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Writing the Self and its Shame

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Organizer: Chloé Vettier

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Before the confessional booth appeared in the 16th century, one of the confessors’ main tasks was to decipher, based on confessants’ bodily attitudes, what they were really ashamed of and potentially hiding, or whether they were truly ashamed of the sins that they were confessing (Foucault, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, 188). Paradoxically, while ostensibly proving their sincerity, confessants’ shame also signaled gaps in their narratives. As a legacy of the Christian tradition of auricular confession, the demonstration of shame in autobiography often produces the same contradiction. Although readers cannot observe autobiographers’ physical manifestations of shame, they can nevertheless sense shame’s ambivalent presence, which challenges autobiographical principles of completeness and authenticity.

 

This contradiction reflects the complexity of shame itself. According to Léon Würmser in The Mask of Shame, shame is the sign of a “broken self” forced to acknowledge a discrepancy between its “ideal” and “real self” (169). It elicits an impulse to disappear, hide, or mask oneself (84). Autobiographical writing might then function as a paradoxical opportunity to recreate a shameless, reunified, and fictional identity. But writing the self, or its shame, implies having overcome the pain or anxiety of being exposed, all the more so as shame’s most common outcome is silence; as Stephen Pattison contends in Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology, “the experience of shame often reduces the shamed person to speechlessness” (41). Consequently – as many survivors of the Holocaust testified – shame becomes ineffable when it emerges in reaction to traumatic events or ethical dilemmas. Is it, then, possible to write about one’s shame?

 

This seminar will examine the relationship between shame and autobiographical writing. Papers may address, but are not limited to, the following questions:
  • Is the demonstration of shame in autobiography a literary convention, or is it merely circumstantial? Would the origin of such convention be historical, or simply formal?

  • How does an autobiographical text embody its author’s shame? Do autobiographers always confess their shame or are there other ways to thematize it?

  • What roles does the demonstration of shame in an autobiographical text perform, from both the author’s and the reader’s perspectives? How might its role vary depending on the text’s subgenre (confessions, memoir, essay, testimony, philosophical text...)?

  • If shame is symptomatic of a dysfunctional relationship with the self, to what extent does autobiographical writing offer a resolution?

  • How does shame interfere with the very project of writing the self? Are narratives of shame mere demonstrations of shamelessness?

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