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The Meaning Of Life And Social Discourses

1512 words - 6 pages

In Robert Lowell’s confessional poetry Life Studies (1962), Drusilla Modjeska’s memoir The Orchard (1994), Arthur Bochner’s personal narrative It’s About Time (1997) and Felicia Sullivan’s memoir The Sky isn’t Visible from Here (2008), the truth and meaning of a life is understood to be a product of social discourses. This means they are mediated between language, supplementations outside the life represented, and spectres of past, present and future selves. Hence, the ‘self’ in the representation of a life, is to be found in the dialogic relationship with that which is ‘other’ than the life represented: other people, generic and linguistic conventions and ideologies being espoused. This calls into question the dominant paradigm of the Cogito – a singular, central consciousness - as the source of all meaning in Life Writing. Yet, the self-reflexive labour of life writing engenders a discursive shaping of a self or subject, to elevate the understanding of the life represented.

In Life Studies, Robert Lowell redefines himself against his father and the social discourse of orthodoxy in an act of recreation through spectrality and supplementation. The supplementary use of Freudian tropes allows him to shape a particular sense of self to introduce the ‘ghostly’ presence of his past in representing his relationship with the men in his life. In Grandparents, Lowell’s grandfather symbolises the patriarchal male. He expresses this through exclamatory tones “Grandpa! Have me, hold me, cherish me!” which carries echoes of a wedding vow to establish a feminized, dependant image of himself in a Freudian transference of desire towards his grandfather. Lowell’s symbolic marriage to his grandfather, locates his need for a patriarchal model thus “[beginning] by coming back” highlighting his need to return to the past to understand his self to progress in life. Furthered in Commander Lowell, Lowell uses direct quotation and anaphora ‘“Anchors aweigh,’ Daddy boomed in his bathtub,/’Anchors aweigh,/”’ to create an infantile image of his father’s failure to fulfil the patriarchal role in a way that meets his son’s needs. The binary oppositions of optimism and pathos in the temporal juxtaposition “And once/nineteen, the youngest ensign in his class, /he was the ‘old man’ of a gunboat on the Yangtze”, elevates Lowell over his father as he verbalises his father’s failures as the patriarch, reinvesting them with new significance and meaning. Thus, it is only in his dialogic relation to these men, and the spectral presence of the past that Lowell’s sense of self emerges and the ‘truth’ or meaning of his life is established, rather than Descartes’ understanding of a singular consciousness.

Similarly, The Orchard employs a structure of supplementation where Modjeska’s feminist creative-critical approach to life writing looks to find the ‘truth’ or meaning of an individual woman’s life in its connections with the experience of other women in the chapter, “Sight...

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