The book or the world?

Book, let me go.
I don’t want to walk dressed
In a volume …
let me walk on the roads
with dust in my shoes
and without mythology:
return to your library,
I’m going out into the streets.

So announced Pablo Neruda in Ode to the Book (I), championing his political activism over the writing to which he had devoted a lifetime’s equal energy. Unfavourable comparison between the real world and the library has a long tradition mostly expressed, ironically enough, in books.

In Neruda’s poem, devotion to books is imagined as a retreat from the moral claims of daily life. But where does such a division leave the books written about real people? Ever since humans have been making stories we’ve been drawn to telling the complex mass of actual human life and, in their modern guise of biography and memoir, stories about real lives are more popular than ever.

In our fascination with other lives we seek the solaces of gossip—titillation, diversion and reassurance—but not only that, we also look for guidance: one of the central purposes of biography throughout its long life has been instruction. The biographies of divinities and sages are a central means of teaching in all of the world’s religions. In Christianity, for example, there is the tradition of ‘spiritual autobiographies’ and ‘saints’ lives’ (beginning in 993 with Aelfrics’s Lives of the Saints and continuing up to the marvellously lurid 60 Saints for Girls I received as a first communion gift); indeed, the Gospels themselves can be considered biographies. The Greeks and Romans bequeathed a secular tradition of moral exemplars to the West, with Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans presenting a model of civic and military prowess that became widely influential in Europe with Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation. The tradition of the Great Man biography reached its apotheosis with the Victorians, where the vivid intimacy of Johnson’s and Boswell’s 18th-century innovations were replaced with pious reverence: reticence on everything but rectitude was the order of the day.

This vast edifice of Victorian hagiography was punctured in 1918 with the publication of Lytton Strachey’s slim satiric volume Eminent Victorians, which parodied the notions of civic good and spiritual heroism upon which the Victorian tradition was founded. Strachey’s reaction against the didactic purpose of biography has become a hallmark of the modern form. Victoria Glendinning, the award-winning biographer of Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West, expresses the opinion of many contemporary biographers when she comments, ‘It is questionable whether moral judgments have any place at all in biography.’

The widespread aversion to judging biographical subjects or instructing readers does not mean, however, that life-writing has forgone issues of morality. Rather, modern approaches to biography have both reflected and shaped the changing ways in which our culture understands life and goodness. Most significantly, ‘truth’ has replaced ‘virtue’ as the yardstick of the age. From therapy groups to television talk shows to intimate relationships, truth-telling is seen as our primary responsibility, especially when the truth told is of transgression. J. A. Froude’s frank writings on the magisterial social prophet Thomas Carlyle caused uproar in the 1880s because of their intimations of impotency and marital discord. In his defence Froude provided what would become the central justification for biography’s treatment of private life: the biographer’s first duty is to truth, not propriety. Froude argued that without consideration of Carlyle’s faults ‘his character cannot be understood’ and that as ‘the truest of men’ Carlyle would himself have demanded a true portrait. Clearly not all biographical subjects feel likewise, but it is what readers now demand. The impetus is not solely scandal mongering, however: like Froude, the biographer can be motivated by sympathy or admiration. This is clearly the case with the pioneer of modern self-reflexive biography, Richard Holmes. In the exploration of his biographical methods, Sidetracks, Holmes writes: ‘Biography is a human exchange, what I have called a “handshake across time”. It is an act of human solidarity, and in its own way an act of recognition and of love.’

We look now, as Holmes puts it, for solidarity—and thus for shared foibles rather than for moral exemplars: we want to know that ‘the poet’ Coleridge suffered terribly from constipation and that ‘the president’ Kennedy was a philanderer. Our search for figures we can ‘relate to’ rather than respect is connected to the refiguring of how we understand good and evil. The binary approach to ethics—the idea that there is a stable set of laws differentiating what is right from what is wrong and to which humans must simply adhere—has largely disappeared from the modern West, among both the religious and the secular. In its place is a more fluid understanding, which pictures life as irreducibly complex and where morality can shift and turn according to the situation. In his reflections on writing the lives of the Romantic poets, Holmes contends that, instead of drawing moral conclusions about its subjects, biography rightly ‘sees a more complicated and subtle pattern. Even out of worldly “failure” and personal suffering (indeed perhaps especially from these) it finds creative force and human nobility.’ This approach resonates with that of Nicholas Mosley, who has written biographies of his father Oswald, leader of the British Union of Fascists during World War II. ‘One of the points of this book—biography or autobiography,’ Mosley comments, ‘has been the attempt to create an attitude by which darkness in people (there is always darkness) might be made to be seen not so much as evil as somewhat ridiculous: evil may thus be exorcised: ridiculousness becomes life-giving.’ In this approach to ethical questions, self-consciousness is central and Mosley (whose autobiography is tellingly titled Efforts at Truth) uses the degree of his father’s self-awareness, rather than his actions themselves, as the measure for moral evaluation.

These new approaches to the relationship between ethics and life-writing bring their own set of concerns, however. Contemporary discussion of biographical practice is interested primarily in the representation of literary figures, and the extent to which the methods and values commonly employed in literary biography can function in the biographies of civic figures is debatable. Although the distinction between different kinds of subjects is necessarily fluid—authors and politicians are not autonomous categories—there are significant differences in writing a biography of a novelist (even one with a taste for publicity) and of a politician whose character and career determine the condition of nations. Holmes and Mosley have chosen very different kinds of men, and in writing about a political leader the latter is obliged to consider his subject in the light of historical realities. European fascism constitutes a watershed in how we today conceive of morality, and writing about figures in that context does heighten the danger of reducing events and individuals to what Primo Levi has called a Manichean view of history. But awareness of this risk does not deny the reality of moral difference nor the necessity of moral accountability. As Levi states bluntly about his experience of Auschwitz: ‘I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer.’

Furthermore, regardless of subject, the assertion of truth is not as simple as some biographers make it appear: do we still imagine ourselves to possess some kind of defining truth? And when there are conflicting interpretations, who has the authority to decide the truth told? The critical question has shifted from Froude’s defence of truth-telling to the much knottier one of what constitutes truth. It seems that often when we talk about truth in life-writing what we really mean is explicitness—the demand to know what had been hidden—but the biographer’s art cannot be reduced to the amassing of details, and an exact portrait may not be a true one. To get to the truth of a person requires interpretation and omission and a recognition that life is much more opaque and untidy than it is usually presented in books. It could be that what is required is a new form: in 1918 Lytton Strachey dismissed ‘standard biographies’ as inadequate to the experience of life, yet the mammoth, multi-volumed, indexed ‘Life’ remains dominant. Holmes is one biographer experimenting with new styles to get at a truth flattened by the traditional approach, using travelogue, radio plays, and fiction (including the wonderfully evocative Dr Johnson’s First Cat). Amid these debates about representation and reality, perhaps the central truth to consider is that of the subject’s own sense of self. As the historian of fascism Richard Griffiths has noted, ‘Nobody holds opinions which they feel to be wrong; one must therefore attempt to see things through these people’s eyes, to assess what they felt to be right and why.’ In order for biography to consider the moral claims made on it by history, therefore, it must first strive to see its subjects as they saw themselves.

Grappling with these issues is a kind of ethical practice for writers and readers alike; one that, intentionally or not, provides a new form of moral instruction to replace the didacticism of previous generations. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera has made a moral critique of the very genre of biography as by definition reducing an individual’s life to the interpretation of another. Kundera aligns biography with what he calls the ‘trial regime’ under which much of Europe lived in the 20th century: like biography, this trial’s province was private life as well as public, judging not an isolated act but rather ‘the character of the accused in its entirety’. But I think the reverse is true, that biography can bring us understanding and illumination rather than judgment. At its best, biography shows us the complexity of the figures we presume to judge, working in an opposite direction to Kundera’s trial regime. It is in this that biographers most resemble novelists. In ‘Against Dryness’, her famous 1961 essay on what literature offers that philosophy does not, Iris Murdoch argues for the moral value of the 19th-century realist novels which were not concerned with ‘the human condition’ in the abstract but ‘with real various individuals struggling in society’. She argues that the other-realities conveyed in such works break into our self-centred fantasies and in doing so perform a moral function: ‘Through literature we can rediscover a sense of the density of our lives.’ The same can be said of great biographies: they invite us to inhabit minds and bodies other than our own, and this is moral work.

Examining how we read biography necessitates that we ask how we read generally and demands we re-examine the ethics of that process. It reminds us in these fiscally obsessed times that reading is not simply the private act of a leisured class but a moral practice: stories are how we tell and understand what life is, and the stories we make about real human lives are the most important of all. That sly old poet Neruda wrote a second poem about the relationship between writing and living, and this Ode to the Book (II) celebrates precisely that kind of reading. The two categories with which we began are not, it seems, separated by ‘or’ but linked by ‘and’:

What was our victory?
a book,
a book full
of human touches,
of shirts,
a book
without loneliness, with men
and tools,
a book
is victory.



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