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Does an Autobiography have any Value? [a Fictionalized Symposium]

Does an Autobiography have any Value? [a Fictionalized Symposium]

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Published by michio@seifu
A priest, social historian, biographer, productivity expert, psychologist, and educator participate in a 1-1/2 hour symposium on the private and social value of the autobiography.
A priest, social historian, biographer, productivity expert, psychologist, and educator participate in a 1-1/2 hour symposium on the private and social value of the autobiography.

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Published by: michio@seifu on Apr 12, 2011
Copyright:Public Domain


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The author has reserved all rights to the content of this webpage. Noneof the content may be copied or reproduced for any purpose.Minor addition made 2011-08-23.
Does an Autobiography have any Value?
[A Fictional Symposium]
 by B. de St.-G.
: Our symposium today will consider the nature andvalue of the autobiography from the perspective of experts inrelated fields. We have a priest, we have a social historian, wehave a biographer, we have a productivity expert from the realm of work and leisure, and we have a psychologist and an educator. Iwill present topics and ask for comments from specific members of our panel.Let me ask the biographer first. As a historical record of a person'slife, is the typical autobiography worth anything?
: I think if we were to ask questions directly to a person about his life, we would get a very different portrait of the person than we would from his autobiography. Mostautobiographies are very amateurish, the terms of analysis areoften limited by intellectual range and experience of the writer, andalso the autobiographies often have an agenda that is not veryvaluable from a historical perspective, and that is, first, to promoteor justify a person's actions, and second, to entertain a reader. Theauthor of the autobiography does not necessarily have to have publishing in mind to write it in an entertaining style. That maysimply be a habit. Politicians, for example, are in the habit of catering to an audience.An author, even if he does a fairly thorough analysis, is oftenlimited to the sort of topics that are considered relevant in his ownera. Yet as we know, in history the topics of interest change fromera to era. In many ways a diary, emails or letters that record dailyactivities and thoughts would be more valuable than anautobiography. Diaries however often are very shortsighted andare distorted by temporary moods. Ideally we would have both adiary and an autobiography based on the diary, which could provide a broader perspective.One point that has to be made however, about all historicalrecords, is the truism that history is sometimes bunk. We aretotally reliant on the writer's choice of what to record and how he1
expresses himself. Human language is not the most precise andrealistic means of capturing events as they happen. Language isvery value-laden and judgemental and also ambiguous and carrieswith it a huge baggage of nuances, some relevant, some irrelevant.I think that, all that said, an autobiography is useful as acorroborating record. I don't think any biographer would relyexclusively, in terms of trying to create a historically-accuratedocument, on someone's autobiography. Much more valuablewould be a Day-Timer type of diary that records activities, quoteswhat has been said, and records thoughts as they happen.An autobiography writer can also act as his own biographer byinterviewing people who were witnesses to his life, especially his parents. Of course parents guilty of poor child-raising may beloathe to submit to any questions, especially any that may producefeelings of guilt. But such interviews would be worth the effort,regardless.A biography differs from an autobiography quite radically in thatthe range of topics in the biography is set by the social context of the audience and has a wide breadth of hindsight. The socialhistorian will comment on how a person's contribution to societyought to be a focus of an autobiography. Autobiographies areoften written from a rather selfish perspective and they leave outmany of the questions of the writer's relationship to the broader society.The autobiographer often asks himself, "What could I have done tomake my life happier for myself." Whereas a biographer asks,"How did the person make his social contribution."Like all the writing arts, autobiography is still in a rather primitivestate. You cannot go to a public library now for example and finda textbook on the art of autobiography. But I would set downseveral terms by which an author should analyze his life. Thoseare the following six items: (1) a person's aptitudes and handicaps,(2) his motivations, (3) his experiences, his opportunities andhurdles in life, (4) his perceptions and his strategies in life, (5) hisskills, and (6) his accomplishments. There would be quite a bit of thought in dealing with each of those topic areas. One could alsoevaluate one's life in terms of a standard of success or failure, butI'm not sure how accurate or worthwhile that would be. This panelwill discuss that viewpoint later. In practice the typicalautobiography simply asks, "Why didn't life treat me better".
: Let me now ask the priest a slightly different2
question, that is, "Is spending the time to write an autobiographymorally justified or morally worthwhile?"
: I think a lot of people, when they write an autobiography,ask the question, "Did my life give me the opportunity to self-actualize? Did I have the opportunities to reach my full potential?"Well, the church might find that to be a rather selfish outlook.After all, among the duties of a human being is not self-actualization. One's duties are to God and to his fellow human beings, and also avoiding such evils as sloth, malice, indolentexcess, and so on.All that said, the church sees meditation as a way of communicating with God as well as reflecting on how well wehave performed our duties as human beings, in other words, a self-analysis in terms of virtue. An autobiography as opposed tomeditation could well be simply an act of vanity, recording one'saccomplishments in the form of a boast, or exonerating oneself for one's failings rather than accepting them. Yet, to the extent that a person fulfills his duties as a human, the church has no objection toa person spending time recording his life—provided theautobiography is used as a means of educating others or improvingoneself. When one improves oneself he is doing a social good, because he is then better able to help others.When we talk about charity in the contemporary world, we usuallythink about money, which is really too bad, because money doesn'treally have much value in terms of human life. It's not an end thatcan be justified. Recently the pope talked about the evil of excessive wealth and the duty of people to give away money rather than hoard it. Well there is also an analogy that can be made toknowledge. One can hoard knowledge, and it is our charitableduty as human beings to share our knowledge with others. We arenot required to beggar ourselves in spending a lot of time andenergy in acquiring knowledge, and then giving it away withoutenough compensation to support ourselves. But when we haveknowledge in excess of what is necessary to support ourselves, weare morally obligated to share it with others. How many giant players on the human stage have gone to the grave withoutrecording the lessons of their lives and the knowledge they hadacquired? Whole realms of human knowledge go to the graveevery year in that way, because people do not have the charity tocommunicate what they know so it can be transmitted to other humans. In that way, I see the autobiography as a vehicle for transmitting human knowledge, and so as a good thing, if usedselflessly, as a way of educating others about life.3

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