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That’s Life

The relation of the literary biographer to his subject has perhaps never been easy, and as posthumous biographical scrutiny has grown more intense, a premonitory shiver has been felt by many writers. Every great man has his disciples, says Wilde, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. Joyce describes the biographer, not much more winningly, as the biografiend. No one has any trouble understanding why T. S. Eliot and George Orwell both stipulated that no biography be written of them, at least with any help from their widows. The biographer is necessarily intrusive, a trespasser even when authorized. For while he is neither inimical nor in his judgments Rhadamanthine—and good will seems to be a prerequisite—he introduces an alien point of view, necessarily different from that mixture of self-recrimination and self-justification which the great writer, like lesser men and women, has made the subject of his lifelong conversation with himself.

Yet some parallactic correction of self-portraiture is warranted because the sense of ourselves which we have in isolation is to a large extent fabricated, an ennoblement or a debasement. Alone we can be braver and handsomer than others see us, and think of those perfect ripostes which somehow just failed—when we were at the party—to come to our lips. And alone, too, we can be more monstrous than we really are. Autobiography is essentially solitary, though there are examples, such as V.S. Pritchett’s autobiography, of almost total self-effacement in this form. But biography is essentially social. For the biographer, who himself represents the outside world, the social self is the real self, the self only comes to exist when juxtaposed with other people. The solitary self is a pressure upon the social self, or a repercussion of it, but it has no independent life. No doubt Robinson Crusoe would disagree, but the overstatement may encourage us. Besides Defoe, not Crusoe, wrote the book.

How intimately can we know the self of another person? When we read Boswell we are surprised in that decorous author to find that he believes he is rendering Johnson’s private life. He quotes Dr. Johnson’s remark that a man’s domestic privacies should be investigated because prudence and virtue may appear more conspicuously there than in incidents of vulgar greatness. But we are now only too well aware that the domestic life may yield examples of attributes other than prudence and virtue. Recent biographical speculations about Dr. Johnson himself offer such intimations. We can now see that Boswell dealt with a social privacy, the interrelation of one man with another in civilized appointed meetings. There are deeper levels of privacy, where propriety gives way to impropriety, where, if Katharine Balderston is right, Mrs. Thrale at Dr. Johnson’s earnest request whips his naked back, or, if Professor Balderston is wrong, other unseemly acts take place which we assume even if we can’t document.

Boswell tells us nothing of these. Partly, of course, because he didn’t share our estimation of the importance these further kinds of intimacy might possess. Today we want to see our great men at their worst as well as their best; we ask of biography the same candor that our novelists have taught us to accept from them. Napoleon warned of the danger of trusting his valet, but Napoleon was anxious to protect his grandeur. One reveals character to an office clerk as well as to a chairman of the board, through digestion as well as cerebration. To dwell, as a biographer today would dwell, upon the influence of Lichfield on Dr. Johnson would not be Boswellian; to deal with Johnson’s relations with his parents as something central, rather than as something to be got over to reach the adult Johnson—the finished product—without too great delay, would also seem to Boswell gratuitous.

More than anything else we want in modern biography to see the character forming, its peculiarities taking shape—but Boswell prefers to give it to us already formed. No doubt it was hard for Boswell to conceive of Dr. Johnson as a small boy in short trousers, at least until that short-trousered small boy began to translate Virgil and Homer. It is hard for us, too. And primarily Boswell wants to reveal Johnson’s force of character, while today we should ask him to disclose to us the inner “compulsions,” the schizoid elements—such is our modern vocabulary—which lay behind that force.

A Boswell alive today would have difficulty in representing so amusingly Johnson’s scorn for Scotsmen; he would feel the need to tell us the origins of this xenophobia, and much of the comedy would evaporate before cumbersome explanation. We should want to know more about Johnson’s early indifference to religion, which began at the age of nine, he told Boswell, on account of his weak eyes—a curious explanation (was the prayer book badly printed?)—and which continued until as a student at Oxford he happened upon William Law’s Serious Call to a Holy Life and became religious again. This is the panoply of the mind, not its basic workings.

The greatness of Boswell’s biography, the sense it imparts of a man utterly recognizable and distinct, demonstrates that other methods of biography are not necessarily better; but nonetheless we feel compelled today to explore carefully aspects of the mind and of behavior that he would have regarded as not worthy to record and not suitable to publish. We can claim to be more intimate, but even our intimacy shows occasional restraints, little islands of guardedness in a blunt ocean. We have savored the emotional intricacies of Lytton Strachey’s love life with Carrington and their friends, but the precise anatomical convolutions remain shrouded by the last rags of biographical decorum.

One characteristic of Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud is that even Jones, an analyst writing about an analyst, stops short at certain points and says, “But we must leave this matter to the psychoanalysts.” This is appealing from Philip Drunk to Philip Sober. One has the sense of descending into a cave only to be told that the real cave is further down, unfortunately closed to the public. The battle to use Freudian techniques has been won; but victory has not been conclusive, because while techniques are needed, these remain, as Jones saw, difficult to convert for lay purposes.

As we push back into the mind of a writer, we are apt to lose sight of his conscious direction, of all that gives shape to what might otherwise be his run-of-the-mill phobias or obsessions and that distinguishes his grand paranoia from our own small squirmy one. It is relevant, though already suspiciously pat, to point out the existence of an Oedipal situation in childhood, but in the works of a writer’s maturity this is usually so overlaid with more recent and impinging intricacies that we run the danger of being too simple about the complexes. We may reduce all achievement to a web of causation until we cannot see the Ego for the Id.

And yet the pursuit of the finished man in the child is irresistible for us, and Freud offers more help than other psychologists. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s three biographies, of Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert, he attempts to unite Freudian with existential psychology. Toward Baudelaire he adopts a highly critical attitude; he describes how the poet’s mother rejected him, and how as a direct consequence he set himself to be different from her and her companions, to achieve uniqueness as a form of vengeance. In this pursuit he abolished his natural self and all immediacy of response. He became a dandy, but beyond dandyism, he ceased to be a person, he became a “freedom-thing.” This analysis reduces Baudelaire to his weaknesses; it centers on the origins of maladjustment and leaves him overwhelmed by them. The poems of Baudelaire carry a different implication, that he was a man who was successfully unhealthy. The success is hard for Sartre to clarify or even to admit.

His book on Genet is more sympathetic and better suited to its subject; the castigation which he is so quick to administer to Baudelaire he avoids for Genet, because Genet accepted his identity and lived it. Sartre has an unexpected description of the way this identity was established. When Genet was ten, he says, the following incident occurred:

The child was playing in the kitchen. Suddenly he became aware of his solitude and was seized with anxiety, as usual. So he “absented” himself. Once again, he plunged into a kind of ecstasy. There is now no one in the room. An abandoned consciousness is reflecting utensils. A drawer is opening; a little hand moves forward.

Caught in the act. Someone has entered and is watching him. Beneath this gaze the child comes to himself. He who was not yet anyone suddenly becomes Jean Genet. He feels that he is blinding, deafening; he is a beacon, an alarm that keeps ringing. Who is Jean Genet? In a moment the whole village will know…. The child alone is in ignorance. In a state of fear and shame he continues his signal of distress. Suddenly

…a dizzying word
From the depths of the world abolishes the beautiful or- der….
(Genet, Poèmes, p. 56)

A voice declares publicly: “You’re a thief.” The child is ten years old.

That was how it happened, in that or some other way. In all probability, there were offenses and then punishment, solemn oaths and relapses. It does not matter. The important thing is that Genet lived and has not stopped reliving this period of his life as if it had lasted only an instant.

So for Genet thiefhood became, with a sort of triumph, his identity, his essence, willed and loved by him. (Baudelaire, on the contrary, decided to be somebody else.) Sartre’s theory of Genet’s development requires this primal episode, and he boldly reconstructs from later manifestations what must have been the causative moment. I find this brave and attractive: it moves biography toward both science and fiction simultaneously.

On the other hand, certain weaknesses in Sartre’s interpretation have begun to show up since 1952, when this daring book was published. Sartre conceives of Genet as so riveted to this childhood memory, in which a child dies and a hoodlum rises up in his place, that he conceives of himself as a dead man. In this character Genet is outside history, and above all outside politics, Sartre said. But recently Genet, perhaps in part to defy his biographer, has participated in politics as if he were still alive. In fact, at one demo in Paris, Genet and Sartre, one dead, one alive, were observed taking part in the same housing protest. That is why it is always better to wait until the subject of your biography is dead, literally rather than figuratively, since it reduces the possibility of authoritative refutation.

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