on biography (3)
After reading Didier Eribon’s biography of Foucault, I turned with some relief to Karl Popper’s memoir Unended Quest. The biography of Foucault was maddening because it did what good biographies should do, and didn’t speculate, especially where speculation was warranted. Popper, meanwhile, positively disinvites speculation. There’s nothing to speculate about; he grinds through ideas with all the emotional engagement of a mangle.1 As a personality I cannot decide if he was charming or rather dull; perhaps he was both. It’s not important to him, though, which makes his memoir that much more of a treat. Even the dramatic highpoint, pokers aloft, is less fraught with drama than one of Foucault’s minor editorials.2 That is the beauty of the self-made man, to be dull without worry: he has nothing more to prove. False corollary: the beauty of the self-destructive man, to be interesting without reason: unreasoning.3
- This is a talent not to be despised, mind, and not one that I possess or have much patience for. [↩]
- On the Iranian revolution, say; about which one can say that perhaps Foucault was logically right, but morally wrong, if one wants to be even that kind about it (pp. 281–92). [↩]
- Cf. Wittgenstein; cannot really say MF was self-destructive, though: too politic for that. [↩]
Charles Reade shows up in Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James:
Her improving health allowed Alice to enjoy a greater range of intellectual life than before. She went to the theater […] and she was reading a great deal, particularly the novels of Charles Reade. She wrote to Fanny Morse that Hard Cash,2 a two-volume novel published in 1863, was ‘most certainly interesting although not one of Reade’s best’; she preferred The Cloister and the Hearth, as has posterity (ch. 8).
A quick look at the latter reveals an unhappy hybrid of George Eliot and James Branch Cabell; an important precursor perhaps.3 Time will tell…
- Caricature from Frederick Waddy’s Cartoon Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Men of the Day (1873); Millais flies a very small banner of genius, and Tennyson waves the flag of popularity beneath the friendly stars of poetic fancy. Henry James, according to Logan Pearsall Smith, ventured forth under the banner of loneliness. Make of that what you will. [↩]
- A title which should be a noir thriller but probably ain’t. [↩]
- Given that Middlemarch has a chapter entitled ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ this is not actually unlikely: great shades of mute inglorious St Teresas! [↩]
Crambe repetita (26)
Down in the Chicken Market Harriet found a memorial service being held over the spot where Calinescu’s murderers had lain. The trembling old peasant who sold her a cabbage said that among the mourners were ‘the greatest men in the world’.
Who were they? she asked and was told: ‘Hitler, Mussolini, Count Ciano and the Emperor of Japan.’
After the ceremony the site was roped off and spread each day with fresh flowers, to the inconvenience of the market traffic (477).
* * *
Harriet next evening was a discomfited hostess. The bones of Pinkrose’s egotism remained visible despite his veil of sociability. She felt he intended they should remain visible. The represented protest. He was a guest, but an unwilling guest. He was making the barest of concessions to good manners.
That had been one of the mornings in which there was nothing in the market. ‘Nothing but cabbage,’ Despina said (505).
– Olivia Manning (The Balkan Trilogy)