Herman, David.
Autobiography, allegory, and the construction of self
British Journal of Aesthetics
35. 4 (October 1995):351 (10 pages).

Abstract: The autobiographies of William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne MacBride illustrate the relations between autobiographical and allegorial discourse. These works show that individuals use different mechanisms to achieve their respective allegories of self. They manner by which Yeats and Gonne construct themselves also demonstrates that every identity emerges in the interstices of the presupposition it rejects.

COPYRIGHT Oxford University Press (UK) 1995

Recent theories of autobiography have stressed the fictiveness of discourse that purports to describe (the history of) a self. A broadly constructivist view underwrites such theories: autobiographies are not bare chronicles of fact, but the artful manipulation of details and events that acquire the status of facts during the construction of a particular persona as a self. Yet a constructivist interpretation of autobiographical discourse does not of itself commit us to reading autobiographies as we would read fictions. Rather than collapsing autobiography and fiction, I want to make a case here for reading autobiographies as allegories of selves, as representations of how a self should function in a given set of circumstances. After a brief synopsis of recent thinking about autobiography, I shall discuss two Irish autobiographies - William Butler Yeats' and Maud Gonne MacBride's - that may help us to rethink the relations between allegorical and autobiographical discourse in general.

To anticipate: Yeats' Autobiography and Gonne's A Servant of the Queen suggest how allegory marks not the intrusion of the fictive into the domain of fact, not the contamination of the (self-) descriptive by the imaginary, but rather a more or less important ingredient of every autobiographical account.[1] To say that autobiographical discourse merely constructs a self-to claim that autobiographies portray discrete events and fluctuating attributes as moments of a composite self - is to make a statement that is true, but only trivially so. I would urge that, at this point in our thinking about things like identities, cultures and stories, we should simply concede that all identities are but particular constructions of a self, serving particular descriptive functions in particular cultural contexts. We should then go on to address what I believe to be more interesting and fruitful questions in this connection: What is it about this or that mode of self-construction that makes for a more effective, a more persuasive - i.e. a better - way of doing autobiography in this or that context of description? Can we think of some selves as ideal or exemplary constructions in a given cultural context, other selves as constructions that might best be forgotten, or at least reimagined, in those same contexts?

Through comparison of what I shall characterize below as Yeats' and Gonne's axioms of allegory - i.e. their basic assumptions about what a self should be, and the ways in which these assumptions govern their very different self-descriptions - we can outline how the two authors construct selves as schemes or plans for an ideal Irish identity. Both Yeats and Gonne model selves designed to withstand any number of destructive influences acting on Irish men and women earlier this century; the authors do not just construct selves, but construct particular models for what a self should be and do, given the specific circumstances of the Irish. More generally, although the infinite diversity of descriptive contexts prevents us from ever pronouncing ex cathedra what counts as the best way of telling the story of one's life, nonetheless, study of autobiography and allegory in Yeats and Gonne suggests that there are better and worse ways of describing who we are, and that further research on autobiographical discourse would do well to focus on the fundamentally pragmatic requirements - the appropriateness conditions, as it were - for our various modes of self-description.

In this paper, then, the term 'allegory' will have a narrower scope than both the term 'construction' and the term 'fiction'. In autobiographical contexts, an allegory is a specific kind of self- construction; it is the construction of a self chosen over other selves and in response to conditions and constraints that those other (possible) selves would be incapable, or less capable, of negotiating. Thus, autobiographies allegorize selves by constructing personae of a broadly symbolic import. Such personae symbolize strategies for self-construction; i.e. the point of autobiography is to make us re-evaluate the possibilities and limits of strategies for creating a self, given certain initial conditions (sociohistorical contexts, political forces, etc.). By contrast, in first-person fictions, for example, constraints on self- construction are visibly relaxed. Fictional personae encode a wider gamut of possible selves, many of which are interesting precisely because of their distance from any self we might be inclined to call actual or actualizable.[2] Whereas autobiographies allegorize selves, and compel us to re-evaluate strategies for the construction of an optimally functional self, fictions typically multiply ways in which selves might possibly be conceived to function. Autobiographies enrich the corpus of exemplary selves; fictions constitute a corpus of possible identities.[3]



There was a time, deep in the prehistory of postmodernism, when people believed in a mysterious and well-nigh ineffable idea called 'literariness'. The Russian Formalists, Prague Structuralists and others of their superannuated ilk sought to specify the necessary and sufficient conditions for literature - to isolate what makes literature literature, what distinguishes it from mere written documents like train schedules, geology textbooks and dry academic articles. At one point it seemed that the notion of functional dominance - in particular, the relative dominance of the poetic function of language over its other possible functions - might figure forth the grail of the literary. But then, through a Copernican revolution engendered by theorists from various apostate sects, people began to see 'the literary' not as a property or function attaching to a restricted set of privileged texts, but rather as a network of features - metaphoricity, plurisignificance, intertextuality and the like - encompassing in principle every instance of written and spoken discourse. The old formalisms and functionalisms started to die out. Literariness, by now, was no longer one linguistic function among others, but rather a way of talking about the nature of language and communication themselves. Meanwhile, people had come to expect that by searching out the covert literariness and fictiveness of avowedly non-literary and fact- finding discourses - philosophical, anthropological, historical - they could go on to redescribe, in theoretically productive ways, the operations and effects of the discourses in question. A new literary theology, pantextual in orientation, had taken hold.

The foregoing parable may figure forth, in turn, some reasons for the rapid growth of interest in autobiographical discourse in recent years, an interest spawned by such works as Elizabeth Bruss's Autobiographical Acts and the collection on Autobiography edited by James Olney in 1980.[4] After all, autobiography shares with history the reliance on statements that purport to be factual, not fictional; with (post-Cartesian) philosophy, the presupposition that, as Richard White puts it, 'the self has become a problem to itself'; and with anthropology, the search for models 'whose complexity', as Shari Benstock writes, 'could encompass the richness of diversity of our cultures, including in their dizzying sophistication places for racial or ethnic "otherness", for marginal voices, for le grain de la voix of gender'.[5] Yet like these other discourses, autobiography, through its employment of events into the story of a life, its willful structuring of a coherent self that endures over time, its dramatization of conflicts born of multiple subcultures, also betrays forms and techniques that smack of the literary, the fictional, the allegorical.

Thus, for Paul John Eakins, whereas 'autobiography was [once] ranged along with biography and history as one of the artless literatures of fact', in the last twenty years, the pervasive initiative has been to establish autobiography as an imaginative art, with special emphasis on its fictions', this 'shift in perspective from fact to fiction' having been aided and abetted by what Eakins specifies as 'the poststructuralist critique of the concept of the self ... and of the referential possibilities of language'.[6] Or, as Sidonie Smith puts it,

It seems that autobiography, despite or rather because of its participation in a host of what Lyotard would characterize as specifically cognitive 'phrase regimens',[8] resorts all the while, and willy-nilly, to the phrasing and structure of fictional narratives. By the same token - and here lies, perhaps, the aura it exerts over latter-day academics - autobiography starts to figure as a privileged example of the irreducibility of the literary; it comes to stand for the fabulation at the heart of every factual report. In trying to tell my story as accurately and as comprehensively as possible, do I not all the more bespeak fiction's force, confusing the substantive with the stylish, the descriptive with the dramatic, the content with the form? Would I not do well to craft the tale of myself by adverting outright, at every juncture, to the fiction that I am? And does not the genre of autobiography begin to allegorize, in this context, what we might call posthumanist humanity at large, in constant quest of (self)-knowledge, beset by delusions it takes for certainties, haunted by characters and personae it takes for full- blown identities?

I should like to begin framing some answers to these difficult questions by invoking, at long last, Yeats and Gonne. It is not just that, by thematizing the very notions of mask and image, Yeats' Autobiography, like Nietzsche's parody of a self in Ecce Homo, anticipates current issues in the study of autobiography. Beyond this, examination of the narrative forms and techniques adopted by both Yeats and Gonne may provide a helpfully heterodox account of autobiographical discourse. In particular, to say that autobiography always and everywhere manifests the ongoing construction of a self is not to address what I take to be the really crucial issue in this connection: the issue, namely, of whether there are better and worse allegories of who we are, more and less generative modes of self-construction, and what autobiography has to tell us about that.



Note that in both Yeats and Gonne we find a peculiar subspecies of what might be termed the modernist paradox of mythic topicality. In parallel with modernist texts like Ulysses and The Waste Land, which ground everyday events in the framework of Homeric and Christian myth, for example, in the Autobiography spiritualist and theosophical lore shapes Yeats' account of his participation in the Irish Literary Revival.[9] In A Servant of the Queen, likewise, recourse to native Irish myths and legends (Cathleen ni Houlihan, the woman of the Sidhe[10]) periodically underwrites Gonne's treatment of Ireland's struggle for independence from England and of her own role within that struggle. But how do we set about characterizing the effects of such allegorical technique in a putatively factual genre of discourse like autobiography? What tensions and displacements can we identify in Yeats' and Gonne's attempts to found the emergent category of Irishness - to establish a discrete cultural and political identity for contemporary Irish men and women - by appeal to the supra- or transhistorical domain of myth?

In this connection we need a more detailed analysis of the narrative operations yielding, in Yeats and Gonne, what prove to be quite different allegories of self. According to classical accounts of allegory -for example, the one offered by Northrop Frye - '[w]e have [allegory] when the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena'.[11] But significantly, in Yeats and Gonne the process of self-narration requires telling a story, too, about what makes for a good allegory; self- description is, invariably, also a justification for describing ourselves in this or that way, against this or that backdrop of concepts, beliefs, and narratives.

Yeats himself points up the necessity of avoiding bad allegories, and suggests some criteria for good ones, in his critique of the nineteenth- century Young Ireland movement, whose members included Thomas Davis, John Mitchell and others. For Young Ireland, as Yeats puts it, '[a]ll the past had been turned into a melodrama with Ireland for blameless hero and poet; novelist and historian had but one object, that we should hiss the villain, and only a minority doubted that the greater the talent the greater the hiss; (A 138). By implication, and conversely, we can expect that any good allegory - including Yeats' self-allegorization - will reject clear-cut heroes and villains in favour of morally complex and ambiguous characters, figuring in a multiplicity of roles and regularly changing their minds. We can expect that the better brand of allegory will feature not just selves but also anti-selves, heroes become villains, villains become heroes - in short, identities that dialectically recuperate what would prima facie seem most alien and adventitious to them.[12]

Extrapolating, we can say that for Yeats a good allegory is a counteragent to fragmentation, personal, cultural and political; a good allegory links, unifies, and imposes coherence where before we may have seen only a heap of unrelated items, a collection of personae. In the Autobiography itself, the concept of the fragment is at once a privileged theme and an instrument of critique.[13] Yeats describes how at one point '[a] conviction that the world was now but a bundle of fragments possessed me without ceasing' (A 128). He also decries the 'individualistic anarchy' (A 375) bred by contemporary civilization, and laments that 'our civilization [in Ireland], its elements multiplying by division like certain low forms of life, was all-powerful' (A 131). In turn, Yeats criticizes the fragmentary character of modern thought and action generally: '[o]ur own acts are isolated and one act does not buy absolution for another. They are always present before a strangely abstract judgment. We are never a unity, a personality to ourselves' (A 340).

Notice that in the passage just quoted Yeats not only thematizes the very notion of a self, but also outlines protocols for self-description: the suggestion is that a self, like a nation or a culture, just is an allegory projecting isolated fragments into a dialectical totality. Thus, the persona(e) that Yeats constructs for himself in his Autobiography - the identities that figure his character, in both senses of that term - ground themselves in a matrix of experiential fragments narrativized through allegory into a whole, a life. We have for example the very first sentence of the Autobiography: 'My first memories are fragmentary and isolated and contemporaneous, as though one remembered some first moments of the Seven Days. It seems as if time had not yet been created, for all thoughts connected with emotion and place are without sequence' (A I). Here Yeats explicitly invokes a biblical allegory - the allegory of creation contained of course in Genesis - in attempts to order his own early disjointed memories into a definite beginning. He both allegorizes himself and signals the power of allegory, as a genre, to make sense of otherwise inchoate origins. But more than this, Yeats the poet everywhere allegorizes his identity just by making of himself a being whose raison d'etre is to allegorize - to reframe his experiences as part of something larger than himself. As Yeats puts it, 'I am certain that there was something in myself compelling me to attempt creation of an art separate from everything heterogeneous and casual, from all character and circumstances' (A 215).

On a larger scale, although Yeats acknowledges that 'the dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false' (A 196),[14] he nonetheless suggests that national like personal identities can be figured via allegories that interrelate, bind and unify. To cite one of Yeats' own national allegories:

If in this context we recall Gonne's own diagnosis of the Irish situation -'England rules Ireland by fomenting divisions and then bases her propaganda on these divisions, as proof that Irish people are too quarrelsome to govern themselves ...' (SQ 171)[15] - we start to see why Yeats adopts the axiom of unity, as it were, for his allegories of a specifically Irish identity. The anti-self, arguably, is the last refuge of coherence under conditions of factionalism and divisiveness at large.

In Gonne, however, a different allegorical axiom yields different descriptions of both personal and national identity. We may call Gonne's the axiom of singularity. For Gonne a good allegory is a catalyst for particularization; it distinguishes, foregrounds, and makes exceptional. If in Yeats a good allegory produces unity, in Gonne a good allegory produces uniqueness. An Irish identity, after all, is not a British identity; an Irish woman's identity is not an Irish man's; the Irish must decide which Queen, Victoria or Cathleen ni Houlihan, to serve. Like Yeats, however, just by telling the story of herself, Gonne in effect frames arguments for the idea of allegory that structures and generates her account.

Whereas Yeats begins with a biblically overdetermined allegory of creation, Gonne frames the story of her life by means of a more explicitly national or rather nationalistic allegory:

Here - whereas Yeats had figured the Irish nation as a continuous stream of indefinitely many shadows, into which he and others flow as tributaries -Gonne by contrast figures herself as one of a select series of particularized monads, bounded, self-subsistent, independently functional, arranged not in an atemporal matrix but in a definite causal sequence.[16] Indeed, for Gonne separateness does not signify cultural and personal dissolution, but rather just the possibility of performing powerfully emblematic actions, as when Gonne distinguishes herself from and thereby rescues - singlehandedly - a frightened crowd during the Irish Civil War: More generally, Gonne's account unfolds as an ongoing justification for allegories of the singular self, of the self as singular. As A Servant of the Queen suggests, such allegories are necessary if we are to address aspects of the Irish experience backgrounds in Yeats' Autobiography, for example. Whereas Yeats allegorizes himself in opposition to bad melodramas about Ireland as hero, the rest of the world as villain, Gonne on the contrary allegorizes herself in opposition to the stereotypical stage Irishman, from whom the very possibilities of heroism and therefore villainy have been extirpated. Gonne so constructs herself as to appear, in her words, the exact 'antithesis' of the grotesque buffoon with his pig and shillelah whom England's centuries-old propaganda, too often helped by the Irish themselves, had set up as an Irish prototype' (SQ 197).[17] Yet Gonne's emphasis on the singularity of self finds expression not merely in the motif of personal heroism (cf. SQ 58, 71, 241ff.), but also in what Gonne describes as her own peculiar, not to say mystical, ability to commune with animals as opposed to people (SQ 14, 38-39); in her critique of those who waste revolutionary energies in nostalgic pursuit of their Irish roots, their geneaological precedents, their family connections, versus acting as individuals, here and now, to change the current situation in Ireland (SQ 166, 173); and in her suggestion that Ireland's 'national soul', its operations now randomized across nameless and numberless identities, 'may incarnate itself temporarily in individuals from any class, for the spirit blowest where it listeth' (SQ 217).

But Gonne's situation as an Irish woman further overdetermines her use of the axiom of singularity. Gonne in fact records a struggle waged on two fronts: on the one hand, against Britain's co-opting of Ireland and Irish culture; on the other hand, against the repressive and exclusionary attitudes of her male compatriots and the institutions they engender. So that, when Gonne everywhere encounters the view that all (Irish) women are unfit to participate in the fight for independence; when, early on in her career, Gonne finds that the Land League has suppressed the Ladies' Land League (SQ 91); when she finds out that the National League, too, has excluded women (SQ 97); when, having attended a meeting of the pro-Irish organization in Paris, Le Saint Patrice, Gonne observes that '[t]he care these gentlemen took of their ladies equalled that of the old Turk [with his harem! on the boat to Constantinople' (SQ 167); and when she detects in the Irish Republican Brotherhood an 'inveterate' 'distrust of women', even though as Gonne says 'you would find that women are better realists than men and quite as capable of guarding secrets' (SQ 314-15); we start to see why Gonne would allegorize herself as preeminently singular, figuring herself as one particular woman whose life and adventures give the lie to any number of unfounded claims about women in general. Yeats fought against the fragmentation of his culture; Gonne fights against the homogenization of her gender.



My larger point, however, is that talking about the constructedness of selves does not suffice to capture the differences between Yeats' and Gonne's accounts. We must in addition work toward an understanding of what compels Yeats to construct himself as dialectically unified, Gonne as heroically singular, and of the mechanisms by which they achieve their respective allegories of self. We must begin to recognize, in other words, that the notion 'self-construction' is just too general, too vague, to be of much use in this connection. It has as its extension a welter of axioms for allegory, not an explanation of autobiography. Self-construction is where we begin, not end.

But how then do we go about characterizing, in a more nuanced way, the allegorical structures and effects of our self-descriptions? No description, arguably, operates in an allegorical vacuum; I cannot describe anything without thereby situating my account vis-a-vis other, more or less pertinent, accounts. But the special significance of autobiography as a genre - and here I find myself at odds with theoretical orthodoxy - is that whereas autobiography may span indefinitely many ways of constructing a self, it also signals the conditions, the limits, under which any particular (self-)description necessarily operates.

Admittedly, in autobiography we find as many axioms of allegory as there are lives to be lived and told; there is no single criterion for discerning a good or a bad allegory of how one becomes what one is. Rather, the rules and requirements for self-description must be indexed, in every case, to the particular context from which the description derives. But such considerations do not warrant the further inference that every sort of self-description is equally possible, let alone equally important or interesting, in every context. We saw that the lives Yeats and Gonne fashioned for themselves presuppose other stories - about Irishness, about women - in response to which Yeats and Gonne construct themselves as notable counterexamples. More generally, every identity emerges in the interstices of the presuppositions it rejects. A self just is a patchwork of affirmations and negations, a set of arguments about what one should and should not be, opposed to other, more or less conflicting arguments about one's identity. The point is not that Gonne's self-descriptions are better than Yeats', or vice versa; the point is, rather, that both Yeats and Gonne operate under the assumption that, given the prejudices they wish to dispel, the claims they wish to refute, certain self-descriptions are better than others.[18]



1 Cf. Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre (Cornell U.P., 1979), for attempts to define allegory as a classic genre, and Gerald Bruns, 'The Hermeneutics of Allegory and the History of Interpretation', Comparative Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Autumn 1988), pp. 384-394, for emphasis on the broader, trans-generic features of allegoresis.

2 In this connection, cf. Maire-Laure Ryan's definition of fiction itself as an act of 'recentering' around an alternative possible world: 'For the duration of our immersion in a work of fiction, the realm of possibilities is ... recentered around the sphere which the narrator presents as the actual world. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1991), p. 22.

3 Insofar as some fictions mark less radical 'recenterings' than others, however, certain fictional identities are invested with considerably more exemplariness than other fictional selves. Thus, in the case of fiction-person fiction, contrast a postmodern text like Patrick Modiano's La Place de l'etoile (Paris: Gallimard, 1968) with a more traditional Bildungsroman like Charles Dickins' David Copperfield (New York: New American Library, 1962).

4 Cf. Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (Johns Hopkins U.P., 1976) and James Olney (ed) Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton U.P., 1980).

5 Richard White, 'Autobiography against Itself', Philosophy Today, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn 1991), p. 294; Shari Benstock, 'The Female Self Engendered: Autobiographical Writing and Theories of Selfhood', Women's Studies Vol. 20, No. 1 (1991), p. 5.

6 Paul John Eakin, 'The Referential Aesthetic of Autobiography', Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Autumn 1990), pp. 129-130.

7 Sidonie Smith, 'Construing Truths in Lying Mouths: Truthtelling in Women's Autobiography', Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Autumn 1990), p. 145; cf. Smith's 'Self, Subject, and Resistance: Marginalities and Twentieth-Century Autobiographical Practice', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 1990), pp. 11-24.

8 Cf. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele), (Minnesota U.P., 1988), sections 28-36, pp. 61-68, and in passim.

9 In this respect, of course, Yeats' autobiographical practice mirrors what eventually became Yeats' poetic practice, which likewise produced 'many poems where an always personal emotion was woven into a general pattern of myth and symbol. 'Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (Collier, 1967), pp. 101-102; hereafter cited in text as A.

10 Thus, in A Servant of the Queen (Boydell, 1983; hereafter cited in text as SQ), Father McFadden tells Gonne that the families evicted during the Land Wars of late nineteenth-century Ireland are saying '"you [Maud Gonne] are a woman of the Sidhe who rode into Donegal on a white horse surrounded by birds to bring victory"' (p. 134).

11 Northrop Frye, 'Allegory', in Alex Preminger et al. (eds), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton U.P., 1974), p. 12.

12 Similarly, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats develops allegories that enable a synthesis of self and anti-self (cf. Yeats, Mythologies [Collier, 1959!, p. 335).

13 Yeats' presentation of himself through multiple, fragmentary narratives invites comparisons with the format of Nietzsche's tests, some of which Yeats read during 1902 and 1903, as Richard Ellmann discusses in Yeats: The Man and The Masks (E. P. Dutton, 1948). p. 178.

14 Yeats' opposition here between 'nation' and 'culture' may owe something to Ferdinand Tonnies' influential distinction between Gesellschaft ('society') and Gemeinschaft ('community'), in his Community and Society (trans. Charles P. Loomis) (Harper and Row, 1967). Tonnies' book was originally published in 1887.

15 Cf., too, Gonne's comment that '[i]t is the English way to grant concessions to enhance the prestige of those whom they can count on to repudiate the acts which obtained them' (SQ p. 346).

16 Cf. Yeats' lines in 'Easter, 1916': 'Hearts with one purpose alone/ Through summer and winter seem/Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream'. Richard J. Finneran (ed.) The Poems of W. B. Yeats, (New York: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 180-82, lines 41-44.

17 For background on the dispute between the respective claims of art and nationalism in late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century Ireland - a dispute in which Yeats supported total artistic freedom while Gonne called for a subordination of artistic to political aims - cf. Philip L. Marcus, Yeats and the Beginning of the Irish Renaissance, 2nd edn (Syracuse U. P., 1987), 79ff.

I am grateful to the editor for his helpful comments and criticisms concerning an earlier draft of this essay.


DAVID HERMAN teaches in the English Department at Purdue University, W. Lafayette. He is the author of Universal Grammar and Narrative Form (Duke University Press) and is currently working on another book-length study entitled Narratology after Structuralism.



Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles