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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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Conclusion 187


Conclusion This book began by asking whether biographies could give us insight into a particular self, and into how we think of ‘selves’ more generally. What each biography offers is not objectivity, but an argument, an argument for seeing a self in a certain way. Each biography argues for a particular view of a self; more broadly, each biography relies on a particular concept of ‘the self’ , seeing selves in relation, or as au- tonomous, as disembodied or embodied, as defined by inner experience or by deeds. The biographer’s view of his or her subject is always seen through ‘a particular pair of eyes’, and is a view which may be usefully challenged by subsequent biographers. This way of looking at biography means that the provisionality of biography can be seen as a strength. There need be no demand for objectivity or for completeness; as discussed in Chapter One, and as has been recently discussed at length by Paula Backscheider, such demands are based on illusions about the nature of biography. We need, however, to retain some notion of the limits of what can be said in biography: that certain views of a life may be said to be unjust, for example. This has been most explicitly addressed in Chapter Eight, but problems connected with this have been raised in all seven chapters, particularly as regards sympathy towards the subject or the power of the biographer over the subject. This intertwining of sympathy and power, noted by Nietzsche and Foucault,...

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