Saturday, December 30, 2006
Biographers 3: Outside, Inside, and All Over
Animation historian Michael Barrier is posting a running commentary on Neal Gabler’s recent Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. In the course of so doing he makes this observation about biography:
There are basically two kinds of serious biographies being published today, I think. Some—the dominant breed—are written from the outside, as it were; the author feels no special interest in his subject but makes up for it by gathering and validating an enormous number of facts, which he presents in what is usually a very long book. In biographies of a second kind, the organizing force is less the accumulation of facts than what I’ve called imaginative sympathy. The biographer tries to see the world as much as possible through his subject’s eyes; when he’s successful, the subject of the biography comes to life on the page more vividly than ever happens in books of the first kind. It’s the rare book (some of David McCullough’s may qualify) that combines the best characteristics of both kinds of biography.
Independently of Barrier’s opinion of Gabler’s Disney bio—he doesn’t like it, and has his own Disney bio coming out this Spring—is this a fair characterization of the options open to a biographer? What’s the relationship between Barrier’s second type of biography, animated by “imaginative sympathy” and Jo
eseph Kugelmass e‘s recent discussion of “The Pitchfork Effect”? What are the presuppositions and implications of Barrier’s nascent typology? Etc.
These are options open to a historian, not to a biographer. There are journalistic options as well—consider last week’s NYTBR review of Noiville on I.B.Singer, which opens: “Most biographies tend toward hagiography or pathography, but there’s a third kind of life critique that doesn’t honor and doesn’t criticize either. These works, which I’ll call interrogatories, ask probing questions but neglect to answer them. Florence Noiville’s new work on the American Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer is such a book. And it’s too bad ...“ So, it’s a nice hook, but not much hangs thereon (or thereby). Outstanding biographies require more, not merely some synthesis of (exterior) fact and (interior) fancy, nor can the successful biography then be allocated any measure for each aspect, much less a compensatory one. In literary biography, consider: Richard Ellmann on James Joyce (or Wilde, or Yeats even), Leon Edel on Henry James, Brian Boyd on Vladimir Nabokov, John Haffenden on William Empson. This nascent typology is stillborn: end of story for the biographer.
”...Joeseph Kugelmasse’s ...” I did once call Joe ‘Jo’, to his annoyance. That said, it may be the case that it’s possible to insert too many extra ‘e’s into his name.
My interest is mostly in literary biographies, and there I’d say the former of Barrier’s two types predominates. Perhaps as backwash from the whole Casting Out of Biographical Readings from Literary Criticism vibe (the text‘s the thing, after all), it is now possible to read enormous biographies of Wordsworth, say, that undertake literally no actual readings of W.’s poetry, or of the poetry W. himself read ... as if itinerizing his day-to-day life, whom he met, where he travelled etc is enough to account for ‘Wordsworth’. But if poetry is of particular importance for a human being, then poetry needs to be one of the chief foci of a life of that human being, surely.
That is a problem, isn’t it, Adam? And it plays out differently with different subjects. How would you write a biography of Churchill without mentioning his political career? I suppose there you write about it, but refrain from passing or implying judgment. I’ve read a fair number of biographies (and a few autobiographies) of musicians, mostly jazz, and they’re all over the map. They’ve got the problem that it’s difficult to describe music & the stuff has no meaning in the sense the poetry does. And then there’s Norman Macrae’s John von Neumann; his career involves mathematics that relatively few can understand. You can talk about the problem’s he’s worked on, but that’s it.
as if itinerizing his day-to-day life, whom he met, where he travelled etc is enough to account for ‘Wordsworth’.
But how does it account for the poetry? There’s no guarantee that such a life would produce a poet. I suppose it’s that logical gap between the life--understood as a set of tastes, family experiences, and relationships to means of production--and the life’s work that makes me so hesitant to believe that biography can tell us anything.
I agree, actually. I think my point was that what’s interesting about eg Wordsworth is not his day-to-day life, nor the salaciously interesting snippets of life-gossip (did he shag his sister and so on), but precisely the life of the mind, which has an oblique relationship to everyday stuff, if it has one at all. A biography of the life of Wordsworth’s—or Nietzsche’s, or Shakespeare’s—mind might be worth reading.
I’d imagine that one major goal of any biography of an artist would be to measure the distance between the art and the life. It is a truth universally acknowledged that most artists are far more interesting—far better, in fact—human beings in their art than in their lives.
So a “life of the mind” bio of Wordsworth that reconstructed the creative structures of W’s thinking would be as limited as a “Daily Grind” bio. All the bios of Shakespeare that search for the man behind his plays are, in my mind, just plain wrong. You won’t find Wallace Stevens-the-Man in his poetry, or Dickens-the-Man in his novels, so why expect to find Willie-The-Man in his plays?
At the same time, who cares about Willie-the-Man? The “life of the mind” story, while not a biography, is probably a more important “ography” in the end. It would basically be a form of synthetic, totalizing literary criticism (and I mean no harm in using either of those multisyllabic words).
What do we look for in a biography? Various things, I suppose. When I started reading bios of jazz musicians I was simply curious about their lives, very different lives from my own or those of people I knew. I wasn’t looking for any insight into their music—which was and is my primary “contact” with them—just some knowledge of them. Of course, this interest of mine was certainly shaped by the cultural coding of Black and White compounded with that of Music and Show Biz. The net effect of that is that, in reading those bios, I was reading about The Exotic Other—surprise! surprise! But then, isn’t that what music itself is, The Exotic Other?
I’m not at all sure my interest in Walt Disney is much different, although the cultural shaping is rather different in substance. The Gabler will be my third Disney bio. I don’t even remember the title of the first one, but it was deep into uncovering dirt on Uncle Walt. I read that a decade or more ago. The second one was Richard Schikel’s well-known The Disney Version, which is the first of the Disney debunkers. And now Gabler’s book. I’ll probably get Barrier’s when it comes out later this year.
What am I looking for? Nothing in particular. I’m mostly curious about the man, whom I regard as one of the major creative forces of the last century. Though I am enormously interested in Fantasia I don’t expect to get much insight into it from this bio, or Barrier’s. Schikel didn’t tell me much, I’ve already read the Fantasia section of the Gabler—and don’t remember it. I’m mostly curious about the man.
Now, the production notes on Fantasia, those would be very interesting. Though not, I suspect, in an interpretive way.
I’d imagine that one major goal of any biography of an artist would be to measure the distance between the art and the life.
...or to argue for a necessary connection.
I suppose what we are (I know I am) butting our heads against here is historicist reading, i.e., the problem of “context” and justifiable interpretations. We’re back in this problem: what’s the relationship between the moment of production/moments of reception and the text?
But then, isn’t that what music itself is, The Exotic Other?
Maybe I can make a connection through last night’s reading: “Music seems to have a much stronger deterritorializing force [than painting], at once more intense and much more collective, and the voice seems to have a much greater power of deterritorialization.” (Thousand Plateaus, 302)
Karl, by “the distance between the art and the life,” I don’t mean a distance of cause and effect, but rather the vast difference between the author’s “real” personality and the personality s/he projects in his/her art.
The question you raise here asks us to consider the difference between biography and biographical literary criticism. I’d imagine the former to be a more narrative mode meant for a different audience than the latter.
Bill, I think there is a great deal of overlap here with my discussion of the Pitchfork effect. I like the idea of “imaginative sympathy,” in part because it would help do away with the notion of the definitive biography. An interesting figure would accumulate a series of biographies that traced different points of contact between the life and the “work” which makes writing the biography worthwhile in the first place.
Adam: what do you think about Will In The World? I thought Greenblatt did a marvelous job studying the life of Shakespeare’s thought, and how it grew out of certain events (possible events?) in his practical experience.
It seems to me that the value of reading the biographies of artists is twofold. First of all, given the difficulty of producing art, it is worth trying to understand how the artist made space for her project, how she defined it, and why she believed in it.
Second, it is interesting to observe what circumstances spurred the artist’s imagination, either through because of their exceptional beauty, or because of their unusualness, or because of their emotional impact. Biographies explain those things into which an artist was capable of seeing deeply, and which indelible impressions are reborn (in one form after another) in the work.
I like the idea of “imaginative sympathy,” in part because it would help do away with the notion of the definitive biography. An interesting figure would accumulate a series of biographies that traced different points of contact between the life and the “work” which makes writing the biography worthwhile in the first place.
Disney’s an interesting figure in this respect. His achievement is both diverse and nebulous. First there is animation; he’s clearly a pioneering figure here. But there’s also live action films—arguably, he created the nature documentary—television and theme parks. And there is the corporation that bears his name and that has become enormous in the four decades since his death. How does one assess all this and relate it to the man?
Moreover, I had something specific in mind in referring to his achievement as nebulous. I was thinking particularly of animation, perhaps the least disputed aspect of his legacy. While he voiced Mickey Mouse into the 40s, that’s minor. But he stopped drawing in the mid-20s. Just what did he contribute to the development of cartoon shorts after they early Mickeys and, in particular, to the animated features? It’s clear that he was in those films up to his elbows at least through the 40s. He approved everything, he was particularly concerned with story development, and he would act out and voice all the roles in staff meetings. I’m inclined to think that that was very important and that, without him, none of those films would have been as good as they are.
But our theories on such matters are inclined to individual genius. And those theories don’t work very well when the individual genius in question didn’t physically produce the product. Film theorists, of course, have had to face this problem and at least some have settled on treating the director as auteur. As far as I can tell, the division of labor in animation is even more diffuse than in live action films, and Disney’s role in his films was perhaps more remote and more immediate than that of the director of a live-action film.
Michael Barrier has acknowledged our discussion. Scan down his blog to “Book Chat.” We’re at the tail end.