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Understanding Our Selves

The Dangerous Art of Biography


Susan Tridgell

Modern Western biography has become one of the most popular and most controversial forms of literature. Critics have attacked its tendency to rely on a strong narrative drive, its focus on a single person’s life and its tendency to delve ever more deeply into that person’s inner, private experience, though these tendencies seem to have only increased biography’s popularity. To date, however, biography has been a rarely studied literary form. Little serious attention has been given to the light biographies can shed on philosophical problems, such as the intertwining of knowledge and power, or the ways in which we can understand lives, or terms like ‘the self’. Should selves be seen as relational or as autonomous? What of the ‘lies and silences’ of biographies, the ways in which embodiment can be ignored? A study of these problems allows engagement with a range of philosophers and literary theorists, including Roland Barthes, Lorraine Code, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ray Monk, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor. Biography can be a dangerous art, claiming to know ‘just how you feel’. This book explores the double-edged nature of biography, looking at what it reveals about both narratives and selves.


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Introduction 11


Introduction Controversies In commercial terms, biography has become one of the most successful areas of publishing in modern Western culture. This is especially so in Anglo-American countries, where biographies often outsell novels.1 As a biographical critic noted recently, nowadays ‘the troubled face’ of biography ‘has become the self-assured, even complacent smile of a widely recognized and highly successful kind of writing’.2 In the academic arena, however, biography remains surrounded by controversy. Objections raised include the inevitable ‘lies and silences’ in biogra- phies,3 the possible pain caused to people mentioned in the biography,4 the idea that focusing on a single person is an inevitable falsification,5 that focusing on a person’s inner life means pursuing the unknowable,6 and the uneasy marriage between fact and fiction in biography.7 The issues raised so far are epistemological and ethical ones, but there are also aesthetic issues: the inclusiveness of biographies (seen in both Victorian times and in the twentieth century as something which can militate against art)8 and the lack of criteria or even terminology to judge biographies by.9 As a literary art form, biography has been relatively neglected by academics. Historians of biographical criticism have noted that there has been some progress in the field since the nineteenth century: among biographical critics, there is an emerging consensus that biography at its best is a work of art (as opposed to an earlier view which often saw the biographer merely as a collector of facts, not as an interpreter or...

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