The starting point – June 2015

I’m not sure exactly how and when the concrete plans for this study matured in my mind. The first announcement of my autobiographical intentions came at the end of June, 2015, a month after I had left as director of the Medical Museion. I wrote on my own FB timeline:

As Søren Kierkegaard said, life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. Having always, for decades, explored new intellectual vistas, I’ve rarely had time or interest in looking backwards. Now it seems to be time to change the priorities. Time to take stock before the next phase, whatever direction it will take. γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself).

“Are you drafting a memoir?, asked one of my history of science colleagues, Carsten Timmerman a few minutes later, and I answered:

Memoir sounds so boring. Autobiography is way too pretentious. I would rather call it a ‘spiritual exercise’ in the Augustinian confessional sense, based on my archive, my memories, and my library.

From this moment forth, I was suddenly deeply involved in what rapidly developed into a full-time research enterprise, a ‘project‘. And accordingly, I changed my scholarly identity: from a professional museionist to an emeritus memoirist.

What I have done after June 2015

In the academic year 2015-16 I focused my efforts on revisiting my childhood and teenage years; I went through all archival material that were kept at home, mainly my grandfather’s diaries (more here); I also scanned hundreds of photos from my early life; and I used much time trying to generate spontaneous memories from the age of 5-6 and onwards (more here). In addition, I made a lot of efforts to locate my former class fellows, all the way back to primary school, and asked them to help me remember our years together.

In the autumn of 2016 — after having collected all possible information I could get my hands on from the childhood and school years — I began to dig into my adult professional career, i.e., the half century from the late 1960s to the late 2010s. This was greatly facilitated by the moving of my professional archival, mainly manuscripts, conference papers, lecture notes, etc., from my office at Medical Museion into a small basement room in our house; having the material nearby made it much more easy to go through it chronologically. Until September 2017, I had browsed and sometimes carefully read, all archival material up to the end of 1991. In the autumn of 2017 I took a break in the archival work to reflect on the project so far and to organize this website.

I have begun to present the general ideas behind the investigation at a few academic seminars and I also have a couple of seminars and lectures in the pipeline (see project outreach here). The major publication outlet so far has been social media, primarily Facebook, because I’ve realized that the FB platform provides a most useful virtual seminar for academic discussions and comments.

 

Antecedents — before 2015

As I say above, the concrete plans for the project were formulated in June 2015, probably provoked by my impending retirement. But it didn’t really grow out of the blue. There was already something ‘autobiographical’ going on inside me before then; for example I had begun posting about my experiences as a young bird-watcher on the Facebook page Fältbiolog emeritus (Nature and Youth Sweden emeritus) in the winter of 2014/15.

More generally, I think the genealogy of the project can be seen and an mirror image of my current aims and purposes, i.e., both the project as a whole, and most of the perspectives have antecedents in my past.

For example, in my own life practice, as far as I can document it, I have been engaged in occasional reconstructions of my life, typically taking a couple of hours on New Year’s Days to go through the year that passed. At irregular intervals I have also taken retrospective looks at my life, both personal and professional, usually with the attempt to divide it into ‘periods’ of, say, five or seven years. In other words, I seem always to have had a spontaneous autobiographical impulse, which was kept down for decades — until retirement, when it was allowed to burgeon and flourish.

Another personal, practical background is my involvement with psychotherapy. In the early 1980s, I went several hundred hours in body therapy with a British-Danish therapist, where I learnt, through hard emotional, mental and bodily work, to connect my behaviour and present feelings with my more or less repressed and often painful early emotional experiences. These therapy sessions gave me a practical understanding of the intimate relations between body and mind, which I later brought with me into my ‘existential’ approach to biography.

My long-term academic engagement in biography is obviously one of the most important antecedents of this project. I spent almost 15 years between the late 1980 and the early 2000s researching and writing about the private and public life of a scientist and simultaneously reflecting on the genre of scientific biography (see resume, curriculum vitae, and publications); he too had a huge archive, and the joyful experience of excavating this archive and trying to build a coherent picture of the relation between his personal life and his science has most probably inspired me to do something similar. Likewise my reflections on the genre of biography can now easily be transferred to reflections on the genre of autobiography. In fact, it’s probably not too far-fetched to imagine that I’m now simply recapitulating my fascination with my former biographical subject, substituting him with me.

Another similar interest stems from my former engagement with the history of ecology, where I learnt to conduct oral interviews and reconstruct the history of an academic discipline as an assemblage of individual biographies. And even further back, I can track a propensity for understanding the world in terms of their genealogical and historical development — embryology, evolution, phylogeny, etc. So what is more natural than trying to understand myself in terms of my own life history?