Who’s Looking at the Rhinoceros?

An exclusive translation of Yaara Shehori's response to Assaf Inbari's Haaretz essay on autobiographical fiction.

In an essay titled “Autobiography in the Era of Narcissism” (published in Haaretz literary supplement, December 25, 2019), writer Assaf Inbari argues that “we live in the most narcissistic era in the history of mankind.” After explaining some of the historical, cultural, and technological reasons for this statement, he turns to examine narcissism’s influence over the literature written today. “In an era when everyone is busy with themselves and with constantly documenting themselves,” he writes, “more and more writers document themselves as well.” Today’s autobiographies, he argues, lack protagonists and plots, and especially lack a sense of “mission”. While a hundred years ago, autobiographies had an important social role in expressing the “individual spirit of modern times,” today’s autobiographies are nothing but a poor reflection of their authors’ individual sense of experiencing the world.

Writer and editor Yaara Shehori published the following reply to Inbari’s essay on January 8, 2020, in Mussach vol. 67.

In 1515, Albrecht Dürer painted a rhinoceros. Because Dürer had never seen such an animal with his own eyes, he based his work on notes, on a written description, and apparently on an existing drawing, in order to create a wood engraving of the rhino. Dürer’s rhino is undoubtably spectacular, but very far from being anatomically accurate. I was reminded of this rhinoceros when I read Assaf Inbari’s essay, “Autobiography in the Era of Narcissism,” published in Haaretz’s last 2019 edition of its “Culture and Literature” supplement. I thought that Inbari wrote about a rhino without ever encountering it—a rumored rhino only.

Well, it might be about time for us to let the rhinoceros speak.

Inbari’s essay presents quite a few axioms. One of them is that there is a clear, distinguishable object called “Literature.” A second is that we are currently living in a narcissistic era. Inbari creates a direct link between the popularity of the selfie—the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2013—and the flourishing of autobiographical form. This postulation can be placed close to the one that argues that the wide use of emoticons and text messages brings us back to the hieroglyphs, and to the well-established observation that when we were young we went outside to play in the yards and in nature, while children these days are stuck in front of their screens. As everybody knows, every generation tends to complain about the morals of the young. At least this tendency remains true.

Under the larger umbrella of autobiographical writing, Inbari ties together several genres. In fact, the main distinction he makes is between what is proper and what isn’t. According to Inbari, autobiographical writing is a narcissistic genre, a genre that mostly attests to the writer’s incompetence, their narrow experiences, undeveloped psyche, and limited horizons. And here, it’s necessary to assert what is not explicitly stated: the genre attests to the woman writer and to her horizons. Because the gender issue is hidden in there somewhere, not too far from the surface. The autobiographical writing that Inbari argues against is the kind that is too personal, that leans too much on childhood experiences, that brings forward the history of experience over that of “active person”, as he puts it—clearly in favor of the second, the one active in the world, who plows, plants, and paves, the one who contributes. This is an ideal against which even Yosef Haim Brenner’s protagonists were defeated. It seems that passivity outrages Inbari, that the thing that he calls inactivity almost makes him lose his senses completely. But these are not the only weaknesses that he identifies in autobiography, in contrast to the genre of the novel— hinted at here as favorable, based as it is on a plot (all this even though the novel, from its outset, disobeyed the organized form and broke free from the formulas of plot, be this in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or in Woolf’s The Waves). For Inbari, the biography is mostly a plotless work, and thus also immoral. “Plot is a form that bears human meaning,” writes Inbari, a form even carrying an ethical imperative, contrary to what he calls “a collection of memories.”

According to Inbari, the writer of autobiography or memoir (a lesser problem for Inbari, if only for its more modest dimensions, but yet still a problem), is almost necessarily a narcissist. The one who doesn’t bear the burden or carry the stretcher on his shoulder, or does not succeed in functioning as decent family man, who is hereby positioned as the optimal norm. The one who rather boldly searches for happiness. A hedonist and consumer subject, with a gender or ethnic identity transgressing the seemingly neutral identity of a white man, the one there’s no need to speak of because he is transparent, because he is one and equal with culture. And these transgressive subjects still believe that there’s a case for dwelling on their identity, and derive rights and benefits from it—and even literature. A tone of distinct horror is evident in these things, the fear of those rising up against us to destroy us. Because okay, let them speak, but, between us, what do they have to say?

Inbari does not mention women’s writing explicitly. More than that, he doesn’t mention even one woman writer of the genre. The only woman mentioned in Inbari’s essay is a nameless feminist scholar, serving only as a ridiculing example of uncritical reading. Only the well-known experts are capable of walking the King’s highway of autobiographical writing, the ones who have done enough to establish the genre. Unfortunately, the manner in which Inbari reads them is at the very least naïve. He has to refer to the father of the genre, Augustine of Hippo; but Inbari immediately acquits him, as his writing is missionary and is intended to make his readers repent. Does Inbari really believe the writer’s declarations so much as to confuse the pointing finger with the thing it points at? Are the sensual descriptions of childhood and nature in The Confessions, the descriptions of the writer’s own passions, only a didactic excuse aimed at turning readers into good Christians? And had it been so, would anyone read The Confessions today with interest? Rousseau, by the way, is also let off the hook, because he wrote out of “programmatic passion” (ibid.), and because his autobiographical writing was only published posthumously, and thus he didn’t live to enjoy its publication. A very strange argument. Bialik is saved too, because of his poetry’s historical mission—what can be called narcissism in the service of Zionism, and how unfortunate this reading of Bialik is. But the others, or could it be the female others? Inbari calls us to carefully move away from the keyboard.

The characteristics of the kind of writing he conceives of as problematic are precisely those that for years have been identified as feminine and as the identifying features of women’s writing. At least since they were given pens, someone has already said. Immorality, narcissism, passivity, dwelling on the minuscule, the minor and mundane, the inability to differentiate between essence and the unimportant or to build meaningful structures. Lack of systemic scope or programmatic passion, and especially “languishing in the margins,” as Amalia Kahana-Carmon put it. And in other words, why should you bother the reader with the small, the private, the too personal, the thing that has no universal validity and is considered at most personal testimony—not literature?

Inbari’s disregard of women writers of memoir and women writers of other autobiographical genres, that, as I mention above, are intermingled as far as he is concerned, reveals the exact thing about which he is silent. If we take even a glancing look at twentieth-century literature, we’ll find there among others Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Natalia Ginzburg, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, Mary Karr, and Annie Ernaux. In the twenty-first century one can read, for example, Jeanette Winterson, Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, Alexandra Fuller, Delphine de Vigan, and many others. In Israel we can mention, among others, Yael Neeman, Orna Coussin, Iris Lael, Noga Albalach, Nurit Zarchi, Michal Zamir, and Ayelet Tsabari, the last writing in English in which Hebrew turns into an unassimilated foreign element. One can definitely add to this list Orly Castel-Bloom’s An Egyptian Novel, destabilizing a few of the hypotheses regarding the question of what is the biography and what is the autobiography of a writer. We can also add Ronit Matalon’s The Sound of Our Steps, a novel which is very close to biography, and in many senses constitutes an autobiography, not because the novel swallows the details of life into itself, but because of the way in which autobiography restructures the rules of the novel. This troubling trend of memoiristic writing continues. Books by Hadas Gilad, Ronnie Gross, and Zohar Elmakias, belonging to this genre, were published only recently. I have probably forgotten many, but in fact it’s more difficult not to count them than to mention them.

Inbari, who tries to face this “narcissism epidemic,” is right about one thing: this genre does not fall into line with programmatic passion. This—how shall we put it?—is not the main incentive for memoiristic writing. Autobiographical writing—and especially the memoir, that artistic adaptation of life events in an attempt to charge experiences and events with meaning—does not require occupying half the world or founding a religious tradition. One can of course read memoirs by army generals, but I doubt that we’d gain more from them than we would from reading The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. Women’s life stories, written by women, were pushed to the margins and marked as unimportant for hundreds of years. And here, even when they’re written today, some still prefer that they’re not written, or at least hidden under the pillow or the contemporary equivalent of embroidery. One can write a memoir even if one hasn’t fought in a tank, conquered a land, founded a kibbutz. All one needs is to be someone who lives in the world and who looks at it and herself. There is room for what is considered too intimate, hurtful, dirty. All one needs is a pen, memory, and a sense of reflection.

“Narcissus was so much in love with himself / Only a fool doesn’t understand / he loved the river, too”1, wrote Dahlia Ravikovitch. The ability to turn the marginal into major, to look at what supposedly there’s no point in looking at, is a literary power. Not only because that which is limited can hold much, and because autobiographical writing doesn’t have to obey the sacred formulas of plot, which form, according to Inbari, a barrier against narcissism. This kind of writing can rebuild narrative and reshape the question of narrative. It takes into account literary conventions; but, at its best, it also reconstitutes the border areas between fiction and life, thus also validating female experiences and a personal and unique voice, even if some hear it—if we return to Kahana-Carmon’s terms again—as “the song of bats flying.” And the writers of such literature can live and write not only from what Inbari calls “rigid and closed communities or totalitarian countries,” those whose residents, as he argues, can perhaps gain some interest from this genre. But what if closedness and rigidness aren’t the heritage of such communities alone, but exist outside of them as well, even when some insist on not seeing the fences.

In Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s memoir, the writer describes her father’s constant anger at the customs of family members. “When we dipped the bread in sauce he used to shout: Do not lick the plates! Do not splatter! Don’t make stains!… He used to say: You don’t know how to sit by the table! You can’t be taken anywhere!” The things that irritate the father are exactly the insignificant, marginal things, the crumbs, the things that form the materials of memoirs: “Going out for a walk in light, city shoes; making a conversation, on the train or the street, with a fellow traveler or a passerby; talking with the neighbors through the window; taking off the shoes in the living-room and heating them in front of the central heating; complaining, while mountaineering, of thirst, weariness, or skin peeling off the feet; bringing fat cooked dishes to trips, and napkins for cleaning the fingers.” Indeed, there are several kinds of guardians. There are some whose flaming words are punctuated with exclamation marks, and some who write them in a strict father’s tone in the newspaper. But both shout when the plates get dirty; both say, you can’t be taken anywhere.

In the summer of 2018, whilst residing in the States I was invited with two other women writers to speak to an audience in a comely library in Seattle. Before introducing the participants, the host told the audience that until a few decades ago, entrance to the library was permitted to men alone. I opened my speech with what to me seemed like an ironic comment, saying, “thank you for letting us in.” The audience laughed and everything continued as usual. I later thought about my polite eyebrow-raising, about the measured irony I demonstrated. I conducted myself according to the rules, even though I felt angry about the game I found myself in, and in fact I am still angry. I am angry that the host presented it as an amusing anecdote and didn’t say, I am ashamed of our past and the way it reflects on our present. As a writer, I am tired of saying thank you for letting me in your club or library or under the wings of some respected group of stakeholders deciding what literature is and what I can or can’t do with it, what is proper and what is warranted. For years, I thought that these clubs have the power of truth. Fortunately, I—like other women, writers and readers, authors, poets, scholars, translators, and editors—am no longer interested in this club. This club turned rotten a long time ago. In the crumbling theater set, you are welcome to raise the gavel and bang it in fury, make rules, forbid, and allow. We are done.

Translated by Maayan Eitan. 

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