Nietzsche said all philosophy is really biography. Professor Olney widens the net. “A theology, a philosophy, a physics or a metaphysics—properly seen, these are all autobiography recorded in other characters and other symbols.” Thus in a finely written and unusually thoughtful work he discusses a variety of autobiographical forms as Metaphors of Self. “The order that men seek is never static and out there but always going on, and going on within them, and always coming into being.” He divides his study into autobiography duplex (Montaigne’s Essays, Jung’s Memories, and Eliot’s Four Quartets—the only successful philosophical poem of our age) and autobiography simplex (the memoirs of Fox and Darwin, Mill and Newman). He is clearly on the side of Symbolic Man, the spirit of self-validating and continually recreating “essays in truth or experiments in being,” so not only does Professor Olney’s heart go out to Montaigne and Jung and Eliot, but they also receive most of his best insights and certainly almost all of his most persuasive expository prose. Fox, Darwin, Mill, and Newman on the other hand represent the lesser realm of the “synthetic realization” of self.
Professor Olney is always meticulous in his analyses, but it cannot be said his interest is unflagging when dealing with these latter figures. “Philosophy, psychology, and poetry thus engage the whole man and all of his experience as logic, natural science, institutional religion, and Puritan evangelism do not.” The book has an overearnest strain here and there, but it is a notable and highly individual contribution to humanistic scholarship.
(Notice in this section does not preclude review of this book in later issues.)
© 1972 Kirkus Service, Inc., a subsidiary of The New York Review of Books.
July 20, 1972