In my previous post, I declared I just didn't have anything to say about Rousseau's Confessions. I misspoke, apparently. After writing that post, I realized some things: namely, just because the content appalled me, I can't ignore the form/style/function of what is considered to be the first autobiography in the Western canon; and while I also raise an eyebrow at that designation of first, I can't however claim that women's diaries and collected letters preceding his time (which read like autobiographies), were ever written with the intent to psychologically understand how the past impacts the present. Rousseau set out to write the first autobiographical confessional narrative for public consumption. (His confessions aren't Augustine's, whose audience and judge was God.) Rousseau invites, or maybe dares, readers in his own time and readers of the future to go ahead and judge him. What's more, Confessions is hardly his most important work, even if it does foreground Freud and psychoanalysis, as this article explains and this article questions. However, Rousseau's other literary and philosophical contributions are extensive, and, as this article states: "Rousseau stands squarely if unsystematically at the root of democracy, autobiography, Romanticism, child-centered education, even psychoanalysis." So I can't just ignore his presence on my list, and I really can't ignore his generic influence on my own writing.
Several years ago, my first attempt at creative nonfiction was Wild Thing, a little pamphlet with maybe a dozen or so prose exercises within. But for just one of them, I did not delve into my childhood. A few years later, however, I began drafting Fit Into Me, which examines my childhood with a magnifying glass. The manuscript was shortlisted, I just found out, for a certain nonfiction prize, and while I understand why it wasn't selected (after seeing the description of the winning manuscript, especially), it still stings to know it came close but not close enough. And yet, the thing about that contest that made my submission possible is the publisher's interest in manuscripts in progress, manuscripts not yet fully realized. What's clear to me and has always been clear to me is that my confessional impulses in Fit are not yet fully realized, and this is its current draft's failing. As much as I hate to admit it, Rousseau may have just called me out on what I already knew but resisted. In his confessions, he does not hold back; he shares his many humiliations and his consequent shame. He tells all. I, on the other hand, have yet to really confess anything. Confessions, then, is a craft lesson, a condemnation, reminder, and warning:
Histories, lives, portraits, character sketches! What are they? Ingenious fictions built on a few external facts, a few speeches that relate to them, some subtle conjectures in which the author is much more anxious to shine than to discover the truth.
"What are you afraid of?" Lance asked a few years ago, in his response to one of my nonfictions. I still can't answer, but I'm thinking about it. I've been thinking about it. I'll continue to think about it. And in the meantime, I'm reading and thinking about a lot of things, and I'm writing these mini-responses here on this blog, in order to rethink those things. Soon, after exams in August (or maybe September), it will be time to stop trying to shine and to discover instead my own Rousseauian truth.