[X-posted to the Valve ... but I like the fact that I receive different feedback from the audiences there and here, so comment wherever you feel most comfortable commenting.]
I'm not the type who normally thinks about identity, mostly because interrogations of it analyze novels designed to be interrogated by people interested in identity. (I also greet poems written to be read by New Critics with a full-mouthed yawn.) But as I delve into the depths (such that there are) of realist and naturalist literature, I find myself pining for the playful attempts to stabilize identity performed by British, Irish and American modernists.
Take the whole modernist infatuation with "autobiography," which I scare-quote for obvious reasons. What, for example, does Joyce hope to accomplish in the final chapter of Ulysses? To what genre does "Penelope" even belong? Is her lengthy internal monologue a stab at "autobiography"? She narrates her life, questions the import of certain pivotal moments, and attempts to ground her desires in a personality her countrymen would recognize. She attempts, in short, to think herself into a preexisting subject position. Transgression is what she does, not who she wants to be. Which critical mode best accounts for her self-duplicity? Can we also bring it to bear on other modernist "autobiographies"? (Or is this entire line of inquiry wrong-headed? Should we consider her wholly a Joycean construct?)
In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—whose cover emblematizes what this discussion addresses—Gertrude Stein writes:
About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe and she has and this is it.
Can you imagine jamming more into a single word than Stein manages to stuff into "simply"?* Stein wants to obscure the obvious here in such a way as to draw attention to it; but she can no more write the autobiography of Alice Toklas than Daniel Defoe can write the autobiography of the fictional Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps Stein meant to allude not to Crusoe, but Alexander Selkirk, the castaway whose four years stranded on the island of Juan Fernandez is thought to be Defoe's model. Only Stein knows Toklas intimately, whereas Defoe depended on the accounts of Edward Cooke and Woodes Rogers.
I know what you're thinking: "No one would actually confuse the two, so why press the point?" I press because I care ... and because otherwise brilliant writers have confused these modes in meaningful ways. In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf wrote
So [Crusoe] proses on, drawing, little by little, his own portrait, so that we never forget it.
The emphasis is mine, and you can guess its import. I inserted "Crusoe" in that sentence because the italicized phrase vanquishes the idea that the antecedent of "he" is "Defoe." What happened here? What confused Woolf?** I would argue that she missed what Stein, with her unsubtle pronomial slippage in the final sentence there, exploited in the passage I quoted earlier:
I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe and she has and this is it.
Stein records herself declaring her intentions, then switches back into Toklas' voice. In lieu of a conclusion, however, I will leave you with a suggestive (not to mention my favorite) passage from Stein's Everybody's Autobiography:
Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself ... you do not really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.
The title alone should indicate why it piqued my interest. Tomorrow, I'll discuss this passage, Woolf's "A Sketch of the Past," Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller," and Emile Benveniste's Problems in General Linguistics.***
* yes I said yes I can Yes.
** Admittedly, these were unfinished essays published posthumously, so she may have caught the slip in future edits. Still, the slip itself is significant enough to warrant attention.
*** And unlike most blog-promises, I'll live up to this one. Why should you believe me? I've already written it. So this isn't a promise to do more work—which should never be believed, especially of a blogger—but a promise to post what I've already written.