Det illojala barnets uppror: Studier kring jan Myrdals självbiografiska texter
|Title:||Det illojala barnets uppror: Studier kring jan Myrdals självbiografiska texter|
|Translated title:||The Rebellion of the Illoyal Child: Studies of Jan Myrdal´s autobiographical texts|
|Organization:||Blekinge Institute of Technology|
|Department:||Dept. of the Humanities (Institutionen för humaniora)
Dept. of Humanities S-371 79 Karlskrona
+46 455 780 00
|Abstract:||Jan Myrdal has often been considered a controversial author. During the sixties he was mostly regarded as a political figure, much appreciated by those who shared his political views and even more abhorred by those who did not. On the international scene his Report from a Chinese Village (1963) is perhaps the best known of his books, having inspired, for example, the sociologically orientated studies of the American author, Studs Terkel. In his abundant and multifacetted œuvre Myrdal has been working in most of the established genres, and also developed new ones. In my work on Myrdal’s texts I have, for a number of reasons, focused on his Childhood books (1982 - 1989). They represent an important part and, in some ways, the very kernel of his work. They deal with a child, growing up in a very special environment - his parents are internationally orientated radical politicians and, both are Nobel prize winners - developing his mind mostly in opposition to that environment. The story of that child, written by a son of famous parents and himself internationally well-known - a number of his books are translated into several foreign languages, - is in itself an interesting subject for a study. From the critical point of view its concentrated attention on the child and the child’s viewpoint, involving an interesting narratological pattern, invites a close reading in the spirit of the French critic, Gérard Genette, and his follower, Michael Riffaterre.
Methodically and theoretically the study of autobiographical writing constitutes a complex task. With regard to generic definitions, the critic will find Childhood an interesting intermediate case between autobiography and autobiographical novel. Regarded historically, Myrdal's Childhood books are part of the great tradition from S:t Augustine and Rousseau and more especially of the rebellious, “réfractaire“ branch formed by Stendhal, Vallès and Strindberg. In the context of autobiographical writings, considered as a genre, Myrdal's books were written at a time when new subgenres were being formed by sociological and psychological case stories and also by a media interest in people - famous and unknown alike - speaking freely an openly about their lives and personal problems on the radio, in magazines and in TV-shows. Myrdal's’ readers certainly had their expectations formed by these variations of autobiographical writing. For these variations I have chosen a term proposeded by Pillippe Lejeune: “littérature personnelle“.
In my “Introduction“ after a brief survey of generic theory put forward by Johnny Kondrup och Eva Hættner Aurelius, I discuss my reasons for turning to the French critic, Pillippe Lejeune, as a seminal force among generic theorists. His emphasis on generic distinctions, not as a norm of classification but as a reader’s tool towards his generic understanding of the text, has been adopted as a guiding principle. Particular attention is given to Lejeune’s discussion of the autobiographical pact: through the name identity between author and protagonist the former signs a kind of contract obligating himself to tell the truth, or perhaps his truth about the life and the experiences being related. This pact, be it implicit or explicit, appeared to be of great importance to Myrdal's’ readers, delimitating their horizon of expectations as well as their understanding of the text and, in particular, their evaluation of the text.
A survey of the actual stage in generic history during which the Childhood books were published, follows, special regard beeing paid to those new kinds of “littérature personnelle“ which have been conditioned by developements in the mass media. In this context, different readers’ expectations in relation to various kinds of auto-biographical writings will be discussed. Lastly we arrive at the extensive collection of reviews which forms the basis of my next chapter, “The Reception“.
Myrdal's Childhood provoked an intense debate. The book was first brought to public notice by the author in person, who read it on Swedish Radio, and many people reacted against what they regarded as an evil and false description of the famous parents. A large number of reviews followed, the study of which is an important part of my work. Here the marriage of genre theory and reception theory, proclaimed in Le pacte autobiographique by Pilippe Lejeune, comes into its own. His conception of genre viewed as a reader’s tool - “understanding is genrebound“ - informs my understanding of the reviewers’ different readings and evaluations.
The reception of Myrdal’s Childhood books raises the following questions: With what kind of previous understanding, with what kind and degree of consciousness of genre (genremedvetande) and with what horizons of expectations did the readers meet those books? What kinds of readings were put in motion by the different generic expectations? How was the reader’s evaluation influenced by those presuppositions?
Those reviewers who read Childhood as an autobiography or memoir emphasized the author’s duty to tell the truth about his childhood, including an appreciative attitude towards his parents. As that attitude was highly critical, these reviewers evaluated the book according to their generic expectations: this could not possibly be the truth about those famous and generally esteemed persons, and so the description was an outrageous lie. On the other hand, those who chose to read the book as a novel, as a story of a neglected and unhappy child, found it a true and deeply moving tale. So the reception of the Childhood books took on in a way the character of a trial, the readers taking the parts of prosecutors, witnesses and judges: had the author, or had he not, exercised fairness and justice to his famous parents in his description of his childhood?
Several reviewers, who found it both possible and rewarding to read the Childhood books simultanously as autobiography and as autobiographical novels, could find numerous qualities in the books. They found the story a true picture of a very special child in very special surroundings, but also found a universality that made them identifiy themselves with the child (and also, in a few cases) with the parents. The evaluations of the reviewers changed in an interesting way with respect to the later books in the series. Many reviewers of the first book, Childhood, appreciated its finer qualities, but in many cases critics took a dismissive attitude.The second book, Another World, was highly estimated, however. The reviewers now tended to read the book less as a biography of the famous parents and more as a story of the child, told by the child itself. They were increasingly able to regard it as a hybrid between autobio-graphy and fiction, and, accordingly, could accept the personal descriptions of the parents as the experiences and the subjective truth of the child. Most reviewers of the third book, Getting on Thirteen, applied this model of reading. Correspondingly, the evaluations were changed; with very few exceptions the books were highly regarded by later reviewers. A new and more variated generic consciousness was fundamental to their evaluation.
And so much for the reception. In my own readings I have asked the corresponding questions: What possibilities are offered to the critic by the different generic expectations, and by the different models of previous understanding and evaluation? What happens when the reader regards the much-debated works as free artefacts, as parts of the authors complete œuvre, as parts of a tradition, as descriptions of an existing and referential reality, or as authorial expressions in the making of his own consciousness, his personality, his ego? These are the questions that prevade my reading of the Childhood books.
I have chosen to consider Myrdals’ books mainly as artefacts belonging to the autobiographical tradition, having their existence on the border between autobiography and novel.
The chapter “The process of Growth“ aims at a description of Myrdals early and various declarations of his writing intentions, even these forming part of his autobiographical writing: this is his view of himself as an author, the author also of the Childhood books. Myrdal considers his authorial intentions a question of loyalties: whom will his writing serve? He has made a deliberate choice of loyalties; they remain not with the educated, well-manœvered people, but with the poor and oppressed, who show resistance towards those in power. This resistance often takes forms which are vulgar in a Bachtinean sense. This vulgarity assumes a programmatic value: the author chooses his tradition from popular tales of rich and poor, which often contain vulgar resistance to and rebellion against all kinds of oppression. For such resistance he has found a word: he regards himself a “réfractaire“, a resister and a rebel, in the tradition of the French Enlightenment authors and their heirs, e.g. Strindberg and Jules Vallès. The task and the resonsibility this “réfractaire“ tradition entails, are the foundation of Myrdals’ view of himself as an author, one of his many descriptions of his self, the explanation of which, he finds in those experiences from his childhood contained in the Childhood books.
Myrdal has been working on autobiographical material in various guises. In “Littérature personnelle before Childhood“ a short account is given of Myrdal’s use of “I“ for different purposes. In public performances, not unlike those of the parents so profoundly despised by the son, appears an “I“. That “I“ is used by the author as an example in a political analysis. Another “I“ comes forward in the deep and earnest self-examination in the author’s earlier autobiographical works, e.g.Rescontra and Confessions of a Disloyal European. Still more important: is the fact that from the novels of his early youth, Myrdal has been working continually on his childhood impressions. There is a permanent discussion between critics of autobiography about the relation between the autobiographer and his memories; are they truly remembered and truthfully rendered, and can anybody remember the exact truth? To this discussion Myrdal’s texts offer an interesting contribution: they enable the reader to study the same episode in different contexts and under varying lightning conditions; and there are also memory changes under the impression of later experiences, the author becoming more and more critical towards his parents and his environment. His criticism is directed towards both the personal behaviour of the parents and the radical modern vision of society they represent. His rebellious, “réfraktaire“, criticism defies the parents personally both in their educating rôle in the spirit of the new modernism, and their parttaking in the mecanisms of oppression inherent in radical politics.
In my next section, “The tradition“ the classical autobiographical tradition is considered, with particular regard to its description of the child, an aspect which is far from obvious among previous early autobiography. My guide is Albert Wifstrand, representative of early critical interest in autobiographical childhood descriptions. In his study “The view of the Child“, he has stated the necessary conditions for such a description: an interest in the child for its own sake, and a regard for its singularity. He finds two tendensies in later, Romantic, childhood descriptions, which run counter to those of classical Antiquity, namely the conception of the child as both good and happy at the same time. Of these ascribed qualities the former is found to be the more enduring, while modern texts tend to emphasize the deep unhappiness of the still innocent child. Building on Wifstrand’s view of the child, and still more on Hættner Aurelius’ stressing on the trial as an essential pattern in autobiographical writing, I offer a brief discussion of some classical episodes in S:t Augustine and Rousseau. While S:t Augustine, in the retrospective trial of the child, tends to pronounce the accused child quite as guilty as its adult judges, Rousseau averts the accusations from the child towards the adult accusers and judges, who are to bear the real guilt: through an erraneous, perhaps even malvolent education, they have destroyed the originally good child and made it at the same time unhappy and less good. In the child such education, and especially the unjust judgments of adult people, awake a justified opposition and a deeply-rooted resistance to any kind of oppression. Taking Rousseau as a turning-point in the history of the trial theme, I give attention to three classics in the autobiographical tradition, to whom the term “réfractaire“ may reasonably be applied, i.e. Stendhal, Vallès och Strindberg. Their impressions of childhod are examined, as were those of Rousseau, from three points of view: social environment, family pattern, and above all, the trial theme. The similarities found between these writers as a group, and between that group and Myrdal, are my reason for positing the “réfractaire“ tradition to which Myrdal adheres. They originate in the different writers’ sense of childhood’s deep injustices, not least in those trials where the innocent child is found guilty. A humiliation of this nature tends, in the eyes of the adult narrator, to take on a pattern-making rôle. Just as the child reacted against the injustice of childhood, these writers have, in their adult lives, reacted against every form of oppression - religious, political, or otherwise. The adult “réfractaire“ was formed by his childhood experiences.
In the chapter “The Œuvre“ I have chosen to regard Myrdal’s texts mainly as artefacts belonging to the “réfractaire“ autobiographical tradition, my aim being to reflect on the pattern of the text while making use of different kinds of generic understanding. The reader, on encountering any kind of autobiographical writing, tends to connect it with the actual situation it describes. The reader will therefore always ask himself - and the author - which kind of truth the author is telling. Is he telling his own internal truth about his own feelings - a truth which no one can deny him - or is he telling the truth about facts possible to control from other sources? Thus the reader will always compare the text with the referential reality it presupposes. The referential truth behind the autobiographical story, and the author’s as well as the protagonist’s relation to phenomena typical of his time, are discussed in the sub-chapters “Attitude to psychology and psychoanalysis“ and “The ’réfractaire’ and radicalism“. In accordance with the earlier “réfractaires“, Myrdal takes a very conscious attitude towards his own text. More often than most authors, he has stated his (sometimes contradictory) intentions in an ongoing and highly articulate discussion with his readers, implied readers as well as critics. These declarations of intent are discussed under the heading “The autobiographical project“.
The main thing, however, is the text considered as such, and read both as as fiction and autobiography.
A review of certain motivic and thematic points - corresponding to that previously applied to Stendhal, Vallès, and Strindberg - is put forward in the sub-chapters “The social continuity“, “The picture of family“, and “The child on trial - the trial of the child“. While taking some account of the referential reality behind the text, I am primarily concerned to investigate how these themes takie on the character of a truth deeply embedded in the textual pattern. “Fictional truth“, according to Riffaterre, is the internal truth to be found in the grammar of fictionality.
Lastly,under the heading “The growth of the Ego out of dreams and fantasies“, the numerous dream and fantasy sequences are examined. In these, the growing Ego is formed, as well as consciously forming itself, in opposition against the environment, not least by dint of reading habits and dream-worlds. While taking on an increasingly “réfractaire“ character, the Ego at first finds its dreamworld terrifying. Subsequently, it learns how to master its fantasies and to use them not only as a refuge from an odious reality, but also with a view - at least on the plane of thought - to oppose and take vengeance of its opponents. In the third stage, the world of dreams and fantasies forms the framework of an increasingly intellectual treatment of material furnished by reading and thinking. Eventually, this process of growth is sufficiently advanced for the protagonist to bid farwell, albeit not without pain, to the world of dreams and fantasies.
|Subject:||The Humanities\Comparative Literature|
|Keywords:||autobiography, generic theory, reception, thematic study, "réfractaire", fictional truth, narratology|