What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?

August of 1929, Sigmund Freud scoffed at the notion that he would do anything as crass as write an autobiography. “That is of course quite an impossible suggestion,” he wrote to his nephew, who had conveyed an American publisher’s suggestion that the great man write his life story. “Outwardly,” Freud went on, perhaps a trifle disingenuously, “my life has passed calmly and uneventfully and can be covered by a few dates.” Inwardly—and who knew better?—things were a bit more complicated:
A psychologically complete and honest confession of life, on the other hand, would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.
Freud ended by suggesting that the five-thousand-dollar advance that had been offered was a hundredth of the sum necessary to tempt him into such a foolhardy venture.

Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupçon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention. Even when the most distinguished writers and thinkers have turned to autobiography, they have found themselves accused of literary exhibitionism—when they can bring themselves to put on a show at all. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” appeared, shocking the salons of eighteenth-century Paris with matter-of-fact descriptions of the author’s masturbation and masochism, Edmund Burke lamented the “new sort of glory” the eminent philosophe was getting “from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices, which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents.” (The complaint sounds eerily familiar today.) When, at the suggestion of her sister, Virginia Woolf started, somewhat reluctantly, to compose an autobiographical “sketch,” she found herself, inexplicably at first, thinking of a certain hallway mirror—the scene, as further probing of her memory revealed, of an incestuous assault by her half-brother Gerald, an event that her memory had repressed, and about which, in the end, she was unable to write for publication.

As it happens, Woolf, the tentative memoirist, met Freud, who wouldn’t dream of writing a memoir, when both were nearing the end of their lives; Woolf’s nephew Quentin Bell reported that the psychoanalyst presented the novelist with a narcissus. Whatever Freud may have meant by the gesture, it nicely symbolizes the troubling association between creativity and narcissism, an association that is nowhere as intense as when the creation in question is memoir, a literary form that exposes the author’s life without the protective masks afforded by fiction.

Such self-involvement, as Ben Yagoda’s fact-packed if not terribly searching book “Memoir: A History” (Riverhead; $25.95) reminds you, is just one of the charges that have been levelled against memoirs and their authors over the centuries, the others being the ones that Freud was so leery of: indiscretion, betrayal, and outright fraud. But it’s the ostensible narcissism that has irritated critics the most. A decade and a half ago, the distinguished critic William Gass fulminated against the whole genre in a scathing Harper’s essay, in which he asked, rhetorically, whether there were “any motives for the enterprise that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification? To halo a sinner’s head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety?” The outburst came at a moment when a swelling stream of autobiographical writing that had begun in the late eighties was becoming what Yagoda calls a “flood.” By the end of the nineties, a New York Observer review of one writer’s first book, a memoir, could open with an uncontroversial reference to “this confessional age, in which memoirs and personal revelations tumble out in unprecedented abundance.” (The memoirist in question was me; more on that later.)

By now, the flood feels like a tsunami. Things have got to the point where the best a reviewer can say about a personal narrative is—well, that it’s not like a memoir. “This is not a woe-is-me memoir of the sort so much in fashion these days,” the book critic of the Washington Post wrote recently in an admiring review of Kati Marton’s “Enemies of the People,” an account of how the journalist’s family suffered under Communist rule in Hungary. But, as Yagoda makes clear, confessional memoirs have been irresistible to both writers and readers for a very long time, and, pretty much from the beginning, people have been complaining about the shallowness, the opportunism, the lying, the betrayals, the narcissism. This raises the question of just why the current spate of autobiography feels somehow different, somehow “worse” than ever before—more narcissistic and more disturbing in its implications. And it may well be that the answer lies not with the genre—which has, in fact, remained fairly consistent in its aims and its structure for the past millennium and a half or so—but with something that has shifted, profoundly, in the way we think about our selves and our relation to the world around us.

It all started late one night in 371 A.D., in a dusty North African town miles from anywhere worth going, when a rowdy sixteen-year-old—the offspring of an interfaith marriage, with a history of bad behavior—stole some pears off a neighbor’s tree. To all appearances, it was a pointless misdemeanor. The thief, as he ruefully recalled some thirty years later, was neither poor nor hungry, and the pears weren’t all that appealing, anyway. He stole them, he realized, simply to be bad. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he wrote. “I loved my own undoing.”

However trivial the crime and perverse its motivations, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore. For although the boy eventually straightened himself out, converted to Christianity, and even became a bishop, the man he became was tortured by the thought of this youthful peccadillo. His desire to seek a larger meaning in his troubled past ultimately moved him to write a starkly honest account of his dissolute early years (he is disarmingly frank about his prolific sex life) and his stumbling progress toward spiritual transcendence—to the climactic moment when, by looking inward with what he calls his “soul’s eye,” he “saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind.” The man’s name was Aurelius Augustinus; we know him as St. Augustine. His book was called “Confessions.”

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