Reading & Composition
Writing the Self: Language, Memory, Confession
How does one narrate the self? For centuries, people have been aiming to record their lives by presenting their struggles and outlining their memories, offering insights along the way. Why—and for whom—are we repeatedly compelled to articulate our own life stories? Is this a vain and selfish project, does it expose a didactic aspiration to teach others, or should we think of such efforts as merely an exercise in nostalgia? Most importantly, what assumptions about memory and language does this endeavor reveal?
In this course, we will explore the genre of autobiography and memoir, questioning what it means to write oneself and considering the genre’s traditional connection with confession. We will trace a literary history of self-narration beginning with its religious origins, considering how its commitment to spiritual, aesthetic, and political reflection changes over time. Saint Augustine’s Confessions is often referred to as one of the first autobiographical works in the Western tradition, and we will begin our course by examining the connection of autobiography to religious conversion and moral development. We will see how, in the intervening centuries, writers have departed from this originary model, transforming the project of narrating the self to include political treatises, confessions of sexual deviancy and drug addiction, and intellectual development. As the central concern shifts from recording religious integrity to probing psychological depth, we will consider the pivotal role of memory in such projects, and how language serves to document and distort. Our materials will be drawn from a variety of historical periods and national traditions, allowing us to approach a diversity of textual forms and cultural conditions as we work through these questions.
This is a writing- and reading-intensive course. A substantial amount of time will be devoted to writing workshops and instruction, as we develop our critical reading and analytical writing skills. Students will be required to actively participate in class discussion, read (and reread) carefully, and write papers with revisions.
Possible texts include:
Saint Augustine, Confessions (400)
J-J Rousseau, Confessions (1782)
William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805)
Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1881)
Lev Tolstoy, Childhood Trilogy (1852-6) OR A Confession (1882)
Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being (1907-40)
Sigmund Freud, An Autobiographical Study (1925)
Leonora Carrington, Down Below (1944)
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (1951)
Nina Berberova, The Italics are Mine (1993)