on biography (2)
New York: Vintage, 1996.
I have little more to say. If my readers find that I have not said enough, I have said too much. I cannot measure or judge of such a character as hers. I cannot map out vices, and virtues, and debateable land.
– Elizabeth Gaskell
(Life of Charlotte Brontë, 429)
There is no muse of biography.1 If we were having this conversation two hundred years ago, you or I might say that Clio would fill the role, for what is biography but the history of a person’s life? Then we would be muddled by what ‘history’ meant and what ‘life’ entailed; so that particular definition suffices only if one is content to look solely at appearances, pay court to chronologies and topologies, play Plutarch and make a moral, but these surfaces seem insufficient, somehow, at present. I’ve been reading a few biographies lately – they are more satisfying in a way than novels, for they have the pretension of truth about them, and my interest in the subject feels more interested, less futile.2
There are problems peculiar to biography, however, and reading so many life-stories in a row, these problems forced themselves upon my attention.3 There is the difficulty of the foregone conclusion (the subject dies), the difficulty of finding something new to say about the subject (which some biographers omit), and finally the difficulty any author faces, of not alienating the reader. This last is doubly hard, as the biographer is responsible not only for their own intrusions into the text, but also for sustaining an interest in their subject who, on closer reading, may not be as appealing as the reader imagined on setting out.4
This absurd preface is nothing more than thumb-twiddling, because Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, is quite well done, and my problem here is with the reader of the life, with his or her prejudices, ignorance, and other limitations. To begin with prejudice: repetition, when it does not illuminate, is to me an obnoxious thing. I do not imagine I am innocent of this fault; perhaps my guilt leads me to detest it more than I ought. In any case, it is a prejudice, and as such I acknowledge it. An example: the constant recurrence (once every hundred pages or so) to Gerald Duckworth’s ‘interference’ with Virginia Stephen in the text irritated me – not least because it was so vague, so dependent on speculation, and its importance and impact so questionable.5 Why bother, if it cannot be known? Why speculate, if the argument is so tenuous?6
The second fault of the reader: ignorance. I hadn’t realized, for example, I was supposed to know that Leslie Stephen was so horrible to his family. After reading this particular biography, I still don’t understand exactly how he was so horrible – beyond being emotionally abusive and overbearing in best imperial late Victorian fashion – but I take it on credit that he was.7 I fail to see that the Stephens where significantly worse off for having such an irritable patriarch than any of the thousands of young people who lived at the same time whom no one has ever heard of. You will perhaps say that their intelligence and sensitivity would have made it especially trying for them; rubbish, I say, as they had opportunities enough to make something of themselves, and did, and my congratulations to them, but keep your psychological cant to yourself.
Finally, the limits of indiscrete curiosity: for all that Leonard Woolf was an important person in Virginia’s life, there was surprisingly little of him to be found in Lee’s book. Of course it wasn’t Lenny & Ginny: Portrait of a Marriage, but still, he comes across as a cipher. This is not Lee’s fault, as even Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard left one with little sense of his character – or rather, little way to resolve the contradictions.8 He’s not a particularly appealing personality, it’s true, but he needs making sense of, and shouldn’t be set at naught. The biography, by the limits of its coverage, raises more questions than it answers; which is fine for the thesis mill, but less amusing to the general reader.
- There’s no muse for novels, either, but that’s a topic for a different day. [↩]
- The character of the subject presented in a biography might have very little to do with the actual character of the subject, might in fact be more a work of fiction than many a novel. Thus, for instance, Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë has attracted some colorful criticism, which I had thought of considering more fully, but instead am inclined enjoy my amusement without further comment. Also, by this time, I do not think I can say I’ve been readin these biographies lately, as it has been some months since I’ve read anything approaching a biography; thus time brings home his revenges and forgetfulness allows me the perspective to scribble down nonsense that seemed too dubious in the more appropriate moment. [↩]
- One might say they were problems of poor editing, or bad writing, but I am inclined blame the genre – what else are these categorizations for, if not for pinning blame? [↩]
- I’ve mentioned elsewhere the difficulties of unwarranted authorial intrusion… [↩]
- The very word ‘interference’ confirms the limits of the biographer’s grasp, the uncertain nature of the obscure hurt that may or may not have haunted our not quite sane, but certainly self-dramatizing, subject. [↩]
- Because one wants to know of course. But really there are, in my opinion, some things that will not come clear, no matter how much one wants them to. [↩]
- This is probably a failure of attention or imagination on my part; he seems a difficult sort of person, but not worse than most. Perhaps I take a dim view of humanity. [↩]
- Perhaps a reader of his autobiography would have a better sense of him, but somehow I rather doubt it. [↩]
This is as far as we can get on the assumption that the scholar and the man of taste are connected by nothing more than a common interest in literature. If this assumption is true, the high percentage of sheer futility in all criticism should be honestly faced, for the percentage can only increase with its bulk, until criticizing becomes, especially for university teachers, merely an automatic method of acquiring merit, like turning a prayer wheel.
– Northrop Frye, ‘Polemical Introduction’
(Anatomy of Criticism, p. 11)1
Your supercilious critics, grammatical triflers, note-makers, curious antiquaries, find out all the ruins of wit, ineptiarum delicias, amongst the rubbish of old writers; Pro stultis habent nisi aliquid sufficiant invenire, quod in aliorum scriptis vertant vitio, all fools with them that cannot find fault; they correct others, and are hot in a cold cause, puzzle themselves to find out how many streets in Rome, houses, gates, towers, Homer’s country, Aeneas’s mother, Niobe’s daughters, an Sappho publica fuerit? ovum prius extiterit an gallina! &c. et alia quæ dediscenda essent scire, si scires, as Seneca holds. What clothes the senators did wear in Rome, what shoes, how they sat, where they went to the close-stool, how many dishes in a mess, what sauce, which for the present for an historian to relate, according to Lodovic. Vives, is very ridiculous, is to them most precious elaborate stuff, they admired for it, and as proud, as triumphant in the meantime for this discovery, as if they had won a city, or conquered a province; as rich as if they had found a mine of gold ore. Quosvis auctores absurdis commentis suis percacant et stercorant, one saith, they bewray and daub a company of books and good authors, with their absurd comments, correctorum sterquilinia Scaliger calls them, and show their wit in censuring others, a company of foolish note-makers, humble-bees, dors, or beetles, inter stercora ut plurimum versantur, they rake over all those rubbish and dunghills, and prefer a manuscript many times before the Gospel itself, Thesaurum criticum, before any treasure, and with their deleaturs, alii legunt sic, meus codex sic habet, with their postremæ editiones, annotations, castigations, &c. make books dear, themselves ridiculous, and do nobody good, yet if any man dare oppose or contradict, they are mad, up in arms on a sudden, how many sheets are written in defence, how bitter invectives, what apologies? Epiphilledes hæ sunt ut meræ, nugæ. But I dare say no more of, for, with, or against them, because I am liable to their lash as well as others.
– Robert Burton, ‘Democritus to the Reader’
(Anatomy of Melancholy, I.113)
- One assumes that he is speaking from a position of tenure, of course. [↩]
no fuss no muss
One of the very nicest things about learning a variety of languages – besides, of course, being able to attempt communication with a variety of people – is chance of spotting arbitrary similarities in completely unrelated languages. For instance: in both informal Eastern Armenian and Khalkh Mongolian, you can use an m-reduplication (i.e. repeat the word, changing the initial letter to ‘m’) to mean, generally, this thing and some other things that I don’t care to specify at the moment.1
An Armenian example: հաջող-մաջող (hajogh-majogh), ’bye-mye, or good-bye, see you later, &c., though of course very informal, and always good for a laugh when used by a foreigner.2 There are two special uses: խորոված-մորոված (khorovats-morovats), meaning Armenian barbecue and its traditional accompaniments, onions and potatoes; and կոֆե-մոֆե (kofe-mofe), meaning coffee and its traditional accompaniments, candy and cake.3
A Mongolian example: Уулзаж-муулзаж чадах уу? (uulzaj-muulzaj chadah uu?): Can you meet [and teach] them, then?4 In Mongolian, too, you can say that you went to the store to get some кофи-мофи (kofi-mofi), though in Mongolia, it just means that you got coffee and some other stuff, not necessarily candy and cakes. There is, however, a major difference in the Armenian and Mongolian usage: in Mongolian, words with the initial consonant ‘m’ can be reduplicated in this way, but a ‘z’ is substituted instead; e.g., мѳѳг-зѳѳг (möög-zöög) mushrooms and some other stuff. In Armenian, I haven’t heard reduplication in words with an initial ‘m’ used in this amusing way, though this has not seemed to cause any significant problems.
- There is no derisive effect intended, as with the vastly more well-known (in English) schm-reduplication, on which see Nevins & Vaux ‘Metalinguistics, schmetalinguistics’ and Southern, Contagious Couplings: Transmission of Expressives in Yiddish Echo Phrases; update: Southern apparently traces this reduplication back to Turkish, which would explain why it was present in both Armenian and Mongolian, but not why the usage is not dismissive. [↩]
- First heard in the summer of 2008, from a host cousin. [↩]
- You will notice, in the case of ‘coffee-moffee’ that Armenian uses this repetition with a Russian loan-word, instead of the Armenian word, սուրճ (surj); I sometimes imagine I’ve heard people say սուրճ-մուրճ, but if I have, they weren’t Armenian. [↩]
- Overhead my Mongolian tutor on the phone with a music teacher; extra meaning supplied from context. [↩]