Truth in Auto/biography Rousseau’s Confessions and My Experiments with Truth

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus a question when he claimed to be a witness to truth: “Quod est veritas?” (John 18:38). His remark has been interpreted in various ways through the ages, but the fundamental question remains: “What is truth?” It is also from where the present paper originates. Unless one addresses to this question satisfactorily, it’d not be possible to graduate to our next question: Do biographies and autobiographies reveal truth? Therefore, the present paper will deal the problem in hand in two parts: one dealing with the nature of truth and the other with truth in the historically located narratives of human beings called auto/biographies. To avoid further complications, an auto/biography will be accepted as one based on the intention and explicit mention of the fact that the narrator/writer/protagonist happens to be a real life, historically placeable, sentient entity.

Defining any abstract quality has always been very easy. Only proving the definition right before the barrage of exceptions complicates the matter. Provisionally, just as the point of departure, truth may be defined as “that which is accepted by everyone to be correct or right”. It’s simple enough; deceptively so. The solar system (ironically, or was it called the earth system then?) was accepted to be geocentric before Copernicus (just to take a name) took the risk of proving otherwise. Was it true before Copernicus proved it otherwise and false afterwards? Does truth have a solid foundation, or it stands on a slippery base. Is it eternal, objective and “real”, or just a social construct that is relative, temporary and subjective? Our knowledge of truth is a part of the total body of knowledge that we possess which is our database on whose basis we judge whether what we know is true or not, following an abstract, semi-conscious and nearly automatic process at the back of our mind. The process is called semi-conscious because its steps are so fast at times that it appears to go on without any conscious effort. Yet, it’s not totally unconscious, as our dreams prove. Until the dream ends, one’s unsuspecting self remains in a world constructed by the conscious mind on the input affected by the unconscious part. One believes it to be true and realizes that it was not so on reflection after returning to a conscious state, provided one remembers the dream’s “untrue” part and also provided there is such a difference. If the dream state is taken as an analogy, sans the benevolent God that Descartes posited, one’s existence with the truths of sleeping and waking worlds is at an equal ease and effortlessness. Moreover, there is no way of knowing one state, or one truth, from the other as long as one remains in the un-knowing or dream state. Thus, ignorance does turn out to be bliss. Therefore, an ignoramus’s truth will not be the same as that of someone who knows comparatively more. Socrates had spoken so eloquently in his apology about how by his knowing of his ignorance he knew more than others: “for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know” (Plato). Yet, he had to drink hemlock. Despite Socrates’ demonstrating very clearly how he was falsely accused, at least for the time being, truth was shown as falsehood, and most people believed the opposite to be true. Both Jesus and Socrates died martyrs in the name of truth; but what is truth?

Relativism will not accept any claims truth makes at absoluteness. Linguistic determinism will prove that truth is a construct, and not something existing objectively. Pragmatism will simply scoff at such a wasteful hair-splitting expenditure of time. Yet, the one working definition without which no progress can be made here is that of truth. A brave attempt is all that is required to reach truth. In “What is Enlightenment” Kant asserts:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Enlightened to the core, and awaken from his dogmatic slumber, Kant did dare to use his “own understanding without another’s guidance” and to know. More than that, he also dared to convey the truth about what he knew through his Critiques and his Prolegomena. So, was truth found or defined finally, conclusively and unquestionably? Not at all, if the history of philosophy is to be believed. Plato, an idealist, had proven through his various myths that there was something like Truth. He had claimed that the philosopher (as in a lover of wisdom and truth) had an access to that Truth through his use of reason and the poet through inspiration. He remained uncharacteristically subtle and elusive when it came to defining and describing what that final point of convergence was. So did the footnotes to him, i.e. his successors in the western philosophical tradition. It was like: you know it when and if you reach there; it can’t be taught, shown or explained. The moment one attempts to grasp truth, one is at the farthest remove from it, says the Zen philosophy. Sansara is all maya, says the Indian classical thought. So there remains no question of fixing the point called truth in the world of mundane elements and events, unless, of course it is absolutely essential.

“The truthfulness or not of autobiography is essentially a matter that must be left to biographers and philosophers. The plausibility of an autobiography however must find its authentication by the degree to which it can correspond to some approximation of its context” (Drabble 53). As we have chosen to focus on the truthfulness, and not just plausibility, of the text this paper will make one more attempt at fixing the working boundaries of truth, but only in one specific instance. It is the truth in an account of the events of a character’s life – fictional or real- written by the person himself or by someone else, in what we are interested. This definitely makes the task less complicated by narrowing down the number of possible exceptions and objections. To play a game, one must compile a set of rules that all players abide by. If any attempt is to be made to test the veritas quotient (let’s call it VQ) of a biography or autobiography –literary or otherwise, one must first define the scale. The beginning must be the conventional zero, i.e. totally false and proven to be so; and the end of the scale may be any convenient number greater than zero that denotes total truthfulness. The falseness or truthfulness of the text under question has to be assayed against some objective and external indicator. That indicator happens to be history in case of texts that claim to be “real” life events, psychology helps partially in testing the validity and truthfulness of the mind processes revealed after introspection, and philosophy in the form of theory if the text claims to be fictional and literary, or at least “factional”. History, psychology (or philosophy of mind) and philosophy intersect to form the kind of litmus for a text whose VQ must be tested in order to reach any satisfactory conclusion regarding the trustworthiness of the narrative. Even this approach, scientific it may sound, is not fool-proof. There are factors that any objective test cannot test, e.g. facts can be tested against externally existing and recorded history, the emotions, intentions and interpretations presented by the auto/biographers can never be proven correct or otherwise with one hundred percent certainty. Out goes VQ then. Concreteness is the element missing in this predominantly abstract discussion. Examples will be used in the lines that follow to make the task easier.

All fiction is autobiographical and hard determinism will claim the same for all writing. The Brontë sisters, Dickens, Tolstoy, George Eliot, D H Lawrence, Maugham, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Proust, Hemingway, Miller, Ellison, Rand, Kerouac and the list is interminable, all presented autobiographical elements in their fiction. Yet there is a consensus of sorts on the genre wise compartmentalization of texts and auto/biography is a commonly accepted and recognizable genre in English at least since Wordsworth’s The Prelude. St. Augustine’s and Rousseau’s famous autobiographies, both called Confessions, are classics and pioneering attempts made before the word was ever used.Saint Augustine starts his autobiography with:

In God’s searching presence, Augustine undertakes to plumb the depths of his memory to trace the mysterious pilgrimage of grace which his life has been–and to praise God for his constant and omnipotent grace. In a mood of sustained prayer, he recalls what he can … [and] concludes with a paean of grateful praise to God [emphasis mine] (13).

The one central trait of his autobiography is its, and his, holding and propagating an intense kind of  theocentricity that finds all things mundane and material totally inconsequential. Rousseau’s Confessions is more egocentric than theocentric. Keeping with the tradition, Rousseau makes his intention clear in the very beginning of his autobiography:

I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself. I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality… I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood [emphasis mine] (7).  
The various times he refers to himself in the very first paragrapgh will act as a fair indicator of the real subject of his work. Closer home, Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography is an example that can be picked by virtue of its, and his, being most widely known. Moreover, it also conforms to the commonly accepted definition of autobiography as “the author…. declares that he is the person he says he is and that the author and the protagonist are the same” (Anderson 3). Gandhiji does not declare his intentions as he begins; instead, he jumps straight into introducing his parents and background. Intentions come later, that too, as side observations. If the truth of writing is tested against that of the world and judgement is passed to declare the faithfulness of the text to truth, Ganhiji intended to present only truth and made a valiant and thorough effort too. He knew that being truthful would not be easy. In the chapter on his child marriage he writes: “Much as I wish that I had not to write this chapter, I know that I shall have to swallow many such bitter draughts in the course of this narrative. And I cannot do otherwise, if I claim to be a worshipper of Truth” (5). The intention is clear in both the cases and they intend to report the events of their lives truthfully. They assume their truth to be our truth too, as they see truth as something objective, absolute and external to the subject. 
The way they recount their past and the people they came in contact with presents two different modes of autobiographical writing. Rousseau reports how his father used to read the books of his mother’s collection at night, with him alongside. He presents that fact as strong force writing on the tabula rasa of his mind. While mentioning his parents Rousseau writes that since their very childhood there was a: “natural sympathy of soul [that] confined those sentiments of predilection which habit at first produced; born with minds susceptible of the most exquisite sensibility and tenderness” (8). Abstract ideas abound in the description that are unverifiable too. In contrast to Rousseau, Mahatma Gandhi writes of his father as: “To a certain extent he might have been given to carnal pleasures. For he married for the fourth time when he was over forty. But he was incorruptible and had earned a name for strict impartiality in his family as well as outside” (3). The qualities mentioned in the account are either objectively verifiable or logically reached at. The similar kind of treatment of persons and events may be seen in their respective autobiographies.

Rousseau’s idea of truth was given out as generalizations interspersed with facts in the text. Moreover, unlike Wordsworth, his egotism was not sublime. It bordered on self-aggrandizement at times: “We suffer before we think; it is the common lot of humanity.  I experienced more than my proportion of it” (7). His assumptions and his hidden sense of importance come to the fore very frequently in his autobiography. Gandhiji, on the other hand, presents another kind of introspection. He keeps as close to the externally observable fact as possible and gives an analysis of emotions, feelings and other abstractions generally when they are his own but tries to keep the focus away from himself as a person. Self-effacement is what he attempted, and nearly succeeded too. He sometimes does stray from the path of objectivity but much less than Rousseau. The following lines do have a hint of self-importance, but unlike Rousseau’s, it is very dry and ungloating in nature: “Since then I have twice been to Kashi Vishvanath, but that has been after I had already been afflicted with the title of Mahatma … People eager to have my darshan would not permit me to have a darshan of the temple. The woes of Mahatmas are known to Mahatmas alone” (128). All is not rotten with Rousseau’s introspection and self-presentation. His critical glimpses of his nature succeed to shed light on human nature in general, especially of his age, with emphasis on purity of sensations and sentiments:

An infinity of sensations were familiar to me, without possessing any precise idea of the objects to which they related--I had conceived nothing--I had felt the whole.  This confused succession of emotions did not retard the future efforts of my reason, though they added an extravagant, romantic notion of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to eradicate (7-8).

His introspection and his special facility in presenting his psyche as on a postmortem table after the autopsy, make the text full of deep insights in the individual’s, and by corollary, general psychology. He does generalize and it happens to be one of his weaknesses, yet, it makes him and his story interesting for a modern reader. It’d have definitely had more attraction for his contemporaries. Although absolute statements are his weakness he uses them very artfully, as in his comment regarding his relation with his cousin Bernard when he claims that “a similar example among children can hardly be produced” (15). The Mahatma’s generalizations are not personal in nature. His purpose is different as he affirms: “I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility” (Gandhi 269). There’s a clear resonance of Christianity, especially the New Testament, and even in that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount on his ideas. Nietzsche wouldn’t’ be very pleased with Gandhiji’s attempt at strengthening of the ideal of meekness, sacrifice and selfless service. Yet, that is what he does throughout the autobiography. A devout worshipper of Truth that he saw as God, Gandhiji tried to reach it through his honest introspection. Whatever he found out was reported without any kind of polishing. Self-purification was his aim and he attempted to purify others who came in contact with his ideas too- personally or through printed words. That’s why his sole attempt was to present unadulterated truth because nothing else would solve his purpose.  It is his content that lends his plain and totally utilitarian style an aura of its own. Rousseau, on the other hand sees pride as a positive and uplifting trait: “but if this pride is not virtue itself, its effects are so similar that we are pardonable in deceiving ourselves” (325). The Gandhian humility must neither be expected nor met with here. Yet truth can be present in various forms in various places. So it’s in Confessions too. The reader has to sift through a lot of chaff before reaching the grain of truth. Patience and empathy, always the virtues for a communicator, are demanded especially of the reader looking for an objectively verifiable truth.

History, psychology and philosophy come to the rescue of the unsure reader who is trying to reach truth in the two autobiographies. First of all, as far as history is concerned, the chronological data is definitely correct in both the texts, yet Confessions depends less on and uses smaller proportions of such information because it is generally an account of the processes of the author’s mind and not just plain recounting of events. Gandhiji, on the other hand, kept scrupulously close to the historically verifiable facts. Moreover, he kept the level of revelation of his subjective self relatively low. Therefore, more historical truth is to be found in his autobiography in comparison to that of Rousseau. The proportion of the analyses of mind processes is more in Rousseau’s than in the other text. Thus the psychologically verifiable truth (and ironically, for the same reason, falseness) is present more in Rousseau’s work. The most difficult part of ascertaining the truth claim is when one reaches philosophy. Both the texts have rich philosophical content, as both are the autobiographies of deep and original thinkers who affected the minds of millions and even determined the flow of history of their times. Their thoughts continue to affect the posterity. Content-wise, Rouseau’s work focuses more on presenting his personal views and beliefs, whereas, the other focuses more on facts. Yet, there are parts that intensely and pithily present the Mahatma’s philosophy so effectively that its comparative absence is made over. As far as the plausibility is concerned, both the texts pass the test, as the reader believes the writer-protagonist but then, so do many fictional autobiographies.

As far as the truth factor is concerned, it’s difficult to pass any final judgement. Both the autobiographies have their share of historical, psychological and philosophical truths. Thus both are true. At the same time, in some respects, both are false or inadequate too. The same may be applied as a generalization on the whole auto/biographical genre.

Works Cited

Anderson, Linda. Autobiography. Routledge:New York, 2001. Print.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions and Enchiridion. Tr. Albert C. Outler. N.d. Web. 22 January 2012.

Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography or The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Tr. Mahadev Desai.  Ebookee. N.d. PDF. Web. 26 December 2011.

Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?”. N.d. Html. Web. 22 January 2012.

Plato. Apology. N.d. TXT. Web. 26 December 2011.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions. Tr. Edmund Wilson. Vol. 1. Knopf:New York, 1923. Print.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. Margaret Drabble. 6th Edition. OUP:Oxford, 2000. Print.


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