Jerome Christensen (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Pen in Hand,” in Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 45-65.

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[In the following essay, Christensen discusses how Hume characterizes his writing in the autobiographical “My Own Life,” focusing on Hume's use of illness metaphors to explore the writing process.]

But where is the reward of virtue? And what recompense has Nature provided for such important sacrifices as those of life and fortune, which we must often make?

“The Stoic”

While I, miserable Wretch that I am, have put my chief Confidence in thee; & relinquishing the Sword, the Gown, the Cassock, & the Toilette, have trusted to thee alone for my Fortune & my Fame.

HL, 1:52


Chronologically, “My Own Life” is Hume's last essay. It is also, in a more general sense, his final composition, the one that pulls everything together, both narratively and practically: Hume's various employments are induced across a whole life, which is written in order that it can prefix the collected works. The risk in such a maneuver is admitted straight off: “It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; therefore, I shall be short. It may be thought an instance of vanity that I pretend at all to write my life; but this Narrative shall contain little more than the History of my Writings; as, indeed, almost all my life has been spent in literary pursuits and occupations” (HL, 1:1).1 Against the appearance of vanity, the generic affliction of autobiography, Hume will construct a series of defenses. The first is to be “short.” But though Hume seems to promise a brief history of his writings, he also allows himself a “little more”—a narrative design which imitates the life itself, “almost all” of which has been “spent in literary pursuits and occupations.”2 Hume's characterization of his life ingeniously cancels the implication of partiality: a narrative of writings with “a little more” will be a full and adequate account of a life that has “almost all” been devoted to writing. The brevity of the autobiography can be understood in terms of this legitimating symmetry. It too is a little more added to a life, almost all of which has been “spent in literary pursuits and occupations,” in order to represent that little more within writing, thus spending (or investing) everything in literature.

Hume's strategy of abbreviation is most salient at the beginning of the last paragraph of “My Own Life”: “To conclude historically with my own character. I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments); I was, I say. …” Hume here adopts a posthumous style: posthumous because the historical perspective, so lightly taken, which allows the writer to characterize “Hume,” the author of those works whose relations he narrates, is a position beyond the grave. Death is written here—a death that is, paradoxically, an empowerment. Hume can be more open about his sentiments not because he has chosen to be more sincere but because those sentiments have become characters, representative objects rather than passions. Those characters are now in a determinate relation to an “I” that is the little more that survives, like a posthumous narrator, the death of whatever it was that was possessed by those sentiments and that might have been damaged by expressing them. By being posthumously characterized, the sentiments of the writer are included within his writings and adequated with the narrative of those writings.

The best characterization of the posthumous “I,” then, is the style which it “must use”—as if only that death which necessarily comes to all had forced the “I” to know itself as a well-formed sequence of properties. Yet that style and that necessity...

(The entire section contains 108727 words.)

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