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Anul 2003

Anul 2004

Anul 2005



2 0 0 3






Every theory is the fragment of an autobiography.

P a u l   V a l e r y


1.    Background matters

In the last decades autobiography has been one of the most debated literary genres, and its definition and scope have frequently been reformulated. The purpose of the present study is to analyze the autobiography of displacement in connection to critical discourse by focusing on the autobiographies of Ihab Hassan and Edward Said, two of America’s most influential contemporary literary and cultural critics.

The problem of the definition of autobiography as a genre and its relations to other kinds of self-narratives[1] has been subject to much debate. James Olney, Albert Stone, Phillipe Lejeune, Paul de Man, Thomas Couser are only some of the major names involved at some point in this debate. Today autobiography is thriving, and we can actually say (relying on data provided by data bases in American libraries, which show how the number of autobiographies and memoirs has tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s, as well as by the Fall 2001[2] issue of Biography) that autobiography has become the genre in the period around the turn of the millennium. Book reviews demonstrate its ubiquity, more publishers expand their list to include autobiography, more first books are marketed as memoir and, as we live in a culture of stardom,[3] even academic publishers want to promote their authors as personalities.

Even academics, the group considered least likely to cross over, are producing personal criticism, hybrid combinations of scholarship and life writing, and memoir proper. One can say without doubt that there is an “autobiographical turn” (to borrow Michael Gorra’s phrase) for academics. We cannot fail noticing that most critics either turn to autobiography writing (e.g. Henry Luis Gates, Colored People, A Memoir, Clifford Geertz, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, Sara Suleri, Meatless Day, Nancy K. Miller, Bequest and Betrayal, 1996, Susan Rubin Suleiman, Risking Who One Is, Budapest Diary, 1997, Jane Tompkins, The Life in School, 1996), or, even more commonly, to autobiographical criticism, as such collections as Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism 1993 or Confessions of the Critics, 1996 make it manifest.

Categories such as “personal criticism” and “creative non-fiction”, “confessional criticism”, “new belletrism”, “personal criticism”, “autobiographical criticism”[4] indicate the appearance of the autobiographical “I” in places that it has not appeared previously. As Aram Vesser puts it: “Until recently only the toughest critics dared to make the autobiographical move. Literary theory was against it… Nowadays, autobiographical criticism has come into general use.”(Veeser ix-x).

The question arises why the various forms of self-writing or life-writing are so universally fascinating and enticing for both their authors and readers. What could possibly account for the intensity of this preoccupation with the private sphere, and why is this so distinctly the case in contemporary culture? More precisely and related to my topic, the question will be, what are the implications of autobiographical writing for the critical discourse? Which are the gains and benefits, the risks and the disadvantages? In an attempt to answer these questions, I will focus on the life-writing of Ihab Hassan and Edward W. Said. Both of them have been highly influential in literary criticism and academic discourse; both of them have marked a turning point in the critical discourse related to postmodernism and postcolonialism respectively; both of them have appealed to the autobiographical detail in their criticism; and, finally, both of them have written highly challenging and intriguing autobiographies.

In tracking the way these exilic authors represent their sense of displacement in autobiographical writing, I suggest that both their identity and especially their autobiographical writing can be defined in terms of “becoming,” in the sense of how Deleuze reads this term. According to him, “becoming” is an event that is reducible “neither to one thing nor the other,” but exists only in the movement of their congress.[5] Deleuze argues that the conception of Western thought and subjectivity must be called into question: “[A]ll our thought’s modeled . . . on the verb ‘to be,’ IS. Philosophy’s weighed down with discussions about attributive judgments (the sky is blue) and existential judgments (God is) and the possibility or impossibility of reducing one to the other. But they all turn on the verb ‘to be’”[6] (1995, 44). According to Deleuze, then, Western thought exists principally to establish the identity of being, to define its content, and to arrest it in the self-same space of an “IS.” In contrast to this “IS,” Deleuze summons the operation of an “AND.” “AND is neither one thing nor the other,” Deleuze explains, “it’s always in between, between two things; it’s the borderline” (45). This “AND,” then, is no longer concerned with the identity or individuality of being, for it is “neither one thing nor the other.” Rather, this “AND” marks a multiplicity, a conjunction made of difference. This concept of “becoming” may offer, as I will endeavor to show in the following, a key to understanding the complex way in which the two autobiographies of Hassan and Said actually work.

2.    Ihab Hassan’s Out of Egypt or the Metamorphosis of the Postmodern  Critical Discourse

Author of numerous volumes, studies, essays in contemporary thought, literature, and criticism, Ihab Hassan is what one may call a critical personality, especially for his contribution to framing and defining postmodernism. Hassan’s work is concerned with American literature (in his Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel), literary criticism (in Paracriticism: Seven Speculations of the Times), postmodernism (in The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture), and the idea of quest in life and literature (in Out of Egypt, Selves at Risk).

Hassan is one of the first literary scholars who decided to share their life-stories with the reading public. His critical books are characterized by a growing tendency to increase the personal character of discourse. This tendency was announced in 1971 in Hassan’s introduction to the Dismemberment of Orpheus:

Clearly, we still stand in the domain of literature. Yet we must also move onward, to a personal fate closed finally by mortality, and a collective destiny unknown to the children of the old earth or new moon. Literature does not suffice.[7]

Paracriticism is a significant step forward in this tendency. Commenting on the original form of this volume, Hassan writes:

I am not certain what genre these seven pieces make. I call them paracriticism: essays in language, traces of the times, fictions of the heart. Literature is part of their substance, but their critical edge is only one of the many edges in the mind, I would not protest if they were denied the name of criticism.[8]

Hassan eagerly rejects the literary critic’s stance and stresses the subjectivity and the personal character of the book: “In these essays I write neither as a critic nor scholar — nor yet impersonate poet, novelist or playwright — but try to find my voice in the singular forms that speculations sometimes requires”(1975, xi).

Aspiring thus to go beyond criticism and find his own voice, Hassan constantly offers flashes of insight into the creative process, his personal queries and wonders. He thus proposes moments of reflection on the critical and creative acts, all in the form of a complex, wise, and skillful game. The reflections and reflexions offer the picture of a game whose main rule and purpose is to play with its own norms and codes.

Criticism should learn about playful discontinuity and become itself less than the sum of its parts... I feel I should now inhibit our search for a new liveliness, a new capaciousness, a new potency in criticism. (1975, 25)

In the Right Promethean Fire, the presence of a self-reflective and autobiographical element is more conspicuous that in the previous volumes. The Right Promethean Fire preserves the ironic playfulness of the former book together with the reflection on and reflexion of the creative act, now emphasized by the new technique of inserting fragments from the personal journal in between the chapters of the book. Hassan himself talks about this shift in status of his text:

Part diary, part allegory, a common place book, and a little dictionary of quotations, the journal in the end neither answers nor confesses, but patterns certain motifs, mild obsessions of a writing day.[9]

A significant part of the book consists of intensive entries from the journal Hassan kept while working on the book. This journal, as the autobiographer explains, “avows a degree of subjectivity” whose function is “to modify the incantatory obstructions of the Promethean theme” (1980, xvii). The autobiographical entries included in The Right Promethean Fire enter into a sophisticated interplay with the remaining elements of this critical study, illustrating certain statements and questioning or adding meaning to others.

In the journal itself we encounter the germs of the later autobiographic work, mostly in the form of indirect reasons for and explanations of some choices and analyses (e.g. why Prometheus and not Faust for the title): they are all important clues to understanding their later growth as major elements in the text as such. The journal “included some central ideas of the present work, included as well the lived context of these ideas... they remain queries, musings of a reading man between idleness and work” (1980, 31).

Emphasizing the “critic’s freedom and responsibility within the changing frames of current theories,” the essays “mean to affirm a larger role for the critical imagination than our professions permit” (1980, 16). Quite different from the critical chapters as such, the Serbellioni and Camargo journals foreshadow and clarify Hassan’s new critical attempt and are meant as an “interrogator of that genre we call academic criticism”.

All sorts of postmodernist topoi (e.g. short circuiting the text, writer at desk, or ruptures in the graphic presentation of the text) are woven within his text, the final texture representing Hassan’s alternative for the critical discourse. The so called “writer at desk” topos is the most predominant. A well-known device used by postmodern writers, it implies the existence of the author at two distinct ontological levels, the author as a vehicle for the autobiographical fact and the author of the work as such, with the consequent meta-fictional gesture of frame-breaking, or the postmodern technique, death of the death of the author: in short, bringing the author to the surface. So the author, in fact, flickers in and out of existence, at different levels of the ontological structure, at different points in the unfolding text. This may be a puzzling and confusing device within a work of fiction (novel or drama for instance), but within Hassan’s critical work it offers a new dimension to the critic’s disclosure and in so doing it sheds more light on the critical process.

Hassan not only made his criticism increasingly personal and autobiographical; he also directly expressed his scholarly interest in the genre of autobiography, devoting to it, in 1980, his essay “Parabiography”.[10] In this essay Hassan enriched his speculations by including several autobiographical passages written in the third person, only to come back to them — this time in the first person — in what some call his “personal imaginative study,”[11] Out of Egypt. This book stands out as a culmination of the personal tendency in his writing as well as a continuation of his interest in autobiography and various forms of personal writing. Out of Egypt is a very unusual autobiography, being something one could best call a theoretical speculation on many literary and non-literary subjects. Brief and concentrated, Out of Egypt is the story of a dreamy child, a restless adolescent, and a highly ambitious and hard working student determined to leave for the United States. It is the story of Eternal Egypt, “no mere alliterative phase of school or travel book, but something closer to a curse or fate” (16) he wanted desperately to escape. Viewed from this perspective, the book comes close to a traditional autobiography of childhood and adolescence. Like Hassan’s earlier volumes, it is a multilayered and complex work. The primary layer, the autobiographical narration, covers the first twenty five years of the author’s life which Hassan spent in his native Egypt.

Born in Cairo, Hassan spent his childhood in country houses, moving around every three or four years depending on his father’s new service. Belonging to a big family, with maternal and paternal aunts, uncles, and lots of cousins, having also nurses, tutors, domestics, as a child he waited for “Mother and Father to go out of the house in order to breathe the air of make-believe”(8).

As the title suggests, the book is more concerned with the author’s literally getting out of Egypt. In fact the very phrase “out of Egypt”, whose biblical reference is transparent, is repeated often throughout the text. Every time the author refers to his leaving of his native country, he resorts to the emotionally charged word “escape”: “as I escaped Egypt” (118), he says, or even “my great Escape from Egypt” (87). All this indicates Hassan’s great determination to abandon his country of birth and leave behind all the years spent in it. From the beginning of the narration, the author emphasizes that he has never felt particularly attached to the country of his birth: “I was born on 17 October 1925, in Cairo, Egypt and though I carry papers that solemnly record this date and place, I have never felt these factors decisive in my life” (2).

Egypt is presented through its millennial history, its former imperialism and later colonialism, and their various effects on the present: “Egypt was feudal,” (17) “prodigal and corrupt sometimes,” a “palimpsest of cultures,” (13) a “place of unspeakable pollution and occlusion” (41). Throughout the book, the image of Egypt shifts and changes because the point of view itself changes. First we see Egypt through the eyes of a child, for whom the Sphinx or the Great Pyramid “inspired no fear... nor stirred ancestral memories” (2). Later the perspective shifts to one belonging to the turbulence of adolescence and its utopic need for justice and rightness, and then everything is perceived from “afar in the tales of travelers, in news reports”(13) or from the perspective of his son Geoffrey who visited Egypt twice.

While Palestine for Edward Said acquires an almost dreamlike aspect, as we shall see, Egypt, the place where Hassan feels estranged and alien (in a haunting image, beggars on the Cairo streets follow him and cry “Mr. Foreigner,” 12), is remembered as a hopeless land, immersed in corruption and poverty, a place which offers no chance for change, growth or progress:

After revolution, a presidential assassination, four wars and a tripled population growth within half a century, what has really changed there beyond some streets and squares renamed? What profound political and cultural reforms? (14)

What really matters to him is not a precise, chronological rendering of the complete story of his life. For example he doesn’t say anything about his arrival in the States, the study there. He uses his autobiography as a pretext for demonstrating his thoughts and opinions on the subjects that he dealt with in a less personal way in his earlier critical and para-critical works. His continuous interest to humanism is relevant:

…humanists can be scholars and more than scholars, and must recall what turbulence makes the spirit whole. Can humanists learn to dream again, and dreaming wake to mediate actively between Culture and Desire, Language and Power, History and Hope? (15)

The titles of the ‘fragments’, ‘interludes’ and scenes are telling as well: “On Ideology,” “On Evolution,” “On Knowledge,” “On Paideia,” “On Travel.”

Hassan creates an open work in which he asks questions rather than provides answers, a work in which describing a mere story of the author’s life is by no means an end in itself. Hassan’s autobiography, then, becomes, to use the critic’s description of autobiography in general, “a quest rather than the record of a quest:”[12]

Enough lamentation. As I write this book, I turn away from the cant of criticism and its bad prose. (15)

Why have I come to Germany, to Munich of all places to write my “autobiography”? Germany has never held Arab colonies is that a reason? (26)

As opposed to traditional autobiographical accounts, this self-narrative is told, appropriately for a critic who devoted so much on his research on postmodernism, in fragments, short scenes and arguments. Out of Egypt includes a great variety of such fragments: short autobiographical entries along with brief selections from the diary the author kept in Munich where he was working on his self-narrative, short essays, called interludes, on various subjects, quotations of books by other writers and from his own work. He tells his story “block by fictive block, like a pyramid raised by treacherous slaves” (48), “in fragments,... in slips of memory, scraps of thought. In scenes and arguments of a life time, re-membered like the scattered bones of Osiris” (ix).

Realizing that “self-recreation is a sovereign fiction” (6) and that this autobiography resembles “a pyramid raised by treacherous slaves,” Hassan presents the restlessness and the turmoil of the scholar, critic and teacher by breaking the frame of past events, and bringing us through his queries and comments to the present moment and places of writing, Munich and Milwaukee, 1985. Thus his writing captures the truth of experience, with its uncertainties, gaps, aspirations, visions and banalities, through a permanent twofold movement, one backwards, towards origins and roots (although he says he cared for none), and a future-oriented one, forwards, derived probably from the continuous dialogue with the present and the times to come.  

The Munich sections in which Hassan includes many comments on his life in Egypt contain all kinds of metatextual remarks, also present in his previous works. They also include Hassan’s remarks on the genre of autobiography in general:

But why this autobiography now? What’s this that has come late to roil my life, stirring impure memories... Or is autobiography my own warrant for American self-exile? (106)

I write, I write even death. Yet this fragmentary autotobiography so much eludes me – and so much I must refuse to write. (110)

I complete – complete? – this autobiography in Milwaukee, where I live and teach, now home. (105)

Breaking the frame by either entering the work, or slashing an exit out of it, the meaning of these stances is obvious: the critic seeks desperately to evade Uroboros’ self-consuming circle and find an alternative reality and writing. Hassan has been one of the first to engage in the effort of formulating the criteria of postmodernism and he almost institutionalized the term. Hassan illustrates postmodernism in all senses, tone, style, approach and underlying ideas, in his autobiography.

Hassan most evidently sides with those autobiography critics who question the genre’s claims to authority and veracity and he even states “all autobiography is myth, like Death itself, in its deepest reality imaginary”(3). He is skeptical about the autobiography’s veracity and even writes: “I know something of the cunning of desire, duplicity of memoration. Against these, we can only summon the will to authenticity in mutual trust” (x).

He implies that no autobiography can be treated as an authoritative version of its author’s life and suggests that the value of his own autobiography lies not in the precise depiction of his real life, but elsewhere. Making more explicit and rendering into speech a continuous dimension of our lives that is not wholly past, present, or future but a blend of them all, autobiography expresses “all the ambiguities of our postmodern culture, having lost much of its innocence, autobiography has become the vehicle of our epistemic evasion, our social and psychic vexation” (29). This is, in a nutshell, Hassan’s theoretical approach to autobiography.

“Labor of self-creation, no less than self-cognizance or self expression … a mask, the mask of an absent face, that becomes actually the face we show and others see” (30), Hassan’s autobiography is the natural continuation of the Camargo or Serbellioni journals, but with a more powerful sense of structure and design. Containing ambiguities of the postmodern mind and the archetypal theme, Out of Egypt, “scenes and argument for an autobiography,” employs a subjective chronology, quotations, brief interludes and essays to face us with the mystery of being:

… I know […] that Time has kept its secret from my prying mind, and that all my writing, this autobiography, remains vain. But I know, too, with the deeper, stranger, certainty of faith, that such ‘vanity’ is itself augury and sign… Out of Egypt, into middles, passages, falling into true life (113). 

These final sentences of the book bring back to memory some lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,

Missing me one place, search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Similar and yet different (the direction is reversed: “true life” versus “somewhere”) the two writers reveal the vocation for the continuous journey. Hassan’s journey is the journey of Word and Logos. It is the journey of the Cross-legged Scribe he so much admires, whose spirit moved “gracefully between the kingdom of the living and the kingdom of the Dead” (111), now in the guise of the scholar who moves from the certainty of knowledge to the mystery of being. First in a quest for himself, later in a quest for quest, Hassan has introduced us through his autobiography to the imaginary variations of the ego, to its ludic metamorphoses.

3.  Edward Said’s Out of Place*

Writing from a representative space that is always politically marked (as ‘colored’ or as Third World) they do not so much remember for themselves as they remember in order to tell. [13]

T r i n h   T.   M i n h-H a

Palestine-born, literary and cultural critic, social commentator, Edward Said is most often associated with post-colonial studies, (due to his ground-breaking Orientalism 1978), the introduction of the Foucauldian paradigm in the American literary discourse in the early 70s, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. His work of over 35 years ranges from literary analysis and criticism to in-depth political analysis and music commentary.

Said starts writing his memoir Out of Place[14] as a result of a medical diagnosis, leukemia, in 1991; he found it important, he says, “to leave behind a subjective account of the life I lived in the Arab world, where I was born and spent my formative years” (ix). It is a return to his childhood in Jerusalem, Lebanon, and mostly Cairo — what he calls the “lost or forgotten world” (xi) — and to the prep schools and universities he first went when he came to the U.S. It is the story of a boy who felt out of place as a Palestinian in Egypt, as a Christian in a Muslim world, and as an Arab, holding an American passport and citizenship (his father emigrated to the U.S. in 1911 and returned to Palestine after the World War I) in a colonial world. The attempt to leave something behind, complemented by the feeling he “had something to understand about a peculiar past”[15] is also an attempt to reconcile himself with the unsettling sense “of many identities – mostly in conflict with each other” (5) and to “open himself to the deeply disorganized state of my real history … and then to try to construct them in order” (6).

The story starts with the portrait of his family, its genealogy, and complicated web of relatives, maternal and paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who will be with us all along the book. The beginning of the book is a collection of portraits of family members interspersed with accounts of his first perception of them. It narrates episodes and situations of his early life playing Robinson, watching Ali Baba, Aladdin or Sinbad movies, and listening to the Opera Nights, and continues with the unruly schoolboy, the concerns about his body at puberty, the girls he fell in love with, the boring summer holidays. The narrator probes into the incongruities so painful to him as a child, especially the mixture of cultures and languages that made him yearn to be confusingly plural. As a boy, he wished he could have been “all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all-Orthodox Christian, or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian” (5).

The memoir points out his out-of-place-ness, especially his unruly self, the Arab “Said,” incongruously paired with the British-sounding “Edward” who strove unsuccessfully to comply with the expectations of a regulatory culture, a condition that results in his feeling continually exiled. The conflict in this double self runs throughout the text. The “Edward” side, public and external seeks to fit in with, but is unable to comprehend and obey the demands of, a punishingly colonial school system and an authoritarian father. Meanwhile the “Said” side — fantasy-ridden, internal, and transgressive, “my better, less disabled, and still fresh self” — turns inward and toward music, ideas, and books, seeking an authentic freedom from his rule-bound world (42).

The search for understanding of and coming to terms with his identity is inextricably linked with the historical moment he lived in and changing realities of the world around him. In “Between Worlds”[16], Said calls Out of Place, then a work in progress, a story “worthy of rescue,” given that the three places where he grew up no longer exist as they were. To recreate his story is in some sense to recreate those places, and the book abounds in topologies and description of places; it maps all his departures and travels, Talbiah, Zamalek, Cairo, Ramallah, Dhour el Shweir. The portraits of his neighbors or friends echo themes, images, feelings details and nuances that document the intricacies of that Levantine world. In describing friends of the family, of mixed Lebanese, Egyptian, Armenian and Turkish origin, Said writes:

But like us they were marked for extinction in the worldly Cairo environment that was already beginning to be undermined. We were all Shawam, amphibious Levantine creatures whose essential lostness was momentarily stayed by a kind of forgetfulness, a kind of daydream… By the end of the forties we were no longer just Shawam but khawagat, the designated and respectful title for foreigners which, as used by Muslim Egyptians, has always carried a tinge of hostility (195).

Grasping the social and political valences of those realities comes to replace mere nostalgia in his writing. The puzzling complexity and richness of his life in Middle East contrasts starkly with his early life in the U.S. In his first winter away from home at boarding school he suffered from

… the social vacancy of Mount Hermon’s setting. I had spent all my life in two rich, teeming, historically dense metropolises, Jerusalem and Cairo, and now I was totally bereft of anything except the pristine woods, apple orchards, and the Connecticut River valley and hills stripped of their history. (235)

Out of Place represents the intellectual as a young man. The constant theme of restlessness, being unsettled, links young Edward with the adult Said; the notion of out-of-place-ness is a permanent features of his personality that had always existed: “There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit with the world.” (3) Said the narrator shares this experience with Said the protagonist the experience of exile which is not simply metaphoric, but both an objective reality (exiled from Palestine) and a subjective feeling (permanently out of place).

As it is well-known, there exists a long-term and powerful interest of Said’s to create the framework for Palestinian voice and history; from a certain point on in his very public career, Said has written, worked tirelessly and served as a spokesman (both officially and unofficially) for the Palestinian national movement, explicating Palestinian identity, history, politics and rights to an American audience completely unaccustomed to hearing such things. This is the background on which Out of Place: A Memoir may be seen as Said’s next step in encountering and responding to questions of Palestinian identity. This time he turned, as we have seen above, to his individual story, to his childhood in Jerusalem, Cairo, El-Dhour between his year of birth and his departure for U.S.:

I found myself telling the story of my life against the background of World War II, the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel, the end of the Egyptian monarchy, the Nasser years, the 1967 War, the emergence of the Palestinian movement, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Oslo Peace Process. These are in my memoir only allusively, even though their fugitive presence can be seen here and there (xi).

Although there is an “autobiographical turn” for academics, their memoirs do not usually cause an angry public stir, as it has been the case with Edward Said’s Out of Place. Of course, writing your life story, as therapy, as healing, as an act of remembering (the past) but also of forgetting (the present) might stand as one of the possible interpretations of Said’s memoir. However, most of the critics and reviewers of the book did not focus on the psychological, psychoanalytical valences of this memoir, that Said himself probably intended. With no exception[17] the book was analyzed either in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or in relation to Said’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, as its main representative and spokesman in the U.S. He was accused of embroidering his story to make himself more Palestinian than he is (Weiner), “light attitude to fact” (Wheatcroft), “inconsistency and hypocrisy”(Mo). Said retorted and as a result three different websites of CounterPunch, Salon Books and The Guardian launched a debate about the debate, and there has been a constant outpour of articles related to this point.[18]  

4. Conclusions 

Two major literary critics of our time write their autobiographies. Starting from their very titles, full of biblical references — “Out of Egypt,” a place on the map, versus “Out of Place,” ambivalently pointing both to placelessness as an existential experience and the lack of location for Palestine — and continuing with the interrelation between autobiographical detail and literary criticism that characterizes both texts, these autobiographies are perfect reflections of their critical work and the perfect writing of their literary and cultural criticism. The resemblances are many and striking. We see in both hyphenated identity, exile literary critics who early in their life established themselves in the United States; both have a rich Eurocentric background and similar preoccupations in the field of literary criticism and both concern themselves with re-conceptualizing the role of the critic and humanist, redefining the role of criticism and its consequent implication within a larger context, outside philology, in the contemporary world; last but not least, they both describe in their autobiography parts of the Middle East and Egypt (namely Cairo) at the same historical moment. And yet, in spite of all this, the differences are overwhelming.

For Hassan, his autobiography is just another brick in his theory about postmodernism and its contradictions. He states the emblematic nature of autobiography as an impossible genre, matching in this way the concept he dedicated most of his work to, postmodernism. He returns to it continuously, by inserting fragments of his published or unpublished journal in most of his criticism, stressing ambiguity, playfulness, and postmodern topoi. For Said, his autobiography has a thoroughly existential and profoundly human dimension. It has an existential dimension for him as an individual in a moment of personal crisis, as well as for him as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause, a cause in crisis. His memoir works in two ways like the Derridean pharmakon. Given the reactions of the press, it certainly works as poison; given the fact that he fulfils his mission to narrate the history of Palestine, it does function as remedy, healing. Healing at the individual level, the writing of the memoir gave him “something to look forward to… a purpose”: it was a reverse of his illness “whereas with other sorts of work that I did – essays, lectures, teaching, journalism – I was going across the illness… with this memoir I was borne along” (216). Also, healing in the sense of being able to leave an account of those remote times and places, of facing loss and forgetting.

In my analysis of these two autobiographies, I have attempted to stake out a terrain that calls for staking, yet paradoxically refuses it and in general evades any definite boundaries or frames. Autobiography today goes beyond the old model of literary genre with clear boundaries and contours, stubbornly resisting any possible fixity. It avoids the dual axes along which it was analyzed in previous periods, history – fiction/non-fiction –  inhabiting in my opinion  a third space of continuous becoming, the Deleuzian “AND.” Autobiography is no longer only a place of intermingling life and imagination happily celebrated, it is equally minefield-like mobile territory of constant clashes and negotiations, as demonstrated by the fierce reviews of the book. A complicated self-conscious text, in which its subject stands at once naked and veiled, autobiography re-appropriates the past, so as to transform our understanding about the present and ourselves. It parallels the concept of exile because, as a genre, autobiography is a succession of translations, displacements, and adaptations to various times and selves.

I argue for autobiography as a rhizomatic and nomadic form, the kind of form that resists coded modes of framing and analysis. The concept of the nomadism, as Deleuze defines the term, allows us to think more coherently of dispersion and dissemination[19]: I find in this concept the best way of understanding the interconnectedness between Hassan’s and Said’s autobiographical writings and their critical discourse. A nomadic form, autobiography implies in its turn not taking any kind of identity as permanent, only passing through: to put it shortly, a transgressive form.

At the same time nomadism implies forms of resistances or “lines of flight”[20]. It is resistance, a subversion of all sets of conventions, (as we could well see, with Hassan a postmodern unsettling, with Said the subversion of the postructuralist understanding of the text and the self) and an unsettled and continuous subversion. Seen as such, autobiography opens up in-between spaces where new forms of art, experience, and political action emerge. By living on the borderline of history and language, autobiography is in a position to translate any differences there may appear, as in the case of these two critics, into a kind of solidarity.


[1] The term “life-writing” has been preferred by critics of autobiography in recent years. For practical reasons, in this paper I will use terms such as “autobiography”, “memoir”,         “self-narrative” and “life-writing” interchangeably.

[2] The 2001 Fall Issue of the Biography – the most important academic journal dedicated to my topic contains the annual annotated bibliography of life writing contains over 850 entries. Craig Howes, in his listserv contribution, then goes on to say that due to limitations, this bibliography is almost exclusively anglocentric.

[3] Cf. MICHAEL GORRA, “The Autobiographical Turn”, Transitions, Issue 68, 1995, p. 152.

[4] VEESER, Introduction in Aram H. Veeser (ed.), Confessions of the Critics: North American Critics, Autobiographical Moves, New York: Routledge, 1996.

[5] Cf. “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible”, in Thousand Plateaux, pp. 232-310 and Dialogues, pp. 1-36.

[6] Negotiations: 1972-1990, Trans. Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia University  Press, 1995.

[7] IHAB HASSAN, The Dismemberment of Orpheus, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, p. IX.

[8] IHAB HASSAN, Paracriticims, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975, p. XI.

[9] IHAB HASSAN, The Right Promethean Fire, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980, p.  XVIII.

[10] IHAB HASSAN, “Parabiography: The Varieties of Critical Experience” reprinted in The Postmodern Turn. Hassan also expressed his interest in the genre in Selves at Risk.

[11] JEROME KLINKOWITZ, Roseenberg, Barthes, Hassan, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1986, p. 118.

[12] Selves at Risk, p. 30.

*My paper “The Politics of Autobiography: Edward Said Out of Place” in America in/from Romania, 2003, offers an further analysis of Said’s memoir, probing into the inner mechanisms of autobiographical-historical writing and mapping the implications of personal memory, recollection and writing a personal narrative in Said’s case.

[13] TRINH T. MINH-HA, “Other than myself/my other self” in Traveller’s Tales, p. 10.

[14] Out of Place, A Memoir, Vintage Books, NY, 1999.

[15] “Edward Said talks to Jacqueline Rose” in Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2000. p. 15.

[16] “Between Worlds”, in Reflexions on Exile, 2000, p. 568.

[17] I refer to: JUSTUS REID WEINER, “’My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said,” Commentary, September, 23-31, 2000; “Justus Reid Weiner Writes”, Commentary, January, 9-16. GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT, “Israel v Palestine: Which Side is Left On?”, New Statesman, London, Oct. 18, 1999, 32-33; TIMOTHY MO, “Alpha or Gamma for Behaviour”, The Spectator, London, Dec 18-25, 1999, 66-68; MERON BENVENISTI, “Blank Spaces: Talbiah and Rehavia”, SAIS Review, 20.1, 2000, 215-220, Nov. 18, 1999, pp.12-15; SCOTT SHERMAN, “Edward Said: A contested History”, Publishers Weekly, Sept. 6, 1999,   74-75, IAN BURUMA, “Misplaced Person”, The New York Times, Oct. 3, 1999, 7-10.1.

[18] CounterPunch, Sep. 1, 1999, “Commentary ‘Scholar’, Deliberately Falsified Record in Attack on Said”, http://www.counterpunch.org/said1/html. Also www.salon.com/books/log/ 1999/08/26/said, and JULIEN BORGER, “Friends Rally to Repulse Attack on Edward Said”, The Guardian Unlimited Online Version, Monday August 23, 1999, www.guardian.co.uk/ israel/Story/o,2763,203150,00.html.

[19] Cf. A Thousand Plateaus. In the understanding of the concept of “nomad,” Rosi Braidotti’s Nomadic Subjects has proven very useful.

[20]  I refer to the concepts here as discussed by Deleuze with Claire Parnet in Dialogues.




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