The Possibility of Liberation from History
Reflections on the limits and the promise of autobiographical self-representation

Mimi M. Salili

© Copyright 2022 by Mimi M. Salili

Photo courtesy of PXHere.
Photo courtesy of PXHere.

Where would we be without language? It has made us what we are. It alone can show us the sovereign moment at the farthest point of being where it can no longer act as currency.”(George Bataille)i
  1. On significant historical precedents

  1. The impact of the mise-en-scène on the writer

  1. Future appropriations of autobiographical writing


Writing about one’s own life is not radically different from producing a work of fiction.

By fiction, I do not simply mean that which is not “real.” Something can be purportedly

real” but what is known about it may not be its “truth.” No account of the truth can be

absolutely “truthful.” Indeed, when it is a matter of the “truth” and the accuracy of a life’s

narrative, absoluteness is simply a useful fiction. Neither the acquisition of knowledge nor its

dissemination could transcend the limits of narration in a written account. In other words,

there is no reliable knowledge of reference without the mediation effected by a set of independently

conserved signifiers. This might seem obvious. Yet, its “true” meaning is often inadequately

grasped. For the transmission of knowledge of the past and the present presupposes a specific

type of linguistic mediation. One in which the autobiographical narrative aims at not just

anticipating but also influencing the future.

How does language communicate knowledge of the past whilst contributing to shaping

the future? It does so by constructing the narrative of an edifying story. That is why

the very same linguistic resources used by novelists and historians must be drawn upon

by the author of an autobiography. Contrary to the assumptions of our age of historical

ignorance and amnesia, the act of writing an autobiography is itself thoroughly historical.

Not because, as mere chroniclers of history might assume, the events of a human life

unfold in history. Rather, writing on the past itself bears the imprint of history. To the

point that reflection on history and its “lessons is probably the most vivid illustration

of history’s transformative unfolding.

In writing my autobiography, I have reflected on its possible comparisons to the autobiographical

narratives produced by historical figures who engaged in similar enterprises. Among them are

Greco-Roman philosophers and historians such as Plato, Thucydides, Herodotus, Plutarch

and Cicero. Renaissance figures such as Giorgio Vasari, noted French memorialists such as

Saint Simon, as well as Goethe and Stendhal also produced important texts. Romantic writers such

as Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo seemed relevant. Such major figures of modern literature

and philosophy as Proust, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had to be borne in mind. The foregoing

is not an exhaustive list. Universally significant Oriental poets and thinkers such as Hafez (my favorite),

Rumi and the Buddha are of equal significance. Finally, Eastern authors of political biographies such

as Abul Fazal and Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi are undeniably significant. But what about

women authors? That is where the question of narrative mise-en-scène must be addressed


Writing an autobiography presupposes a narrative framework in which a specific life

story is reconstructed. I say reconstructed since no recounting of the past, as mentioned,

could dispense with its reconstitution by independent signifiers. The past can never

be recaptured without its literary reconstruction. That is why autobiography is a type of literary

reconstruction which includes protagonists, secondary characters, and an evolving plot.

Yet, an autobiography is a unique form of literary mise- en-scène for two distinct reasons.

First, its writing presupposes the selection of that which merits being recounted. Secondly,

in recounting the story of a life, the author purports, above all, to underscore its sense.

As mentioned, this aims at edifying the reader. A life story unfolds in a specific familial setting

within a particular social order. Its sense is thus clearly entwined with both. What conditions such

an entwinement?

By entwinement, I mean that the sense of the story and its edifying value to the reader are clearly

derived from its unique dispensation in a family context in a social order which conditions it.

The reconstructed story must therefore define these structures in adequate psychological and historical

terms. These structures constitute what anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss and psychoanalysts

such as Freud and Lacan call “symbolic orders” that condition human life in history. This does

not only mean these orders are composed of symbols or filled with characters that have

established symbolic functions such as that of the father in a family or the teacher in a society.

It means, more crucially, that these orders are themselves historically acquired symbols”

that reflect the underlying conceptions on which they have been constructed and perpetuated.

Hence, a female autobiographical author’s task is more complicated. Not only must she attempt

a literary reconstruction of her life story but also explain and eventually challenge its oft

discriminatory subjection to such “symbolic orders” through its reconstruction.


The mise- en-scène is precisely where the female author’s reconstruction of the story

becomes most visible since symbols are used to highlight its broader existential significance.

This is where the female author situates herself within the power equations. For example,

I have reconstructed a “scene” in which my father’s negative role in my fragile life as a

young girl and the socio-historical roots of his deeply damaging indifference to me are

underscored. This serves a dual purpose. First, it enables the reader to grasp the nature of

the authority against which I struggled. Secondly, it helps the reader in reflecting on the impersonal

forces at play in my life. The “scene” of my father’s use of an anti-malaria medication whilst

neglecting my identical sickness underscores the environment of neglect and rejection in which

he himself had grown up. To wit, a biographical context of which he had been a victim and

to whose harmful reproduction I was subjected. The reconstruction of this “scene also

presupposed an analysis of the formation of my father’s sadistic psyche. This was how

sadism came to be identified as a major force in my autobiographical mise-en-scene.

Such an autobiographical mise-en-scène elucidates the meaning of liberation from history.

Representing the interaction of socio-historical forces with psychically formative

symbols facilitates the reader’s reflection on the contingent entwinement of my life

with those who made me suffer in my fragile youth, particularly, my father. Liberation

from history lies, primarily, in grasping this undeniable and neglected

contingency of human existence in history.

Writing an autobiographical account of my life has allowed me to view it through its

psychically therapeutic and literary externalization. Its written mise-en-scène is the most

enduring variety of its mediation by language. Beyond the span of my life, it serves

to unite me with future readers in the common desire to adopt a mentally liberating

distance from history and its symbolic actors. A history which shall no longer be that of

routinely muted suffering. A history which could be transfigured through its literary reconstruction

in an autobiography. For even though the latter remains within it, my autobiography ceaselessly

transcends history. Therein perhaps lies its lasting and redeeming beauty.

1i “Eroticism,” Translated from the French by Mary Dalwood, Penguin Books, 2001

My autobiography is entitled “Daughter of the Moon” and shall be published by Histria Books.  (

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