Apparitions of the Self

In a 2001 interview with Sarah Rosenthal in Jacket Magazine Leslie Scalapino discussed the idea behind Dahlia's Iris:

"The book that I’m working on now is called Dahlia’s Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction. And I got the idea to do this based on a Tibetan written form, the Secret Autobiography, which is not one’s outside chronological events, but has to do with seeing, that is, interior seeing. I traveled in Tibet. I then read a terrific Tibetan Secret Autobiography written in the 18th century, in a book called Apparitions of the Self. I thought that the Tibetan Secret Autobiography was much like some contemporary American poetry. The person who did the translation and wrote about the form of the Tibetan Secret Autobiography said that various Tibetans told her, ‘Don’t choose this to translate because Americans will not understand this.’ I thought, They’re not familiar with contemporary American poetry, which uses similar non-narrative tactics."

The book Apparitions of the Self (Princeton, 1998) is by Janet Gyatso. Here is the publisher's description:

"Apparitions of the Self is a groundbreaking investigation into what is known in Tibet as "secret autobiography," an exceptional, rarely studied literary genre that presents a personal exploration of intimate religious experiences. In this volume, Janet Gyatso translates and studies the outstanding pair of secret autobiographies by the famed Tibetan Buddhist visionary, Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798), whose poetic and self-conscious writings are as much about the nature of his own identity, memory, and the undecidabilities of autobiographical truth as they are narrations of the actual content of his experiences. Their translation in this book marks the first time that works of this sort have been translated in a Western language.
Gyatso is among the first to consider Tibetan literature from a comparative perspective, examining the surprising fit--as well as the misfit--of Western literary theory with Tibetan autobiography. She examines the intriguing questions of why Tibetan Buddhists produced so many autobiographies (far more than other Asian Buddhists) and how autobiographical self-assertion is possible even while Buddhists believe that the self is ultimately an illusion. Also explored are Jigme Lingpa's historical milieu, his revelatory visions of the ancient Tibetan dynasty, and his meditative practices of personal cultivation. The book concludes with a study of the subversive female figure of the "Dakini" in Jigme Lingpa's writings, and the implications of her gender, her sexuality, and her unsettling discourse for the autobiographical subject in Tibet."

Gyatso is now at Harvard Divinity School (Faculty Page here ) where, among many other things, she teaches The Self Writing the Self: Autobiography and Religion. The course description is as follows:

This course explores the nature of selfhood as it is constituted in the writing of autobiography. Our questions include: What do autobiographies tell us about the relationship of personal identity, individuality, subjectivity, and alienation to religious truth? What can we say about the relationship of the lived life, and the self, to what is remembered and written in autobiography? To whom are autobiographers telling their self-stories, and why? What constitutes such critical experiences as moments of conversion, enlightenment, or self-consciousness? Our interpretive methodology will draw from literary theory on autobiographical writing. Students will also keep autobiographical journals for the course, as an exercise in the practice of this genre of writing. Autobiographical writings to be studied include those by Augustine, Teresa of Avila, a Tibetan Buddhist hermitess, a Jewish Kaballist mystic, a contemporary Chinese-American novelist, a 17th century Venetian Rabbi, an American freed slave, a Japanese pilgrim poet, and James Joyce.


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