review: the phenomenology of autobiography: making it real, by arnaud schmidt

I tracked this work down seeking to gain clarification on a current project of mine. A book with the title of The Phenomenology of Autobiography: Making it Real sounded exactly like the book for me. The working title of my project is ‘Taiji: Use Mind and Not Force’. Having begun studying taiji health exercise in 1980 and practised it daily for nearly forty years, I aim to write about my own experiences, a Western person doing Chinese taiji exercise, and to express some of the beauty of taiji as I have found it. This is why Schmidt’s title resonated with me. I plan to use a phenomenology framework as often many aspects of the taiji tradition become bogged down in questions of truth or falsity, right or wrong etc. The essential beauty of taiji is that it advocates strength in softness. More broadly, I am beginnning to believe that many questions in the world today could be far better handled if we had a clearer metaphysical basis to our worldviews. Metaphysics (that which goes beyond physics) may be seen as a soft field of study but it can often lead to more satisfying results than the resort to brute force.

The Phenomenology of Autobiography: Making it Real (TPoA:MiR) is a wide-sweeping text that spans most theoretical pespectives of the autobiography and is very up to date. Early on, Schmidt covers the historical shifts in reading fashions as genres appear before a new generation of readers as if for the first time ever. And so as the word autobiography sounds so passé, we hear new terms like the French choice of autofiction (which just invites suspicion about what the author is up to), and we have life writing, self writing, memoirs, creative nonfiction and so on.

The first half of the book covers questions of genre and hybridity. Some theorists make little of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. They just see narrative. While I seem to live in a world where so many people appear to be scared more by imaginary threats than real and immediate ones, just as they are often more easily enchanted by fictional promises of happiness over factual ones, I understand the postmodern opinion that all is narrative. However, many readers make careful decisions on what they choose to read and the author’s intention often comes into that decision-making process. While readers are willing to suspend their disbelief when they are knowingly reading fiction, I believe they are hoping for something else when they read nonfiction. While they still want the upliftment value of narrative, they also want to compare and contrast the experience of the author with the life or lives that they know. We will always have a fact/fiction border and Schmidt’s argument is that there is a scientific basis to this.

Soon after its publication, I quietly chuckled at the drama generated in Australia when Helen Demidenko concocted a family biography in her book The Hand That Signed the Paper. Fiction became fact to so many people’s disgust. They felt so tricked! Generally, such an author, as is the case for pranskter/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, will soon run out of subjects for their ensuing pranks if they continue in this vein. While subversive literature has its place, writing is a way of being which suggests a body of work and engagement with the world of readers and writers for more than a single event. And this holds writers more accountable (to the relief of the guardians of standards)! But the question still lingers about whether we value a work for what it is or whether we learn to value a work once we can place it etc. Schmidt says autobiography is a special genre that requires such placement.

While I appreciate the distinctions and observations made in the first half of the book about those debates on genre and hybridity, I did sit up more in the second half when Schmidt got to his thesis that modality is the key differentiator when it comes to life writing. He went into some detail about the neurophysiology of reading (an application of phenomenology in today’s world) and through the term heterophenomenology which suggests that while the writing of an autobigraphy is simple there is nothing simple about its reading and each reader will approach it with different expectations. On the basis of his claim that from the point of neuroscience we read fiction and nonfiction differently, Schmidt asserts that the author/reader agreement in a nutshell is that the writer invites the reader to the text and the reader returns with the willingness to read the text as an autobiography. That decision activates an empathic state which awakens the compare-and-contrast regions of the reader’s brain referred to above, and this is over and above the state of mind of any fictional reader.

As David Bahr says in his review of this work, Schmidt focuses far more on the reading of autobiography than on its writing. That being so, I still find the work has been beneficial to me as a writer for its focus on the quest to know my reader better. There is already much phenomenology theory elsewhere which I can apply to my project of examining my own life experience and writing. Though I am heartened by Schmidt’s last of his three summary conclusions that autobiography has the potential for transcendence as the reader delves into the experience of another which he says borders on the mystic (which fits in well with the metaphysical theme of my planned work).

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