“Perhaps the worst crime is [the autobiographer’s] interest in himself”
The problem of an autobiographer, when he considers the material of his own past, is that he is confronted not by one life – which he sees from the outside – but by two. One of these lives is himself as others see him – his social or historic personality – the sum of his achievements, his appearances, his personal relationships. All these are real to him as, say, his own image in a mirror. But there is also himself known only to himself, himself seen from the inside of his own existence. This inside self has a history that may have no significance in any objective “history of his time.” It is the history of himself observing the observer, not the history of himself observed by others.
We are seen from the outside by our neighbors; but we remain always at the back of our eyes and our senses, situated in our bodies, like a driver in the front seat of a car seeing the other cars coming towards him.
To feel strange, to retain throughout life the sense of being a voyager on the earth come from another sphere to whom everything remains wonderful, horrifying, and new, is, I suppose, to be an artist. Artists – whether they are writers or painters – are people who continue throughout life to realize that every experience is a unique event in time and space, occurring for the first and last time.
It might seem then, that autobiography is the most stimulating of forms for a writer. For here he is dealing with his life in the raw at the point where it is also his art in the raw. He can describe, through the history of his meeting with the people and things outside him, those opposite beings whom from the back of himself he sees coming towards him, the very sensation of being alive and being alone.
But autobiography confronts the autobiographer with a very special problem. The theme of his book is himself. Yet if he treats this theme as though he were another person writing about himself, then he evades the basic truth of autobiography, which is: “I am alone in the universe.”
Autobiographers who write about the intimate experience of being themselves are indiscreet: they are too interested in themselves, they write about things that are not important to others, they are egomaniacs. The nature of the inner human personality is such that if they tell what it is like to be themselves, they are immoralists, exhibitionists, pornographers. The inner voice of self-awareness is no respecter of human institutions, betrays other people, and reveals oneself as base.
Self-revelation of the inner life is perhaps a dirty business. Nevertheless, even in its ugliest forms we cannot afford altogether to despise anyone who – for whatever reasons – is the humblest and ugliest servant of truth.
Stephen Spender, Confession & Autobiography