Is honest self-portraiture possible?

In his psychological study of Casanova, Stefan Zweig wrote:

Autobiography is the hardest of all forms of literary art. Why, then, do new aspirants, generation after generation, try to solve this almost insoluble problem?

[For a] honest autobiography […] he must have a combination of qualities which will hardly be found once in a million instances. To expect perfect sincerity on self-portraiture would be as absurd as to expect absolute justice, freedom, and perfection here on earth. No doubt the pseudo-confession, as Goethe called it, confession under the rose, in the diaphanous veil of novel or poem, is much easier, and is often far more convincing from the artistic point of view, than an account with no assumption of reserve. Autobiography, precisely because it requires, not truth alone, but naked truth, demands from the artist an act of peculiar heroism; for the autobiographer must play the traitor to himself.

Only a ripe artist, one thoroughly acquainted with the workings of the mind, can be successful here. This is why psychological self-portraiture has appeared so late among the arts, belonging exclusively to our own days and those yet to come. Man had to discover continents, to fathom his seas, to learn his language, before he could turn his gaze inward to explore the universe of his soul. Classical antiquity had as yet no inkling of these mysterious paths. Caesar and Plutarch, the ancients who describe themselves, are content to deal with facts, with circumstantial happenings, and never dream of showing more than the surface of their hearts.

Many centuries were to pass before Rousseau (that remarkable man who was a pioneer in so many fields) was to draw a self-portrait for its own sake, and was to be amazed and startled at the novelty of his enterprise. Stendhal, Hebbel, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Amiel, the intrepid Hans Jaeger, have disclosed unsuspected realms of self-knowledge by self-portraiture. Their successors, provided with more delicate implements of research, will be able to penetrate stratum by stratum, room by room, farther and yet farther into our new universe, into the depths of the human mind.



For reasons of simplicity, even as they were germane to Zweig’s point I omitted the sentences where Zweig mentioned St Augustine.

And yes: his study Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture is a must read for anyone who wants to write a “total autobiography”.