The Possibility of Liberation from HistoryReflections on the limits and the promise of autobiographical self-representation
Mimi M. Salili
© Copyright 2022 by Mimi M. Salili
Photo courtesy of PXHere.
significant historical precedents
impact of the mise-en-scène
on the writer
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
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
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
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
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
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
came to be identified as a major force in my autobiographical
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
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
history. Therein perhaps lies its lasting and redeeming beauty.
1i “Eroticism,” Translated from the French by Mary Dalwood,
Penguin Books, 2001