Sunday, 11 April 2010

A man writes much better than he lives

Rohan over at Novel Ideas has just posted some thoughts on what do with biography in relation to the study of literature, in particular when writers of good books are penned by not so good people - you can read her full piece here.

One segment particularly stuck out for me:
Authors whose daily behavior is scandalous can compose stories of wondrous moral richness, sometimes actually realizing, as Samuel Johnson liked to insist, their own genuine ethical aspirations better than they ever do in “real life.” As he says, “a man writes much better than he lives.”
This is a nicely optimistic view that allows for a great deal of leeway in terms of readerly acceptance of the person behind the book; this idea also requires very little actual proof to alleviate partially, if not entirely, one's qualms about how to reconcile an utterly unlikeable person like Yukio Mishima (for example) with the transcendent works they create.

It certainly strikes a chord with me - but with the post-academic me. I realized when I got to this point in Rohan's essay that the academic me wouldn't have required any such emotional salve, that my ability to focus almost (but not quite, and that's key) exclusively on text has been ebbing away since I left the academy behind. I still resist the use of biographical criticism when thinking about literature for I somehow still believe  that literary creations, the best ones anyway, are still much larger than the brains that produced them.

Somewhere along the line I've become less resistant to letting what I know about an author influence my emotional response to their works - and this has turned out to be a dangerous combination, for imagining the writer to be somehow better than the average bear has invited a great deal of disappointment, with Mishima through John Nathan's biography and through meeting Sherman Alexie and seeing him be a jerk to me and the other fans at his reading.

Of course, why I read and how has been changing because how I write about what I read and to/for whom has changed. Trying to instill good reading habits in my students, for example, or showing that while I can engage with the historical context of the authors about whom I write, but not really their personal historical context, aren't balancing acts I need concern myself with anymore.

Reducing - or elevating - text to the product of pure intellect or something more transcendent like "genius" but still essentially as somehow beyond basic human emotion was mirrored in my and my peers' attempts to approach literature as the embodiment of pure intellect. I'm not certain if this is something true across periods in the study of English literature but in the study of Renaissance literature it was both expected and relatively easy, the latter because often, very little is known about the authors in question anyway.

I honestly don't know anymore if this was a good approach to literary studies, but it was at heart the only one garnering any real approbation. In any case, for me it was from the start an attempt that would involve a mammoth struggle. Personally, I know that the work I did on texts which I either disliked or felt neutral about is generally considered better than the work I did on texts I loved - and more telling, perhaps, the work on those less beloved texts was much easier to execute. Writing about 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (one of my favourite Renaissance plays) was excruciating, in part because I was emotionally invested in doing it justice, and because reading it for the 20th time didn't in any way mitigate my emotional response to its pathos.

Looking back at the academy I left, all I see is confusion and disarray, which of course probably entirely reflects the fact that I never felt entirely comfortable there; unlike my brothers in PhD arms, I never lost the ability to put down my pen and dive in an entirely emotional way into a good book (you should have seen the mess I was at the end of The Amber Spyglass, which I read while writing my thesis proposal!).

Keeping my emotional and intellectual responses to literature separate never really seemed entirely right - or perhaps more to the point, possible - for me. Engaging deeply with literature is a passion for me; I read everything passionately and some things would make me feel like they were blowing the top of my head off and making my heart seize up in an almost mortal way - 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, King Lear, The Winter's Tale - and then I'd have to compartmentalize that and articulate something, a transition I found to be both difficult and painful.

Clearly, the blogosphere is a better place for me, for it admits of all approaches. And based on things happening over at Novel Ideas, I like to imagine that Victorian studies at least is more flexible than Renaissance studies are; maybe other period disciplines will someday follow suit.


Kevin said...

Kudos to you, dear C. Your last posts, like a one-two punch, are eye-watering reminders of the connection between character and work, between biography and art, etc. I find that I care about the person behind the novel when I've met them or know them. But for the most part, the author and the state of her character holds little or no interest for me, because in part I agree with Plato who sees in literary artists people who are "divinely inspired," as it were, and know not where their art comes from anyway.

raych said...

Sometimes I have the opposite problem, where I'm reading something so entirely 'for school' that I end up with no clear idea of how it impacted me as a reader. Did I enjoy The Great Gatsby? Mmmmmprobably. But all I'm certain of is that I wrote hella good paper on it.

ZOMG my word-verification is 'hyped.' I want to draw some allusion here between an author's lived life and their hype's stretching. I'm just always delighted when these are words.

heidenkind said...

I think it's interesting that literature studies is so against using biography, when art history uses it as a matter of course. Not that paintings are entirely about the painter (unless we're talking about some modern art, in which case, yes, there's a lot of navel gazing going on there), but more like what you paint and how you paint it is of course impacted by how and where you lived.

I've also noticed that my academic papers on paintings I don't really like or hate are usually a lot better than for works I actually do feel passionate about.

Colleen said...

Kevin: I like Plato's idea, too, now that you've reminded me of it.

raych: If I'd ever gotten to the point where I didn't know how I felt about a text but wrote awesomely about it, school would have been easier. But I don't know that I would have liked it.

heidenkind: I should clarify: historical context, such as place and time, are of course used in literary studies. It's the very personal biographical stuff that is frowned upon; silly e.g.s, Henry James hated the color green so when Isabella in The Portrait of a Lady is described as wearing green it means...Or, Wharton's husband was a cheater, so when...

Rohan Maitzen said...

I wonder if you're right, overall, about Victorian Studies. The 19thC was a great era of biography, and maybe we're influenced somewhat by that, and the relative wealth of contextual information we have. But I suppose the key issue is the supposed autonomy of the text, which to me somehow connects to the freedom of the imagination to be or go somewhere beyond the personal. I read novels to try to get a bit outside myself, or so I think; why should I assume novelists don't also exceed themselves when they write? And I don't know, say, Dickens the man--even if I read every biography ever written, I'd never meet the guy! What I can really know for myself is the novels.

Trapunto said...

I'm not sure how I found your blog, but I'm glad I did. Heidenkind, maybe?

I'm interested that you mention Sherman Alexie because I just read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and followed it up by watching (trying to watch) the movie The Business of Fancydancing. It seemed to me that everything about the book was about channeling that artistic narcissism and anger effectively, into an ideal genre--and everything about the movie was indulging it embarrassingly. From the film I could totally see that he might be a jerk to his "public" in real life. In fact, the only thing that made me watch the film to the end is that I thought Evan Adam's performance was fantastic. Too good for his director and screenwriter.

Colleen said...

Rohan: You said, "I suppose the key issue is the supposed autonomy of the text, which to me somehow connects to the freedom of the imagination to be or go somewhere beyond the personal. I read novels to try to get a bit outside myself, or so I think; why should I assume novelists don't also exceed themselves when they write? And I don't know, say, Dickens the man--even if I read every biography ever written, I'd never meet the guy! What I can really know for myself is the novels."

This is certainly where I'd like to go, and I think that if I don't read biography, I easily can. But no matter how I dwell on it, I can't separate, for example, the fact that Mishima was a total bastard and my responses to his work.

Trapunto: I'm glad you found Bookphilia, too! And I like your blog as well.

Alexie's more recent work is not great, in my opinion. But his earlier stuff - especially The Toughest Indian in the World - still rocks my world, even knowing he's a jerk.

I haven't seen The Business of Fancydancing but I saw Evan Adams in Smoke Signals (based on Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) and he was amazing there as well. I think I read once that he's a doctor and acts on the side...oh, to have so many talents!