Wednesday, 7 October 2009

First tutorial: What is autobiography?

I'll be seeking to write a brief summary of what happened at each of our weekly tutorials, doing so as soon as possible afterwards while going back to Buckingham or (as today) in a restaurant in Chinatown, starting it before the arrival of the wun tun soup and finishing most of it before going to bed at Number Two Daughter's house in Clerkenwell.

Warning Posts about tutorials will be of interest to practically nobody. Why, then, am I proposing to write them? Purely as an experiment in seeing how I can use new technology to record the main issues discussed in a class quickly and – to me alone – usefully. This explains why I am going to write them in telegraphese*

*Telegraphese A way of writing used when I was first a student to describe a style which, because telegrams were costed by the word, dispensed with unnecessary verbs, particles etcetera when preparing a telegram, a message that was transmitted, typed by a special machine onto strips of paper which were pasted onto a telegram form and delivered by a telegraph boy on a bicycle to the addressee. In the First World War the telegraph boy was like the Angel of Death, since the War Office notified the next of kin of a soldier's death by telegram: if you saw the boy come cycling up your street, your heart only stopped pounding when you saw him knock on a neighbour's door.

Difference between autobiography and memoir: I missed some of this because I was late (carelessly applied later start of next week's meeting to this week): autobiography is about self and memoir is about others, says one authority (who? I've lost the reference) : but what about memoir about particular period in one's life?

Differences between autobiography and biography:
former (i) greater emphasis on childhood (ii) typically written later in life (iii) reliant on memory (personal recall)
latter (i) greater on adulthood (ii) written at any (adult) age (iii) reliant on written evidence and (for contemporaries) on others' stories

Antiquity of autobiography: St Augustine C5 AD typically cited: even earlier, says our resident Fertile Crescent guru, with Sinuhe the Egyptian C1900 BC and Darius the Assyrian ? BC. [Darius was of course a Persian. This error was pointed out to me by our rFCg on 13 October, two days before I made this correction.]

Term autobiography first used by Robert Southey as late as 1820.

In Cs18-19, with Enlightenment attitudes being superseded by Romanticism, emphasis changing from individual in public life to him in private life. Similar trend in architecture, e.g. the corridor enables rooms to be private.

Typical 'story' of Narrative autobiography: Quest/Conversion, Confessional.

Is Narrative autobiography the norm? Cockshutt (book of the week) says Definitely. Strawson (article of the week) says Yes, but changing: can be Episodic (ODTAA [one damned thing after another]) with no consistent underlying story.

Can the Narrative demonstrate lack of success? Yes, but only if done whimsically, for why does anybody want to read about failure described seriously?

Reliability of memory: memories being blocked out, e.g. WW veterans: epigenetic [this issue not properly comprehended]: memories changing with successive recalls [read McCrone article cited via JSTOR to understand better].

After tea break

Discussion about personal study methods.

Deep reading (e.g. of weekly topic titles) versus background reading (skimming some [not all, D.G!] of those on General list).

Use of computers, specifically wordprocessors, (i) for note taking (ii) for writing. Superficial (and, it is to be hoped, preliminary) discussion of utility of databases, optical character reading, voice recorders and voice recognition software.


A post on a blog can subsequently be revised. Colleagues might like to suggest amendments to this, as some of the issues discussed merit fuller or clearer annotation.

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