Being normal has never really been my thing. How we determine what is normal is the result of socialisation through various institutions: the family, school and college, the office, and of course via television and other media – and let’s not forget books.
One of the nice things about books is how, contrary to institutions and most other media, they have a remarkable potentiality to disrupt our staid sense of the normal, to challenge our dogmas, to undermine what we thought we knew and expose us to new ways of doing or being. Their silence, their discrete visual profile, unlike blaring media, also lend books a certain innocuousness, which as we all know history has frequently belied. This low key but high impact quality of books is unique, and part of what gives them their staying power even through the digital age.
How to be not normal
Whether my own peculiarity is a consequence of failed socialisation, or just some random anomaly, is a mystery I’ve given up trying to solve. But growing up pre-internet, I naturally turned to books to help cope with obtrusive differences between myself and the others who surrounded me. Fiction offered escape and eventually taught me to discern the distinction between loneliness and solitude, so crucial to the life of a writer. Non-fiction offered knowledge, which is tantamount to power – power of access, power of distinction, and most valuable, the power to transform debilitating social awkwardness into the more acceptable eccentricity of the creative intellectual.
But it was autobiographical literature above all that taught me how to revel in not being normal. I devoured autobiographies – the life-writings of exemplary persons who defied social expectations, and modelled for us how and why it is crucial to strive to be different. True, there are some 60 documented genres of autobiographical writing, and not all of them offer up archetypes of defiance, exemplars for eccentrics. And we have to remember too that many of them, like Andy Warhol’s cryptic autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, are packed with disinformation:
People used to say that I tried to “put on” the media when I would give one autobiography to one newspaper and another autobiography to another newspaper. I used to like to give different information to different magazines.
But in many important cases, autobiographical writing does tend to lay bare the hidden architecture of an alternative archetype’s spirit, a way of being that transcends the confines of the institutions that we find ourselves unconsciously formed by and conforming to, and whose function it is to make us average, harmless, governable, obedient.
Autobiographical writing can feed our imagination and support us in the pursuit of the socially aberrant but personally indispensable. For example, writing previously in Scroll.in, I described my evolution from academic philosopher to Ironman triathlete. Thanks to a great deal of further physical training, both resistance (lifting heavy weights) and endurance (swimming, biking, running), I am now a top-ranking athlete in India.
For a philosopher, a scholar who spends many long sedentary days in dank libraries hunched over a laptop for research and writing, this level of athleticism is unquestionably abnormal. And don’t think that anyone lets me forget it: in the university, faculty members question my credentials as an intellectual, since in their limited imagination one cannot live the life of the mind while cultivating the physical body; and in the gym, bodybuilders smirk and quip, “Here comes the philosopher for his powerlifting session” – an activity that they regard as reserved exclusively for beefy lunkheads like themselves.
Contrast this with Yukio Mishima’s autobiography, a testament that makes fools of them all. Though one of Japan’s foremost literary figures, Mishima was an Olympic-level swordsman and a bodybuilder. A superior mind, a more talented writer than all his rivals; a tireless sportsman, a more talented fighter than all his rivals – Mishima’s life thus demonstrates the limited imagination of those who have never dreamt of what lies beyond. As he writes:
Body and spirit have never blended. They have never come to resemble each other. Never have I discovered in physical action anything resembling the chilling, terrifying satisfaction afforded by intellectual adventure. Nor have I ever experienced in intellectual adventure the selfless heat, the hot darkness of physical action. Somewhere, the two must be connected.
Mishima’s autobiography, Sun and Steel, is thus a veritable Bible for those seeking harmony of the pen and the sword; that is, of the life of the mind and physical culture. It teaches us virtues we never even knew existed.
The philosophy of autobiographies
There are innumerable other types of examples, autobiographies that do not merely justify unusual pursuits but demand them. Inspire them. For this exemplarity, instruction, inspiration, autobiographical writings are among the most potent books that one can read. I grew up reading them, almost more as a need than a choice, and for all of these reasons I now spend a great deal of time writing about them too.
My most recent book, A Philosophy of Autobiography: Body & Text is among only a half-dozen books ever published on the philosophy of autobiography, and the sole monograph. It is also the only work to incorporate autobiographies from around the world – Germany, India, USA, Iran, Israel, etc. – of different social backgrounds, of different religions (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish), of different sexual orientations. Dizzyingly plural and diverse, it covers as many different ways of being as possible, different exemplarities to stoke and model different aspirations.
I chose to write the book with an intimate narrative that in some respects reflects the act of autobiographical writing itself. It is at once a work at home in an academic setting, and yet unsettlingly personal, to make it accessible to readers of any background, not just philosophers.
The main argument of the book is that autobiography is an exercise in not only telling the story of a personal life but also privileging the lived experiences of the author, mediated through the body (hence the subtitle of the book, Body & Text). The body constitutes the material that conditions all of our potentialities. And in each of the autobiographies covered in this book, the author’s own peculiar embodiment takes centerstage.
There are 12 chapters and each one deals with a writer’s autobiography. Starting with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, then Gandhi, Ambedkar, Mary Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Elie Wiesel, Daya Pawar, Kamala Das, Yukio Mishima, Andy Warhol, Art Spiegelman, and Marjane Satrapi, the book as a whole slowly reveals the thread that ties together the life-writing of philosophers, activists, artists, politicians, and so on. That thread is to be found in the flesh. The flesh as ligature between word and spirit.
Grafting flesh to words, exemplary persons unfold their narratives, autobiographies. Tales that rattle the cages of our imaginations, revealing how much more there is to life beyond normal.