In this paper, I will draw attention to two autobiographical works: Roland Barthes’ “Roland Barthes” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ecce Homo”. I will conduct a discussion of these works in relation to the ways in which the autobiographical “selves” are constituted by means of chronology and narrative in their separate autobiographical spaces, at the same time by referring to Paul John Eakin’s article, “Narrative and Chronology as Structures of Reference and the New Model Autobiographer.” I decided to include Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ecce Homo” besides “Roland Barthes” to this presentation in order to put forth comparative analyses of the two autobiographies which I consider significant for speculating on the issues of chronology and narrative in reference to Eakin’s formulations.
The fact that both authors are philosophers is significant for displaying the commonalities in which their approaches towards narrating “the self” share. Friedrich Nietzsche is often cited as the first “postmodern” philosopher in the history of thought, and Roland Barthes has no doubt influenced 20th century continental philosophy with his structuralist, post-structuralist and as some might argue, “postmodernist” way of thinking. Besides, one should bear in mind the growing interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy among structuralist and post-structuralist circles beginning with the 60’s, as evident in the works of some major thinkers, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, whose correlation gives a hint about Nietzsche’s profound effect in 20th century philosophy. For example, with the subtitle of his autobiography, “How To Become What You Are” Nietzsche privileges “becoming” over “being”; and one can speculate with ease that Deleuze’s philosophical outlook is Nietzschean in the sense that his ontology of devenir, that is, becoming, is central to his philosophy of being. Besides, instead of emphasizing “being” which is fixed entity, Nietzsche’s focus on “becoming” as a chaotic, split, constantly transforming self is also projected upon the ways he writes his autobiography, with which this paper will deal in more details.
Contrary to his contemporaries, Roland Barthes didn’t write extensively on Nietzsche, though in his autobiography, he cites Nietzsche’s name in a passage which implies his enthusiastic enquiry on his philosophy: “I had my head full of Nietzsche, whom I had just been reading…” In this paper I won’t conclude that Barthes was influenced by Nietzsche’s style of writing his self, however both autobiographers challenge what one might call the “traditional” style of autobiography writing, that is, a “master” narrative of the (Western) “sovereign self” which “celebrates the autonomous individual and the universalizing life story” . Different from the famous champions of “confessional mode” of autobiography in the West, St. Augustine and J. J. Rousseau, Nietzsche’s and Barthes’ autobiographies don’t represent the lives of the two individuals as “supreme” selves by means of certain narrative structures implicating progression and continuous development and in terms of recording their personal developments that ultimately reach to better states of affairs. Nonetheless there are decisive distinctions in their styles of writing and regarding the ways in which they constitute the “autobiographical space” out of which the autobiographical “I” grows. Whereas Nietzsche’s autobiography might be considered as too boastful, immodest, and even as a work of “monumental egoism” , Barthes’ text is neutral in that manner. Nevertheless one might also read Nietzsche’s monumentally egoistic autobiographical “I” as a reaction against the traditional autobiographical “I”; since no matter how boastful Nietzsche’s “I” seems, it consists of paradoxes, contradictions and inconsistencies which the traditional “I” does in no way possess.
Within the narrative and chronological structures of their autobiographies, both writers refer to their pervious philosophical works. They frequently quote them in order to either develop new arguments or conduct self critiques, or simply remind the readers about their particular philosophical enquiries. They not only speak of philosophy, but they also do philosophy. As both authors philosophize about various issues in the autobiographies, they problematize the traditional style of autobiography writing. However as Eakin would argue, their works don’t display the obsolescence of chronology and narrative as structures of reference in autobiography. Nonetheless, they are “new model of autobiographers”, a term to which Eakin refers when developing his critique. The term indicates that the two autobiographies realize “the power of association, of bringing into the light mnemonic instead of temporal contiguities,” and that this style “has infinitely more to tell us about our permanent psychic organization than the power of chronology” ; although according the Eakin, the chronology and narrative structure don’t altogether diminish in the works of the new model of autobiographer.
In addition, Eakin declares that “… all narrative … is necessarily deeply implicated in temporal experience of which the successiveness emphasized by chronology is (often) the central feature. Even when autobiographical narrative seems to espouse some alternative to the principle of chronological order, we are likely to find chronology cropping up anyhow, if not calendar chronology then chronology of the unfolding of the autobiographical act …” As suggested above, the use and the function of chronological order in autobiographical narrative doesn’t necessarily diminish the possibility of emergence of a new model of autobiographer, since as Eakin refers to Sturrock who “turns to psychoanalysis as an alternative principle of narrative structure” and underscores the importance of a mnemonic structure in autobiography which would “feature the free play of language unfolding in the autobiographical act, in which the autobiographer is more likely to confront repressed passages of inner history that are so easily masked by regular surface of linear chronology.” In that regard, Eakin seems to be in search of a new autobiographical style by which the author represents him/herself by manifesting his/her personal experiences in a fragmented text, by means of enabling “micronarratives” and “a microchronology” to operate.
According to Eakin, Barthes’ autobiography actualizes this quest. Eakin quotes Paul Jay who suggests that “Barthes’ aesthetic governing this fragmentary text represents a deliberate, programmatic effort to prevent the tendency of autobiographical discourse to fall into the sequential, the narrative connectedness that would coalesce into a single structure that would be the model of a coherent self. Barthes writes: “I do not say: “I am going to describe myself” but: “I’m writing a text and I call it R. B.” … Do I not know that, in field of the subject, there is no referent?” However according to Eakin, although Barthes’ autobiography is a crucial example for new model of autobiography writing, his fragmented text nevertheless contains a micronarrative and microchronology, which demonstrates that no matter how much the narrative structure and chronology are distorted, these two aspects are immanent to the act of autobiography writing. Moreover, Eakin maintains that the chronological structure is the most truthful of the structures of life history. A new model of autobiography writing by means of “a mnemonic structure” which would feature “the free play of language” unfolding in the autobiographical act is therefore not incompatible with the use of chronology as a narrative structure in autobiography. In that regard, although Barthes’ and Nietzsche’s autobiographies point out “a new model” in which two authors don’t abandon the use of chronology and narrative structures altogether. Eventually two further points should be explored: What are the ways in which Barthes’ and Nietzsche’s autobiographies challenge the “traditional” style of autobiography writing? In which ways structures of narrative and chronology, by the use of which the autobiographical “I” is constituted, are maintained in Barthes’ and Nietzsche’s texts?
“Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes”: A Theory of “Fragmentality”
In the beginning of his autobiography Barthes reminds: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.” Since the text is of the genre of autobiography, the readers expect to encounter with Barthes’ “real” experiences, memories, etc. However Barthes paradoxically implies that through writing an autobiography, one can never fully and realistically represent oneself. Therefore any effort to write and represent the self is by all means fictious. In that regard, Barthes states: “I do not strive to put my present expression in the service of my previous truth, I abandon the exhausting pursuit of an old piece of myself, I do not try to restore myself.” Barthes further elaborates his ideas when he says; “writing subjects to me a severe exclusion, not only because it separates me from current (“popular”) language, but more essentially because it forbids me to express myself.” At this point, Barthes insistently propounds the impossibility of textualizing, that is, representing the self within the text, in a totally “realistic”, “truthful” manner, and his position pertains to be a great challenge against traditional style of autobiography writing.
Barthes formulates the “ideal” mode of autobiography writing as “neither a text of vanity, nor a text of lucidity, but with a text with certain quotation marks, with floating parentheses.” First, his effort to theorize an “ideal” autobiography, in his autobiography, is an indicator which reveals his conscious attempt to come up with a new model of writing the self. Although he is operating within the limits of the genre of autobiography, he is critical and deconstructive of it. Second, his illustration of the “ideal” text signals a hint about the reason why he prioritizes “fragments” instead of the traditional autobiographical attempt to put forth a “unitary” and a “concrete” text which would thoroughly represent its author.
In another passage Barthes explains his use of “fragments” through a touch upon the realm of “desire”: “He (Barthes) tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings, so many pleasures…” He further states that in his theoretical texts such as “Mythologies” and “The Pleasure of the Text”, what he aimed to realize was to write a text in fragments. As a matter of fact Barthes proposes a “theory” of the so-called “fragmentality” in his short book “The Pleasure of the Text” when he suggests that one can achieve jouissance not directly by the content or the structure but only by the abrasions, fragments and gaps in the text, and he formulates the contact between fragments and desire as the “unpredictability of jouissance.” Hence what I call Barthian “fragmentality” is very much interconnected with pleasure and Barthes is undoubtedly having pleasure in writing his fragmented autobiography. At this juncture Sturrock’s turn to psychoanalysis for an alternative principle of narrative structure and his suggestions as epitomized in this paper shortly before, coincides with Barthian theory of fragmentality. All in all according to Barthes, the aim of writing is not to represent or express the self realistically, but it is to have pleasure by means of writing in fragments. After all an approach influenced by Sturrock might allege the matter as such: “Since Barthes is writing a fragmented text to have pleasure, during which his psyche is unfolded, we don’t need a strictly structured chronology anymore, this fragmentary psychic organization has more to tell us about the author than chronology does.” Finally in the very end of the book Barthes answers the question, “Can you still write anything?”: “One writes with one’s desire, and I’m not through desiring.”
Although Barthes’ fragmentality on the one hand helps him to constitute a “split” autobiographical self, the narrative structure of his text also suggests that nevertheless he inevitably sets up a “coherent” self as Eakin suggests. The introductory section of Barthes’ autobiography presents photos of childhood and youth in some of which family members figure. Barthes doesn’t textualize his memories from childhood to youth and to finally adulthood sequentially and this way he counters traditional autobiographical representation of the self. Only that he constitutes an “introduction” for his autobiography in which his childhood and youth is prioritized. Accordingly Eakin’s stress on the “microchronological” character of Barthes’ writing is justified. Further, “biographical” information is added in the very end of the book, which connotes that Barthes is actually willing to tell us about “who he is” in a concrete fashion.
On the other hand Eakin suggests that Barthes himself acknowledges “the failure of his strategy of the fragment to check the tendency of discourse to constitute a coherent selfhood.” As mentioned earlier in this paper, Barthes is aware of the impossibilities, complications and paradoxes of writing the self and he describes his work as: “This work, in its discontinuity, proceeds by means of two movements: the straight line (advance, increase, insistence of an idea, a position, a preference, an image and the zigzag, (reversal, contradiction, reactive energy, denial, contrariety, the movement of a Z, the letter of deviance.” This statement of Barthes can be considered as his most self-conscious interpretation of what he’s actualizing in writing his autobiography. Such that on the one hand as this paper suggested, he is trying to construct a “coherent” self in his book and he characterizes this attempt as the movement of a “straight line”. On the other hand he is well aware that foundation of this coherent self bears an impossibility, hence there will always be the “zigzag” to operate, which would comprise contradictions, denials, and in short, the failure to represent a coherent self but rather the embodiment of fragmented or what might call, a sum of split selves.
In his fragmentary autobiography Barthes frequently cites himself as “he” in addition to “I”. The shift from first person narration to third person implicates the distance between the individual who is writing and the self about whom is written in the autobiography. It is crucial to identify that this shift in narration is handled arbitrarily; there is no logical reasoning of the often shift from one person to the other, such that, at some passages, the shift occurs within the succeeding sentences. First, this shift can be considered as another challenge to the traditional autobiographical “I”. Second, by this shift Barthes opens up philosophical discussions through distancing the autobiographical “I” from his self in order to elaborate his thoughts which he put forth in his previous works, or to stay critical to them. For instance in one passage, he writes: “He had written: “The text is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father” (Pleasure of the Text).” Then he responds to the critic who challenged this statement. And third, in introducing philosophical discussions, he intends to prevent misunderstandings, to respond to his critics, or to further elaborate on his ideas or to suggest new philosophical theses. Finally, his intention stands for an illustration of what he calls “a straight line”, that is, his attempt toward displaying a relatively more coherent self who pertains to a respectable stand in the history of thought.
“Ecce Homo”: Nietzsche’s “Chaotic Autobiographical ‘I’ ”
Three points I proposed on Barthes, the challenge against the traditional autobiographical “I”, the urge to open up philosophical discussions and the intention to propose a coherent self can also be observed in Nietzsche’s “Ecce Homo”, besides the fact that “Ecce Homo” too contains “microchronology” and “a micronarrative”, though in a somewhat different manner than Barthes.
In “Ecce Homo” Nietzsche refuses to narrate the stages of his life through which his “self” is developed in a progressive and chronological manner. The only anecdote he speaks of his childhood throughout the book is that when he was a child, he used to think drinking wine is a bad habit. Unlike Barthes’ text, Ecce Homo doesn’t progress from childhood to youth and then finally to adulthood. However, similar to “Roland Barthes”, “Ecce Homo” is a fragmentary text; the main four chapters are divided into several sections which are not necessarily related to each other. Even the sections are not meaningfully narrated in themselves as Nietzsche doesn’t constitute the autobiographical space in a consistent manner: for example, he speaks of the death of his father, and then all of a sudden he declares that he has a “warlike” character which consists of instincts to “attack” all the time, and in the following sentences he criticizes the “vengeful” character of women. Different from Barthes, even though the narration never shifts to the third person, the structure with which that “I” is revealed is chaotic. Now let’s undertake a discussion of Nietzsche’s concrete but “chaotic autobiographical ‘I’ ” through an introduction to the traces of microchronology in Ecce Homo.
Taking the disconnected sections into consideration, one cannot speak of a proper chronological structure operating in Ecce Homo. However, there is a “microchronology” visible in the text, as Eakin would suggest. Nietzsche writes his book in four chapters: “Why I Am So Wise”, “Why I Am So Clever”, “Why I Write Such Good Books” and, “Why I Am A Destiny.” Nietzsche’s autobiographical “I” doesn’t correspond to the traditional autobiographical “I” since Nietzsche’s “I” is not progressively constituted by means of a concrete chronology. However titles of the chapters and the ways in which Nietzsche vaguely organizes those imply that the reason why he is so wise leads him in his life to be so clever, and further, he was able to write such good books since he is wise and clever, and finally he is the destiny of humanity.
Within this quasi-progressive and microchronological order, we can now introduce a discussion of the second commonality of Barthes’ and Nietzsche’s autobiographies, that is, the urge they feel towards discussing philosophy. Similar to Barthes, Nietzsche often refers to his earlier works, and he assigns the whole 3rd chapter to his commentaries on his books. In the foreword, he explains the reason of writing Ecce Homo:
“… But the mismatch between the greatness of my task and the smallness of my contemporaries has been evident in the fact that I have not been heard or even just seen … Under these circumstances there is a duty against which my habit, and even though so the pride of my instincts, fundamentally rebels, namely to say: listen to me! for I am such an such. Above all, don’t mistake me!”
Subsequently he tells that he is not a “moral monster” as he was perceived to be. In the beginning of the chapter “Why I Write Such Good Books”, Nietzsche remarks that he doesn’t want to be mistaken by anyone. Therefore he undertakes a discussion of his works in detail. Further in the beginning of the concluding chapter, he states: “I have a terrible fear of being declared holy one day: you can guess why I am publishing this book beforehand – it should prevent any mischief-making with me.” In this respect Nietzsche’s text positions itself next to the traditional form of autobiography for the way in which his autobiographical “I” declares that it is only him who knows the “truth”, and that he will be presenting the “true” account of his life and his philosophy in order to avoid any misunderstandings. Besides, he vehemently desires to be “understood” by his readers as he continuously asks the questions: “Am I understood?” “Have I been understood?”
In spite of Nietzsche’s traditional autobiographical “I” emerging within particular expressions as mentioned, his relationship with the autobiographical “I” gets problematic in some other instances. For example, in the beginning of his book Nietzsche says: “And so I tell myself my life.” Besides, he distinguishes the autobiographical “I” from his self when he states: “I am one thing, my writings are another.” In this respect, Nietzsche’s representation of his self becomes paradoxical; on the one hand he claims to tell the “truth” of himself through the autobiographical “I” while on the other hand he intends to distinguish that “I” from his self, and eventually he attributes a “fictionality” to his autobiography, similar to Barthes who declares his autobiography to be read as a novel, and his autobiographical “I” as a fictional character. The similarity of Nietzsche’s and Barthes’ autobiographies in the sense that both subvert the genre of autobiography is also pointed out by Alexander Nehamas, as he states: “Nietzsche himself … is a creature of his own texts. He makes an effort to create an artwork out of himself, a literary character who is a philosopher.”
Besides, in “Ecce Homo” there are major chronological gaps in the narrative and the great deal of basic information about Nietzsche’s life is missing. Nietzsche doesn’t tell us when he was born and some biographical accounts misleading and inaccurate (for example, when he says he is Polish. ). In this respect Duncan Large suggests: “So we can conclude that Nietzsche doesn’t consider factual historical details to be at all important aspects of his life, that he is not going to play the autobiographical game in the way we have come to expect, and prefers instead to subvert the genre.” As mentioned earlier, the subversion of the genre in “Roland Barthes” goes even to its extremes, when Barthes splits the autobiographical space with more and more fragments, and constitutes an unstable autobiographical “I” which frequently shifts to “He”. On the other hand Duncan Large asserts that the splitting of the narrating self is also visible in Ecce Homo:
“When Nietzsche’s ‘dynamite’ does explode at the beginning of January 1899, he identifies himself with ‘every name’ in history, and begins signing his letters with multiple signatures; in Ecce Homo, though, a centripetal force is still at work as Nietzsche “harvests” all the multiple identities he has been obliged to adopt so far (Schopenhauer and Wagner, Zarathustra, Paul Ree, etc.), fashioning them into a single (albeit fictionalized) self which is ‘schizophrenic’ only to the extent that it has to split itself in order to narrate (itself to itself) at all.”
Nietzsche’s autobiographical “I” in Ecce Homo might be considered as not only too boastful and immodest but also as a traditional autobiographical “I” depicting the Western supreme self, since in different passages he declares: “I’m not a Man, I am dynamite.” “I am the first to be able to decide … Only after me there are hopes, tasks, paths to prescribe to culture once again.” “… Understanding six sentences of it (Zarathustra), raises you up to higher level of mortals than ‘modern’ man could ever reach.” “There is not a single sickly trait in my character.” “… I come from heights to which no bird has yet flown …” Despite the radical manifestations of his “monumental egoism”, one should not be so eager to associate his autobiographical “I” with the Western supreme “I”; as in the chapter “Why I Am A Destiny” Nietzsche declares:
“I don’t want to be a saint, and would rather be a buffoon… Perhaps I am a buffoon. And nevertheless … the truth speaks from me. But my truth is terrifying for lies were called truth so far.”
In this regard, first, Nietzsche converts what was before depicted as the traditional autobiographical “I” into an unstable and inconsistent “I” and as argued in the introductory paragraphs of this paper, his autobiographical “I” manifests a challenge against that supreme, Western “I”. Second, Nietzsche’s text therefore contains paradoxes and inconsistencies as there is no unitary, coherent, consistent autobiographical “I” represented within; while on the one hand he claims his superiority over his contemporaries, but he calls himself a “buffoon” on the other. However, no matter how split his self is and fragmentary his text is Nietzsche is insistent on his claim to tell the “truth” in order to oppose to the “lies”. In doing so, he doesn’t need the urge to constitute a unitary, coherent self to tell the truth; rather the very source of truth, that is, the “chaotic autobiographical ‘I’ ” points at the occasion where, in his words, “the truth speaks from him.” Similar to Barthes who constitutes an autobiographical space in order not to “describe” his self but to simply utter in an inconsistent, fragmentary, microchronological and micronarratively fashion; Nietzsche also instrumentalizes the autobiographical space from which the truth might speak for itself within the form of chaos. Accordingly Nietzsche’s chaotic autobiographical space corresponds to what I call Barthian fragmentality. All in all, their separate attempts constitute pervert acts, that is, the subversion of the traditional genre of autobiography.
Eakin argues that “… this making of a textual self here and elsewhere in Barthes’ later work became a central feature of his biographical experience … We need to remember that the constitution of such a textual self can perhaps be a –or even the- central informing event in the life history of an individual.” Further Eakin states that “the concept of a self-reflexive textuality wholly divorced from biography and chronicity is only a wishful fiction and nothing more.” In the light of Eakin’s comments, first, one can suggest that the ways in which Barthes and Nietzsche produce their autobiographical works are intensely shaped by their philosophical stances. Such that Barthes notes that he was always keen to write his works in “fragments”. Additionally he describes his body as a “plural body” (digestive, nauseated, migrainous, muscular, depressed, artificial, socialized, prostituted, public, etc.) , which reveals that he perceives himself as a “fragmented” being even outside of the act of writing; thus this plurality affects the ways in which he constitutes his autobiography by means of narrative and chronology.
On the other hand one can conclude with comfort what I call Nietzschean “chaos” as a result of his nihilistic, or as some others might call it, anarchistic or postmodernist position in his earlier works determines his style of writing. Nietzsche writes “Ecce Homo” just a few weeks before his catastrophic mental breakdown; hence the chronology and the structure of narration are clearly shaped by his chaotic psychic state.
Second, although both authors manipulate the genre in several ways, Eakin would refuse to label these as “subversion”; since in “Ecce Homo” and “Roland Barthes”, there still exist the elements of chronology and narrative at their “micro” levels. After all, one might call Barthes and Nietzsche as “the new model autobiographers” who manipulate the genre of autobiography by the successful implementation of micronarratives and microchronology.
***Presentation paper for Prof. Hülya Adak’s class, “Auto/Biography”, Fall 2009/2010, Sabancı University
Friedrich Nietzsche. “Ecce Homo”. Trans. Duncan Large. Oxford University Press: New York. 2007.
Paul John Eakin. “Narrative and Chronology as Structures of Reference and the New Model Autobiographer.” Studies in Autobiography. Ed. James Olney. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 32-41.
Roland Barthes. “Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes”. Trans. Richard Howard. University of California Press: Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1994.
Roland Barthes. “The Pleasure of the Text” Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill&Wang, 1975
Smith & Watson. “Life Narrative: Definitions and Distinctions.” Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. pp. 1-14.
picture retrieved from http://elypurple.deviantart.com/art/autobiography-24490371