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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 Seven: ‘I Know Just How You Feel’: The Ethics of Epistemology in Biography 133


Chapter Seven: ‘I Know Just How You Feel’: The Ethics of Epistemology in Biography Sartre versus Levinas The philosopher David Jopling begins an exploration of the ethics of epistemology in biography by contrasting the views of Sartre and Levinas. For Sartre, as Jopling makes clear, total transparency, total knowledge of another was an ideal to be striven for. Jopling quotes comments from Sartre about his life with de Beauvoir: ‘Life as part of a couple made me hard and transparent like a diamond […] I had the impression, at every instant, that my friends were reading my innermost self; that they could see my thoughts forming […] and that what was becoming clear to me was already clear to them. I could feel their gaze to my very entrails.’1 Later, Sartre wrote that ‘I think transparency should always be substituted for secrecy […] A man’s existence must be entirely visible to his neighbour, whose own existence must be entirely visible in turn, before true social harmony can be established.’2 Jopling comments that Sartre did make, in his writings, a connection between totalising knowledge and violence,3 but that Sartre nonetheless saw total honesty as something which should be aimed for, a kind of austere ideal of existential authenticity.4 Jopling points out, however, that Sartre’s own biographical practice throws his ideal of total knowledge into question. Jopling notes that at the end of Sartre’s biography of Jean Genet, ‘Sartre asks rhetorically: “Have I been fair enough to Genet? I think I have defended Genet...

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