Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Looking Glasses At Odd Corners

Source: Wikipedia
The title of this, my new blog, is taken from Virginia Woolf's essay, 'The Art of Biography'. She argues that modern day biographers, living in a world of fast communications and new media, must be prepared to experiment -- must be prepared to hang 'looking glasses at odd corners', to 'admit contradictory versions of the same face.'

Woolf was writing in 1939 -- a time when photography, telephones, radio and cinema were changing the way we perceived our selves, our lives and our relations with others (not to mention the epoch-making war that loomed around the corner). But how contemporary these words sound? How relevant to us today? New technologies, such as social media and immersive online environments, have revolutionised the way we present and represent our lives, our selves. Can the voice and identity I adopt on Twitter (@AmberRegis) be called authentic? What about the voice and identity I adopt here as I blog? If the medium is the message (to repeat Marshall McLuhan's well-worn phrase), how do such forums shape the way I turn my life into a story? 

Questions such as these intrigue me, but they cannot be limited to our 20th and 21st-century modernity. As such, my eyes as a researcher are often cast backwards. I spend my days with Victorian life writing -- with biographies and autobiographies from the long 19th century. Such works have a bad reputation. In the same essay quoted above, Woolf compares Victorian biography to the wax figures carried in funeral processions, baring only 'a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin.' Victorian autobiographies and biographies alike share in this tainted view: they are seen to be long, prosaic, preachy, censored, dull. Much is the fault of the modernists. The critical views of Woolf and her contemporaries -- particularly those of Lytton Strachey in his Preface to Eminent Victorians (1918) -- have stuck, have been oft-repeated, and have become a truism. But surely Victorian life writing was just as concerned with questions of how we craft a life in language? Just as concerned to try out new ideas and explore new forms? Just as concerned to hang looking glasses at odd corners? As 21st-century readers, we might not warm to the answers they give, but we must not dismiss them.

For my part, I am intrigued by the Victorian/modern divide, and I enjoy looking for continuities as well as breaks. What form(s) do life narratives take? How do genres and media blend and borrow from each other? To what use(s) are life narratives put? My blog will explore these issues. I will try out new ideas. I will discuss things that interest me (and hopefully you, dear reader). It will be a life narrative of my very own, filled with the books I read, the events I attend, and the musings I have.

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