Self-imaging: Visual Representation and Identity in Fictional Autobiography

Nanette O’Brien, King’s College London

The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
From ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery

The aims of representing a life and reproducing an image converge in the use of photography and illustration in fictional autobiography. While photography and fictional autobiography do not make the same claims to representational truth, both may be understood as, and at the same time mistaken for, a representation of reality. In Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (1998, originally published 1995 in German), photography provides the author with opportunities to play with mirroring and ideas about mirroring in representing the life of the subject, the self, and other subjects.1 This often results in a concurrent visual counterpoint to the narrative of the work. In E. V. Lucas and George Morrow’s What a Life! (1911), reproductions and collages of cutouts from the London department store Whiteley’s mail order catalogue are employed, not only for comic effect, but to continue the story in pictures, often complicating and distorting meaning to expand the implications of the story beyond its immediate context. In the aforementioned three examples of visual and literary representation in twentieth century fictional autobiographies, the placement and inclusion of photographs and reproduced images raise important questions about what it is to make representational art. Representation and replication, and the problems of copying an original, are issues that charge these texts and images with comedy, absurdity, and pathos. I will frame my examination of photographic reproduction and narrative duality in these texts with a discussion of the photograph and the implications of this medium in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1984). Across these works, it is apparent that something is invariably lost in the process reproduction, but we will also search for what is gained.

Photography and loss are inextricably linked, if only in that the photograph is a reminder of a moment in time that is lost. Barthes’s Camera Lucida, a book written ostensibly about the nature of photography, but also about the death of his mother, draws on the paradigm of loss, permanence and creativity in thinking about photographs: ‘What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’.2 Photography fascinates us because the multiplication of the original defies the natural processes of death and regeneration. It is an artificial replication that captures, but of course is not the same as, its original. Barthes uses ’the Photograph’ as a concept to encompass the duality of the natural and the artificial, but there is something else at stake in the reproduction:

By nature, the Photograph (for convenience’s sake, let us accept this universal, which for the moment refers only to the tireless repetition of contingency) has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe. It is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very heart of the moving world: they are glued together, limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures; or even like those pairs of fish (sharks, I think, according to Michelet) which navigate in convoy as though united by an eternal coitus. (p. 6)

For Barthes, the photograph holds the original subject captive. Though artificial, the photograph is the condemned man, it has the shadow of death indelibly printed on it. To the extent that a photograph attempts to reproduce an individual, the ‘Photograph’ can be compared to autobiographical writing, particularly the artful, fictional kind discussed here. As we will later see in Gertrude Stein’s and W. G. Sebald’s texts, photographs carry a narrative of their own, with themes of loss and death, both contributing to and confusing any written narrative about an individual.

Another element of what is lost in the taking of a posed photograph, which is also an element of the medium’s creativity, is the subject’s artlessness. When a person is conscious of being photographed, there is an artistic process that is creative for both the photographer and the subject. Barthes describes the change that occurs in the subject of the photograph in knowing his photograph is being taken. The self creates and therefore multiplies before the image is even developed and present in hard copy:

Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice (apology of this mortiferous power: certain Communards paid with their lives for their willingness or even their eagerness to pose on the barricades: defeated, they were recognized by Thiers’s police and shot, almost everyone). (pp. 10-11)

The posing of the self immediately creates an image in the mind of the subject which he or she projects outward. Barthes cannot resist the comparison with death and the documentary nature of photography in this interpretation. His inclusion of the parenthetical summary of the massacre of the French Commuards by Adolphe Thiers in 1871 enacts in prose the close connection of the photographic record with record of death or cause of death. The parentheses of Barthes’s sentence carry historical reference within the discussion of photography the way a photograph carries its own referent. So, in the taking of the photograph of an individual something is both recorded and created: a second aspect of the self comes to life and yet that new self does not live outside the photograph. Again, the comparison with fictional autobiography is relevant: carried within an ambiguously fictional life is the imprint of the ‘real’ author, which like the condemned man and the corpse are ultimately inseparable. Elements of the ‘real’ author, as in almost any creative work, can be found in the text. This is further complicated when photographic reproductions and images of the subject sustain a corresponding narrative within the fictional narrative.

  1. ‘Mirroring’ is of course a term associated with Jacques Lacan. The term in Lacanian psychoanalysis encompasses the formation of subjectivity in infants and adults, particularly in the understanding of the ego or ‘moi’ as separate from the self (‘sujet’) when viewed in the mirror. The subject’s understanding of his/her reflection is a kind of misrecognition (‘méconnaisance’) because, as Lacan argues, the ‘moi’ seen in the mirror is the image shaped by external forces such as parents and society, and is separate from, not equal to, the subjective, internal ‘sujet’. The concept of mirroring has been enormously influential in psychological and cultural studies and there is room for the implications of ‘méconnaisance’ in fictional autobiography to be further explored. For further reference see Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978). []
  2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 4. Subsequent page references are incorporated in the text. []

One Response to O’Brien

  1. avatar Frances Myers O'Brien says:

    Your analysis of photography in fictional autobiography and particularly on Sebald’s “Rings of Saturn, “resembles phosphorescence”– creating a visual after glow,—- & for me an indelible memory. Beautiful writing, congratulations!

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