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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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Chapter Three: Lives as Narratives: Experiences of Time 63


Chapter Three: Lives as Narratives: Experiences of Time Shapely narratives, unshaped lives What are the debates about biography, the self and narrative which this chapter will engage with? We might begin with a sceptical comment by Camus, which seems to suggest that the modern appetite for artfully shaped biographical narratives may come from their lack of realism, from their contrast with the shapelessness of life: Nostalgia for other people’s lives. This is because, seen from the outside, they form a whole. While our life, seen from the inside, is all bits and pieces. Once again, we run after an illusion.1 James Clifford is similarly sceptical about modern Western biographies and the way their narratives tell lives: ‘Biography’s perspective is thus doomed to one-sidedness inasmuch as it attempts not to portray a life experience but to shape a life.’2 Scepticism about the shaping involved in biographical narratives is countered by critics on the other side of the debate, who praise the same phenomenon. Leon Edel does not merely defend but instead strongly advocates the shaping and selectivity of biographies, pointing out that ‘it is not pleasant to have great parts of archives flung in a reader’s face’;3 and Robert Blake, using the multi-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill as a case in point, pleads for a greater emphasis on interpreta- tion and selectivity.4 Scepticism, however, about the dangers of biographies as pleasing stories is just as strong among other biographical critics. ‘Biography is inclined to structure and assertion’ writes Malcolm...

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