William Butler Yeats

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Essays and Criticism

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The question that I wish to explore in this paper is a threefold one and might be expressed thus: (1) Why is comedy so largely lacking in what one might describe as classic autobiography? (2) Why, on the other hand, is comedy so prominent (as I believe it to be) in Yeats’s Autobiographies? (3) What is the nature, and what are the motives, of comedy when it does occur in autobiography? And as a sort of fourth fold completing this threefold question I want to pose a paradox: that though there are not many humorous passages in classic autobiography yet this type, like all varieties of autobiography, might be said to be essentially and in its very nature of the comic mode.

I will begin with a definition of classic autobiography, which is not my own but is as good as any other definition known to me: ‘‘A retrospective account in prose that a real person makes of his own existence stressing his own life and especially the history of his personality.’’ It is clear, I think, that the kind of writing performance described or de- fined here is not likely to produce books notable for humorous or comic effects. When a ‘‘real person’’ undertakes a retrospective account ‘‘of his own existence stressing his individual life and especially the history of his personality,’’ he is more likely to be serious or perhaps solemn than he is to be comic and gay. And indeed in that long—very long— volume that Philippe Lejeune takes for his archetypal autobiography, the Confessions of Rousseau, there is only one joke as far as I can recall, and that one joke has little enough to do with Rousseau’s ‘‘own existence,’’ ‘‘his individual life,’’ or ‘‘the history of his personality.’’ The joke, if that is the right way to describe it, comes at the death of a woman with whom Rousseau found brief employment. ‘‘I watched her die,’’ Rousseau says. ‘‘She had lived like a woman of talents and intelligence; she died like a philosopher . . . She only kept her bed for the last two days, and continued to converse quietly with everyone to the last. Finally when she could no longer talk and was already in her death agony, she broke wind loudly. ‘Good,’ she said, turning over, ‘a woman who can fart is not dead.’ Those were the last words she spoke.’’ This scarcely qualifies as a great deathbed speech but at least it does provide, for Rousseau’s readers, a couple of lines of levity in more than six hundred pages of very uncomic, paranoid anxiety—the anxiety of an apologist who has the desperate feeling that his audience is unmoved and unconvinced by his ‘‘apology for his own life.’’ If Georges Gusdorf is right when he says that ‘‘autobiography appeases the more or less anguished uneasiness of an aging man who wonders if his life has not been lived in vain, frittered away haphazardly, ending now in simple failure,’’ we can see easily enough why it should contain so few laughs—one in the case of Rousseau, none in the cases of Saint Augustine or John Bunyan or George Fox or John Stuart Mill or John Henry Newman (though I do not at all mean to say that these men wrote autobiography for the reasons specified by Gusdorf). Trying to salvage or discover meaning for a life when the life is nearly over may produce a great book but it is not likely to conduce to great risibility. Thus in what I have termed classic autobiography— and it would be easy to multiply examples—one does not find much comedy, and if one goes to such a work with the same expectations as one goes to Joe Miller’s Joke Book one will be sadly disappointed.

I want now, however, to glance at a certain kind of irony that is typical of classic autobiography and indeed that is there almost by definition of the mode. Jean Starobinski concludes his essay ‘‘The Style of Autobiography’’ with these observations about Rousseau’s Confessions as a sort of dramatization of his philosophy: ‘‘According to that philosophy,...

(The entire section is 5,177 words.)