Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two thoughts about biography

Theodor Adorno to Leo Löwenthal, 25 November 1942 (quoted by Detlev Claussen in One Last Genius, 5-6):

At bottom, the concept of life as a meaningful unity unfolding from within itself has ceased to possess any reality, much like the individual himself, and the ideological function of biographies consists in demonstrating to people with reference to various models that something like life still exists, with all the emphatic qualities of life. And the task of biography is to prove this in particular empirical contexts which those people who no longer have any life can easily claim as their own. Life itself, in a highly abstract form, has become ideology, and the very abstractness that distinguishes it from older, fuller conceptions of life is what makes it practicable (the vitalist and existentialist concepts of life are stages on this path).

Graham Harman on his blog, August 31, 2009:

Jung’s early family life was almost painfully pathetic: both the dynamics between his insecure and not-always-respected parents and the way he was treated by fellow students, not to mention little Carl’s unpleasant daydreams … [T]he little C.G. Jung started life as a bit of a clumsy and weirdly daydreaming oaf, with a grotesque love of blood, guts, and death. (One of his childhood homes was next to a waterfall, and he seemed to enjoy the assembling of the bodies of waterfall suicide and accident victims that regularly turned up near his yard.) He also liked setting small fires. All of this doesn’t sound like someone even I (who was very tolerant of all other children) would have wanted as a playmate, and in fact many other children were urged to avoid him by their unnerved parents. Jung’s major childhood event was being “sucker-pushed” to the ground by a schoolmate and undergoing fainting spells for a long time thereafter, which made his classmates laugh all the more. And then suddenly, he blossomed while in university.

This led me to some thoughts about biography, and about the running autobiography we all do when looking at our own lives while going along.

It seemed to me that Bair did a good job of picking out the most important events and character traits in the life of little Jung. And yet my first reaction was: “yes, but God, this childhood looks terribly painful in ways that Bair doesn’t emphasize enough.”

But then came my second reaction, which I think is closer to the mark: it doesn’t matter if Bair edits out much of little Jung’s internal suffering, because our own feelings about how our life is going are perhaps not the primary thing. Biographers can know us better than we know ourselves. (This was on my mind again last night when a new friend made a remark –complimentary in this case– that was completely at odds with my own self-understanding, as happens from time to time. And it’s always worth reflecting in those moments.)

In other words, none of us have privileged access to our own life stories. Not just occasionally, but quite often, other people understand our capabilities and limitations in certain areas better than we do ourselves. If someone were writing your biography, they would miss out on almost all the internal drama, and for that reason it might feel at first as though you were reading a fiction. But perhaps it’s your feelings about your own life that are the fiction. Your life is a real trajectory that can be completely misinterpreted by your feelings no less than by the remarks of outside observers. And this is why it would be great if everyone at birth were assigned a professional biographer to hand them their life story every five years or so. Just think of how helpful it would be to be able to see yourself from the outside, as an object. Lots of orientation would probably come from that exercise. It would probably be a lot more helpful than months of therapy, because sometimes all you need is an outside person to offer their perspective on which things are going well and poorly for you, not some trained expert to grub around inside your soul: after all, there may actually be less truth down there in the “depths” than in the simple orientations offered by an observer. Maybe we all need biographers rather than psychologists.

But we’re trained to think the opposite: that life seen from the inside is more important and accurate than life seen from the outside. We’re trained to think that “what matters is the question of happiness and unhappiness,” because this is placed in sterile opposition to a hollow alternative: “or otherwise, you will be left chasing empty status and success that brings no true inner fulfillment.” But this is a false dichotomy. A life can be meaningful even if it brings neither success nor happiness. There is too much pressure to be happy, too much pressure to be successful, but not much pressure to live meaningfully.

If you consider a list of the happiest people you’ve ever met, there is certainly something admirable about this state, but I’m betting you wouldn’t trade places with most of them. Some of the happiest people I’ve ever met live in a state of blissful and even willful ignorance, and to that option I would prefer a more difficult life spent in pursuing things of genuine value. The notion that the meaningfulness of life consists in a happy internal state seems to me like just the flip side of the notion that it consists in the pursuit of external social honors. Both of these options miss the fact that a life unfolds in a space that is not quite accessible either to society or to introspection. What I love about biography is that it comes closer than any other genre to probing that intermediate space between the social and the psychological.