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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 Eight: Biography and Truth: The Limits of What Can be Said 165


Chapter Eight: Biography and Truth: The Limits of What Can be Said Approaches to truth I want to approach the idea of truth in modern Western biographies by looking at what limits can be placed on what can or should be said about a biographical subject. The position affirmed is that of a nuanced, moderate realism: aware of the potential cultural limitations of this investigation, yet arguing that not everything in biography is in flux, is indeterminate. This chapter is not intended as a new and striking contribution to theories of truth. Indeed, the approach to the question of truth here is not intended to imply or recommend a universal rule, but is adapted to the particular problems which arise in the genre of biography. As a result, I will not be proving, or attempting to prove, the valid- ity of my approach to truth in biography. My goal here is the less ambitious one of trying to articulate that approach, and to show that it is an intelligible choice, given the problems which arise in biography with approaches which occupy the extremes of the spectrum from a nuanced realism. What are these extremes? We have already met one of them: the Positivist approach (inspired by a wish for scientific exactitude) which dreams of finding an objective, definitive biography. In previous chapters, we have looked at length at the many factors which make the idea of a definitive biography impossible, including the indeterminate and complex nature of much of human...

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