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Avatars, Heteronyms, Phantoms: Life Writing, Literary Masks, and the Dispersion of the Self

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Organizer: Laura Cernat

Co-Organizer: Virginia Rademacher

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As the age of online avatars as a source of anonymity is superseded by the obverse phenomenon (instead of real persons under fictitious names, algorithms using real names are increasingly part of our horizon of anxiety and expectation), it is time to look back on the complex transactions between literary avatars and life-writing. In the chapter “Playing for Real” from her book Derivative Lives (2022), Virginia Rademacher has noted the “progressive loss of the real to the simulated”, but also, as its correlative, the “dispersion of authority through the intervention of other players” (136). In this way, a biofictional or autofictional game in which the author thinks they hold behind-the-scenes control over the thresholds between imagination and the real ends up hijacked by the democratized rights of anyone’s claims to intercede in this hybrid invention.

This seminar invites papers exploring the genealogy of contemporary writers’ literary avatars and/ or contextualizing these social media ephemerides as part of a broader literary tradition. If we think of Cervantes’s famous conceit of “Don Quixote” as a translation of Cide Hamete Benengeli’s writings, auctorial alter-egos can be said to be coextensive with the history of modern literature. They first start springing from the page as the made-up authors of eighteenth-century pseudo-translations (Vanacker 2018), a tradition which culminated in the nineteenth century (Toremans 2017). With the advent of periodicals, a new stage opens for invented names, often with personalities attached. From the plethora of “pseudo-persons” in Blackwoods’ Magazine in the 1820s (Esterhammer 2020, 38) to Coleridge’s alter-egos (Knox 2010, 425) or John Clare’s “Don Juan”, playing nearly tongue-in-cheek with his known delusion of being Lord Byron, the Romantics did not lack their avatars. Only Modernist authors seemed to outdo them, (re)inventing hybrid life-writing forms from “autobiografiction” (Saunders 2010) to heteronymy. Fernando Pessoa, creator of over seventy alternative selves, seems to hold a record for literary deception, but only if we do not count Romain Gary, the Lithuanian-born “French Ambassador to Hollywood”, multilingual writer, and pseudo-translator of his own “Promise at Dawn”, who pulled the impossible feat of winning the Goncourt Prize twice (under different names).

In most of these cases, the “false” selves have deep auto/biographical roots, thus complicating common assumptions in biofiction and autofiction scholarship about the importance of onomastic identity between the protagonist and a historical figure.

In exploring the avatar as a reincarnation of the heteronym, but also as a phantomatic return of auctorial anxieties about authenticity and the real, this seminar proposes to look at the dispersion of the self into a kaleidoscope of names and personas through the lens of life-writing.

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