November 16, 2006

The ethics of biography and the privacy of the subject: Simon Callow talking about Orson Welles

Simon Callow's first two volumes of biography of Orson Welles are amongst the many books that Gracchii wishes to read very very soon but hasn't got round to getting a copy of from anywhere- however an interview with Callow by Andrew Marr back in April raises some fascinating questions about the biographer's art and its purpose. For those unable to listen to the program- Callow was asked by another of the interviewees Ruth Scurr, a biographer of Robespierre, how exactly he coped with the intrusion that biography involved. How for example he coped with the fact that writing such a vast biography of Welles (three volumes by the end its expected) he felt about Welles's own privacy? About Welles's right to have some things kept secret. Callow answered that he did so by refusing to judge Welles and trying to understand him, and at the end acknowledged that a biographer is ultimately an intruder into someone else's life.

This fascinating exchange raises some important questions- for why should anyone ultimately wish to intrude into someone else's life and what right have they to do so? What Callow is doing is obviously not tabloid journalism, he is striving to understand sympathetically, take the posture of what Scurr later described in relation to her work on Robespierre as the posture of a critical friend, he is striving not to judge and he is intruding upon the mind of a key figure in twentieth century art and even politics rather than on the sex life of a page 3 tart or football player. Callow is unfolding to us the sources of Welles's inspiration, the psychological entity that lay behind the genius and doing it so that we better understand our position in the world.

But why ultimately should we be interested? This is a question afterall that might be asked of many of the humanities- why ought we be interested in the study of other people's minds? What does it tell us ultimately? An answer is not going to be fully developed right here, right now but I want to suggest some answers. What Callow is doing he does without judging Welles and I think that is the key point here. The issue to Callow and to Scurr and many others is to present the world from their subject's point of view- how did he or she understand the world they lived in, what motivated them, what maddened them. In a sense what we derive from that is a far vaster sense of ourselves- like in personal relationships, our self definitions flow out of contrasts and imagined others. By understanding people in the past better, we therefore understand the contrasts that make our own self definition better. Furthermore by understanding people in the past better, we learn about the point of view of others, we learn empathy and that empathetic understanding of human kind is vital to any understanding of human relationships. I will never understand politics for example unless I can plot in some sense your moves across the chessboard- unless I can listen to and understand your thoughts.

In that sense what Callow is doing for Welles is part of a vast humanist project, that leaves us able to survey and react to and understand the way that others survey and react to and understand the world. A biography in that sense is merely an invitation to see the world through another's eyes- and that ultimately means an invassion of privacy because in order to do that, you have to experience and understand the experiences and understandings that moulded the other's mind. That maybe a way for us to evaluate whether the invasion of privacy was worth performing in the first place- does it take us into a new mental world or not. If it doesn't was it really worth it, if it does it illuminates the way that we understand history and politics which are ultimately in some part sciences of the way that people's minds work, sciences of subjective entities.


Political Umpire said...

Very interesting post - and do you think Callow will be kinder to Wells than Wells was to William Randolph Hirst in Citizen Kane?

Gracchi said...

I don't know I really am waiting in anticipation for this one- I think from the interview Callow's conclusion was that Welles was a man who almost towards the end was creating excuses for potential failure- and also that he dissapated his energy on so many projects- going off for example in the middle of filming the Magnificent Ambersons to film a propaganda film in Brazil (which Welles tried to make a three part exploration of South American civilisation rather against his sponsor's wishes). Citizen Kane is on one level such a splendid hatchet job though- its wonderful. Hearst himself was a fascinating man, and so was Welles I think. Both were such productive individuals- Welles's range is amazing. I'll have to get hold of the volumes and then review them properly instead of reviewing it from one interview!