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A PHILOSOPHY OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY: BODY & TEXT. By Aakash Singh Rathore. New Delhi: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2018. 164 p.

This slim volume does not bristle with quotations. It is only the words of the autobiographers themselves that Aakash Singh Rathore engages with. When an outside voice does intrude, it is brief: opening or closing the chapters. Instead there is only Rathore's prose, interwoven with that of his interlocutors and weaving them together into new constellations. Though these exchanges are signaled already in the introduction (and made most explicit in the epilogue), there are constant appeals to the reader to hear the autobiographers in conversation among themselves. What emerges is the book's most explicit theme: that of the body. In some chapters, it is simply the corporeality, the often-ignored bodily mass that comes forward. In others the body is a explicitly treated as a parallel path developed alongside the mind. Rathore finds in the genre of the autobiography all of the scant evidence of the importance of the body in the forging of the spirit. The chapter on Yukio Mishima, a figure clearly dear to the author, is the most overt treatment of how "Body and mind are synergized in spirit." (93)

With the introduction of 'spirit' we are tempted to fall back into one of those easy binaries Rathore warns against. The spirit--as abstract as the mind, and to which the body is as often contrasted to as the mind--is here the site of unity. If there is any danger that spirit merely replaces mind as a category above the body, it is not unacknowledged. Rathore takes for granted the unity but challenges the denigration of the body. He contends that it is precisely this oversight that leads to the paucity of 'great spirits.' And while we are certainly welcome to venerate the greatness of the selected figures- and perhaps it is because of this veneration we are willing to listen to their lessons- what is of greater importance is that they present embodied, imitable practices towards which we can orient ourselves in our search for moral guidelines.

While the goal is the discovery of archetypes, those Aristotelean megalopsychia (97), other themes emerge in the chapters and across chapters. It is as response to that appeal posited above and in with the purposes of highlighting some of these themes that the perhaps willful cobblings-together to come will be excused.

Rathore is by no means unaware of the extreme to which this process of self-creation can go. The chapters on Kamala Das, Ernest Hemingway, Andy Warhol and Friedrich Nietzsche all deal implicitly or explicitly with the invention of selves are themselves, at best, remote goals, or at worst, delusions and fabrications. What is at stake is not the factual veracity of the claims of the autobiographies. They are all, in the end; narratives, selections, framings. Nietzsche prophesies the man that will embody the values of the coming time of dethroned truths. His critique of the super-sensuous was never a call for a return to the sensuous, a move that retains the system and its hierarchies. But his self-presentation is always as practice on the way and never as an embodiment. Warhol lies to be true to his art. The maker of genuine fakes would have been more dishonest had he presented unvarnished, unpretentious fact. What singles Das out among the others is that her autobiography is riddled with claims that are never substantiated, false stances and broken promises, the worst of which is the promise of My Story itself. Taken as the substantiation of an exemplary life, My Story fails to substantiate even its instances.

Why does Das then remain when so many other autobiographies that Rathore's voracious consumption has encountered have been excluded? Perhaps because she nonetheless testifies to the body as a trap. Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, B. R. Ambedkar and Daya Pawar all feel the weight of the their bodies differently from Hemingway, who so often delights in it. Wiesel is robbed of the luxury of ignoring his body then of the luxury of thinking of himself apart from his body and finally of even seeing the body as a whole. And finally, he survives as a body, and then must survive his survival. With the chapters on Ambedkar and Pawar Rathore shows that in addition to a mind, the body might have abstractions of its own, invisible yet bodily marks. These marks go so far as to pose the question "... how can the feet, dirtier than the dirt below it, live the life of the mind?" (79) And while Maya Angelou's body is more visibly marked it is just as far outside the centre as Pawar's and Ambedkar's. And yet, the flesh is neither sloughed off for the security of the mind, nor perversely delighted in. Rathore identifies an exemplary moment of the thick weave of word body and text when he writes: "Nigger: this is the flesh made word. A cage of a word to cage the dignity of the bird. But Maya- is this why she seems unrivaled in her beauty? - makes the caged bird sing." (53) Other hints of reorientations towards the body are Weisel's reclaimed faith and Warhol's recalibration after recovering from being shot.

Gandhi and Mishima fall into conversation in Rathore's presentation of their somatization. While he explicitly characterizes Gandhi's pursuit of political autonomy for his nation as beginning with his pursuit of self-control for himself there is certainly an embodied political performance in Mishima's death. Similarly, Marjane Satrapi's political commentary grapples with live bodies covered up and dead bodies displayed, culminating in Rathore's characterization of Persepolis as positioning the body between the micro and macrocosm. What he says of Gandhi could easily apply to many of the others: "The body is metric, the measure of what has or has not been achieved on the road to truth" (34) The body's endurance of its truth is encountered in Hemingway's description of faces, bloodied by boxing and limbs, mutilated by war. And there is certainly something to be said for Art Spiegelman's father Vladek bathing in freezing rivers to make the day's toil comparatively easy.

While Art's own labors over the drawing board to embody his characters are not the focus of his chapter Rathore is attentive and sometimes critical of the visual elements of Satrapi's Persepolis. The comments here do not privilege the visual, but treat it with the same importance as, for example, Daya Pawar's use of pronouns to modulate the distance between himself and his reader.

But to simply leave A Philosophy of Autobiography with its thematic is to fail to heed its promptings. While Rathore says "All the details fall away to a chorus of revealing" (141); If there is a falling away, it is not as snakeskin shed but as--to return to an image from Hemingway--the oyster shells after the meat had been savored. Rathore always lingers on instances from the works he deals with. Whether it is Art Spiegelman toiling away atop a mountain of corpses, Maya Angelou being turned away by the dentist, Yukio Mishima's seppuku or Gandhi's experiments; it is always the lived, embodied detail that traces the path to the revealing.


Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi
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Author:Rosario, Nandan
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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