10 Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres

Bonus!  Available only on our website,  Episode 10X includes a brief RTB discussion  about Exit Zero, a stunning “auto-ethnography” that raises fascinating questions about what it means when people retell stories or anecdotes about their own lives as a form of evidence that helps explain their overall worldview.

Update: For more on autofiction, check out this essay on Ben Lerner by William Egginton from our partners at Public Books.

How does the past live on within our experience of the present? And how does our decision to speak about or write down our recollections of how things were change our understanding of those memories–how does it change us in the present? Asking those questions brings RTB into the company of memory-obsessed writers like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. But it also takes up into the modern phenomenon of “autofiction,” a term which, if you’ve never heard of before today, you’re in good company! But by discussing autofiction writers like Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard, we begin to understand that the line between real-life fact, memory, and fiction is not quite as sharp as we had thought.

“[Memoirs] leave out the person to whom thing happened, The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being So they say ‘this is what happened’ but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened.”

Virginia Woolf, “Sketch of the Past”


Joining us to lead this conversation is Wellesley philosopher Helena De Bres, author of  influential articles including “The Many, not the Few: Pluralism about Global Distributive Justice”, “Justice in Transnational Governance”, “What’s Special About the State?” “Local Food: The Moral Case”  and most recently “Narrative and Meaning in Life”.  (Her website contains links to her many fine articles for fellow philosophers and for the general public).  She has recently  begun to work on moral philosophy, especially the question of what makes a life meaningful, and on philosophy of art.

rachel cusk
Rachel Cusk

During the episode, John ranks his favorite anthropologists, we see how both autofiction and Woolf’s “Sketch of the Past” seem to arise from a dissatisfaction with other forms of writing (for Rachel Cusk, memoir or novels; for Woolf, a biography of Roger Fry), and wonder whether autofiction necessarily takes on the affect of an academic department meeting (and what that affect has to do with Kazuo Ishiguro). Lastly, in Recallable Books, the theme of generic mixing and muddiness continues, as Elizabeth recommends The Day of Shelly’s Death by Renato Rosaldo, Helena recommends Thomas Couser’s Memoir: An Introduction, and John recommends George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.

Woolf: “The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.” (pictured: the River Ouse, near Southease; Woolf lived nearby)

Discussed in this episode:

A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf

Finding Innocence and Experience: Voices in Memoir,” Sue William Silverman

The Outline Trilogy, Rachel Cusk

My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Sheila Heti

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro

The Moth

The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, Renato Rosaldo

Memoir: An Introduction, G. Thomas Couser

The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell

Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism, Alex Woloch

Listen and Read Here

(transcript: Helen De Bres RTB Transcript 5.16.19)

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

4 thoughts on “10 Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres”

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