THE attitude of the critic toward the autobiography has been at all times curiously contradictory. While he constantly urges us to the reading of these documents, — while Emerson, for instance, names them as “ among the best books,” and J. A. Symonds’s feeling for them “amounts to a passion,” — yet this interest is frequently coupled with open doubt as to their sincerity. In the case of the English littérateur this doubt has become axiomatic. Mr. Lang speaks with contempt of “ anecdotes which people tell about their own subjective experiences;” and Mr. Birrell shows the same cautious attitude, where he says that “ Rousseau’s Confessions ought never to have been written; but written they were, and read they will always be.”
To some minds the fact that a book will always be read constitutes a proof of its value; and there are those of us more inclined to respond to the accent of conviction in which M. Anatole France mentions the survival of the Confessions. “ On n’ouvre plus guère Emile,” he says, “ on lira toujours les Confessions.” And later he declares that the love of memoirs persists because they escape all literary fashions: “ on ne doit rien à la mode — on ne cherche que la vérité humaine.” La vérité humaine. It does not need M. Alfred Fouillée, and other psychologists, to point out that the French critics have always taken more seriously the conscious aspect of “ la vérité humaine ” than the English have seemed able to do. There are reasons for this, historical and psychological, with which we may not deal here. Truth about people — if one may so translate M. France — has appeared to them of the first importance, and it is for this truth one seeks in any document purporting to be a self-portrayal. A reasonable instinct causes the reader to feel that truth about people may best be learned from the people themselves. At the same time, this instinct is met by that in which he seeks to compare these self-delineators with himself; to measure their degree of sincerity by what he may honestly feel to be his own degree of sincerity. The moment he does this, he is conscious of resentment at the autobiographer’s clearer insight and higher courage; and here the reader’s state of mind rouses him to protest his self-distrust.
Thus we come to find the great selfstudent perpetually shrouded in veils of comment and contradiction, and followed by a crowd of acquaintances, correspondents, and distant relatives, clamoring to give him the lie. Rousseau is a notable case in point. It has taken one hundred years to discover that the pink-and-silver ribbon he stole from a fellow servant was not a diamond, or a silver dish, but just a ribbon of pink and silver. Pages have been written about the error he made in the date of his christening, which error has been forced to serve as a text to show his general unreliability. Any chance witness of genius in one of its passing moods is sure to take such a mood for a permanent characteristic, and, triumphant, to point out that it has not been fully displayed in the autobiography. “ Not to be relied upon!” the book is waved aside; “ A man’s estimate of himself, you know!” and so on.
To the serious student of the personal narrative, it would seem that there lay an injustice in this point of view. What, on the whole, do we require from the autobiographer as an excuse for his existence ? That he should give us the facts others might give, or that he should flash on the canvas some aspect of the figure which he only knows ? Accuracy in date is needful in writing anybody’s life, but more needful still is a vital picture of the creature as he lived. Contemplating human nature in an introspective mood, one must be prepared to find in the self-study a certain looseness as to exterior matters. The eye cannot look both in and out at the same time. St. Augustine is by no means clear as to the passage of time, but the value of his self-revelation is not thereby lessened. The corrective of supplementary study is readily applied to amend the autobiographer in his — one might almost say essential — errors of memory, to balance and counteract his emphasis on certain stages of his intellectual and emotional development. These mistakes become unimportant only in proportion as the main work is important. The object of the autobiographer must be to concentrate on that which he alone knows — the real man. If Jean-Jacques in the Confessions be Jean-Jacques as he lived, what matters the date of his christening ?
Should the attitude toward the selfstudy be governed by the prevalent attitude of science toward literature, then it may be of interest to note how this literary material stands the scientific method. The facts about people which autobiography claims to contain are as susceptible of classification and scientific treatment as any other facts. Systematic study of these records will display, not only the comment made by this literary material upon some particular branches of science, but the scientific method as applied to literature, which is one of the functions of the new criticism.
Obviously, a classification of this heterogeneous mass of documents should be the first step: it may only be suggested here. All literary records are of unequal value, and while being sifted they must also be judged. Here, certain questions may be asked, certain motives compared, questions and motives which alike have an interest for those who seek “ la vérité humaine.”
What causes a man to write a study of himself which shall truly reveal him ? When we ask this question we plunge at once into obscure deeps. Rousseau imagined that, “ Je forme une entreprise qui n’eut jamais d’exemple, et dont l’exécution n’aura point d’imitateur.” Both statements we now know to be rhetorical rather than true, for Rousseau had notable examples and has had notable imitators. Two hundred years earlier, Cardan, the Italian scientist, began his book with the following sentence: “ Since among all things which mankind has been given to follow, there is nothing more worthy or pleasing than a knowledge of the truth — we have been led to write this book of our own life.”
Benvenuto Cellini, a notable example of the same date, expresses his conviction that “ All men, of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hands.”
Here are two reasons as cogent as Rousseau’s “ Si je ne vaux pas mieux, au moins je suis autre,” which has usurped attention on this subject; and they must be emphasized becauseRousseau has stood for so long as the one type of the subjective autobiographer that he positively hinders us from taking a broad view. His Confessions were written during a period of great individualism and self-affirmation, and they gave a crystallizing touch to the many tentative ideas of an age of theory. They were, moreover, permeated with emotion, an emotion expressed with the voice and accent of genius; and so entirely did they fill the skies at the time, that men forgot that the idea was by no means original, — a revived literary mood, rather than a fresh literary impulse. The whole subjective idea has thus, because of Rousseau, been connected in our minds with the eighteenth century, and received consideration as an expression of eighteenth-century moods and tendencies. The first step in any right understanding of the subjective trend must be to carry the reader back of Rousseau, so that the Confessions may be accorded their proper relative position toward other great self-studies.
There are quoted above certain given reasons for writing, by three marked and definite characters. Such quotations become exceedingly suggestive, when we believe the impulse toward autobiography to spring from any recognizable psychological condition. The whole subject of self-observation is exceedingly obscure, and has been studied only in its abnormal manifestations. In a recent German treatise,1 there is the following paragraph:
“ It will now be seen (if neither vanity, desire for gossip, nor imitation drives them to it) that only the better men write down recollections of their lives; and how I perceive in this a strong evidence of the connection between memory and giftedness. It is not as if every man of genius wished to write an autobiography: the incitement to autobiography comes from special, very deep-seated psychological conditions.”
Examination of the reasons for writing, then, would seem to furnish a means of understanding these conditions. They are seen to form part of Fichte’s recommendation to the student, in his Introduction to The Science of Knowledge: “Attend to thyself; turn thy glances away from all that surrounds thee, and upon thine own innermost self. Such is the first demand which philosophy makes of its disciples.”
Since this is philosophy’s first demand of its disciples, we comprehend more clearly why an autobiography is so apt both to precede the mental changes in an intellect of the first order, and to follow them. The whole philosophical trend of such a mind moves in the direction of better self-understanding; the “ attend to thyself” becomes an imperious command, acting upon a new and sensitive humility. A man says to himself something like this: “Behold, I understand nothing, not even myself. With what shall I begin now that my desire for study is aroused ? With myself.” And thus the conditions governing the incitement to autobiography are formed: serious conditions, as Fichte perceived, and indicative of the position of the self-student’s mind toward philosophy at that time.
The reader, moreover, by acknowledging and defining a special, deep-seated, psychological condition, is thus enabled to separate the record written by “ the desire for gossip or imitation ” from that which is the outcome of a governed impulse, which we have ventured to call the autobiographical intention. The weight and value of a case will be found to be in direct proportion to the exactness and seriousness of its autobiographical intention. Vanity as an element in nullifying the value of a record is by no means established. Crudely vain cases will remain unimportant, but to dissever the obscure vanity of the genuine self-student from his austere autobiographical intention is well-nigh impossible. The whole problem of subjectivity, with its mingled threads of egotism, vanity, and humility, remains a tangled skein for us. In its effect on the sincerity of a case, vanity cannot be accurately determined, for there are exceedingly vain autobiographers, like James Hogg, like Robert Burns, who have been minutely, exquisitely sincere.
At the moment it were well to define the limits of the autobiographical intention, since conformation to them is so largely our standard of value. The best definition is to be found in a case otherwise unimportant, the Journal d’une jeune Artiste, of Marie Bashkirtsev. Contrary to general opinion, it is not necessarily the neurotic person who becomes the noteworthy self-student; and the curious thing about Marie Bashkirtsev was her perception of the value of self-study, which gives dignity to the sentences of her preface. “ If I should not live long enough to become famous,” she writes, “ this journal will be interesting to psychologists. The record of a woman’s life, written down day by day, without any attempt at concealment, as if no one in the world were to read it, yet with the purpose of being read, is always interesting. If this book is not the exact, the absolute, the strict truth, it has no raison d’être.” These emphasized sentences give a definition of the autobiographical intention, which should be remembered in making an estimate of every such document. Its two parts become the first and second canons for the classic self-student. Written " as if no one in the world were to read it,” i. e., with the utmost candor, is the first requisite; but it would apply to the diary as well, if it were not for the second canon, “ yet with the purpose of being read.” This purpose adds to the impulse dignity and measure, and tends to establish and confirm its sincerity. This “ purpose of being read ” raises a merely evanescent mood of introspection to the point where it may generate power. The greater pieces of self-study not only wholly fulfill these canons, but are raised above the mediocre efforts of the same kind because they do so. We find St. Augustine, Cellini, Cardan, Rousseau, Mill, Franklin, Alfieri, Fox, St. Teresa, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, writing “ as if no one in the world were to read it, yet with the purpose of being read.”
Since this is the intention lying back of the self-study, it is surely not too much to insist at the outset upon its seriousness. And when an examination is made of the early causes and their influence, the very existence of that influence has point for us. Imitation plays its part; one man writes of himself because another writes; personal impressions are repeated in a practically unbroken chain. Few, if any, important autobiographies have been lost; and this is, in itself, an illuminating circumstance. With the exception of Sulla’s Commentaries (whose effect upon Cæsar was noted by his contemporaries), the capital autobiography has survived, and preserved its fresh effect on later minds, more than any other type of literary work. To what vital quality do we owe this tenacious survival ? We reply: sincerity.
Sincerity, indeed, is promised by the large number of autobiographies seriously conceived, and executed in the interest of self-study and scientific truth; and it may not be amiss to note bow deep an impression the need for candor has made upon the mind of the writer. His style here, his tone and accent, the weight of the initial motive with him, are all of value; and the comparative study of reasons for writing is one of the most suggestive in literature.
“ Truth, naked, unblushing Truth,” says Gibbon, “ the first virtue of serious history, must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative.”
“To speak, and therefore even more to write, of one’s self, springs doubtless from self-love,” declares Alfieri, “ and the scope of a work like this is the study of mankind. Of what man can he better or more wisely speak than himself, — what other has he studied so well ? ”
“ Private history,” in the estimate of Sir Egerton Brydges, “ enables us to ascertain our author’s sincerity; and that is essential to the authority of his opinions, I labor therefore to estimate with rigid and stern enquiry what faculties of the mind ought most to prevail.”
The lively Bussy-Rabutin owns a reason for sincerity which is that of a man of the world: “ Je ne serai ni assez vain ni assez ridicule pour me louer sans raison; mais aussi n’aurai-je pas une assez sotte honte pour ne pas dire de moi des choses avantageuses, quand ce seront des vérités.” And this remark has point when we find how very few “ choses avantageuses ” to himself he finds to tell!
Charles Darwin, who writes because “ I have thought the attempt might amuse me or might possibly interest my children,” goes on to say, “ I have attempted to write the following account of myself as if I were a dead man in another world, looking back at my own life.” Haydon, the painter, has left one of the most interesting autobiographies that was ever placed side by side with the journals which furnished its material. It were well to cite one sentence, in its original typographical form: “ — a biography derives its sole interest and utility from its Exact Truth.”
“ Pour certains esprits,” says George Sand, “ se connaître est une étude fastidieuse et toujours incomplète.” The Histoire de ma Vie, she declared further to be “ une étude sincère de ma propre nature, et un examen attentif de ma propre existence.”
These are examples gathered at random, and one might cite many more if space permitted. They show, at least, that the psychologist who takes the memoir seriously has warrant for so doing. Surely, if a purpose and an ideal of sincerity are found in self-delineations of character and temperament so unlike as these, one may infer that it forms a part of the autobiographical intention, when that is strong and definite.
But here we are interrupted by our cynical littérateur. “ Ah,” he cries, “ what avails protest ? Mere assertion that one wishes to tell the truth is nothing at all! ”
“ According to your own lights, cher monsieur,” we may fitly reply, “ lights shed from scattered and often trivial reading, you have cause to think so. Single cases of such protest would have little significance, and less value. The assertion from John Stuart Mill, for instance, that he intends to be truthful, would simply add to your own feeling of self-distrust. Would you tell how you cheated at school, and won the prize ? Certainly not; you would die first! Ergo, neither would Mill. But then, cher monsieur, you have not the autobiographical intention. You are not, be it said with all due respect, an important person. You are neither Alfieri, Darwin, Franklin, nor Rousseau. The imperious lash of Truth upon the neck of the great, that fretful urging to candor, is one of the many differences between them and ourselves. And when we observe it acting as an influence, not upon one able person, but (to mention a single group) upon sixtyfour able persons, we may believe that it forms a component part of some quality to which we are forced, as the mediocre, regretfully to renounce all claim, but which we must, nevertheless, recognize in action and respect in result.”
It is time that we acknowledged the different standards of greater men. Their superior sincerity, their more penetrative candor, is a token of their greatness and a reason for their survival. Yet the reader must not here jump to the conclusion that we do not differentiate between accuracy in detail and accuracy in portraiture. It is not for an instant asserted that Rousseau gave the correct date of his christening; that George Sand felt for Chopin only “ une passion maternelle, très vive, très vraie,” as the Histoire de ma Vie asserts; that Guibert de Nogent’s mother struggled all night with a demon who upset the furniture; or that Jerome Cardan learned Greek in a dream. But it is claimed, and would seem capable of proof, that the personalities of those autobiographers whose work is inspired by a serious intention, and executed by an able hand, are, in their main aspects, truthfully portrayed; that they are more accurate, more complete, than the same figures drawn by an outside pencil. And is not this logical ? What makes Boswell so great a biographer but the ability to let his hero reveal himself in every event and mood ?
Ere leaving this aspect of the subject, it is needful to note whether biography, on the whole, supports or contradicts the autobiographer. I Let us then ask the cher monsieur, so skeptical about the whole business, to name a life of Rousseau in which his personality differs, as a personality, from that drawn in the Confessions. Standard lives of St. Augustine, Goldoni, St. Teresa, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, — great autobiographers all, — rely completely and naïvely for any intimate view of the subject on their own works. Watson’s life of Fox avowedly draws its matter from the Journal. Morrison’s life of Gibbon does the same. M. Courteault’s recent volume on Monluc depicts no stranger to the reader of Les Commentaires. Cardan’s bitter enemies refer to the De Vitapropria liber as an exact picture of his extraordinary personality. Even in the case of George Sand’s Histoire, — a book wherein we know the central figure is drawn only in parts, — there has recently been the conclusive testimony of her biographer Wladimir Karénine.
The reader can augment this testimony to almost any extent that he wishes, or that his library allows. And while he does so, he will come upon another approach to an estimate of the conscious self-revelation, and one which must not be forgotten. George Sand herself will remind him that “ l’étude du cœur humain est de telle nature, que plus on s’y absorbe moins on y voit clair.” Self-distrust, appreciation of the dangers and deceits of self-contemplation, has inspired certain generalizations, which pass about easily from lip to lip until mere repetition seems about to make truths of them. It is in the letter and the diary, rather than in the deliberate autobiography, that we are told to look for the valuable self-revelation. Every one has heard the phrases into which this idea has been cast: “ Not written for the public eye, but in the privacy of the closet — a man lets himself go,” and the like.
It seems almost inconsiderate to deprive conversation of its conveniences by introducing the element of thought. The stupid and the banal are cut off from their part in it when the question is asked, “ Is this true ? ” But one has entered here a field where the dull and the trite have rioted for years without contradiction. Should any one doubt this, let him drop a remark about the use of self-study in any mixed assemblage, not too young. He is sure to hear the words just quoted, to catch the name of Rousseau, — fondly believed to be the parent of this iniquity, — and to see much head-wagging over the deceitfulness of the human heart. It were perhaps cruel to remind these respectable persons that their own selfanalysis might have less sincerity and less value than that of St. Augustine or Herbert Spencer; or that the desire to see one’s self clearly is part of an intellectual initiative from which they are free. The factor which gives value to personal evidence is the relative importance of the subject; and it is the sense of his own inadequacy, without taking this factor into consideration, which has caused “ l’homme sensuel moyen,” to cry out so loudly against the whole business. “L’homme sensuel moyen,” in a word, having no reason to suppose that posterity has any concern with him, can imagine himself jotting his introspections upon a diary, in a corner of the billiard-room, over a glass of brandy-and-soda, when the idea of self-study in writing his life would seem factitious. Does this same attitude prevail with those individuals whose gifts make the judgment of posterity inevitable? We are here to decide.
The partisan of the diary and the letter claim that their very ephemeral character causes them to be the more trustworthy media of the writer’s individuality. Yet examination in sequence of a series of important journals does not, by any means, corroborate this view. Had Saint-Simon published only those journals which he later revised and bound into a coherent narrative, how much personality might not have been lost! Such diaries as Evelyn’s and Greville’s aimed chiefly to present the daily historical and political events of their time. Neither contains self-revelation of any real importance. As for the inimitable Pepys, whom a grateful reader would not undervalue, his glance goes not beyond the day. The man is shown us in pieces, fragments thrown into the occurrences which he describes; his eye is on the event; and although we delight in the picture, we know that much has been lost. The first volume of Fanny Burney’s Journal conveys most of its total effect, and is weighted with distinct autobiographical intention, which is not, however, sustained. And in proportion as this idea was abandoned, and the mere daily jottings kept, the work lost in vigor and in vividness. The constructive touch is needed here, as in other literary work, to carry conviction. Scott’s Journal contains the noble record of his adversity, but it was taken up too late in life to serve us as a picture of his character, had we not been able to supplement it by the unfinished Autobiography, as well as the pages of Lockhart. In Moore’s Journal, our view is perpetually troubled by the trifles which cloud between us and the figure of the kindly little man. And so we come to feel that the main difference between diary and autobiography lies in the increased sense of proportion in the latter, whose first object is to clear away everything which may come between you and the subject.
When we examine correspondence, we find no cause to change this impression, which accounts, indeed, for the usual attitude of the more scrupulous commentator. Readers of the great letter-writers — of Goethe, of Petrarch, of Voltaire, of Cicero, of Madame de Sévigné, and Madame du Deffand — do not need to be reminded of the warnings they have received not to allow themselves to be hurried away too quickly by their sympathy with the waiter. Words are an effervescence of mood thrown hastily upon paper, often the result of a desire to experiment with one’s self, to create a non-existent feeling, to rouse a dormant emotion, or to prick some mere vexation into active anger. Here is matter for exaggeration, and with no corrective. For in the page of the diary or the letter a man may indulge himself — may, in the ordinary phrase, “ let himself go.” And if the reader is tempted to think that the truth is more apt to come to the surface when a man lets himself go, we can only beg him to apply the same standard to himself in a similar case. The predominance of mood, the lack of self-restraint, which mean the letting one’s self go, form, in themselves, a onesidedness, an abnormality, which is a kind of insincerity. Lavater’s Journal, which he called The Secret History of a Self-observer, is a pertinent example of such disproportion. When his servant-maid is sullen on being summoned, and his comment is, “ Her answer did not provoke me, and it made me quite proud I was not angry,” the reader is convinced neither that the introspection is true, nor that it is valuable; nor even that Lavater was not provoked, or proud that he was not.
But when the letter-writer or journalist sits down to explain himself to the audience of posterity, or to plead his cause before the jury of the coming generations, has he not a powerful incentive to ask, “ Is this true? Was this vexation wholly real; was the true inwardness of my wounded feeling made plain to me when I wrote under its sting ? ” In other words, is not the autobiographical intention a weighty corrective to bring hasty moods into measure?
The whole question of imagination in the letter-writer, and the exaggeration through it of the fleeting mood, is discussed with fullness and finish by M. Gaston Boissier, in his fascinating volume on Ciceron et ses Amis. He shows successfully how these fugitive thoughts are “ only flashes . . . Fixed and accentuated by writing, they acquire a clearness, a relief and importance which they had not in reality.” If this be true of all written self-revelation, then, surely, the existence of a powerful motive to act as corrective comes to have deeper significance.
However, the citation of single examples of diarist or letter-writer can hardly be conclusive. The best method of estimating comparative sincerity would be to take those cases in which we have both the autobiography and the journal from which its material was drawn, so that we may contrast our impressions. No one can forget the quarrel between Rousseau and Madame d’Épinay, nor could anything be more suggestive as an illustration of this point than a comparison of the Confessions, the Mémoires de Madame d’Epinay, and their letters on the subject. The entire correspondence has been preserved, and letters passed between the two insulted dignities with the fullness and frequency to which annoyance spurs the literary habit. In these letters we find Jean-Jacques breathing outraged sensibility and wounded affection. To hear him, one would believe that the difference arose from the righteous wrath of a finally roused patience, and had its root in complicated spiritual misunderstandings, such as cloud the pages of Mr. Henry James.
In both the correspondents, those large words, sensitiveness, friendship, loyalty, obligation, appear in every other paragraph. Hear the châtelaine de l’Ermitage in her own defense, prefacing that her memoirs, written under the form of fiction, have no serious intention, but are a mere setting for her own idea of her romantic situation. She does not fail to suggest, however, that Rousseau’s lack of business sense made any satisfactory arrangement with him impossible; and she speaks as a patroness whose goodhumor has been taken for granted once too often. There is not a hint of sentiment. Knowing Jean-Jacques, we expect the Confessions to give fully his own side of the quarrel. Surely, he will not abate the majestic attitude! On the contrary, he describes the dispute exactly as it was: the contest of two greedy vanities, having its origin in a discussion as to which should pay the gardener’s wages! Is it necessary to say that the gardener, in se, is practically suppressed in the letters ? He has become symbolized — he is servitude, he is obligation. By the pen of Madame, whose intention is not serious, the vague, general reference to a financial origin of their difference is yet made, notwithstanding that it detracts from her romantic position. And in the Confessions, result of a powerful autobiographical intention, powerfully executed, the whole truth is written out, no matter what light it casts upon the large terms in the letters. To those of us who know Jean-Jacques, which aspect of the quarrel is the more convincing ?
One example more. The autobiography of B. R. Haydon is bound with the Journals which were its source. Now, with Haydon mood is everything: his intensity of thought wraps him in it, and his lack of measure is an inherent quality. He is a man with a grievance; he lived in terrible financial straits; he ended in delusions, in madness, in suicide. His case will either make or break us, for he has little self-control. While he was finishing a cartoon, he speaks, in the Autobiography, of his “ gasping anxiety ” at the time, and writes: “ My mind wanted the discipline of early training.” As the work grows, he prays: “ Never have I had such irresistible and perpetual urgings of future greatness; while I was painting, writing, or thinking, beaming flashes of energy followed and impressed me. O God, grant they may be the fiery anticipations of a great soul born to realize them! ”
This is painfully intense, in truth, yet compare it with the Journal of the same period. “ How delightfully time flies when one paints! ” he jots on one page. The succeeding entry is: “ Painted in delicious and exquisite misery.” Then, “ Thank God with all my soul the very name of high art — the very thought of a picture — gives my children a hideous and disgusting taste in the mouth.” And, the next day, “ Huzza! huzza! huzza! my cartoon is up! ”
If self-control counts as an element in a waiter’s sincerity, if there is any value in the study of our past moods and feelings, it is not lightly indicated in this comparison. The horrible alternations of poor Haydon’s mood, intensified and exaggerated by the self-indulgence of his diary, are brought into some degree of measure and understanding when be comes to put them before the public eye. The mere fact of an audience causes him to examine them more nearly, to remember and bring forward that lack of discipline from early training which accounted for the lack of balance. The desire of candor and of completeness has laid hold of him. So we have found the autobiographer revealing weaknesses and errors which he had sedulously concealed in his intercourse with friends, in his diary or letters, and which need never have been known at all but for the prick of this influence. Sometimes these are frank sins, sometimes merely such ungraciousnesses as do a man no credit for avowing. Why was Gibbon at such pains to tell us, on the occasion of his father’s death, “ The tears of a son are seldom lasting. Few, perhaps, are the children who, after the expiration of many months, would sincerely rejoice in the restoration of their parents,” except that he believed it to be the truth ?
In her Mémoire, Catherine II, of Russia, plainly states that the father of her son and heir, Peter, was Soltykov, a fact about which there was much discussion, and which had great political importance. Yet she commits it to paper, although it is the last thing one can imagine her admitting. The Cardinal de Retz says, “ Je pris, après six jours de reflexion, le parti de faire le mal par dessein — ce qui est sans comparaison le plus criminel devant Dieu, mais sans doute le plus sage devant le monde.” The mention by Franklin of certain offenses which he calls errata, is not only perfectly gratuitous, but distinctly calculated to lower that public esteem for which he had striven. Acts like Cellini’s stab of a man in the back, the gambling of Cardan, and minor meannesses of Rousseau, would never have been known at all had their authors washed to keep silence. Nor does morbidity, or lack of sense of humor, account for their record. One could hardly call Franklin, Cellini, or Catherine II, morbid; and if Gibbon lacked humor, it is abundantly present in Cellini, Cardan, and de Retz.
No : the endeavor to stand for what we are springs from a deeper source, a more serious initiative, psychologically, than the litterateur has been willing to allow. Stevenson, for instance, writing on Pepys, comments on his subject’s frankness with amazement. He cannot understand why Pepys recorded actions avowedly best left unrecorded; and speaks of him as an isolated phenomenon. This is only another case to prove how much the critic has need of the psychologist. Otherwise, he would take note of an influence present as a motive-power in natures ethically deficient, such as de Retz, Cellini, or Psalmanazar, the impostor. It acts as corrective to the religious fanatic who wishes to show a miserable sinner transformed into a saint, yet who feels obliged to tell you, like Fox, that even before his conversion he was loved for his “ innocency and honesty.” Such “majestic expressions of the universal conscience” as Emerson mentions, owe their power to this courageous sincerity. Trembling, as she believes, upon the brink of hell, St. Teresa yet gives us the brilliant portrait of her girlish self, “ whom every one always saw with pleasure.”
This power, in the naïve memoirs of Mary Robinson (“ Perdita”), causes her to break off at the moment of her capitulation to George IV, although she has gone on swimmingly up to that point. One sees her inability to lie, and her failure to find an excuse, in every broken line.
Perdita’s case, just cited, brings to our attention the partially sincere examples. Until now, we have quoted only those master-minds over whom the autobiographical intention has had full sway, and whom it has influenced to a full sincerity. But there are, of course, many would-be self-students in whom this influence is defective, weakened, or counteracted. There are intellectual causes and emotional causes working against the autobiographical intention: there is the objective cast of mind, and there is the sentimental point of view. The first will make a writer very careful about dates, events, and other persons, while he himself remains mistaken and obscure. He may write a useful work for history which is useless for psychology, although it must not be supposed that this is, necessarily, the case. The sentimental attitude affects almost all of the Teutonic examples of personal narrative, injuring the evidence contained even in the great Autobiography of Goethe. The Dichtung und Wahrheit holds pages of such magnificent and penetrating criticism as to make us regret the more its confusion of sentiment with fact. It is hard to pardon George Sand for telling us that she felt for Chopin “ une passion maternelle, très vive, très vraie; ” and how can one receive seriously Goethe’s statement that “ the first propensities to love in uncorrupted youth take altogether a spiritual direction”? At least George Sand atones by a minute and thorough study of her intellectual and imaginative development.
The exception in the case of Dichtung und Wahrheit — the fact that it is practically the only psychologically-valueless autobiography left by a great man — serves to make salient, by contrast, the value of other similar documents. Examination and comparison of even a few intentions and reasons for writing define the presence of an underlying motive in all serious records of this kind. And what is simply interesting in two or three instances becomes highly significant, we repeat, when found in a group of instances. Thus it seems undeniable that the majority of capital autobiographies have been undertaken in the weighty interests of truth, and are the outcome of a deep-seated, psychological impulse, which, as a whole, makes for the truth. The figures which are drawn under these conditions, therefore, we believe to be, in the main, the figures of the persons as they lived.
- Otto Weiniger: Sex and Character.↩