For over twenty years, conflicting claims in the construction of identity have been central to the problems of re-defining autobiography. Elizabeth Bruss (1976) referred to autobiography as a literary practice that is in continuous flux. Georges Gusdorf (1980) problematised the relationship between subjective and objective memory in autobiography. Paul Eakin (1992) drew attention to the shifting boundaries between fact and fiction in self-representation. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2001) argued that autobiographical writing assigns both singular and multiple subject positions to the representation of identity. Contemporary experimental poetry inflected by the autobiographical drive actively engages these conflicting issues within the context of autofiction. In this paper, I touch upon the relationships between autobiography and fiction and poetry to explore how different modes of representation raise questions regarding the construction of identity. I will focus on my own work, specifically on the composition of Hush: A Fugue (Hecq 2017), first written as a novel, then as a memoir and, finally as cross-generic text. Because the paper revisits the composition of a work which took over two decades to write, it is written in inductive mode, only arguing its point by allusion and accretion in order to highlight the speculative departures at work in the process. These speculative departures, or fugal alternatives, concern the discrepancy between the reading ‘I’ and the writing ‘I’ on the one hand, and the theorist and ‘the breathing author’ on the other. These alternatives are shown to underscore the active character of identity formation in the writing process and the retrospective nature of (embodied) knowledge.


Keywords: poetry – autobiography – fiction – identity – genre

The story of Hush: A Fugue (Hecq 2017) is one of ‘less is more’ and ‘form follows function’, to borrow the words of the architects.[1] Now a slim volume (hardly one hundred pages), readers are frequently baffled upon hearing it took twenty two years to write. Let me explain. The first version was an autobiographical novel, the second a memoir and the third a hybrid text straddling autobiography, fiction, prose and poetry. The reasons why the first instalments were failures concern questions of form, ethics, tone and internal logic. The work had to find its own form, as it were. What I had not grasped immediately is that the process of discovering its form also fulfilled a psychological function. This, I attribute to the active formation of identity operating in the writing process. 

Conflicting claims in the construction of identity have been paramount in problematising notions of genre, and more specifically in re-defining autobiography since the mid-seventies, providing various interpretations or alternatives to Philippe Lejeune’s prodigious work in demystifying what he called the autobiographical pact—especially as regards the distinction between author, narrator and character. Only one year after the publication of Lejeune’s Le Pacte autobiographique (1975), Elizabeth Bruss claimed autobiography to be a literary practice in continuous flux. Georges Gusdorf then queried the relationship between subjective and objective memory in autobiography, highlighting the discrepancy between the two (1980: 43-48). Paul Eakin (1985, 1992) then drew attention to the shifting boundaries between fact and fiction in the act of self-representation. In Touching the World (1992), he stressed that:

Most critics today would concur with Lejeune’s enlightened view of the nature of autobiographical truth, which recognises that autobiography is necessarily in its deepest sense a special kind of fiction, its self and its truth as much created as (re)discovered realities (25).

Leigh Gilmore later offered a staunch feminist critique of autobiography as a genre in her Autobiographics (1995). In it, she incorporated writings that had not previously been aligned with the autobiographical tradition, including confessions of medieval mystics and recent fictions by lesbian writers such as Jeanette Winterson. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2001) argued that autobiographical writing assigns both singular and multiple subject positions to the representation of identity, arguing that the autobiographical subject ‘is constructed through multiple identities and voices’ (34).

Contemporary experimental poetry inflected by the autobiographical drive actively engages these conflicting issues within the context of autofiction. Consider, for example, the work of Nicole Brossard, Lyn Hijnan and Marjorie Waldrop in North America, or Marion May Campbell, Moya Costello and Ania Walwicz in Australia. This paper cannot possibly do justice to the wealth of scholarship on experimental modes or genres engaged in the representation of the self because the act of revisioning identity frequently corresponds to a revisioning the notion of genre. Rather, I will invoke the relationships between autobiography, fiction and poetry in order to explore how different modes of representation contribute to actively reshaping the self. This process is one where ‘form follows function’. I will do so by focusing on the composition of Hush, a ‘sharply particular’ (Disney 2017) memoir.

Here is the story of the book told by allusion and in reverse chronological order:

1. Hush: A Fugue sings back a lost child into existence while conveying one woman’s struggle to find meaning and rebuild her life in the face of profound grief and the silence imposed by taboos. The work weaves death into life, and affirms the power of art.

2. ‘Hush: A Memoir of Cot Death’, formerly titled ‘The Womb of Echoes’, is one woman’s account of her life after losing her second child and her fight to remain sane for the sake of her family. Sometimes confronting, but striving for honesty and accuracy, the manuscript is a fearless exploration of the depth of grief and the journey back to hope.

3. ‘Phantom Love’, a novel, formerly ‘The Womb of Echoes’, formerly ‘Like Burning Honey’, formerly ‘The Country of Stones’ is one woman’s account of her life before and after losing a baby. In it, a thirty-something woman struggles to make all the pieces of her life fit together. She wants a family, but she also wants a career. When job interviews arrive, she has one child. And then she is pregnant again.

For critics, the difference between the terms fiction and autobiography is problematic because the autobiographical narrative requires a reconstruction of a life-story, or part thereof (Mauzé 2004: 183). And yet when I set out to write the first iteration of what is now Hush, the question of genre did not trouble me. I was unashamedly writing an autobiographical novel. This question of boundaries between fiction and autobiography was the province of critics. The difference concerned matters of expectation. When picking up a novel, I, the reader, divorced from my former self the critic and theorist, would anticipate an imagined world replete with created characters. I would anticipate a constructed text, with its mise en abymes, authorial incursions, autobiographical traces. And as a writer busy re-reading the classics, I had assumed that this was possible. However…

In thinking through the questions of making fiction, I soon realised that I had paid too much heed to the reader (in me). Because I had wanted to spare the reader the emotional trauma of partaking of death’s visitation, the tone of the novel was wrong. Jollying the reader along, I had also discarded important themes. And, because I had left out some ‘real life’ characters from the fiction, relationships did not work. The novel was a bloodless artefact, its rivulets of water seeping into sand well short of the vast horizons I had had in mind.

On the other hand, as a reader, I expected biography and autobiography to be a presentation of the facts of the author’s lived experience. For example, I would have expected a truthful account of Beckett’s life, a retelling of actual events and feelings. I’d check the index for cues, and jot down signs next to words, making up my own ‘sharply particular’ index. But why?  Bred by the New Critics, versed in literary theory and acquainted with the screens of psychoanalysis, why did I revert to such naïveté and assume that James Knowlson would offer an exact presentation of the facts and provide answers to the questions I was asking as I read through his Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996). Why did I make these assumptions? I knew, yet did not want to know that biography and autobiography are not the stable and structured systems that many readers assume. My problem, as a writer in search of a model to emulate, concerned facts. Solid facts, not those that were remembered in the mist of grief. My problem also concerned issues of ontology and ethics. I grappled with these as I went through the process of writing in a genre in which I was totally inexperienced as a writer. Put simply, I was trying to honour Lejeune’s autobiographical pact while wanting to erase (and probably erasing) some prerequisites of the traditional autobiographical mode. One of these was… accuracy.

Reviews of autobiographies and memoirs frequently zoom on the term accuracy. But what is accuracy? We have all quarrelled over the ‘do you remember’ question in the retelling of past events. Accuracy is and is not an abstract noun. It is impossible to define it in any one way. In many circumstances, the intended meaning of accuracy relates purely to historical veracity (events being recounted in order, dates being correct, the name and number of protagonists verifiable, etc). Not so in the writing of autobiography. An autobiography requires us to be psychologically and emotionally accurate. The author, or narrator, is asked to travel back in time, to recapture their feelings over any given event. The historical problem of bias is relevant here, too: only one side of the story which involves other people is told. Moreover, memory and editorial choice play a crucial part. Readers, I reminded myself, rely on the author (me) to portray events with historical accuracy, and therefore to remember with historical accuracy. I could not do that. Some events had been swallowed up by memory’s hungry sea.

Then I conveniently remembered that Sartre calls memory ‘the crossroads of the real and the imaginary’ (Sartre 1973: 1526), by which he means that we remake the past from the perspective of our present values and objectives. Our motive for doing so, he suggests, hinting at an unconscious desire whose existence he refutes, is that ‘we continually preserve the possibility of changing the meaning of the past’ (Sartre 1969: 116). Thus, the same event may be remembered with quite different details at different times or in different circumstances; it will be rearranged in our minds according to our needs of the moment and we will have different intellectual and emotional responses to it accordingly. The past has no definite meaning of its own. Quite the opposite: it exists in a ‘relation of interpretation with the present consciousness’ (Sartre 1969: 28). Sartre clearly gestures here at his indebtedness to Freud. And yet, Sartre disputes Freud’s idea of the unconscious in The Psychology of the Imagination (Sartre 1940), where he draws the distinction between imagination and consciousness. Was it bad faith on his part? If it was, it was well repressed, for when he argues in Being and Nothingness that we choose our lives, it is equally clear that he is not being literal. What he means is that we choose to give meaning to contingent facts, and this choice is not necessarily a fully conscious or deliberate one. According to Sartre, our choices can only be discovered by means of existential psychoanalysis, a method by which we look back upon our life and reconstruct the choices that were made based on our actions. Sartre emphasised agency, and therefore the the unity of the subject.

Point taken. Readers, after all, I conceded, expect a well-rounded picture of the ‘I’. How could I do that? Me, a Lacanian who had written a novel about a character who is ‘many in one’ (Hecq 2000) and who, in the event of grief, had smashed her head on a reef, as it were? I could not even use the pronoun ‘I’ with any consistency. In writing as in theory and in life, the ‘I’ had splintered:

The Mother, for lack of a proper name, formerly myself, listened for the click of the latch in the frame of the front door. She listened for the voice that would ask her a question. She listened and heard a voice. (Hecq 2017: 20)

Readers make many assumptions upon reading autobiographical texts; it is as if they have a personal contract with the author. Twentieth century linguists and philosophers have pondered this idea, among them John Searle (1969), who developed the concept of speech act as some kind of mutual contract between two people in conversation. Elizabeth Bruss applied this notion to the study of autobiography:

An autobiographer undertakes a dual role. He is the source of the subject matter and the source of the structure to be found in his text. (a) The author claims individual responsibility for the creation and arrangement of his text. (b) The individual who is exemplified in the organization of the text is purported to share the identity of an         individual to whom reference is made via the subject matter of the text… Information and events reported in connection with the autobiographer are asserted to have been, to be, or to have potential for being the case (Bruss 1976: 5-6).

Certainly not taking chances here, the author is paranoiacally aware of the ways in which readers can be misled. But can’t the authorial ‘I’ of an autobiography be misled too, assuming that autobiography is fictional and fiction autobiographical? Absolutely. All knowledge is retroactive, and some knowledge may take years before it filters through layers of (un)consciousness. Here was my dilemma: though knowing that we are but the sum of our contradictions and subject positions, I had difficulties in assuming this knowledge and applying it to my work. If Bruss was indeed on the paranoid side of the spectrum, I was on the schizoid side. Besides, without the cloak of fiction, I felt dangerously exposed. I looked to tradition for safety. And later rejected this tradition.

What characterises autobiography is the use of the first-person narrative, the experiential ‘I’. While the ‘I’ as fiction equated with his or her majesty the ego had been discussed at length by philosophers, psychoanalysts and semioticians, especially in mid-twentieth century France, paving the way for the ‘linguistic turn’ it is Philippe Lejeune (1975) who really put the ‘I’ under scrutiny in the field of autobiographical studies. Lejeune argued that the reader must leave room for the idea that the author, narrator, or protagonist of an autobiography, may not be exactly the same entity. In other words, the author writes the words on the page, and their name on the book cover, retrospectively, while the narrator or protagonist lives the events again within the pages (4).

While Lejeune did not draw attention to the structural instability of the self, the split between subject and ego (Lacan 1953), or the fading of the subject (Lacan 1986), he did highlight the instability of the concept of selfhood, especially over time: the self does not remain the same over time. A fifty-year old person recounting an event that occurred when they were in their twenties is in many ways a different person from their younger self. Aside from the issue of memory, knowledge and, conversely, tunnel-vision, which retrospect analysis may compound, can both have a distorting effect on the autobiographical narrative. This is most apparent in, for example, Jean-Paul Sartre’s memoir of childhood, Les Mots (2000), where the narrator constantly, and consistently, infuses the text with a perspective into past events which could not have existed in his mind at the time:

In short, I delivered genuine oracles and each person interpreted them to his own taste. Good was born in the depths of my heart and Truth in the youthful darkness of my understanding (22).

More startlingly from a postmodern vantage point: ‘Jean-Baptiste’s [Sartre’s father’s] death was the great event of my life: it returned my mother to her chains and it gave me my freedom (14). Upon completing the book, the reader does not have an image of Sartre the child, but rather of a grown man shrunken to child size. I am reminded of Sartre’s will to display mastery here only because it is a ploy that he uses in his biography of Jean Genet, a book which purports to be an authoritative account of the life and work of Genet, a writer who never purported to be in control. I wanted to avoid this kind of bias, but did not know how to write retrospectively and authentically at once.

Writing conventions do contrive the authenticity of a text, especially those framing devices we use to win the reader’s trust, sympathy, or attention. Jo-Ann Pilardi, in her book, Simone de Beauvoir Writing the Self: Philosophy Becomes Autobiography (1999), examines the function of prologue and epilogue in terms of barriers between introspection and retrospection. She writes:

Because they clearly mark boundaries within the text, they may serve to actually limit the introspective practice of the autobiographer, so that it never overflows into the story/history of the ‘real’ life, if the writer considers that to be the retrospective account of the self (Pilardi 1999: 41).

At the time Jo-Ann Pilardi wrote these words and I was grappling with the act of the memoirist, many would have held the opinion that a historian should be able to maintain an objective viewpoint on the events they are relating. Yet history itself was proving them wrong as the so-called ‘History wars’ raged. Nonetheless, some might say that an autobiographer, whose participation in the events they are recounting and reliving would always preclude objectivity. Does this kind of bias make autobiography inaccurate? Yes. I had written a prologue on the history of cot death in literature bolstered by scientific definitions of the syndrome to lure the reader towards the mirage of accuracy and objectivity. So, does this kind of bias make autobiography inaccurate? No. Humanists might say that bias is inherently human. Poststructuralists would say that misprision is an index of language. But is it still true, I asked, that ‘What readers really want from an autobiographic writer is her vision of reality… out to reveal what it feels like to be the person writing’ (Rainer 1998: 134-35)?

At the time of writing the memoir, I would have acquiesced. Unreservedly. Yet my left hand was already restraining my right hand, injecting fiction where autobiography may have wanted to go, nodding in the direction of Robert Elbaz who, in The Changing Notion of Self (1988), had reinforced the notion that autobiography ought to be classified as fiction, hereby joining the French structuralists responsible for the linguistic turn. But Elbaz was more pragmatic, and this appealed to the fledgling practitioner who did not really want ‘to reveal what it feels like to be the person writing’. Who did not want to feel. Elbaz, the falcon, would be my eyes, my claws, my beak. Not only did he disagree with autobiography’s claim to accuracy and deem it to be fiction, he pointed to two processes, namely mediation and suspension that he saw as fundamental to the autobiographical act. Mediation is the linguistic reality which the author of the autobiography creates. Elbaz argues that there is nothing in a text which can identify it as a fact; all texts are ‘made to “fit” an existing structure’ (14). The text cannot be classified owing to its ‘ceaseless beginning, its endless process of productivity: it exists only to the extent that it produces meaning’ (16). Further, an autobiography can never, by definition, be truly completed, for no one can write about their own death except in a fiction. This suspension means that a life and its significance cannot be exhausted in a single narrative. Yes, I would be a fictional memoirist, keeping an eye on Elbaz’s mediation, negotiating the slopes of Freud’s primary process. Then I slipped, and hit a wall.

One Sunday night, from the waste paper basket, one page caught my attention—the first page of the memoir. There were two paragraphs I liked for their rhythm and mood. I decided to keep them and re-write the book with a sharper focus. The writing was slow. The wall loomed again and I broke into lined poetry. On garbage day, I realised what I had done.

Sometimes writing is a trickle. Sometimes a river riverring. Sometimes a torrent. What I had done was to stop the torrent from bursting a dam…

I noticed that the section had a lulling rhythm, a soothing tone. The dominant colour was white. The grain of the voice from smooth to rough where I had stopped. I wrote on, trusting the process. Soon, each section would have a particular rhythm, tone, dominant colour. Soon, the rainbow book would take shape. Soon, I would reconcile myself with the idea of writing anomalies: autobiographical fiction, prose poetry, lyric essay… autofictions that introduce notions of perpetual change and fluidity with regard to identity, composition, form and genre. The effect achieved is one that foregrounds the retrospective character of autobiographical writing in a process of rediscovering and reinventing the past through a revisionary act of writing, thereby calling attention to the performative and self-reflexive nature of writing and to the shifting boundaries between fact and fiction in self-representation. Here is a passage taken from the section which illustrates the aforementioned at the juncture where prose turns towards poetry, the collapse of language and the rehabilitation of linguistic codes via the use of fragment, citation, allusion and repetition:

Nights close early in June. Everything seems to stand still, bleak, even gloomy by five. I bundled the children inside the house, drew the curtains and flicked on the lights. It felt safe despite the cold air curling at our feet.

When I turned off the light well after bed-time, I looked through the window. The roses looked dead but for a few white buds on their maimed limbs.

Why is white white?

Chalk, rice, zinc            
           Crystal falls
                        Limestone graves
            Lightless body

I woke up in the night, chilled as the whites in a Dutch still-life painting.

            A still-life belongs to time, and we to this stillness.

            In his cot, my baby’s face was white wax
                                                                                         as if smothered by the moon itself.
            His lips were black.
            My voice died out in my scream.
            My voice died out in my scream.
            Life goes on, they say. Life goes on leaving
            me—a hiatus.
            I became the copula between life and death.
            An object with no voice.
            Mère echo ooooooooo

            Why is white white?

            Chalk, rice, zinc
                        Crystal falls
                                    Limestone graves

                        Lightless body
            Mère echo ooooooooo

            Why is white white?
                        An orchestra
                                    in a guitar
                                                colour cascades




                                                            te — eeeeeee

Literature is like phosphorus, Barthes says in Writing Degree Zero.
It shines with its maximum brilliance at the moment when it attempts to die.
For Barthes, literature is always already a posthumous affair.
And so he tricked himself to write out the white into brilliance—
White paint comes from many things—chalk, rice, zinc, quartz, alabaster, lead.
Vermeer made some of his luminescent whites from alabaster and quartz—
in lumps that took the light into the painting and made it wriggle and dance.
White is white because it reflects light off.
The price white pays for this sheer purity is that it absorbs no light into its own body—and for lead white, this means its own heart is black.
And so I tricked myself to write the white into glitter from the black of my heart.

            Chalk, rice, zinc
                        Crystal falls
                                    Limestone graves
                        Lightless body

From my limestone grave, a foreign voice came out.
In-crypted, I wrote myself out into a make-believe.
For the impossibility of saying nothing. Of not saying anything. Of not saying. Of saying.
For the sheer possibility of putting death to death.

(Hecq 2017: 14-18)

This paper would be incomplete without mention of Roland Barthes, whose work profoundly influenced the aesthetics of Hush, and probably enhanced its fugal alternatives. Many consider his autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Barthes 1977), a masterpiece. In this autobiography which is not one, Barthes deconstructs notions of reality, truth, representation, subjectivity and genre. The title, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, calls attention to the fact that it is a text, not a life, that we are reading. Barthes’ text is not a cohesive life-story; instead it is made up of fragments, thereby replacing story—the histoire or récit we are familiar with from Russian formalism onwards with its roots in the work of Benvéniste and Saussure to Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis and traditional approach to (auto)biography—with discourse sequenced not chronologically, but alphabetically.

Barthes begins his book in existentialist mode, asking ‘Am I? Though he does not have misgivings about his existence per se, he flags it as an illusory construct, no doubt smirking in the direction of both Sartre and Lacan—actually quoting Lacan with added emphasis: ‘the subject is merely an effect of language’ (Barthes 1977: 79). Since for Lacan the subject and the ego—the ego and its image—never coincide, it seems that Barthes’ project is to explore the hiatus in between, indeed, to explore it in an attempt to put it to a halt:

It is actually the imaginary I am resisting: which is to say: the coalescence of the sign, the similitude of signifier and signified, the homeomorphism of images, the mirror, the captivating bait (Barthes 1977: 44).

Barthes goes on, disputing ideas of accuracy, verisimilitude, authenticity and truth associated with the traditional genre of autobiography, only to mock tradition:

I abandon the exhausting pursuit of an old piece of myself; I do not try to restore myself (as we may say of a monument). I do not say: ‘I am going to describe myself’ but ; ‘I am writing a text, and I call it R.B.’ I shift from imitation (from description) and entrust myself to nomination. Do I not know that, in the field of the subject, there is no referent? (Barthes 1977: 56).

Symbolic codes are no longer guaranteed by the Name of the Father at the time Barthes is writing. It is also interesting that he should entrust himself to ‘nomination’, an important theme in a paper delivered by Lacan in Dublin on 16 June 1967 that was to spur on Lacan’s twenty-third seminar, ‘Le Sinthome’ (Lacan 2005 [1975-76]), on Joyce and the phenomenon of writing as prop, or support system for the ego, what Lacan called suppléance, a concept I will link to the mirror stage in the last section of this paper.

Thus, via Barthes and through an acceptance of the shifting nature of the autobiographical subject as narrator and character, object and abject of the narrative, it could be concluded that the composite author of Hush might have engaged the practice of self-representation with an act of self-creation to fabricate an innovative and playful style of autofictional poetry.

Though not intended at first, it now challenges traditional forms of autobiography and lyric poetry through both an intertextual and intratextual network of duplicitous relationships. It does so by disconnecting the autobiographical I from the narrator and character and by presenting a splintering subject in the spacetime of the text—the spacetime abolishing boundaries of time and space in the flow of pronouns and identities that style the authorial self. The shifting nature of identity is made even more apparent through the multiple subject positions used to describe or perform identity in the text. In Lacanian terms, identity is here imaginary and symbolic and real. It comes and goes like the overlying echoes of the surf after a storm. Perhaps this is what Eurydice heard. Three times.[2]

The overlying echoes created by the interplay of intertextual allusions, phrases and fragments, compounded by the tercets announcing each section, serve two functions. They can be read as narrative strategies that break with traditional ways of reading texts. From the point of view of ‘the breathing author’ (Murnane 2005: 157) they also play the role of symbolic prop between the imaginary and the real, beyond the wall of anxiety, where the waters of madness surge, submerge, drown.

This symbolic prop is what Lacan calls suppléance. It is sometimes described as a stand-in or a crutch, but the play of metaphors in the present piece, used with specific reference to writing, suggest a wall erected against the threat of disaster: an imaginary seawall that glistens like a mirror, threatening to break under the force of the waters of the real. Historically-speaking, we are back to the mirror-stage.

It is in 1962, at the Fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress that Lacan first presented his theory of the mirror-stage. He published a revised version of the paper in 1949 (2006 [1949]: 75-82). In the fifties and early sixties the mirror stage is a constant point of reference in Lacan’s work, but it becomes increasingly sophisticated as he reworks it from different angles. In a nutshell, the mirror stage represents the foundation of the structure of subjectivity and it particularly refers to the birth of the ego. Though at first seemingly conceived of as a stage in the child’s psychical development—somewhere between six and eighteen months of age—by the early fifties, the developmental stage of life theory has progressed into a structural theory of subjectivity, in particular Lacan has constructed a conceptual scaffold of the imaginary order. Thus he says in 1953 that the mirror stage

…is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image (1953: 14).

However, he will from then onwards increasingly emphasise its structural dimension, that is as the point at which the ego—and not the subject—is permanently captivated by its own specular image. In his fourth seminar, Lacan asserts that ‘the mirror stage is far from connoting a phenomenon that occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual character of the dual relationship’ (1994: 17 translation mine).

We could say, then, that for Lacan the mirror stage describes the formation of the ego via a process of identification with its specular image. The key to this phenomenon lies in the prematurity of the human baby. At six months of age babies still experience their bodies fragmented and unco-flux but the mirror image sends back a captivating fiction of integration. This contrast is first felt by the infant as an aggressive tension between the subject and the image (Evans 1996: 115). In order to resolve this aggressive tension, the infant identifies with the image; this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the ego. Lacan describes the moment of identification as a moment of jubilation because it triggers an imaginary sense of mastery (Lacan 1953: 15). However, as Lacan later stresses, the infant may also experience some feeling of helplessness in the aftermath of this jubilatory moment; that is when it realises how precarious the sense of mastery is in contrast to the omnipotence of the mother (Lacan 1994: 186).

Lacan’s mirror stage, then, suggests that the ego is a fiction brought about by misrecognition or misunderstanding and the site where the subject emerges alienated from itself. It represents an encounter with the imaginary order. And yet, the mirror stage also has a significant symbolic dimension. The mirror stage is a pivotal experience of identification in the course of which the infant becomes aware of its own body image. Ideally, this primary identification promotes the structuring of the ego and puts an end to that singular aspect of psychical experience that Lacan calls the fantasy of the fragmented body. Indeed, before the mirror stage, the child does not yet experience its body as a unified totality but as something inchoate which Lacan calls ‘hommelette’—the little man made of broken eggs (Lacan 1986 [1964]: 197). The mirror dialectic puts to the test this fantasy experience of the fragmented body, vestiges of which may reappear in certain dreams and psychotic phenomena which, as the aforementioned experience of composition suggests, can be triggered in by the writing process.

As the author of Hush went about her business of writing, she found that her relationship with the mirror became problematic, as sometimes happens in periods of drought or flood. But it was initially seductive because the mirror draws its brilliance from the imaginary—some Platonic Paradise or that ‘oceanic feeling’ Freud spoke about. The lure of harmony allowed her to invent a world behind the pane where there was the promise of art to reconcile contradictions and finish off in fiction a character who had died in real life. The dream of crossing through the mirror indeed meets the desire for rebirth on the other side. It creates the fascinating hope of reconciling inside and outside, of living on the side of the imaginary—a world devoid of the constraints of the symbolic with its intimations of castration and guilt. It is another logic, the logic of dreams and desires, which dictates this crossing to the other side. The transition is also a transgression of the law. Of genre.[3]

In this paper, I have addressed the relationships between autobiography, fiction and poetry to investigate how different modes of representation raise questions regarding the construction of identity. The argument arose out of a dilemma encountered during the composition of Hush: A Fugue, highlighting the speculative departures at work in the process. These speculative departures, or fugal alternatives, then in turn focused on the discrepancy between the reading ‘I’ and the writing ‘I’, the latter being a critic and theorist, but also a ‘breathing author’ prone to conflicting thoughts and feelings. An examination of these fugal alternatives underscored the retrospective nature of knowledge and identity formation in the writing process and finally called attention to the active dimension of identity formation that occurs in the act of making a text.



[1] ‘Less is more’ is a 19th century proverbial phrase first encountered in print in ‘Andrea del Sarto’ (1855), a poem by Robert Browning. The phrase is usually associated with the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the founders of modern architecture and an advocate of simplicity of style. See

It is the American architect Louis Sullivan who coined the phrase ‘form follows function’, even though the phrase is often wrongly attributed to the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, whose thinking actually predates Sullivan’s functionalist approach to architecture.

See Sullivan, Louis H 1896 ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’, Lippincott's Magazine (March), 403–409.

[2] The Orpheus myth informs the book, with the narrator being both Orpheus and Euridyce. The phrase ‘Eurydice, Euridyce, Euridyce’ recurs as a motif at key moments in the narrative.

[3] The truncated phrase ‘the law. Of genre.’ Is a playful, albeit irreverent, reference to an important paper by Jacques Derrida listed below.



Works cited: 


Barthes, R 1972 Le Degré zéro de l'écriture suivi de Nouveaux essais critiques, Paris: Seuil

Barthes, R 1977 Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, New York, NY: Strauss & Giroux

Bruss E 1976 Autobiographical acts: the changing nature of a literary genre, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press

Derrida, J ‘The law of genre’ Glyph: 7, 202-32

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