The Many Lives of Others

Portrait of Jion Daishi (Guiji)
A portrait of the 7th century Buddhist monk Jion Daishi (Guiji), created in 14th century Japan. (Metropolitan Museum of Art 50.137)

The following are resources, in the form of links to useful sites, additional images and artwork, and short contextualizing essays and reading guides, geared to a course I teach, The Many Lives of Others: Autobiography, Biography, and Life-Writing in Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia. For each week I’ve provided a short contextual essay, where appropriate, as well as other sources that might prove useful in navigating the sources and ideas explored in each unit.

Week 6: Week 6 (February 28/March 1): Performing the Self: Further Varieties of Pre-Modern Autobiography

First off, make sure that you navigate to Zotero, download, and install a copy; we will discuss how to use Zotero and why in class this week.

  1. Guibert Abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy and Paul J. Archambault, A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).
The opening page to a 12th century copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, an important literary model for Guibert. (Royal MS 5 B.xvi, f.2v)

Guibert of Nogent (c. 1055–1124) provides us with one of the best looks into the life of a Western European medieval person thanks to his Monodies, an extensive autobiographical text from which you’ll be reading an excerpt. It is commonly described as the first Western European autobiography after St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, a work completed around the year 400 (the first page of a medieval copy of which is picture above). Guibert had the Confessions in mind, as in that work- which was well known from late antiquity forward, being, alongside City of God, one of Augustine’s best-known and most important works- Augustine traces the arc of his life from childhood forward, with considerable attention to inner states and struggles.

As you read this excerpt, ask yourself why Guibert goes into such detail about his early life. How does he construct his sense of adult self in relation to his childhood self? What is his relationship with his mother like, and what role does memory of his mother play in his life? Compare Guibert’s depiction of his childhood to Hakuin- what kinds of similarities and differences do you see?

  1. Hakuin and Norman Waddell, Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave: A Zen Miscellany (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009).
Hakuin Virtue
A calligraphic rendering by Hakuin Ekaku, in his bold style, of the character for ‘virtue,’ with a medieval poem above it, which translated runs as follows: If you pile up money for your children and grandchildren,
they won’t be able to hold onto it.
If you pile up books for your children and grandchildren,
they won’t read any of them.
No, the best thing to do is to quietly accumulate virtue,
in the spiritual realm.
Such a gift will benefit your descendants for a long, long time.
(Met. 2014.768.2)

Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) was one of the great Zen teachers of Edo-period Japan, helping to revive the Renzai school of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of sudden, spontaneous ‘awakening’ (kenshō) on the path to full enlightenment; extreme and seemingly random or erratic methods on the part of masters, along with the use of koans, paradoxical statements, questions, and the like used as tools for jarring one’s self from conventional ways of seeing things and towards awakening and eventual enlightenment.

Hakuin, besides being a major Zen master, calligrapher, and artist, also wrote autobiographical accounts of his life, which he hoped would guide and spur on his students. He offers a quite intimate look into his emotional states as a child, a young man, and an accomplished master of Zen. We also get a good look at what everyday religion probably meant to ordinary people in Edo Japan. As you read this account of Hakuin’s entry into monastic life, think about these aspects of everyday life, especially those that would not have seemed exceptional to Hakuin. How important was Buddhism to Hakuin’s family? How did he conceptualize devotion and religious life? What do you think his purpose in relating these emotional states and struggles is? Can you make a connection between Hakuin’s autobiographical writings and the examples of his visual art given here?

Hakuin Portrait of Daruma
Hakuin’s portrait of Daruma, the first master of Chan (ie Zen) Buddhism in China. Note the use of thin wash, spontaneity, and the rather humorous expression on Daruma’s face. (Met. 2015.500.9.3)

Week 4 (February 14/15): Varieties of Self Life-Writing: Diary and Personal Chronicle

  1. Babur, Emperor of Hindustan, and W. M. Thackston. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
Babur Receives a Visitor
Babur receiving a visitor. Folio from a Baburnama (Metropolitan Museum of Art 67.266.4.)
Babur Reading a Book
Shah Babur reading a book, from an early 17th century Mughal painting album. (British Museum 921,1011,0.3.)
Babur Saluting the Standards
In this 16th century illustration, Babur and his army salute the yak-tail standards by anointing them with kumis, fermented yak’s milk, a custom inherited from the Mongols. (British Museum 1948,1009,0.71.)

Babur (1483-1530) was the founder of the Mughal Dynasty in the Indian subcontinent (and at times, beyond). Among his many accomplishments one of the more unusual for his time (or really any time, I suppose) was his writing an autobiography, the Baburnama, an excerpt of which you are reading this week. Originally written in Chagatai Turkic, it was translated into the more widely read literary language of Persian by Babur’s grandson, the Emperor Akbar. Babur’s autobiography, like any such text, projects a particular image of the author- as you read, ask yourself what sort of an image that is, who the possible audience for the text was, and what sorts of values and beliefs and strategies Babur displays. Pay close attention to the role of religion- namely, Islam (which might not be immediately obvious- why?)- in the stories Babur relates. What kinds of social networks was Babur a part of? How did he seek to inspire loyalty and devotion? What kind of sense of self did he have?

After reading the text, examine the above painted depictions of Babur closely. All come from after his death, though no more than a century afterwards, and all were produced in workshops closely associated with the Mughal dynasty. What kinds of images of Babur do they project? What kinds of values, associations, and social ties and practices can you ‘read’ in these three images?

  1. Michitsuna no Haha, and Sonja Arntzen. The Kagerō Diary: A Woman’s Autobiographical Text from Tenth-Century Japan. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997.
Heian Courtiers
A 17th century depiction of Heian period female courtiers, from an illustrated edition of the Tale of Genji, credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

The Kagerō Diary, written by a woman known to us only as Michitsuna no Haha, that is, Michitsuna’s Mother, represents a different sort of autobiographic text, that of the diary or personal chronicle. It comes to us from towards the middle of the Heian Period (794 to 1185) in Japanese history, an age in which the Imperial Court remained important, even though the imperial family itself increasingly had little real power, most real political power being in the hands of the Fujiwara family, who controlled the imperial family through a strategy of marriage alliances. Michitsuna’s Mother lived in the rarefied environment of the imperial court, and her diary reflects those social conditions. As such it comes from a social strata just below that of Babur (at least, that is, once Babur became emperor- it was a long and as you’ve seen difficult process!). Michitsuna’s Mother’s long and often very emotional diary represents one of the earliest example of Japanese diary literature, a genre that would become remarkably common and form part of the canon of classical Japanese literature. Like much early medieval Japanese literature, many of the authors of diaries were, at least at first, women- men wrote in classical Chinese, and for some time writing in Japanese was seen as suitable only for women.

Questions to ask yourself as you read this text: What was the relationship between the author and her husband like, and what might that relationship say about the status and lives of elite women in this period? What sense can you make of other personal relations based on her account? How does she depict her own self? Why the candor and the emphasis on emotion? Was Michitsuna’s Mother a ‘religious’ person?

[For those of you who might be interested in pursuing this topic further, the diary genre continued to be used for centuries afterwards, by women and men. One easily accessible example- which I only recently discovered and hence is not on the course bibliography- comes from the thirteenth century, combining diary with travel narrative, and is titled Izayoi Nikki (Diary of the Waning Moon), by the nun Abutsu-ni (pictured below). It is available in English translation on JSTOR.]


  1. Paisius Velichkovsky. The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj. Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, 1989.
Paisi Velichkovski
A late 18th century iconographic depiction of Paisius Velichkovsky.

Unlike the previous two writers, Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) came from quite ordinary, rather ‘middling’ circumstances, being born in Poltava in what is now Ukraine into a priest’s family. His life, however, would be quite remarkable, as he set off on a journey seeking spiritual instruction that would take him into the lands of the Ottoman Empire to the south, visiting and staying with many Orthodox Christian monastics before eventually settling down first at the Dragomirna Monastery in what is now Romania, then, after the area was seized by the Austrians from the Ottomans, at Neamţ Monastery, where he would spend the rest of his life. Paisius was heavily involved in the recovery of ancient Orthodox spirituality, devoting himself to finding volumes of the Church Fathers and of spiritual writers from late antiquity and the early middle ages, which he often translated from Greek into Slavonic, allowing them to be read by Slavic Orthodox Christians from the Balkans north. His efforts at reviving spiritual and intellectual life among Orthodox monastics and others would be most important in Russia, where his translation of the Philokalia, a compendium of Orthodox spiritual writings, would be published many times, and where his example would lead to the starets tradition, which emphasizes the role of spiritual elders (the starets) who led lives of both deep contemplation and of discipleship towards others. Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov is a starets in the tradition of Paisius.

For our purposes, Paisius is most interesting because of the wonderful autobiography that he wrote, though it only covered part of his life and seems to have been left unfinished. In the excerpt given here, Paisius tells us his reasons for writing- what do you make of his reasons? What was his intended audience? What kind of image of himself does Paisius convey in the stories you read, and how does it differ from the image Babur or Michitsuna’s Mother sought to project in their autobiographical texts? How would you describe Paisius’ sense of self?

Week 3 (February 7/8): A Life of One’s Own—Medieval and Early Modern Women’s Lives:

  1. Schaeffer, Kurtis R. Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Schaeffer’s work is relatively self-explanatory, since I’ve included in your reading both part of Schaeffer’s study of Orgyan Chokyi, the eponymous nun, as well as excerpts from Orgyan Chokyi’s autobiography. For a little additional context, however, it might be interesting to examine the following two images, both of which can be thought of as ‘biographies’ of Tibetan male monastics. The first is of a lama, c. 1000; while the second is a ‘lineage portrait’ of an abbot from the 14th century. How do their depictions differ from the self-depiction Orgyan Chokyi gives? What is the significance of any sort of biographical or autobiographical portrait in a context such as Tibetan Buddhism?

Portrait of a Lama, Possibly Dromton

Lineage Portrait of an Abbot

  1. Ziolkowski, Margaret and Avvakum Petrovich Protopope, Tale of Boiarynia Morozova: A Seventeenth-Century Religious Life. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000.

Feodosia Morozova’s life was defined by the drama of 17th century Russia’s greatest religious controversy, a controversy that resulted in a schism (a split in the church) and the emergence of the Old Believers. In brief, the Russian Orthodox, both clergy and laity, who would become the Old Believers staked out their position in opposition to liturgical and other types of church reforms that were pushed by both the patriarch (the head of the Russian Church) and by the czar. These changes to Russian religious life- some of which seem trivial at first glance but in fact ran deeply into social life and even bodily habits and actions- were the result of, among other things, visiting Greek Orthodox clergy who argued that many Russian practices diverged from genuine Orthodox practice, as represented by contemporary Greek usage. However, beyond concerns for liturgical order or connections with the wider Orthodox world, the Nikonian reforms, as they were known (after Patriarch Nikon, a major player in the reforms), were part of a broader effort to centralize power in Russian religious and political life. Resistance to the reforms, then, was also resistance to the expanding power of the czar and of the central church hierarchy. The Old Believers- who still exist in both Russia and North America, where many of them would emigrate to escape persecution, under czarist and then Soviet states- would define themselves in opposition to the reformed church and the centralizing state both, and in time would develop their own institutions, literature, and roster of saints, including Feodosia.

As you read this account, look for ways in which Feodosia practiced her sense of self, and how she formed her sense of identity- what other people were most important to her, and why? How did she display her resistance to the Nikonian reforms? How did the fact that she was a woman shape her responses and the various responses- negative and positive- to her? What do you think the purpose of this hagiographical account of her was?

Finally, Feodosia has long been a major figure of Russian cultural memory, up to the present; perhaps the most famous manifestation of her place in Russian memory and imagination is the following painting, by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, of a particular scene from her life:


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