Yuri Zaretsky. Autobiographical Selves from Saint Augustine to Archpriest Avvakum: Essays on the History of European Individual. Moscow, 2002. 323 pp. Appendices, Bibliography.


. . . ߻ : . , , 2002. 323 pp. Appendices, Bibliography.


The present volume is the second monograph by Yuri Zaretskii in which he pursues the subject of autobiographic self-presentation in different cultural and national milieus of Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The book comprises a collection of essays addressing three cultural traditions: Eastern Christian, Western Christian, and Jewish. These essays are united by the common theme of autobiography and self-presentation, and feature a culturological approach to textual interpretation. In a time when studies of autobiography form an interdisciplinary field of their own and comprise an integral part of the university curriculum, another book on the subject can hardly shake the field. Zaretskys book does not. Yet it does offer interesting and innovative interpretations of a number of texts from this area.

The book contains five chapters, the first of which, The Phenomenon of Medieval Autobiography, serves as a general introduction to the genre of autobiographical writings in European Middle Ages. The developmental history of this genre is discussed in the context of Christian ethics of humility, and in application to figures and works of such European thinkers as St. Augustine, Dante Alighieri, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Peter Abelard, Pope Pius II (subject of another monograph by Zaretskii), Benvenuto Cellini, and a leader of the Russian Schism, Archpriest Avvakum.

The second chapter turns to one of the most popular Christian hagiographies, the Legend about Alexis the Man of God, opting to interpret the act of the heros writing of the last letter to his parents and congregation in the light of autobiography-writing. Both the composition of this chapter and textual analysis that it offers are disappointedly lacking. Not only does Zaretskys preamble to his interpretation take up more than a half of the chapter, in the end he acknowledges his failure to answer the questions central to his discussion! The issue of secret sanctity directly related to this discussion is not mentioned, even though a recent monograph by Sergei Ivanov, Vizantinskoe iurodstvo (Byzantine foolishness in Christ, 1994) is listed in Zaretskys bibliography. After reading this chapter one wonders whether the scholar chose the right text for exploring autobiographical issues and whether he took the right approach to this text.

The third chapter, Autobiographical Stories of the Christian West: Middle Ages and Early Modern Times, comprises two parts. The first part (co-authored with G. A. Brandt) offers a discussion of Teresa of Avilas Libre de la Vida (The Book of My Life). This discussion relies on several critical approaches (Derrida, Foucault) and engages a number of cultural and historical contexts, including the institution of the Inquisition, conceptual categories of heresy and sanctity, as well as socio-cultural dimensions of gender in Medieval Europe and Spain. In his close reading of St. Teresas self-presentation, Zaretsky opts to reveal the hidden subtext, offering engaging interpretation of the chosen text.

The second part of this chapter proposes an overview of socio-cultural, historical and literary aspects of the representations of childhood in the medieval and Early Modern European autobiography. Zaretsky dwells in detail on the text of Guibert of Nogent, whose autobiography he examines in conjunction with St. Augustines Confessions. He refers very briefly to other examples of the genre, citing them as models for different types of approaches to autobiographic self-presentation, rather than offering in-depth textual discussions.

In the fourth chapter, Zaretsky gives an overview of the scholarly inquiry into the question of Old Russian autobiography, discusses developmental history of the phenomenon of autobiographical self-presentation in Medieval Rus and Russia, and offers a close reading of the bodily tale found in the autobiographical Vita of one of the leaders of the Russian Schism, monk Epiphany. In his discussion of Russian autobiographical texts, Zaretsky takes a phenomenological approach, considering autobiographical stories not as a genre or part of Medieval Russian literary tradition but rather as a type of discourse about self (156). This approach serves him well, resulting in a stimulating original discussion of Epiphanys Vita and its place within autobiographical literature of Russian Schism.

In the last chapter, Autobiographical Stories of Others, Zaretsky delves into a topic of Jewish autobiographic writings representative of Early Modern period. He focuses on two texts, which are among the best-known and relatively well-explored Jewish autobiographies: Leon Modenas The Life of Judah and The Memoirs of Glickel of Hamburg. Zaretsky discusses both these texts in translation.

            Despite thematic unity of its chapters, this monograph hardly represents an integral whole.  It is truly just a collection of essays, which are of quite uneven quality. The book would have benefited from a thorough revision and some compositional changes. Thus, the three discussions of St. Alexis Life, which are found in the book (Russian language discussion in chapter 2 and two English language lecture versions found in the appendix) are redundant. Repetitive discussions of the same issue (genre of autobiography; scholarship in the field of autobiography; place of autobiography within humanities in Chapters 1 and 4) are not justified. Spelling mistakes in Russian and English texts could have been eliminated by careful proof-reading.

The lack of the conclusion in the book is disappointing. The author substitutes it for half a page statement of the supposed impossibility to draw a conclusion in a book of such a diverse format.

            Despite its imperfections, this interdisciplinary study contains a number of interesting discussions and will be of interest to scholars from different areas of Humanities, including Literature, Women Studies, History, Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, and Anthropology.



© 2023 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.