Understanding Our Selves: The Dangerous Art of Biography (European Connections)
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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.
dramatic tension in Monk’s biography of Russell, the need for dramatic incident in Rowley’s biography of Stead and the problems which the absence of dramatic incident brings) to form a link between the debates between biographical critics and philosophers over narrative. E.M. Forster claimed that a story must make us ask ‘What 67 happened next?’25 If we accept his remark, does the need for dramatic incident or tension in a biographical narrative make links between narrative and the self more
reader who does not feel the force of Ozick’s comments (the possibility that forgiving a perpetrator may make us ‘stony towards the slaughtered’) may feel at this point that this conclusion was predictable. To illustrate its unpredictability, we need to turn to another biography by Sereny: Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. This is a biography of Speer, Hitler’s architect and Minister for Armaments and Munitions. The biography illustrates both the potentially exclusionary power of sympathy
way of depicting characters who are not divorced from their background.26 The reason this may be significant is that it indicates a tendency in Clifford to focus on equality, rather on idiosyncrasy. Jane Adamson, in an article discussing human idiosyncrasy, finds Thomas Hardy rather than George Eliot exemplary in such matters. Adamson turns to Hardy because ‘With Hardy, to put it briefly, the crucial matter is the “certain difference”; with Eliot, the equivalence of distinct selves is as
difference we get in the sense of self between one presented via a disordered, fragmentary technique and the other via a chronological narrative suggests that MacIntyre’s confidence that lives can be best depicted through chronological, causal narratives may be too high. It also suggests that any victory for MacIntyre (suggested by Eakin, for instance, when he notes that micronarratives begin to emerge again even in Barthes’s account)47 will be extremely 129 limited. Perhaps narrative cannot be
comments can only be substantiated by turning directly to Levinas’s philosophy, so I want to look at the limitations of his transcendental ethics. (Later, we shall return to the ‘empirical counterpart’ of his thought and to examining other possible approaches to an ethics of epistemology in biography.) In ‘Ethics as First Philosophy’, Levinas writes: The Other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility,