chapter  3
19 Pages

De Man, the Woman, and Her Writing: Transcendence and/or Defacement in Elisavet Moutzan-Martinengou’s Autobiography

In his chapter on Proust in Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man writes: “It is not more legitimate to say that the ethical interests of the subject determine the invention of figures than to say that the rhetorical potential of language engenders the choice of guilt as theme; no one can decide whether Proust invented metaphors because he felt guilty or whether he had to declare himself guilty in order to find a use for his metaphors.”1 De Man’s gesture, the destruction of the primacy and foundational character of human experience and its submission to the power of language, is by now a commonplace of academic discourse; we talk about the construction and performativity of subjects by language, ideology, culture, and so on. The notion of a coherent, controlling subject who represents the self through a naturalized rhetoric of unproblematized experience is dead, and has been so for quite some time. It is therefore striking that autobiographical writing, while always a staple in America, has recently enjoyed renewed popularity. Memoir writing and reading in the 1990s, as reflected by their prominence in the best-seller lists, seemed to be all the rage and was accompanied by what Nancy Miller has called a veritable “outburst of selfwriting” in academia since the 1980s.2 On a certain level this seems paradoxical. If the authority of experience has been thrown out of the window, why are people busily writing in a form that relies on the authorizing power of experience? Is all this self-writing a symptom of an existential angst that seeks to bring back the authority of experience and the coherence of the subject as a reaction to what are sometimes considered the compartmentalized and dehumanizing intellectual constructions of academia?3 At a cultural moment when the discourse of difference reigns supreme, do these memoirs manifest a desire for resemblance, the desire “to create a being like oneself,” that Barbara Johnson calls the “autobiographical desire par excellence?”4 Is self-writing, an exercise in declaring and particularizing our subject positions, a paradoxical attempt to write oneself out of that very discourse of difference, out of various enclosures-ghettoes and ivory towers? Does it seek to do so through an appeal to an illusion of intimacy and sameness, the comforting notion of a normative, all-encompassing experience, enacted through the meeting of the writing “I” and the reading “you”? It should not suprise us that, at this moment of crisis of the subject, autobiography seems to come to the rescue, for the very tensions that plague our attempts to conceptualize what it means to be a subject are tensions which are built into the very structure of autobiography and its criticism. In fact, if this outburst of self-writing is an attempt to get away from dehumanizing accounts of the construction of the self, the predictability of many of these accounts merely gives weight to the theorization of the constructed nature of experience. And while many critics claim that the growing interest in autbiography from the 1960s to this day is due to the fact that autobiography stages the vexed and vexing questions concerning the subject, agency, and the referentiality, truth, and sincerity of the reading and writing of experience, we could just as well say, after de Man, that it is autobiography that has authorized our interest in these

questions. The critic Leigh Gilmore puts it well: “Autobiographical authority may be attributed to human agents but also to genre(s) of self-representation (especially, autobiography itself).”5 This aggravating circularity seems to plague the practice and discussion of autobiography-it provokes a blurring of cause and effect, reading and writing, experience and its narrativization. And it is precisely this frustration, what de Man describes as the intolerable feeling of being caught in a revolving door, that most clearly characterizes the working of autobiography.6