The Dependence Of Autobiography On Biography (And Vice-Versa)

A few weeks ago, I briefly spoke at a conference hosted in honor of my dissertation advisor’s eightieth birthday. In my talk I offered some personal recollections of having worked with Distinguished Professor Rohit Parikh, his intellectual influence on me, and the various lessons–personal, technical, moral–that I learned along the way from him. As I began my talk, I apologized for what I described as the ‘self-indulgent’ nature of the talk. After all, even though the talk was about Professor Parikh, it would keep me center-stage at all times; I was as much a character as him. The stories I would tell my audience were about him and me; they would describe my passage through my dissertation, my post-doctoral fellowship, and then later, my work as a faculty member of the City University of New York, all the while informed by my advisor’s presence. (And indeed, I found myself telling tales of my first encounter with my advisor, my decision to work on a dissertation topic that spun off from one of his papers, my struggles to become more mathematically proficient, the shaping of my philosophical world-view through the many discussions and conversations we had, and the various insights into mathematical method, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the nature of logic and knowledge that I gleaned over the years from him. I recalled memorable lines, jokes, profundities; I briefly mentioned our political differences.)

As part of my ‘apology’ therefore, I said that in trying to provide a biography of someone I had interacted with over an extended period of time, it was necessary to provide an autobiography as well. I went on to note that this was not surprising: after all, the recountings of our autobiographies must necessarily call on the biographies of others to be made complete. Our lives are not lived in isolation; they inform, interact with, and impinge upon, many other lives. We form relationships with others; we enter into them, and move on out again; they take us from station to station. The stories of our lives, thus, are also the stories of many others’: friends, lovers, enemies, teachers.

Biography and autobiography are fickle genres of story-telling; they rely on memory, and are infected throughout by all kinds of prejudice. The interaction between the two I describe here shows how these errors may accumulate: my autobiography might distort the biography of others. I might cast myself in a more favorable light, paint myself as more virtuous when contrasted with others; if my autobiography is relied upon as a biographical source for others’ lives, these errors will be perpetuated. In the particular forum in which I was recounting my ‘autobiography’ a converse possibility existed: that I would be corrected by the very person whom I was speaking about; my advisor could have raised his hand at some point and told me that he remembered additional details that I had forgotten, or that I had gotten some quote or location or time wrong.

No man is an island and all that.

Richard Holmes On Biography’s ‘Physical Pursuit’ Of Its Subjects

In an essay describing his biographical work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes writes:

[A] biography is…a handshake….across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.

It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endlessly mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.

Holmes bases this view of the work of the biographer on two claims about the art, the first one of which claims that:

[T]he serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.

Biography is a famously reviled literary genre–sometimes described as fantasy, sometimes intrusive voyeurism, sometimes ideologically motivated hatchet job. Holmes is right to describe it as being animated by an ‘endlessly mysterious question.’ (He is also perspicuous in describing it as a ‘handshake’ and an ‘act of friendship’ of sorts.) That question’s mystery–which becomes ever more prominent when we think about its unanswerability with respect to ourselves–does not make the attempt to answer it necessarily ignoble or ill-motivated. But it does bid us be circumspect in assessing how much of the biographer’s task is ever ‘complete.’

To acknowledge that difficulty note that Holmes adds a variety of physical emulation to the task of the biographer: we must be where our subject has been in order to assess what his experiences there might have been like, and thus evaluate what their contribution to his life’s work were. Thus the Nietzsche biographer must make the hike to Sils Maria and ascend the heights that surround it. There, perhaps, one might investigate what Nietzsche had in mind in his constant invocations of the ‘clean air’ he experienced there, and wonder about the sordid life he might have left behind. Because we are not disembodied intelligences, but rather embodied beings in constant interaction with our environments–physical, mental, and emotional–Holmes’ injunction is a wise one. The biographer who writes of Jack Kerouac without undertaking a long road-trip on American highways, and does not wonder about what effect the sights seen therein–big skies, the black asphalt stretching to the horizon, the lonely houses and farms, the lives of fellow travelers–could have had on an endlessly restless and fertile imagination is crippled, fatally, in his task.

But even as we set to work in this dimension, we realize how much is still hidden away from us, how much remains inaccessible. We are still left to play, unavoidably, with our speculations, distant third-person reports, and autobiographical confessions of dubious fidelity. Perhaps this is why Holmes concludes by describing biography as an ‘act of imaginative faith.’

Notes: This essay begins with what must be a distinctive entry to the ‘not-so-humblebrag’ genre:

By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.

Hermione Lee On Wasting Nothing

The Art of Biography series of interviews at The Paris Review includes the following exchange between Hermione Lee and Louisa Thomas in No. 4:


This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.


There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]

This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.

There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.

As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long.  These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.

An “Orphan’s Sense of History”

Today I plunder Divisadero again, for a personal note:

Those who have an orphan’s sense of history love history. And my voice has become that of an orphan. Perhaps it was the unknown life of my mother, her barely drawn portrait, that made me an archivist, a historian. Because if you do not plunder the past, the absence feeds on you.

Technically, despite my parents not being alive any more, I’m not an orphan, or even an adult orphan:

An orphan (from the Greek ὀρφανός orfanos) is a child whose parents are dead or have abandoned them permanently. In common usage, only a child who has lost both parents is called an orphan. When referring to animals, only the mother’s condition is usually relevant. If she has gone, the offspring is an orphan, regardless of the father’s condition.

Adults can also be referred to as orphans, or adult orphans. However, survivors who reached adulthood before their parents died are normally not called orphans. It is a term generally reserved for children whose parents have died while they are too young to support themselves. [citations removed]

But I do think I might have “an orphan’s sense of history.” I “love history”; I feel that if I “do not plunder the past” its “absence” will “feed” on me. It’s the presence of the “unknown lives” that does it: those of my parents and the imagined ones I ‘left behind’ when I immigrated. Lost parents plus immigration equals gaping gaps, waiting to be filled in, demanding it.

You get to work in any way you see fit. There are photos–digital and otherwise, scrapbooks, email archives, handwritten notes, post-its, letters, postcards, book inscriptions, New Years and Christmas greeting cards, wedding invitations, baby announcements; you save them all. You have boxes and albums of photos; you have hard drives. You have boxes of letters; you have hard drives. In these collections you are distinguished only by your predilection for the minor, the obscure. You see stories in all manners of things; I see a narrative envelop my correspondences, my photos, my writings.

You dig, you seek, you fish, you trawl; your need becomes visible. For many years, when I would meet someone who had known my father, I would be told stories about him without my asking. I did not need to ask; I might have hesitated, but my curiosity was plain for all to see. Even those that didn’t know him helped me fill out a picture of times and places I had had little access to.  Sometimes, I was bolder; I would be overt and inquire pointedly. Over time I tired; there was only so much I rely on the record of others. Over the years, I’ve been defeated by the task; I can’t find out any more about him, all the little snippets and nuggets don’t help any more, his friends have also passed away.

Perhaps I’ll have to rely on fantasy someday, write ‘The Autobiography of my Father’, a gigantic daydream put to paper. You fill the absence in any way that works.

Shakespeare, Drayton, and Birdsong, Then and Now

In his The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Peter Levi wrote,

[H]istory and family connection do as much to throw light on Shakespeare as a poet as academic criticism has done, and maybe more. The problem is that England and Stratford and the Elizabethan age are all somehow part of his great mystery, and all three are potently mythical. Every generation has to make its own attempt to get at the truth, and we shall not succeed unless we allow for the enormous differences that separate Shakespeare from our own world. Even the theatre…is ours and not his, and therefore a barrier as well as a link.

I want to put Shakespeare’s poetry in the context of his life and times.

As part of this putting-in-context, Levi attempts to describe, among other things, places and settings, Straford-upon-Avon, relying on contemporary descriptions. This leads him, to what, I think, is a particularly vivid and colorful description of one of the many differences between that time and ours.

In Chapter One, ‘The Background’, Levi draws on Michael Drayton‘s descriptions of Warwickshire in his ‘epic poem Poly-Olbion, one ‘worth a glance, because people sometimes imagine that Shakespeare, as a lyric poet, exaggerated the natural qualities of the place.’  But Levi doubts ‘Drayton wrote under his influence, being a Warwickshire man himself and having all England to cover.’  He goes on to note his ‘shaggy , warm-hearted feelings’ about the land, as evinced in the Forest’s speech about herself:

We equally partake with woodland as with plain
Alike with hill and dale; and every day maintain
The sundry kinds of beasts upon our copious wastes,
That men for profit bread, as well as those of chase.
Here Arden of herself ceased any more to show; 
And with her sylvan joys the Muse along doth go
When Phoebus lifts his head out of the Winter’s wave
No sooner the Earth her flowery bosom brave,
At such time as the year brings on the pleasant Spring, 
But Hunts-up the morn the feather’d Sylvans spring
And in the lower grove, as on the rising knole,
Upon the highest spray of every mounting pole, 
Those Quiristers are perched with many a speckled breast. 

Levi then goes on to note:

The verses about birdsong that follow are as clear and loud as the birds themselves. We must realize that it was ordinary for Drayton and Shakespeare to hear a dawn chorus of many hundreds of birds at once, and ordinary in summer to hear nightingales. Those were numerous in the elm avenues of Christ Church Meadow even in the late nineteenth century; as a young man thirty years ago, I have heard a deafening dawn chorus in the wooded Chilterns, on Shakespeare’s road to London.

When I read these pages, I was struck by how absent birdsong is in our cities, our modern lives, how it has been banished to ever more remote removes from our mornings. But sometimes, when I walk to work, as I have for the past six years, I walk past a colony of parrots–on which I intend to write a longer post someday–noisily and merrily raising a racket, and for a moment or two, I feel comforted, by this visible and loud reminder of the persistence and resilience of aviary sounds in our urban environs.

Greenblatt, Shakespeare, and the “Intensity of Individuation”

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare has been sitting on my bookshelves since about 2006, when David Coady, then visiting New York for a study leave, left it behind in my care as he returned to Tasmania (I lie; David’s wife, Diana, included it in a package I was supposed to either mail them or bring with me on my next trip to Australia, and I never did so; so the book is mine now; forgive me, David and Diana). But all that is prelude.

For today, I began reading this purported biography of the Bard, one that aims to make his art comprehensible. (My reading, began, quite naturally, as it does for many New Yorkers, on the subway; in this case, on the Q train, as I headed to Manhattan for some rather mundane chores). As I began, I was struck by the following passage (in reference to Shakespeare’s reworking of sixteenth century morality plays):

Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached to not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation: not Youth, but Prince Hal, not Everyman, but Othello.

This is a fine point, nicely put.

First, I like the thought of “the spectacle of human destiny” being “attached” to people; almost as if human beings carried around a stage, a tapestry, of human affairs, fortunes and misfortunes with them, one revelatory of particulars and generalities, capable of telling stories and histories. And each human being, therefore, able to provide a particular perspective on the “spectacle.”

Second, Greenblatt makes us aware of the balancing act that Shakespeare is able to pull off: his characters are realized, indeed, with an “unprecedented intensity of individuation”, and yet, are able to convey the generality of the human spectacle. Indeed, Shakespeare is able to draw an exquisite contrast between the “intensely individuated” character and its ability to make us sense and comprehend broader, universal “truths” about us. As the contrast grows between the highly specific, idiosyncratic, unique character, and its simultaneous familiarity, we are entranced by the artist’s genius. He has managed to introduce us to novelty and particularity, to the familiar and the unfamiliar, all at once. And perhaps more to the point, he makes us aware each person is an “eye on the world” one capable of making us see.