The autobiography as self-defense

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The autobiography as self-defense

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“The Apology of Socrates” is Plato’s version of a Socrates speech, which he made in court in his own defense. In this case, “apology” has the original meaning of defending one’s actions or beliefs. Although it is the basis for the English word “apology,” an “apologia” is more like self-defense. When it is closer to self-criticism, however, it becomes more like the “Confesssions” of Aurelius Augustinus or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the latter of which is considered the origin of the present-day autobiography.

A memoir is a subclass of autobiography. Both are written in first-person perspective and describe events and people from the writer’s point of view. The primary purpose of both is self-flattery, settling scores or self-defense. But a problem arises when the author goes too far to represent him or herself. A revealing autobiography that makes irresponsible or false statements often becomes the talk of the town.

Though rare, there are people who reveal their own weaknesses in an autobiography. That is what novelist Georges Simenon, who created the character inspector Jules Maigret, did in “Intimate Memoires,” which he wrote in 1981 at the age of 78. He revealed stories that could have been taken from his novels - his affairs with countless women, most notably Josephine Baker, his ill-fated daughter who committed suicide at the age of 25, and his wife, who feigned ignorance of his affairs.

Anthony Quinn’s 1995 autobiography, “One Man Tango,” is written in no less a frank manner. He had affairs with a mother and daughter at the same time on two occasions - they were legendary actress Ingrid Bergman and her daughter.

Through his autobiography, Simenon reflected on his failure as a father and a husband, despite his success as a writer. Quinn’s autobiography was a reflection on his life as a whole.

A recently published memoir by Shin Jeong-ah, who was convicted of forging her Yale degree and embezzling from a museum, has caused quite a stir in Korea. Of course, some of the events are randomly restructured based on her memory. But the book cannot be considered a confession because she insists “It was a mistake to get help from a broker, but I did not forge my academic records myself.” The book has become a best seller, which is odd for a book so lacking in self-reflection. It seems that the only similarity between the ancient Greek philosopher and this woman is that they were both out to defend themselves.

*The writer is a culture and sports reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Ki Sun-min
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