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Lives In Pieces: Biography As Butchery

Ask an intelligent person, “what is the most conceited thing a biographer could ever say about their subject?”. After giving it some thought they might answer, the most conceited words a biographer could ever utter about the subject person would be “I felt I knew more about her than anyone else alive”. The context is not relevant, but I recently read those precise words (google them if you must, my secret middle name is St John after all).

By her own admission the biographer in question reached her point of supreme confidence barely 4 months after becoming acquainted with the name and works of the subject person, the ‘subject’ being an acclaimed novelist, a woman of great mental complexity, who died five years previously. This novelist was loved or despised in equal measure by many people who knew her well, yet a biographer believed she knew the novelist better.

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Conclude then, after idle conversation between well-read friends, by observing only that this biographer must lack sophistication. And, be entitled to surmise that the biography (however tempting the gossip within) must be *rambling rubbish*, objectively-speaking.

For the sake of objective comparison, I suggest the example of another biographer who was interviewed only a few weeks ago by a prominent Australian broadcaster-intellectual known for his wonderfully wicked sense of humor and -- leaving aside his undisguised political prejudices -- considerable and unusual acuity in the observation of humankind.

I speak of Phillip Adams. He was interviewing, on this occasion, a person of integrity, speaking from a studio in the United States, who initially seemed awkward, probably unused to publicity. Phillip let his LNL listeners know (repeatedly) how amusing it was that this historian devoted 30 years of her life to the biography of the French sociologist Auguste Comte. 1857 was the year Comte died. When the biographer began her research the subject person had been dead 120 years. With characteristically gentle sarcasm Phillip said, at the outset “clearly you know more about him [Comte] than anyone else on the planet”.

Not quite knowing how to react to the down under jokery his guest only responded in whispery polite echo of Phillip’s laughter “hm hm yeah ha ha” as she waited despairingly for discussion of Comte to commence. Being a learned person this biographer understood that in spite of her three volumes produced over three decades, many other people also *know* Comte. The man’s been dead for 155 years, there was no person alive who could personally have known Comte. Yet here was a biographer who would not dream of saying something so vulgar as “I feel I know more about Comte than anyone else alive”.

The interview ends hilariously in superb style. Comte’s biographer warms to the LNL format. Laughs away. Phillip: “Well I’m glad you’ve maintained your sense of humour after 30 years being you know …”. He dries up. She says, interceding, “I have to admit I never liked the guy very much, but it was fun to work on him, it was virgin territory, a lot of fun”. The microphones seem to have been turned off momentarily, an eruption of hysteria. Phillip comes back on saying “I’ve got to stop you there … You never liked the guy very much?”. “No”, she says, “I thought he was very cold”.

This is not where she began. It is where she ended, an afterthought in good humour. The admirable hard-graft biographer, whose name is Mary Pickering, is well and truly entitled to her considered personal opinion after 30 years. The hilarity of her admission was pure relief, you would never have guessed until then where her sympathies had lain.

I am suspicious of them - biography and biographers. I once complained pompously on a blog called Marginal Revolution in a post about Foucault 13th January 2011, my comment seems to have been deleted (maybe I hogged someone’s limelight). Here it is:

“I have biographies of Borges, Patrick White, Schumpeter, Hayek, and Max Weber on my shelf that I’ve never read and perhaps never will. I want instead to read Hayek and Weber at face value, following their logic, pulling the internal parts of their works apart/together. On that basis alone I will judge their worth and their relevance to the contemporary issues. I will see how they perform today, on the page, in their words, independently of what other people claim to know about their true meaning or true intention through deconstructions of their intellectual milieu, social context, language, etc. Also, I really don't want to know they mistreated their family, dressed in woman's clothes, picked their nose, etc.”

My sympathy lies entirely with Michel Houellebecq:

“I can’t remember ever finishing a single biography. Those I started reading made me think of bad spy novels or mystery novels in which the author’s sympathies are clear from the outset, in which only the most obvious schemes and motives are explored, the sort of novel where you can work out whodunit in the first twenty pages. To put it another way, I have never been able to imagine a biography that is exempt from a certain vulgarity”.

Houellebecq might have made an exception for Comte’s biographer - Mary Pickering.

Now an admission. It is relevant to the subject of biography. Be patient.

Following in a family tradition I have flirted (not consummated) with the writing of fiction. I have too many ideas, the quantity distracts and confuses me. Like the adventure-charged character Susan Barton in Coetzee’s novel ‘Foe’, I am prone to assume “I have no art”.

I was tempted to write a fiction on the life of Max Weber, a man whose science I studied for … yes … 30 years. So, for the first time, I did open the biography! It is the only true biography of Max Weber, other than the one written by Max’s wife, Marianne. They are not reliable, in my opinion, since neither appears to grasp the nature of an essential theme or insight that *drove* Weber in his sociological research. It was this consistent (highly personal) feature of his life’s work I wanted to obsess about in a ‘modernist’ novel.

What I found most readily to hand in the 700-page biography was gossip about Weber’s food disorders, weight problems, alcohol consumption, emotional debilities, masochistic subjugation to mother and wife, his life-long sexual insecurity. Would not a good person like Weber, who valued ethical science above all else, be humiliated by posthumous allegations of sexual abnormality, details of night emissions (a euphemism for wet dreams), very pathetic erotic fantasies, or his secret desire to be a muscleman?

The biographer alleges that as an adolescent Weber was sexually aroused by a beating he once received from his mother. The biographer afterwards brazenly covers his tracks by conceding the relevant facts are “hard to fathom”. The biographer admits to indulging in “speculation”. He has no proof or justification. He picks over scraps of correspondence and shoddy pseudo-Freudian analysis written by a disloyal so-called ‘friend’ about this eminent man’s wet dreams. Why do it if it is not to undermine him as a scholar and statesman?

Biography is potentially the perfect reckless and unaccountable medium for idolatry and its opposite, resentment. Did the great man deserve the exposé? Is it right to do that to a proud self-disciplined man, a difficult and temperamental man, but a man who contributed so much to science, to the nation, and to social understanding of bourgeoise dignity and virtue?

And I have not even touched on the relationship of biography to memory, a tricky subject which psychologists are familiar with, and which deeply interests many novelists.