But Enough About Me

by Daniel Mendelsohn for The New Yorker

"Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupçon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention. Even when the most distinguished writers and thinkers have turned to autobiography, they have found themselves accused of literary exhibitionism—when they can bring themselves to put on a show at all. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” appeared, shocking the salons of eighteenth-century Paris with matter-of-fact descriptions of the author’s masturbation and masochism, Edmund Burke lamented the “new sort of glory” the eminent philosophe was getting “from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices, which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents.” (The complaint sounds eerily familiar today.) When, at the suggestion of her sister, Virginia Woolf started, somewhat reluctantly, to compose an autobiographical “sketch,” she found herself, inexplicably at first, thinking of a certain hallway mirror—the scene, as further probing of her memory revealed, of an incestuous assault by her half-brother Gerald, an event that her memory had repressed, and about which, in the end, she was unable to write for publication..."

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Posted:  by nick stock
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