teresa rosell

The purifying function of writing

Life-writing can be said to have begun with Saint Augustine's Confessions, but the literary exploration of the self has undergone many transformations in the following centuries

In addition to biography, there is also what is known as life-writing, in which the first person singular is used to narrate a series of personal revelations. The first example in western literature is Saint Augustin's Confessions, a philosophical memoir written in Latin between 397-398. Yet, over the centuries, this confessional writing has undergone a constant transformation, and includes works such as Montaigne's Essais, from the 16th century, and Michel Leiris' The Age of Man (1939). We talk about this topic to Teresa Rosell, professor of comparative literature at Barcelona university, and a Samuel Beckett specialist.

What is life-writing?
It is a wide term, but from the perspective of literary theory it deals with the relationship between an author and the text they produce. There are complex interrelated worlds: reality, subject, text, writing, reading. The combination of all these elements makes it totally problematic and impossible to delimitate a genre. Saint Augustine and Montaigne did life-writing, but we can't say they were writing autobiographies. Life-writing refers to reflections on the condition of the subject.
How did life-writing change with the crisis of the subject in the 20th century?
That's right, the subject, as understood by Saint Augustine and Montaigne, did change. James Olney made a study of autobiography and divided it into in bios, autos and grafé.Bios is the contextual historical reconstruction, autos deals with the need to explain oneself and tell the truth, and grafé shows the impossibility of recognising the autobiographical covenant. This exposes the complexity of the language itself. Paul de Mann deals with all of this in his Autobiography as a Defacement. From here we enter a cul-de-sac. Possibilities? Out of the novel came autofiction.
The term autofiction is very fashionable right now. What are the latest trends in this genre?
It has been a very successful genre in France, but now it is on decline in favour of exofiction, which establishes a relationship between the writer and the outside world. The writer creates fiction based on real life events or figures, like Yasmina Khadra getting inside the head of Colonel Gaddafi in his book, La derniere nuit du rais.
In life-writing we detect the author's need to expose their ego, but also to satisfy the reader's interest in true stories.
In the Age of Intimacy, Nora Catelli deals with this change of paradigm. In The Age of Man we sense Michel Leiris' need to expose his privacy and let out the truth. He finds an almost purifying function in writing, while readers act a bit like voyeurs. All this movement is influenced by psychoanalysis. Writing means reflection and exposure of all your problems, and this was radically new and revolutionary in early 20th century society, where everything private was hidden and labelled as taboo.
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