November 20, 2006

Biography again

Given that this is a subject I have myself strayed onto, it seems fitting to publish something of a response to Bryan Appleyard's piece in the Times yesterday. Appleyard (whose website is here)asks a question I didn't reflect upon, what the work of a biographer tells us about the works of the subject they write about. How much would the idea of Shakespeare the paedophile effect our evaluation of Shakespeare's plays, how far does James Shapiro's work on Shakespeare, also looked at earlier in this blog, tell us about Hamlet or Henry V?

Appleyard's survey is interesting and well worth reading. I have only one thing to add. It seems to me that literature is similar to history in one aspect- in that it extends our empathy. The best writers function as advocates for their subjects- they show us how to think about the suicidal (Plath), the murderer (Capote) or the regicide (Hamlet), they present to us matters that we would never understand and force us into the seeing the rationale for actions that we would not perform. Through Dosteovsky I learnt how it is that a man might convince himself to murder someone in order to be alive, through Austen how fragile and how tense a strict system of social controls is and there are many other examples. The question we are asking essentially is how far it matters what kind of advocate we have before us- in a sense it does. In a sense it matters in that we need to assess them for their advocacy to bear fruit- the first place to assess them is their literature- does this make sense as a portrait, does it make me understand what the author wants me to understand (if there is an author of course).

What a biography presents us with is a second act of advocacy- we are being taken into the mind of the advocate- we are being told how this work of literature was put together and why it was. We are being told that the sister's relationship in Pride and Prejudice mirrors that in Austen's own life. Just as the facts in the novel became evidence for the minds of the characters- so the novel becomes evidence of the inner life of the creator of that novel and as literature is about an act of empathy- thus reaching into the mind of the author, we learn once more to empathise. Literature doesn't need biography but biography of a literary person is a separate activity to be justified separately and furthermore needs to use that person's literature.