Unreal Nature

August 18, 2017

The Colored and Distorting Mists of Memory

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:23 am

… we make an ingenious compromise with our consciences.

This is from the essay ‘From Autobiography‘ by Sir Leslie Stephen found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

Nobody ever wrote a dull autobiography. If one may make such a bull, the very dullness would be interesting. The autobiographer has ex officio two qualifications of supreme importance in all literary work. He is writing about a topic in which he is keenly interested, and about a topic upon which he is the highest living authority. It may be reckoned, too, as a special felicity that an autobiography, alone of all books, may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation which it contains.

[line break added] We do not wonder when a man gives a false character to his neighbor, but it is always curious to see how a man contrives to present a false testimonial to himself. It is pleasant to be admitted behind the scenes and trace the growth of that singular phantom which, like the Spectre of the Brocken, is the man’s own shadow cast upon the colored and distorting mists of memory.

[line break added] Autobiography for these reasons is so generally interesting that I have frequently thought with the admirable Benvenuto Cellini that it should be considered as a duty by all eminent men; and, indeed, by men not eminent. As every sensible man is exhorted to make his will, he should also be bound to leave to his descendants some account of his experience of life. The dullest of us would in spite of themselves say something profoundly interesting, if only by explaining how they came to be so dull — a circumstance which is sometimes in general need of explanation.

Bob Blaylock, artificial Spectre of the Brocken made from car headlights [file from Wikipedia]

[ … ]

… perhaps vanity is so universal a weakness, and, in spite of good moralizing, it so strongly resembles a virtue in some of its embodiments, that we cannot find it in our hearts to be angry with it. We can understand it too thoroughly. And then we make an ingenious compromise with our consciences. Our interest in Pepys’ avowals of his own foibles, for example, is partly due to the fact that whilst we are secretly conscious of at least the germs of similar failings, the consciousness does not bring any sense of shame, because we set down the confession to the account of poor Pepys himself.

[line break added] The man who, like Goldsmith, is so running over with jealousy that he is forced to avow it openly seems to be a sort of excuse to us for cherishing a less abundant stock of similar sentiment. This is one occult source of pleasure in reading autobiography. We have a delicate shade of conscious superiority in listening to the vicarious confession. ‘I am sometimes troubled,’ said Boswell, ‘by a disposition to stinginess.’ ‘So am I,’ replied Johnson, ‘but I do not tell it.’ That is our attitude in regard to the autobiographer.

Solar glory and Spectre of the Brocken from Brocken InaGlory [file from Wikipedia]




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