by Edouard Levé, Trans. Lorin Stein
Composed only of brief statements about the author himself, Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait is autobiography in search of an auto. “I prefer going to bed,” Levé writes, “to getting up, but I prefer living to dying. I do not respond to unpleasant remarks, but I do not forget them.”
Levé was an artist and writer who killed himself in 2007, immediately following the completion of his novel Suicide. In Autoportrait, from 2005, Levé blankly telegraphs his experiences, preferences, desires, etc. The arrangement of the observations is willfully arbitrary so as to stress Levé’s inability to make the elements cohere to any order—moral, political, psychological, spiritual, or otherwise.
Levé is an over-sharer. The book is quite like a Twitter feed and certain lines are enviably re-Tweetable: “Bad news makes me unhappy but satisfies my paranoia.” “I think Carine Charaire is right to be so utterly herself.” “I accumulate beginnings.”
Traditional autobiography or autobiographical fiction can usually be seen as an attempt at self-justification; it makes a rhetorical plea to the reader, seeking a mutual understanding using the tools of psychological detail, motivation, etc. Over-sharing makes no plea to the reader—it makes a challenge: You cannot judge me, just as I am unable to judge myself, because there is no position from which to issue judgment. Everything is put on the table, but no one is put at risk.
Over-sharing is the key genre of blogs and social media, and has been self-consciously staged in literature of the past ten or so years to mirror this development. Tao Lin and the fiction published through his company Muumuu House are the most obvious examples, and the ones least distinguishable from their counterparts outside the literary world; a more complicated twist on over-sharing was offered by Sheila Heti’s recent novel How Should a Person Be? Heti begins her book by wondering how any one self could be seen as preferable to any other. With echoes of Levé’s observation about Carine Charaire:
You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose? How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux.
What can be terrifying about the kind of over-sharing that exists online is that, as some sort of attempt to reveal the self without the usual machinery of self-justification, it seems hollowed out. Bloggers and tweeters seem unaware that there once roamed the wilds of the Earth beasts who felt guilt for their transgressions against others and shame for their failures. In the inverted Eden of the Web, shame doesn’t exist. Log on and let loose. It’s little wonder the behavior feels compulsive to many people.
anomic disorientation is historically contingent. At one point:
I regret not having been born in 1945, I would been twenty-three in 1968, I would have lived through the sexual revolution and believed in various utopias in the 1970s, I would have made a lot of money in the 1980s, which I would have happily spent in the 1990s, and then I would have enjoyed a comfortable retirement full of happy memories in the 2000s, unfortunately I was born in 1965 and I was twenty during the 1980s, indisputably the ugliest years since the end of the Second World War.
Levé—whose two favorite texts seem to be the Bible and Proust—carries with him knowledge of why some people used to write about themselves. And there’s a wistful longing in Autoportrait; as if it’s a record of wishing he could write a slightly different book. Or as if these notes are the accumulation of another beginning to which he would like to see the end but won’t. He would like an audience to whom he could make a confession; he would like to be absolved. But there is no such audience, and so no real possibility of absolution. And that’s the story of his life.