Life Writing and Cognition


Consider failure. Evidence from neuroscience suggests that it may be a key element of our cognitive functioning. Failure allows the brain to update its mental models of the environment, a phenomenon known as predictive processing. In the words of Ellen Spolsky (in this special issue of SubStance):

[Human understanding] doesn’t roll out in continuous space or time sequence, but rather in multi-level self-correcting loops that depend on prior experience and expectations. It emerges from our bodily actions as well as from our brains, and from our interactions with others. The work is parceled out to various subsystems and entangled with failure.

Literature, of course, is built around failure—or failure narrowly avoided—depending on the genre. There is no story in the perfect interpretation of others, no need for change. Yet, as Joshua Landy reminds us, if one comes to literature hoping to profit by characters’ mistakes, one goes away disappointed. Works of fiction do not provide “insights.” Contrary to common expectation, they are not “oracles” designed to “deliver laws of experience, deep abiding truths about the world, ‘messages’ about who we are and how we function and what we ought [or ought not!] to do” (8). To put it differently, they exploit failure because it is so powerfully tellable, but they do not instruct us how to avoid failures in our own lives.

Books in the self-help category position themselves least ambiguously in relation to failure. Their insights are designed to facilitate “self-correcting loops” on high conceptual levels. To anticipate our failures, they assiduously and creatively seek regularities in the world in which nothing (to quote Spolsky again) “in or outside of the brain/body stands still for very long,” and any conclusion is always ready to be destabilized.

Life writing approaches failure yet differently—although we must remember that the term covers a broad range of genres: from the bildungsroman and autobiographical novel on the more “literary” end, to memoirs of particular life experiences that seek to avoid literary styling as part of their commitment to unadorned truth. Although many biographies and autobiographies (e.g., those written by politicians and other public figures, or those concerned with social change) are structured around a plot of overcoming—which is to say, avoiding or reframing failure—life-writing’s relationship with failure is more complicated than this description suggests.

First, unlike self-help books, life-writing narratives do not necessarily offer recipes for avoiding failure, because they may be too intricately bound up with the specific circumstances of their authors/protagonists. In that respect, their insights can be as elusive as those offered by fiction. For instance, someone hoping to glean a “message” from Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood may walk away with something along the lines of: if you grow up in Nazi Germany and want to come to terms with your transformation from a teenage acolyte of Hitler to a famous East-German writer, you should write a brilliant soul-searching memoir about the vicissitudes of memory. Easier said than done, and just about as useful to the reader as a message plausibly inferred from Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: “if you [are] a talking rooster, you should beware of talking foxes, talking foxes tending to be particularly seductive” (Landy 23). Which is to say that the allure of “this really happened” does not easily translate into “and here is what you should do to avoid it happening to you or if it happens to you.”

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