Thomas Keymer on Autobiography

Thomas De Quincey invited comparison with Rousseau in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but relinquished Rousseau’s sense of personal control. The opium becomes a rival protagonist of his story, almost at times a rival author. It strips away the ‘veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind’ and opens the narrative, in proto-psychoanalytic ways, to dream and unreason. De Quincey sees how strange it is to use an inherited literary model to express one’s own uniqueness, and at one point wonders if he might not in fact be ‘counterfeiting my own self’… Influential accounts of the genre like Laura Marcus’s Auto/biographical Discourses (1994) have emphasised the way identity seemed to fracture in literary modernism. Katherine Mansfield’s scepticism about ‘our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent’; Louis MacNeice’s wry sense that ‘as far as I can make out, I not only have many different selves, but I am often, as they say, not myself at all.’ In Virginia Woolf’s remarkable ‘A Sketch of the Past’, drafted as she wrote her biography of Roger Fry, the gap between narrating and narrated selves – ‘the two people, I now, I then’ – proves recalcitrant and persistent, refusing to close. In any case, the self Woolf sought to document was not so much subject as object: not a self-determining agent but ‘the person to whom things happen’, acted on by immense, inscrutable social forces. To consider these forces, their power and their invisibility, is to realise ‘how futile life-writing becomes’, Woolf writes: ‘I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.’