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Autobiography: to have been or not to have been

I tweeted recently (@profjacksanger) that “The past is but a blank page on which the historian writes fiction.” In many ways, the business of autobiography follows suit. We re-write our histories incrementally as our lives progress so that they fit and augment our circumstances at the time of writing. Whether we recognise it or not, we are the lead players in our histories and everything is refracted through the prism of our reminiscences. If you are an avid reader of people’s reflections on their lives, it is worth remembering that they are always more fiction than fact. The project of trying to reduce their histories and contain them in nutshells is such a preposterous violation of reality that they cannot be claimed to be anything other than some vague after-taste of what might have transpired. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a great piece about the accuracy of maps when representing reality:

On Exactitude in Science

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map
of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

In other words, unless we were mad enough to write everything down as it happens – which means we wouldn’t have time to experience anything and our lives would be stuffed with writing and little else, a diarrhea of words about nothing – we must accept the evils of selection and reductionism.

Here’s a tale. In an early blog I, Jack Sanger, described the change that took place in my psyche at the age of eighteen at college when I decided to take my middle name, Jack, in preference to my name of the previous seventeen plus years, Eric. As in some drama of film or stage, the change was from an introverted, shy individual to an outgoing socialite, actor, scriptwriter, stand-up comic and serial lover of women. I include the latter, not as an attempt to inflate my sexual standing (which, you will have gathered from above, might well be the case) but to reminisce on the effects of this change of name upon my behavior with the said young women.

For some months as I settled uneasily into this new persona, I vacillated between these two characters; the introvert and the extrovert. When I kissed and fondled and was touched in turn, I had the distinct impression that it was not Eric who was enjoying life so royally but the new outer person, Jack. Jack was having all the fun and Eric was a mere onlooker – or, to be more accurate an outlooker.

As time went on it became easier. I was Jack. In the psychic battle between my two selves, Jack subsumed Eric. Where is he now, the old Eric? He is called up by the magic lamp of my keyboard for he is the object of all my autobiographical blogs up to the age of eighteen.

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