Desire

Raymond Williams

  • Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives by Carolyn Steedman
    Virago, 164 pp, £3.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 86068 559 4

The simplest autobiographies are those which are ratified, given title, by an achieved faith or success. Among these, what passes for success has come to predominate. It is then not surprising that most are either written by ghosts or by the equally ghostly figures of acknowledged reputations. Many of the harder kinds of achievement are too full of other kinds of content, to say nothing of contradictions and uncertainties, to pass easily into a Life. A memoir of some event or experience is one thing; the composition of what can be seriously taken as a whole life experience quite another.

Within these difficulties, in one of the byways of Modernism, autobiography is beginning to be widely used as a deliberately uncertain, self-exploratory form. Record and narrative are not renounced, but their threads are loose, within a different intended effect. The difference from fiction of the same apparent kind is, however, still crucial. Always, within the autobiographical form, a figure can emerge from the cloud of uncertainty to say, offering a special kind of conviction: ‘this is what I know (now know) happened’ or at least ‘this is what (I now believe) I actually felt.’ The massive shift, as popular forms, to biography and autobiography can then in part be understood as a response to the corresponding but unsolved difficulties of Modernist fiction. The last threads of an attested verisimilitude are not cut.

The most available apparent form for this kind of writing is a model derived from psychoanalysis, in which the nominal self of the account is temporarily divided into an uncertain object and an analytic subject. This is strongest when the analytic subject has access to other evidence than simple memory – for example, in the records and recollections of others. The degree of admission of real others is often an evident lifeline: not an overriding but at least a moderately verifiable account. Yet taken seriously it is full of surprises, which in the end decide which side we come down on: authentic and therefore open self-exploration, or that more widely shared self-absorption which is the main communicative link of internal, inner-directed autobiographical writing. It is a matter in the end, I suppose, of which projection of the self – uncertain object or analytic subject – is really the ghost.

Yet there is also another available form: a model of self-accounting drawn from history or from critical sociology. Here the analytic subject has seriously verifiable general evidence, but its forms can be so strong that the uncertain object is merely placed within them: made representative with only marginal personal evidence. This form has been especially important in our own period because of the preoccupations of class. There has been a demand for accounts of class formation and class transition supported by the substance of individual experience. Even the strangest of us, within this form, can be made emblematic, by others if not by ourselves. Yet what becomes apparent, as the diverse accounts come in, is that even the true generalities of class formation and class transition are crossed by specific circumstances of different kinds: both the specifically personal, as in family situation, family size, the characters of parents, siblings and neighbours, and the specifically social, in types of settlement, forms of local culture, orientations towards work and education. If we then add, as must now be the case, the specificities of gender, as a radical factor within the other diversities and complexities, the very strengths of the earliest examples, which have become models, can become obstacles. For the most available analytic subject is then not even our own ghost.

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