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David N. Livingstone

No More Disembodied Minds

I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. … I have not great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men. … My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; I should, moreover, never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy. … With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important points.

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I recognized what I had to do, though I shrank from both the task and the exposure which it would entail. I must, I said, give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am, that it may be seen what I am not, and that the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me. … I may be accused of laying stress on little things, of being beside the mark, of going into impertinent or ridiculous details, of sounding my own praise, of giving scandal; but this is a case above all others, in which I am bound to follow my own lights and to speak out my own heart. It is not at all pleasant for me to be egotistical; nor to be criticized for being so. It is not pleasant to reveal to high and low, young and old, what has gone on within me from my early years. It is not pleasant to be giving to every shallow or flippant disputant the advantage over me of knowing my most private thoughts.

These gobbets, from autobiographies of two distinguished—one might say archetypal—Victorians, reveal rather different ways of taking the measure of a self. One displays a downplaying of accomplishment and achievement; the other writes from compulsion and consternation. One gestures toward obituary, the other toward testimony. One minimizes the role of self unveiling in assessing his significance, the other maximizes it. One is a scientist, the other ...

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