Erika Mann Lecture: Masterclass on the ‘I’ in text

15 Jun 2023

Following on from the Erika Mann Lecture, essayist Asal Dardan presented a master class for LMU students on the ‘I’ in nonfiction texts and provided impulses for academic writing.

Essayist Asal Dardan, whose 2021 debut piece Betrachtungen einer Barbarin (Observations of a Barbarian) was nominated for the German Nonfiction Prize and the Clemens Brentano Prize, held the first Erika Mann Lecture at LMU this year. She spoke about Mann as a writer and thinker who looked boldly, creatively and progressively at the age she lived in; and as a “militant liberal”, as Mann described herself, someone who took up an unequivocal stance. After discussing her observations, Dardan delivered a master class for 20 LMU students at the Monacensia in the Hildebrandthaus artists’ villa. Her two-hour seminar was inspired by the title of a collection of texts by Erika Mann: Ausgerechnet ich (Me, of all people).

A gem from the Monacensia archive

Essayist Asal Dardan

According to Dardan, writing is about constantly rebalancing between closeness and distance of the writing self, not only to the reader, but also to the writer herself. | © Stephan Höck / LMU

Before the master class began, the students had the chance to glimpse a rare treasure indeed: Erika Mann’s school travel pass, with the daily journey from her home in Poschingerstrasse to the girls’ school in the city center marked in red. This gem from the Monacensia archive was taken from a box and reverently shown to the participants by a white-gloved member of staff.

“I wasn’t very familiar with Erika Mann until recently,” Dardan admitted as she began her talk. In preparing the lecture, however, she took a deep dive into her works. “I’ve grown very fond of her in the meantime,” the writer said. Erika Mann, she added, stood for “writing from the first-person perspective, a feeling, observing, expressive I that did not hold back”. That said, Dardan cautioned that “[Mann] was not someone who wrote a lot about herself. In her texts we find a strident I, but one that does not talk about itself. What mattered to her was that others should be able to find and see themselves in this I.”

And who is the ‘I’ in nonfiction texts? This question was at the very core of the master class, a core approached by the students for a whole morning and from all kinds of different perspectives and interest backgrounds. Some of them – such as Pauline, currently studying for her master’s degree in philosophy, and teacher training student Chrissy, themselves write poetry, prose and other texts and came hoping for useful insights for their own writing. Others were there primarily as readers, keen to deepen their understanding of literature. Still others sought inspiration to write academic texts. All these questions linked in with what Asal Dardan aimed to tackle with the students: She wanted to home in on the I in nonfiction texts. “There is always an I,” she noted. “Even in nonfiction works, but especially in the essay genre in which I write.”

Writing as the act of saying I

For the class, Dardan prepared three texts with which she wanted to discuss different forms and attitudes of the I with the students: excerpts from Joan Didion’s famous talk on “Why I Write”, Siri Hustvedt’s “The Writing Self” and Vivian Gornick’s “The Situation and the Story – the Art of Personal Narrative”. Again and again, Erika Mann served as a pivotal point of reference.

The students represented different cultural and academic backgrounds. Some of them referenced the use of the I in a variety of native languages. Analysis of the texts thus quickly sparked a lively, inspiring debate. One focus of the discussions in relation to Joan Didion’s text, for example, centered around her famous words “I, I, I”, and her contention that “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind”.

From situation to story

On reading Siri Hustvedt’s text, students and speaker grappled together with the issue that the I doing the writing always exists in a context, positions itself in relation to the readers but, in so doing, also often positions itself in a new relation to itself. “Writing is always for someone,” as Hustvedt put it in her essay. “It takes place on the axis of discourse between me and you.” At the same time, the essayist asserts that writing spurs “reflective self-consciousness, the examination of self as other”. Accordingly, writing as a process of discovering and dealing with personal thoughts and experiences was also raised as a topic in the seminar: Whom is the ‘writing I’ addressing? What does the I disclose – consciously or unconsciously – in a text about itself? And how does a lived experience become a narrative, a story that can be told?

In the third text – the one by Vivian Gornick – the following key questions were addressed: How does the I, the self, mold the raw material of its own experience into a form? How much does ‘the writing I’ have to conceal, how much must it disclose, how much personal experience is acceptable? Dardan recalled how she too has often concerned herself with the relationship between what can and cannot be said. The issue, she argued, is repeatedly striving for the right balance in the proximity of the writing I to and its distance from not only the reader, but also to (and from) the actual subject matter.

Debate about the hegemonic-normative “we”

Vivian Gornick writes that, in an essay, unlike, say, in a novel, the I cannot hide behind imaginary characters adopting varying attitudes. In essays, the I stands alone.

Dardan likewise stressed this distinction: “The beauty of literature,” she said, “is that you can have an unreliable I, an I that lies to itself or to others. In nonfiction texts, the I has to be reliable." She added that Erika Mann herself did not always remain truthful and that, on occasion, she invented fabulous anecdotes: “She was a talented storyteller.”

The students talked about truth and truthfulness, about mechanisms of the nonfictional I, about hiding behind the impersonal ‘one’ or using a more general and at times hegemonic-normative ‘we’. These too are things we must sound out again and again as we write, Dardan reiterated: “Where do I stand in relation to this ‘we’? Where do I fit in? With what do I take up common cause when using it?”

The fluidity of the I was equally of interest to the students: how the narrative morphs into different forms and the I fulfils different social roles depending on the situation in which it is speaking and the person it is addressing.

“We try to avoid the I in academic writings. Yet so much is bound up with it. I have resolved to play closer attention to this issue,” was the summary given by one student majoring in German and English and minoring in philosophy and ethics as she prepares for a position as a high school teacher. Another participant said the master class encouraged her to go back to seeing academic writing more as a process of discovery. “I’ve often got stuck with academic papers because I felt I ought to already know so much. Our discussion encouraged me, showing me that I can also be a questioner.”

Asal Dardan ended the master class with a reference to Ruth Klüger. As both reader and writer, Dardan pointed out, Klüger had showed the courage to fight passionately for a new perspective on the literary canon, stating that: These texts that you all agree on, I read them differently, as a woman, as a Jew. “Making room to say I,” Dardan commented, “is also an act of emancipation.”

What are you looking for?