# 153: Life Writing and Language
Story behind the Passage
As one of my readers, you know me as a critic of academia and of my own field (literary studies). You also know that I am never criticizing things just to be critical. I want to change things to the better with specific ideas. And if you ask me why I would still hold on to literary studies and its value, my answer is: (auto-)biographies. It is that simple. Yes, I have enjoyed reading all kinds of other genres. But life writing is the source of most of my knowledge — I mean all knowledge; theoretical, practical, philosophical… And if there is one thing that I can pass on to students and to my readers — to everybody basically — it is how much value closely reading biographies can bring to your life.
One of the writers — thinkers — that influenced me most was Edward Said. I studied his works extensively during my Ph.D. and when I gave my concluding talk for the habilitation entitled the “The American Scholar as Public Intellectual,” I included him alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even as I am writing this now, looking at the book cover of Out of Place next to me on the desk, I feel transferred back to the time when I absorbed all these books and articles that meant my world back then. Said played an important role in shaping it.
If these days are meant to come back?
Should they even?
You cannot turn back to time.
I am thinking a lot about life writing these days because I kind of miss reading, I guess. Yes, I read a new book every week, usually, but I miss the literary reading. I just have to admit it. My world always consisted of reading both kinds of literature: non-fiction, especially political philosophy and business studies, and life writing, especially by public intellectuals an entrepeneurs. I guess, as with anything in my life, I am not happy if I just deal with one thing — I need the other thing as well, whatever it is. It is like yin and yang. So, when I felt this longing today, the first life narrative that caught my attention in the shelf was Said’s work — not only because of the title, but also. Said knew what kind of feeling went along with the state being “Out of Place.” And I wonder if my condition of being a literary scholar out of bounds is similar.
At least, the issue of language is tightly connected to the feeling of belonging. It is the same in countries and in academic fields. When talking to people in the business department as a literary scholar, you feel out of place — at least, if you do not know how to speak “their” language. The same applies to business scholars joining a literary studies lecture. The languages are different, the norms are different, the value sets are different, the people are different. At least, this is what the people think. I do not think so. Human beings are all very much alike if you boil it down to the essentials. It is just a matter of translation. And as Said shows, translation is a tricky issue, not just between people, also for one single individual.
“Everyone lives life in a given language; everyone’s experiences therefore are had, absorbed, and recalled in that language.” This sentence is so remarkable because I can totally relate to it. I think about this a lot with respect to the “split” between English and German (and other languages). I think, when I speak a language that is not German, I am a different person. Of course, that sounds completely weird, but I do think so. When I speak English, I kind of feel like my U.S. persona and all memories are tied to this. I feel, when I switch the language, the corresponding culture takes over. And my emotions change too. I feel somehow more open, more just-do-it, free in many respects — in short: I display all the things that I learned when living abroad; not only in the U.S., but also.
So, when looking at this sentence by Said now, I wonder whether my experience of storing and recalling experiences in a certain language is because I actually stored them in English when they happened? Or am I constantly retranscribing/translating these experiences? In other words: Is there a difference between the absorbing and the recalling? Would it matter if I know lived in China or Tunisia or somewhere else, speaking Chinese or Arabic and then remembering the events that I “stored” in English? Would it change the memories? Would the feelings be different?
I think, the easy answer is: yes, it would be and feel different. But there are no easy answers in science and scholarship. You always have to find evidence. But today, I am too lazy to go into neuro-science for this. I am sure there are answers (in fact, I know there are answers, I wrote about this kind of research in my dissertation). Still, what I am saying, for me today the value is simply to realize how much life writing itself, the experience of when and where I read life narratives, as well as my own lived experience in different languages, ties into what Said is talking about. Actually, Said never just “talks” about anything. I always loved the way he pondered out loud. I think, this is the expression I would use.
You know what I am just realizing while writing this? I have been thinking about the red thread of my blog again and again. I tend to label it: “writing about education, philosophy, startups, and scholarship.” But I know, all these things are quite vague. And I also know that most texts tend to be diary-like, even though I had not planned on this. Still, there are also some that are very different, very much to the point, written in a more objective voice. In short, I was getting a bit pissed already because I am not able to find some common denominator to focus on something. Yet, I also consciously decided against this because I know that writing would not be fun then. The only way that writing is fun for me on this daily basis is when I write about what is on my mind — when it is on my mind.
Actually, “on my mind,” might be a great title if I ever publish some of my blog posts in a book. The funny thing is that I have, unknowingly and unconsciously, unraveled the real common denominator connecting all my posts. If you want to give it one label, it is very simple: autobiography. What expressed me about Said was that he was able to separate his scholarly biography from his role as an activist and writer. But maybe that is not true. Maybe I have no idea who he was in which role. Just because I read his life narrative and many of his other writings, there is no way of knowing what being “out of place” really meant for him. Or does autobiopgraphy have the power to reveal this?
“Being myself meant not only never being quite right, but also never feeling at ease, always expecting to be interrupted or corrected, to have my privacy invaded an my unsure person set upon. (Said 19)
1) Are your memories all stored in “one language”?
2) Did/do you ever feel “out of place”? In which situation(s)?
3) Which (auto-)biographies are in your (electronic) book shelf?