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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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Notes 191


Notes Introduction 1 According to Jürgen Schlaeger, it is not equally dominant in all Western countries: he notes that biographical writing is culturally central in England but marginal in Germany. See Schlaeger, 63–65. 2 Schlaeger, 65. 3 See, for example, Glendinning, 49–62; Worthen, 227–244 and Carpenter, Humphrey, 274–275. 4 For a particularly shocking example of this, see McFeely, xii; for a more general discussion, see Mendelson, 9–26. 5 See, for example Clifford’s ‘Hanging Up Looking Glasses’, 45–46 and Davis, 17. 6 For a discussion of this inaccessibility (and some painful costs associated with it) see Mendelson, 22–26. 7 An uneasiness which can also be celebrated, as Richard Holmes does in ‘Biography: Inventing the Truth’, 15. 8 Lytton Strachey’s comments in Eminent Victorians are the most famous formulation of this (viii), but misgivings had already been raised by Thomas Carlyle in 1838 in ‘Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott’, 297, and in 1901 by Edmund Gosse in ‘The Custom of Biography’, 195–196. For concerns of some later commentators, see Dunn, 273; Hoberman, 203; Edel, ‘The Figure Under the Carpet’, 23; and Skidelsky, 8–9. 9 Cockshut, 11–12; Novarr, xiii–xiv and Siebenschuh. 10 Dunn, 193; Clifford, ix–x; Browning, 2; Novarr, 151. 11 See Blake, 75; Bradbury, 136; Cockshut, 11; Dunn, xi, 265; Edel, ‘The Figure Under the Carpet’, 19; Holroyd, 100–101; Homberger and Charmley, ‘Introduction’, ix; Kendall, 33; Mendelson, 21; Nadel, Biography, 1, 151–152; Novarr, ix...

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