On Getting Free: An/Of Autofiction


Henry Wolf after Winslow Homer, Winter, the Fox Hunt, c. 1890

by M. Munro

Many contemporary critics fail to understand that the term autofiction suggests slipperiness, an estrangement of the I-narrator, who may or may not have the same name as the author, so that the space of the work can become a space of freedom.[1]

A talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment.[2]

If freedom is something to move toward, what does that movement look like?[3]

I’d have liked to begin – picture it – by setting two short narratives side by side and making a comparison: I’d have juxtaposed Kafka’s “Before the Law” with Arendt’s “Heidegger the Fox,” her fable about the (self-described) “‘best of all foxes,’” the fox who made a trap his home.[4] Two writers raised on German literature, two writers of Jewish ancestry, near contemporaries, writing on two men from the country, even if writing decades apart. Imagine. The way Arendt closes her piece would help me set up my question and so motivate the comparison. She writes, “Nobody knows the nature of traps better than one who sits in a trap his whole life long.”[5] Recalling how Kafka’s tale ends, with the gatekeeper closing the door of the Law as the protagonist expires, roaring in his ear that all along it was meant for him alone, I’d have to have analysed how “the Law” can be considered a trap,[6] and whether the man from the country, even if only at the moment of his demise, whether or not he hears, “knows” it. But that’s all only in order to set up the question. I’d ask, Who better knows the nature of traps? That’s how I’d have done it, anyway. But haven’t, clearly, because I think the point is better made by evoking the comparison and then intentionally walking away from it.

About the Author

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbooks The Map and the Territory (punctum books, 2021) and The Key to Not Being Governed (Fabulate Books, 2021).


[1] Kate Zambreno, To Write As If Already Dead (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 84. An alternate title might read, after Schelling, “Freedom Essay: Freedom in/as Autofiction.”

[2] Benedict Singleton, “Maximum Jailbreak,” e-flux 46 (June 2013), Another piece I’d like to have written concerns the time the Buddha is alleged to have deposited his shadow (shadow, shadow image, or reflection, 影) in a grotto to the west of Jalalabad. See Eugene Wang, “The Shadow Image in the Cave: Discourse on Icons,” in Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook, eds. Wendy Swartz, Robert Ford Company, Yang Lu, and Jessey J. C. Choo (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014), 405-427. Apparently visible from a distance, but vanishing on approach, Wang observes that the caper of the Buddha’s shadow “coaxes the mind into the cave,” while concomitantly, in visualizing it, “also places the cave in the mind” (410), so that thinking according to the tale ramifies because “depends,” the scholar maintains, “on the topography” (409). I’d have called it “The Allegory of the Cave” and not once mentioned Plato.—I think what I like in this connection is something that would then follow on Jonathan Lear’s striking contention that the cave is “the most optimistic metaphor in Western philosophy. Although our experience may be permeated by distorted images,” Lear explains, “they are ultimately distortion of something real.” Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 59. “Something real”? In this case, perhaps, a real conundrum.

[3] Lwando Scott, “Black Freedom is the Seed for All Freedom,” Public Books, April 30, 2021,

[4] Franz Kafka, “Before the Law,” in The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, trans. Willa Muir, Edwin Muir, Tania Stern, James Stern, Ernst Kaiser, and Eithne Wilkins (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1971), 3-4, and Hannah Arendt, “Heidegger the Fox,” in The Portable Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000), 543-545. Giorgio Agamben recounts that “in 1966, while attending the seminar on Heraclitus at Le Thor, I asked Heidegger whether he had read Kafka. He answered that, of the little he had read, it was above all the short story ‘Der Bau’ (The Burrow) that had made an impression on him. The nameless animal that is the protagonist of the story—mole, fox, or human being—is obsessively engaged in building an impregnable burrow that instead,” Agamben continues, “slowly reveals itself to be a trap with no way out.” Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 139-140. An “impression,” indeed. Doubtless. But …I think the expression I’m looking for is: “So many questions.” Or is this too a trap?

[5] Arendt, “Heidegger the Fox,” 544.

[6] “When fact situations come into the law’s ken, it will configure them into narratives that have the emphases, distinctions, oppositions, problems, and remedies its own purpose-informed vocabulary names, and by naming, legitimates as legal. […] In the bounded space of legal argument, not everything can be heard or said, even if in the grander scheme of things—grander, that is, than any professional game—what is left out is regarded by some as life itself.” Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016), 156-7. The trap here might then be to think admittance to the law looks any different.—Allow me in conclusion a reflection on method. A sentence first, then a story. “I wondered if it was enough to extract a sentence and hope something would ramify from there, like a crystal.” Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2020), 18. That’s the sentence. The story, ramifying from there, is about the search for sentences. And the search by way of sentences. “The story concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities—one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist—their parents took them to a psychiatrist. First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. ‘What’s the matter?’ the psychiatrist asked, baffled. ‘Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?’ ‘Yes,’ the little boy bawled, ‘but if I did I’d only break them.’ Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. ‘With all this manure,’ the little boy replied, beaming, ‘there must be a pony in here somewhere!’” Peter Robinson, How Ronald Regan Changed My Life (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003), 15-16. (Incidentally, this story, from this source, approaches a case in point.)

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