Monthly Archives: July 2010

‘Writing Lives: Principia Biographica’ by Leon Edel

1984, 272 p

When I first started on my research on Judge Willis, my intention was to examine his dismissal from Port Phillip in 1843.  I had a bifocal vision: looking at the Port Phillip context and the local trajectory of events that led to his removal, while at the same time evaluating Willis’ own personality and behaviour.  I was often at pains to distance what I was doing from biography.

But now that I’ve upgraded to a Ph D,  I’m looking at his career as a whole, in Upper Canada then in British Guiana, as well as in the interludes ‘back home’ and his eventual retirement as a Worcestershire gentleman.  My emphasis has shifted from a localized event into an analysis of a whole career, and now I find myself more closely drawn into writing a biography.

I don’t know why I find myself squeamish about saying that I’m writing a biography.  After all, I enjoy reading biography , and I have always been attracted to human agency in history whether it be individuals operating within the structure of an institution, or “history from below” that takes the lived experience of humans as its touchstone.  From a methodological point of view, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Richard Holmes’ work here and here, and now I’ve read Leon Edel’s book which Holmes quoted often.   Both Holmes and Edel are literary biographers – i.e. they write biographies about other writers- so they find themselves working both with text and life.  Nonetheless, much of what they say applies to biography more generally.

Edel commences his book with an “Introduction in the form of a manifesto” which over four or five pages encapsulates his principles of biography- a document that will yield up many “Uplifting Quotes for an Uninspired Historian”. He has several biographical heroes, whom he mentions often. There’s Boswell (of course!) who, although denying “melting down” Johnson’s conversations did in fact manipulate his subject by setting up situations where Johnson would display himself.   He quotes Lytton Strachey, Andre Maurois, Van Wych Brooks, and spends a long time on Virginia Woolf, herself the daughter of the Big Daddy of Biographers, Leslie Stephen. In particular he counterpoints her fictional work Orlando, which jibes at biography and mocks chronology, against her ‘straight’ biography of Roger Fry where, like all biographers she bemoaned:

how can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailor’s bills, love letters and old picture postcards?”

Edel speaks often of the “new biography” (which doesn’t seem so new anymore) which experiments with form, and draws on art and fictional techniques in creating its narrative while remaining true to the sources.  He is open to psychoanalytic techniques and finding “the figure under the carpet”, while acknowledging that of course the biographer and her subject cannot be equated at all to therapist and patient.  Nonetheless, drawing on psychotherapeutical approaches,  he is attuned to the life-myth that drives human action, and the mask that individuals adopt to confound it.

We must consider two kinds of myth: the myth we perceive with our eyes and sense of observation; and the covert myth, which is a part of the hidden dreams of our biographical subjects, and which even they would have difficulty to describe because these are lodged in the unconscious, in the psyche.  The covert myth has to be deduced from the public myth, and from the stray bits of psychological evidence offered us by our subjects, the little hints, the casual remarks, or the poetry or prose set down out of themselves…

….  In an archive, we wade simply and securely through paper and photocopies and related concrete material. But in our quest for the life-myth we tread on dangerous speculative and inferential ground ground that requires all of our attention, all of our accumulated resources.  For we must read certain psychological signs that enable us to understand what people are really saying behind the faces they put on, behind the utterances they allow themselves to make before the world. (p. 161, 162)

Many people have warned me off “psychological history”.  I haven’t read much of it at all- in fact, probably only Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People. I’m not particularly comfortable with the language and theory of Freudianism and Lacanism and other “isms” in general- I find them smothering.  But much of what Edel is stretching for in the dilemma of the biographer’s art does ring true in my own research, just in Port Phillip, and I’m excited to see if it is a way of drawing together my story of this colonial servant in three different colonies where there are so many commonalities.  I think that I really do need to swallow hard and admit that, yes, I’m writing a biography.

‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain de Botton

2005, 314 p.

What’s not to like about a book that reassures you that your malevolent feelings are basically unfounded and then goes on to give you a string of ways to get over it?  At a very boiled-down level, this is what Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton does.

The book is divided into two halves: causes and solutions.  What a sane, philosophical way of looking at the world!  We feel anxious, belittled, despondent and envious of others because the snobbery and superiority of others undercuts our self-image and sense of being loved.   Comparing ourselves with those around us will only make us unhappy,  our expectations are closely related to our level of happiness, and our insecurity is tied up with our dependence on an impersonal economy.  So why on earth do we buy into it, and how do we break free?

There wasn’t really much here that I hadn’t heard before- it’s all become rather ho-hum and in my mind becomes mixed in with Clive Hamilton, Affluenza, Bhutan, Gross National Happiness etc. as explored by weekend magazine articles.

The stronger part of this book is the second section: solutions.  He gives us five to choose from: philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia.  The Philosophy chapter reminds us that  we can, through reason, choose to acquiesce in status anxiety and it dusts off all the old philosophers- Aristotle, Epictetus- to reassure us that the power rests with us.  We can even cultivate a Schopenhauerian misanthropy and shrug that most people are stupid and ignorant, and their good opinion isn’t worth having anyway.  In fact, that’s what my mother always told me.

I enjoyed his Art chapter, liberally interspersed with landscapes, ruins and towering masonry. The Christianity chapter reminds us of Jesus’ softer teachings while choosing to overlook that the Church has been just as, if not more strenuous in ensuring its own wealth (and hence status) than family dynasties and entrepreneurs have been.  The Politics chapter points out that the  criteria by which status is judged alter over time, can be contested and overthrown.  The Bohemia chapter was interesting, but I suspect that many of his poets, artists and bright young things could only choose to reject wealth, work and responsibility because in the background there was a family who would save them in extremis if they would let them.

The book is lavishly interleaved with art work throughout and presented as a mindset that you can choose to adopt or reject.  It is written in a beguiling, reassuring conversational tone far removed from the aggressive, egotistical point-scoring that struts as ‘philosophical discussion’.