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Abstract

Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

The Authentic Self in Rousseau and Michitsuna's Mother
Valerie Henitiuk (protrans@compuserve.com)
Department of Comparative Literature, Religion, and Film/Media Studies, University of Alberta


While Gertrude Stein may claim that "the human being essentially is not paintable," this has rarely discouraged writers (including Stein herself, of course) from making the attempt. Autobiography is literally an exercise in such human representation, which fact is evidenced by the word's component parts. This paper will briefly compare two instances of self-life-writing by a male and a female author, who both aspire to paint the human experience and, by telling the truth, to set their work apart from already existing and somehow less authentic stories about their own or other human lives.

On initial reading, the opening paragraphs to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's late 18th-century Les Confessions are strikingly similar to the preface for the Japanese Kagerô nikki, a so-called diary written circa 970 by a woman known only as Michitsuna's Mother. The stated goal in each case is to create an autobiographical work, if not necessarily an autobiography per se, unless we use the term in its broadest sense. Like countless Western autobiographers since Augustine, both authors also seek explanation for who they are in who they once were, the experiences they have undergone. Further, vulnerability appears central to both Rousseau and Michitsuna's Mother, who expose themselves to the reader in quite unprecedented ways. One last important similarity is that Rousseau and Michitsuna's Mother each begin by stating that what they are about to write will be unique, the honest description of a life lived. They explicitly assume a posture of reacting against fallacies circulating in their societies: the former being of the opinion that his reputation is not an accurate reflection of his true character, and the latter that the common understanding of marriage and married women's lives is hopelessly inaccurate.

Delving more deeply, however, we note immediately that their respective ideas of what the truth-telling endeavour involves and how it should be carried out are significantly different. As stated above, both are seeking to correct the misapprehensions of society, Rousseau personally and Michitsuna's Mother on a more collective basis. Rousseau begins by more or less stating "I am a man", but Michitsuna's Mother is fully aware of and cannot help but underscore her own secondary status within her society: she is the woman married to the man. Many critics have recently been tackling the impact of gender on this genre, and it is instructive to compare these two texts in that light. Perhaps we can indeed elucidate the respective self-writings of Rousseau and Michitsuna's Mother by contrasting their articulation of life and gender, and exploring even just a few of the similarities and differences between how these two particular authors go about portraying the truth or authenticity of their experience.

Valerie Henitiuk, SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, is currently a PhD Student in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, where she is researching spatial metaphor in women's writing. She holds two MAs: one in French Literary Translation (1988) and the other in Classical Japanese Literature (1999). She is also a Translator certified by the Canadian Translators' and Interpreters' Council. Her work has been published in META, Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction, and elsewhere.

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