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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 Six: Linear Narratives, Fragmented Selves 115


Chapter Six: Linear Narratives, Fragmented Selves Controversies over linearity In this chapter I want to turn again to objections to linear, chronological narratives, looking at what these objections reveal about the ways in which such narratives might reinforce a particular conception of the self, while disregarding rival conceptions. In addition, we will look at the ways in which various linear and chronological narratives might give us a misleading impression of a particular self. Speaking of distortions and misleading impressions, however, may seem to imply that there is one true way of seeing any particular self. As will be argued in the final chapter (and as has been indicated throughout the book), the idea that there is only one true way of seeing a self derives from a conception of reality which is most unhelpful for understanding biography or human beings. In the final chapter, I will argue that various debates about narrative, truth and history are entangled in this conception of reality (with both positivist historians such as Behan McCullagh and narra- tological historians such as Hayden White being ensnared by it). By looking at biographies as arguments (in a manner similar to that once suggested by the philosopher John Anderson)1 it is possible to avoid the most significant paradoxes of representation. These questions of truth and narrative will be raised at the end of this book. This chapter’s scope is more modest: to look at the objections which may be raised against certain kinds of narrative in biography....

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