Vanishing Selves

Negotiating Selfhood in Self-Representational Works by Goethe, Sand, and Nietzsche

by Ingemar Haag (Author)
©2022 Monographs 272 Pages


This study examines a series of self-representations from the 19th century (by Goethe, Sand, Nietzsche) that obstruct a confessional and psychologizing mode by diminishing the significance of the self. The theoretical inspiration is drawn from thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others, who give priority to the individual’s close attachment to a multifaceted world. This approach will lead us to themes and concepts like "participation," "perception," "togetherness," "otherness," "corporeality," "collectivism," "publicness," and "sociality." Vanishing Selves displays different forms of attachment to the world and identifies the ethical and existential potential in the affirmation of a world.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1 Being in the World: a Phenomenological Approach
  • Two Directions
  • Historical Tendencies: a Short Survey
  • Writing the Self in the World
  • Interiority, Exteriority, Concealment, and Visibility – a Background
  • Questioning the Subject of Disengagement
  • Levinas: Ethics, Subjectivity, and the Other – the Dead End of Introspection?
  • Levinas, Butler, Nietzsche, Arendt: the Story of Myself in the Face of a You
  • Dialogue and Openness
  • The Sociology of the Body and a Sense of Place
  • Individual Versus Collective Time
  • Anti-Oedipus
  • Collective Memory
  • Chapter 2 Goethe: to See and Being Seen
  • Being Here
  • Private, Public, Intimate, Social
  • Goethe and the Public
  • Goethe – Why Writing an Autobiography?
  • Rousseau – Being Seen or Not
  • Goethe – Being Seen: the Carnivalesque
  • The Otherness of the Self
  • Aesthetic Vision and the Body
  • Chapter 3 Sand: Listening to the Stories of the World
  • Paratextual Recipes – Why Write? How to Read?
  • Affection
  • Confession – to Tell or not to Tell
  • Family Matters and Associative Communities
  • Selfhood as a Point of Intersection
  • Silences, Voices, and the Future
  • Chapter 4 Nietzsche: the Care of Oneself
  • Bios, Beginnings, and Futures
  • “Ecce Homo” – an Exchange of Identities
  • “Ecce Homo” – the Manifestation of Corporeality
  • Telling the Truth
  • Final Remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


In a letter to his friend, Tadeusz Breza, the Polish author Bruno Schulz writes in 1934: “I need a friend. I need the closeness of a kindred spirit. I long for some outside affirmation of the inner world whose existence I postulate […] I need a partner for voyages of discovery. What is a risk, an impossibility, a whim turned on its head to one person becomes reality when reflected in two pairs of eyes. My world has been waiting for this twosome, as it were: What was once a closed tight place with no further prospects now begins to ripen into colours in the distance, burst open, reveal its depths”.1 These lines tell us a little about this book. They speak to us about a world that opens up and takes on meaning. True, an inner world is confirmed, but this is accomplished by the help of someone from the outside. This passage is not first and foremost concerned with the “self” but with an outside in the shape of a companion and a world. It affirms the joy of discovery, of an expansion that takes us beyond confined spaces.

In modern times autobiographies have proven to be a literary genre that offers a space of writing to groups of people for whom the agency and sovereignty of the subject have been something that cannot be reckoned with. Thus, autobiography has become a site where subjectivity can be negotiated, explored, and possibly rescued from oblivion. In that sense, it effectuates an ethical and moral demand; every individual matters, or as Paul John Eakin puts it: “I am someone, someone who has lived a valuable life, a value affirmed precisely by any life story’s implicit claim that it is worth telling and hearing”.2

The significance and impact of self-representational discourses have prompted Michel Foucault to conclude that we live in a confessional culture.3 Underlying his statement is the whole apparatus of power, which implies that we do not confess voluntarily; the stories about selfhood are compelling, the result of a demand directed from various institutions: the Church, the State, the sciences. However, this book is an attempt to investigate self-representations that obstruct ←9 | 10→the confessional stance and individualizing tendencies, and that resist the immanent self-centredness in autobiographical discourses by giving voice to a world and thus endowing the autobiographer with the joy of discovery. My point of departure is not self-representational discourses written by individuals that have been deprived of subjectivity, but almost the opposite – and in that sense they are of course partly perfused with power. The self-representational works dealt with here are written by authors who in different ways and to various extent occupy authoritative positions – they are, so to say, prominent “subjects” and we cannot escape the fact that they are most certainly aware of their position. However, in certain critical instances they withdraw from this elevated position and exhibit in various degrees a reluctance to confess and lay bare the intimate and private dimensions of their lives.

There is a paradigmatic scene that elucidates this refusal to confess and to represent oneself in George Sand’s Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life) – and this takes place in a “confessional” context in the religious sense of the word.4 In part IV, chapter v, Sand is watching over her grandmother, who is on her deathbed, and becomes involved in controversies concerning confession, since her grandmother’s dear friend, the Archbishop, has urged her grandmother to take the sacraments even though she does not believe in them. The dispute between the young Sand and the Archbishop deepens when the latter tries to convince Sand to make a confession, a suggestion she fiercely disapproves of. A few days later, however, she visits the parish priest in order to make a confession, but there is an argument between them when the priest insinuates that Sand is involved in an immoral love-affair and urges her to confess this transgression. She feels wrongly accused and departs in anger, without making a confession. Thus, twice, within a few days, Sand refuses to be subjected to the interrogative mode of confession.

Foucault holds the opinion that sexuality and confession are insolubly intertwined and that confession is a powerful tool in order to control the individual, scan society and identify diversions that threaten social stability.5 This controlling power is today taken for granted; it encircles us without our awareness. In our comparably secular society sin is not the determining incitement to write an autobiography; justification of one’s personal existence is good enough. ←10 | 11→I have to justify my personal existence, since if I do not, I am nobody, not even excluded since exclusion presupposes some kind of existence. Nevertheless, as the scene from Sand displays, self-representations may paradoxically manifest an unwillingness to deal with the conventional topic of autobiography: selfhood. This unwillingness is a response to the tendency towards individualization – what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call molar structures, limited and fixated elements like the individual and the family, which are emphasized at the expense of relationality and broader contexts, that is, molecular structures.6

My intention is to investigate self-representations that manifest a certain degree of indifference towards the self and instead address themselves to historical, cultural, and political contexts, identifying selfhood as a being-in-the-world rather than a being-in-itself or a being-for-itself. My objective is primarily a philosophical approach that explicates the relationship between the autobiographer and his or her world – and more specifically the nature of this bond between the narrator/protagonist and his or her world. The actual content of the historical and political contexts will not constitute the object of my analysis, even though this dimension cannot be overlooked at times. In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes a subject that is “destined to the world”, a phrase that stands out as a beacon in this investigation.7 This attachment to the world will be segmented into conceptions of “participation”, “perception”, “togetherness”, “otherness”, “corporeality”, “collectivity”, “publicness”, and “sociality”, dimensions that point to an outward turn rather than an introspective and psychologizing process, an outward turn whose objective is to exceed individual goals. Thus, the analyses that follow will relate to these segments in various ways and, not least, in terms of existential modes: I am a participating being; I am a perceiving being; I am a being together with others; I am an embodied being, and so on. Furthermore, these segments will release the ethical potential in the affirmation of a world. It is not an ethics in the Aristotelian meaning, responding to the question of how a well-lived life is obtainable, but rather in Emmanuel Levinas’s sense of the word: an opening up towards the face of an Other that cannot be completely explicated, an act that also disputes the freedom, or spontaneity, of the ego through the presence of the Other: “We name this calling ←11 | 12→into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics”, as Levinas declares.8 In an expanded sense, it is the opening up towards a bewildering, elusive, and fascinating world.

The project joins a well-established historical writing that distinguishes between an introspective/psychologizing tradition and a historicizing/sociologizing discourse, the latter of which is given priority to in this project. The separate traditions have been suggested by Wilhelm Dilthey, Georg Misch, Roy Pascal, Marilyn Yalom, Laura Marcus, Eugene Stelzig, amongst others.9 These scholars have, however, settled with identifying the basic characteristics of these traditions and paid little attention to the deeper existential as well as ethical implications of the historicizing and sociologizing tradition. In sum, I intend to elucidate a propensity to disregard individual interests and desires, in a genre that by normal standards has focused exactly on these very desires and interests. To a large extent, scholarly approaches have also shared this preoccupation with the individual, partly setting aside diverging perspectives that question the importance we ascribe to selfhood, subjectivity, and individuality.

This being-in-the-world is defined by virtue of its connection to society and history, but it is not a position of sovereignty or overview, by which the represented self appears as the supreme interpreter or representative of his or her times – that position is, from a historical perspective, generally occupied by male autobiographers, as disengaged subjects, separated from the world. A being-in-the-world reveals selfhood as something beyond the conception of the individual, as this word is etymologically apprehended in terms of something in-divisible, by which it is understood as an isolated, self-sufficient entity. ←12 | 13→This being-in-the-world is first and foremost in the world, unable to separate itself from it and establish a position beyond the world. It has positioned itself in society and history, and also together with others who are participants in the world, subjected to the forces of history, culture, politics, and collective processes.

For this enterprise phenomenological theory has been deployed in order to reflect the position of this being-in-the-world. Phenomenology is not a single and unified theory, but a whole range of different perspectives that enclose different areas of interest. Being-in-the-world brings out the physiology of the body, the location in space and the significance of these spaces, the participation in different segments of the social world (private/public) and in political, cultural, and historical contexts, and it emphasizes the encounters with other human beings. These dimensions will lead us to philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, and Emmanuel Levinas, amongst others.

This book is predominantly centred around the position and whereabouts of the narrated self, a self that the narrator chooses to outline in ways that decentralize its position in favour of a relational and/or peripheral appearance, a choice which compels us to also distinguish the narrator’s inducement to launch a self-representational work. Identifying this motivation partly brings us to the concept of ethos. I am to a minor extent attracted to the issue of ethos as a sign of credibility, but ethos is still essential as a strategy that reflects the intentions and desires of the autobiographer. The representing self is like the represented self a historical figure, situated at a specific place and time, that inevitably will determine the representation of his or her life course. In those works that interest me here there are numerous meta-critical instances in which the act of self-representation is discussed and problematized. At times these passages will constitute irrefutable evidence of the wishes and desires of the self-representational discourse and unfold an ethos that to a certain extent will monitor the narrative.

Of course, writing the story of oneself without references to a self seems to be an effort of a drastically paradoxical nature, but as soon as soon as our starting point is the “personal”, the “subjective”, or the “intimate”, we run the risk of diminishing the scale of things, despite our efforts not to do so. No matter how politically defined the self is, consciously or unconsciously, its political charge will be jeopardized when we hold on to selfhood as something identifiable, as that rectangular shape, the “I”, that overshadows other perspectives. Foucault’s description of our culture’s confessional character points to this tendency. True, this confessional character is in itself an ideological instrument, a biopower that supervises the individual, but it is also this supervision that is challenged by downplaying, silencing or articulating an ironical attitude towards the self.←13 | 14→

The well-known slogan from the 1960s, the “personal is political”, could easily be transformed into “the personal is personal”. This does not imply a general discreditation of the political movement that successfully enhanced the political potential of the private dimension, but it does point out its inherent dangers. This was noted by Judith Butler in the 1980s in discussions on feminism. Butler acknowledges that “The personal is thus implicitly political inasmuch as it is conditioned by shared structures, but the personal has also been immunized against political challenge to the extent that public/private distinctions endure”.10 Thus, the very distinctions that feminism tried to overturn were still operative. The fear that personal, intimate, and private dimensions could outshine the urgency of political matters might very well be the underlying reason why George Sand was so explicit about downplaying her presence in Story of My Life. For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche, the other two authorships that are analysed here, the political spheres are of minor interest, in favour of the richness of the world as a whole and a beneficial collective experience (Goethe) and a corporeality that exceeds individuality and self-consciousness (Nietzsche).

At the bottom of autobiography and other forms of self-representations lies the demon of megalomania, of self-love, of self-obsession. What this book is trying to identify in an analysis of a series of self-representations is the attempt to neutralize this self-love and to question the very germ of a certain type of autobiography, namely a discourse that pays almost one-sided attention to the self. Indeed, Friedrich Schlegel was on to something in his 196th Athenaum-fragment: “Pure autobiographies are written either by neurotics who are enthralled by their own egos – a class that includes Rousseau; or out of robust artistic or adventurous self-love, like that of Benvenuto Cellini”.11 There are other options for autobiography, impure forms, and it is one of these options that this book intends to explore: an autobiographical discourse that promotes the gradual or partial disappearance of the self.

I will investigate this “alternative” tradition by analysing a series of autobiographical works from the nineteenth century – a period in which the value of intimacy/privacy and publicness/sociality within self-representations was intensely negotiated –, works that in different ways articulate the significance of societal and historical contexts at the expense of intimacy and privacy: Johann Wolfgang ←14 | 15→Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) and Italienische Reise (Italian Journey), George Sand’s Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. Besides these works, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) constitute counterexamples that hopefully contribute to distinguish the sociologizing and historicizing autobiography from the introspective and psychologizing self-representation. However, this distinction is not to be apprehended in terms of a binary structure; it is a continuum in which the stress is put differently in different authorships and also fluctuates within a single work.

Prior to the analyses of these works there is a chapter that outlines the theoretical framework. The bulk of this chapter is assigned to define the conception of a self that springs forth from a discontent as regards the sovereign subject that develops during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, the development of this “scientific” subject, that disengages itself from the world and hails its self-sufficiency, does not, as we will see, exclude other subjectivities that precede as well as succeed the sovereign subject of the Enlightenment. Different traditions intersect and are blended. Despite our efforts to trace recognizable traditions, history itself will always challenge our neat explanations. Thus, this investigation is not an attempt to identity clear historical tendencies or undisputable classifications. Instead, it seeks out an existential mode that exceeds individual interests.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 272 pp., 1 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Ingemar Haag (Author)

Ingemar Haag has a B.A. in comparative literature, English and philosophy and a Ph.D. in comparative literature. He is an associate professor in comparative literature at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.


Title: Vanishing Selves
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274 pages