's for reasons to do with the chronological sequencing of the narrative:
If I had followed the rules of African propriety, I should have talked about my mother first in beginning this work, if only to abide by the Malian adage that says: "All that we are and all that we have, we owe just once to our father, but twice to our mother". [...] May my mother forgive me then for not having begun this narrative with her despite everything I owe her, but chronological sequencing has its own laws. At least she will occupy, from this page onwards until the last one, an essential place in this work (1991: 49, chap. "Kadidja, my mother").
This western literary genre par excellence consisting of autobiography is, in the one by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, doubly anchored in oral tradition: on the one hand through the profusion of fragments of life stories moving around in the everyday communication testified to by Hampâté Bâ in noting down what he had often heard "told", like the story of his maternal grandfather, or that of his father who died very young; and on the other hand, through the kinds of thematization of individual, family and clan memory that are characteristic of African oral literature, in particular the epics, sung genealogies and apologetic poems. The method of anchoring the individual story (traced by the autobiographical narrative) in the collective story is hence very different from European concepts. It is based on a particular vision of the individual and thereby of anthropology which Hampâté Bâ has described as follows:
The story of man includes, on the one hand, the great myths about the creation of man and his appearance on earth, with the meaning of the place he occupies in the universe, the role he is to play in it (essentially an axial role of equilibrium) and his relationship with the life forces that surround and inhabit him; it includes, on the other hand, the story of the great ancestors, the innumerable instructive, initiatory or symbolic stories, and finally history itself, with the great royal traditions, historical chronicles, epics, etc. (1972: 24-25).
Tightly bound to an African conception of history and personality, the autobiographies of Birago Diop and Amadou Hampâté Bâ thus represent "testimonies" much more than subjective, intimate narratives, and they are consequently concerned more with a gaze of externality than with a desire for introspection. Finally, we see in Amadou Hampâté Bâ and Birago Diop a very clear awareness of the limits of the expressible, the boundaries of what is (still) allowed or not (yet) allowed to be told publicly to others in an autobiographical text limits that certain African authors have deliberately sought to transgress by focusing the narrative, for example, on the exclusive story of an individual, that of the author, or by opening up the territory of the expressible to areas that are traditionally taboo, such as sexuality, as in the deliberately provocative and controversial autobiography by the Senegalese female writer Ken Bugul (alias Mariétou Mbaye) entitled Le baobab fou (1982).
|Narratives of (inter-)cultural emigration|
A second intercultural horizon of the autobiographical genre, besides its transfer into colonial and postcolonial societies where it is nevertheless radically modified, concerns western societies and cultures themselves: namely reflection, conducted through a certain type of autobiography recounting the trajectory covered by its author, about the cultural gulfs separating the culture of the intellectual elites and the popular culture.
The autobiography by the German-speaking Swiss writer Ulrich Bräker, the self-taught son of a peasant, who was born in 1735 in the canton of Appenzell and died in 1798 in the home village, is one of the most significant written and printed traces of this gulf, introduced by the slow spread of writing and printing into the social strata that mostly remained isolated from these new media until the 18th century and often even until the first few decades of the 20th century. His autobiography entitled Lebensgeschichte und natürliche Abenteuer des Armen Mannes im Tockenburg (Histoire de la vie et aventures naturelles du pauvre homme du Tockenburg), which was published in 1789 in Zurich, is firstly the narrative of his life, whose peaceful texture that of the existence of a peasant and merchant-shopkeeper appears to be shattered above all by two closely related events: his recruitment, for several years, into the Prussian army and his subsequent estrangement from his homeland, which prompted him to keep up a correspondence with his family who had remained in the village so as to offset the physical distance, and to keep a personal diary in order to fill his solitude. His fascination for writing and reading indeed springs from a particular frame of mind, but it was released by this singular situation of estrangement and isolation which suspended for several years the bonds of sociability through which he had been anchored in his village. His autobiography and personal diary reveal the insurmountable gulf existing between his fascination for reading (to which he devoted more and more time) as well as his dream of writing and publishing a book, and the village environment in which he lived. This environment, as well as his own wife, whose illiteracy he did not discover until after their marriage, in fact rejected as useless and a pure waste of time any non-pragmatic reading beyond religious works and the almanac; it also scorned any writing that was not related to strictly pragmatic purposes as a vain ambition to imitate the middle class. His practice of writing and reading was therefore constantly reproached by those around him as "irrational" ("unvernünftig") and a "waste of time" ("Zeitverschwendung"). "Instead of getting down to it, you have your nose stuck in books", was a constant reproach by his wife who, in addition, cruelly mocked his vain attempts, over more than a decade, to have the manuscript of his autobiography published so as to show that he was capable of earning money with his pen and that it was not a waste of time. The late recognition given by the literary world which admired in him the self-taught man and the "son of nature" ("Sohn der Natur"), to use the words of his editor, Füssli, in Zurich was hence, according to Bräker's own autobiographical testimony, paid for very dearly: by his isolation within the village community that rejected his mania for books and writing; by his marginality within Zurich's literary milieux which considered him as an exotic curiosity, capable of supporting the thesis of the perfectibility of men of all the estates; and by his constant doubts about himself, thematized by him in his autobiography. Such doubts which constantly plunged him into depression and illness are linked to the attitude of his circle and to the paradoxical impossibility of remaining in his original culture without, however, managing to leave it. The autobiography of Ulrich Bräker therefore crystallizes, through a remarkable experience and remarkable writing, the experience of a profound and almost insurmountable gulf between the world of writing and printing on the one hand, and the universe of traditional oral culture on the other. This autobiography helps us to understand that the gulf concerns not only the cultural domain as such, but also the forms of daily sociability and the cognitive registers that were fundamentally changed within the rural environment where Bräker lived, through the introduction of literary writing (namely fictional, not pragmatic) and forms of intensive reading that implied the individual's isolation within the family and the community.
The autobiography of Fernand Dumont, the most important and influential contemporary Quebec sociologist (he died in 1997), is inscribed in the same type of gulf as Bräker's, between the intellectual culture dominated by writing and printing and the traditional rural culture dominated by oral communication. However, contrary to the type of autobiographical narrative represented by Bräker, that of a social and cultural rise shattered and stopped in its tracks because of the distrust of both the social circle and the intellectual milieu, it describes a brilliantly successful rise. This autobiography, which carries the sub-title Mémoires, in fact traces the very modest social origins of Dumont who was born in 1927 in Montmorency, near the city of Québec, the son of parents who worked in a textile factory. It also recounts, in a very detailed manner, his brilliant social rise through primary school, secondary school and university; it notes a research trip to Paris between 1953 and 1955 and his activity as a sociology teacher and as a poet (his poetical work includes four collections published between 1952 and 1996). Supported by his original social milieu and in particular by his parents, and not rejected and marginalized as Bräker was, Dumont nevertheless reveals a similar awareness of the fundamental gulf between two cultures, scholarly and popular, oral and written, along with the resulting personal rending. The curious title of this autobiography, Récit d'une émigration, refers in an almost obvious way to this awareness of the gulf and the rending between two cultures, two types of communication and two radically different forms of sociability. The story of a successful social rise is hence lined with a story of socio-cultural losses whose semantics include the terms "exile", "rending", "detachment" and "break with one's origins". "In reality", as can be read in the opening pages of chapter II which are devoted to a description of his original social milieu, "detachment towards my family had begun a long time before. It happened so insidiously that it at first caused me neither regret nor remorse. I had withdrawn myself from my milieu by more or less consciously using the resources it gave me, so that my stratagem fortified my solidarity rather than contradicting it" (1997: 43). Rather than an attitude of rejection, as in the case of Bräker, his fascination for reading, in particular non-pragmatic material extending far beyond homework and educational manuals, simply raised concern and questions "about this strange refuge outside normal life" (1997: 42).
Marked by a cold temporality in the meaning of Clause Lévi-Strauss (as opposed to the hot temporality of urbanized western societies Lévi-Strauss, 1955), popular culture hence represents, in Dumont's autobiography, at the same time a social make-believe, a value system, specific methods of communication (governed by orality) and forms of sociability characterized by the importance of the extended family, the "tribe", as the author calls it (1997: 43). The latter maintains very strong links of solidarity through forms of mutual help, rituals and festivals. The thematization through autobiographical writing of this cultural space, which has been finally lost and left behind him, serves to give expression to nostalgia for a lost universe, but also to formulate the outline of a personal utopia: that "of an authentic popular culture that would not be abolished by the culture of specialists or cultural industries. [...] For it has always seemed to me", notes Dumont in the chapter entitled "Le pays natal", "that it was at the expense of a culture, for having profited by its destruction, that I was able to become an intellectual" (1997: 35).
A genre located at the interface between orality and writing, autobiography here appears as a tool to trace a difficult personal voyage from popular culture to scholarly culture, a voyage perceived through a dialectic that evokes both gain and loss, the experience of immense intellectual enrichment (through the capacities of awareness linked to the culture of writing and printing) and that of an irremediable loss of the possibilities of expression and blossoming (linked to a culture governed by orality). However, autobiographical writing, far from being purely descriptive and limiting itself to tracing a road that has been travelled, transforms itself into the type of autobiography used by Dumont as an instrument of reflection and awareness suited to elucidating the radical singularity of a personal experience and trajectory. Dumont claims, for example, that his nostalgia for the popular culture he had lost was lined for him with an "opportune distancing, a precious naivete when faced with the scholarly culture that was its counterpart" (1997: 63). And he stresses, against the domination of the printed word and the emergency of the new media, the importance of orality within the milieu from which he came and of live dialogue and verbal interaction in education, at any level whatever.
Anchored in anthropological forms of the narrative about oneself and prefigured in oral everyday forms of communication, the autobiographical genre, which is basically linked to a modern concept of the individual in the West, seems to be inhabited by a three-fold evolutionary dynamic: firstly a dynamic of transformation that has resulted in connecting the structure of a linear, written, continuous narrative to the genre of the oral autobiographical narrative (which is characterized by a structure which is fundamentally dialogical, anchored in a specific communication situation); then the dynamic of a shifting of the boundaries between the private and the public, between the unsaid and the inexpressible, making of autobiography one of the privileged genres of expression of the privacy and rending of the modern individual. The emergence of autobiography in Africa shows that such shifts, which are characteristic of Western autobiography, have there given rise to reactions of rejection and resistance, and have generated hybrid forms, straddling the western model and the narratives of life inscribed in African oral traditions. Mediatization of the forms of speaking about oneself, in particular television and through the media genre of the "talk show", finally testify to a third dynamic of evolution of the genre. This links up, on the one hand, with sometimes very ancient forms of generation of personal and private narratives, in particular religious confessions, avowals and statements made before the court as well as narratives for the purposes of psychological therapy (Winterhoff-Spurk, 1999); however, on the other hand, it makes its own, in a still very unequal manner depending on the cultures and the media landscapes, the progressive abolition of the boundaries between the public and the private, between the taboo and the publicly confessable, as introduced by the scripturalization of the forms of narratives about the self in the 18th century through the genre of autobiography.
Translation by Linda Pontré
|La version francaise de cet article a été publiée par les éditions Nota bene sous le titre "Dynamiques de l'autobiographie : De l'ancrage anthropologique aux horizons interculturels" in Dion, Robert et al. Enjeux des genres dans les écritures contemporaines, Québec : Editions Nota bene, 2001, pp.103-119.|
 On this point, see the work by Hornung and Ruhe (1999).
 On the perception of colonial society in Diop's work, see Riesz (1998).
 Lejeune defines autobiography in these terms (1986: 14): "Retrospective prose narrative that a real person makes about his own existence, accentuating his own individual life, in particular the story of his personality".
 On this point, see Amadou Hampâté Bâ, quoted according to Heckmann (1994: 392): "What is in question behind the testimony itself, is the value of the person who is testifying. [...] Now, it is in oral societies that not only the function of memory is the most highly developed, but that also the link between man and word is the strongest. [...] He is his word, and his word bears witness to what he is."
 Bräker ( 1965: 165): "Hättst du die gute Zeit in Obacht genommen du Schlingel! Und deine Hände mehr in den Teig gesteckt als deine Nase in die Bücher".
 On this question, see the collection edited by Brunet and Gagnon (1993).
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Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink est professeur titulaire de la Chaire de littérature romane et communication interculturelle à l'Université de la Sarre.