Marina warner

June 2, 2006

Why are we obsessed with others' lives - especially when they resemble freak shows? Sean Coughlan finds out.

We've all seen their faces in bookshops - big colour close-ups or moody black and white - staring down from the shelves. These are the celebrities, politicians, business moguls and sports stars who sell their tales of triumph and adversity.

Why are we so fascinated with autobiography? What do we expect to get out of these self-analysing, self-promoting life stories? Marina Warner, author, historian and critic, says the cult of the individual is "the fag end of a long tradition" that has taken an inquiring, pioneering literary form and corrupted it into a kind of narcissism.

Warner will give a lecture at a conference in Rotterdam next month that examines the rise of autobiographical writing since the 18th century. She says: "The autobiography began as a romantic, radical act - it was confessional, giving a testimony. When you get someone such as Proust unpacking the identity of the self, it's a very assertive act.

"There is a weird and perverted connection between ideas about the value of self and the sort of narcissism [present in many of today's autobiographies]. It's like looking at it through a distorted mirror."

Warner also sees the wave of celebrity autobiographies, often with extreme stories of "rags to riches" and "eccentric sex", as owing something to the tradition of freak shows.

"There's something of the 'woman gives birth to litter of pigs' about them," she says.

She is interested in autobiographical writing that explores an individual's multiple personalities and how individual memories are shaped by shared experiences of place and community. "The story of how I was born and got here" is a limited and superficial insight into personality, she says.

"Memory isn't reliable; memory is fluid and shapeable. Autobiography isn't the form of truth-telling that people have maintained it to be, it's an act of creative imagination."

She is interested in examining the idea of autobiography through writers who have used multiple identities, for example, W. B. Yeats, whose poetry examined the different masks of the individual.

The idea of having different personalities in the same identity is very much part of the modern sensibility, she says. "(We are now living in) a time for reflections on metamorphosis. We are interested in how people are not consistent over time, how someone who is perfectly sweet can suddenly turn into a terrorist, how someone who works with children... can suddenly blow people up."

Controlling Time and Shaping the Self: The Rise of Autobiographical Writing since 1750 takes place at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, June 15-17.

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