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The Dangers of Biography

By Charles Foster

A friend of mine has written a brilliant and justly celebrated biography. I am worried about her, and about her readers.

The biography is brilliant and engaging precisely because of the degree of rapport the author has established with her subject, and the rapport she brokers between her subject and her readers. What is the cost of that rapport?

My friend has had to keep the company of her (dead) subject for years. Her book is an invitation to others to keep that company for hours. Two ethical questions arise.

  1. Could the time spent researching/writing/reading have been better spent?

This is an ethical issue. Time, like fossil fuels, is a limited resource. The resource allocation questions familiar to (inter alia) healthcare ethicists apply. Even if writing or reading biographies does no harm (as to which see below), there is a responsibility to ensure that one’s time is used well. If more good per unit time could be done doing something else, then any consistent utilitarian should denounce biography – except in special circumstance, such as where the biography informs a really useful project.

What then is time well spent? This is no place for the promulgation of a complete theory of value. But whatever it is, it is time spent by you, being you. Which is the second point.

  1. Should we live vicariously? 

Often in ethics we talk about self-determination and ‘life-plans’. Much of this talk is nonsense, for reasons too numerous to ventilate here, but although we are (I think) quintessentially relational, interconnected beings, whose identities can only be described in terms of the nexus of relationships in which we live, something valuable is captured by the talk of the autonomists. We have an obligation which can conveniently, if ambiguously, be described as a duty to be authentic. ‘To thine own self be true’, urged Polonius. Quite right. And that entails living one’s own life, and not that of someone else.

Deep immersion in the life of another can lead to dissolution of one’s self. And that can dilute one’s agency – or at least make fuzzy the identity of the agent. (That, to be clear, has most certainly not happened to my friend. She is vibrantly herself. But she’s lucky, or wise, or robust. Dissolution was a danger). If that happens then, depending on the subject, there might be grave moral consequences. Imagine getting up every day for five years, going to your desk, and writing a biography of Himmler. If the boundary between you and him starts to blur, it’s time to tell the publisher that you’re rescinding the contract. Even if it doesn’t, there are perils. It is sometimes said at the Bar that the greatest jury advocates are deeply uninteresting people. They are so adept at emptying themselves out so that they can be inhabited by the latest murderer or rapist that (even if they don’t assume the character of murderers or rapists) there’s little of them left to describe. Tap them, and they’re hollow. I’ve heard it. It is not a pleasant sound.

Of course neither of these problems is unique to biography. I undertake many activities precisely to ‘take me out of myself’. That language is uncomfortably revealing. If I am engaging with the real world as I should, I certainly need some time out from the primary forms of that engagement. But isn’t my recreation more recreative if the creature being recreated is me?  Often, when I read, it isn’t. I’m recasting myself as a character in a novel, or as the observer of an historical event. That’s not helping to build up or to rest the real me.

Although the dangers of biography are encountered in other genres, they are not as dangerous there, simply because they are more obvious. I may be absorbed in the Battle of the Five Armies, or the execution of Charles I, but there is no part of me that thinks I am (let alone any part of me that really becomes) a hobbit or a black-masked axe-man. With biography (the human capacity for identification with other real humans being what it is), I may genuinely be unable to know, after a while, where I stop and Himmler begins.

Ironically, though, you might be safer with Himmler than with Mother Teresa. You’ll be on your guard with him, and not with her, and so the risk of assimilation (an evil in itself) might be less with him. It’s probably safest to stay away from all biography.




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2 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you, Charles, for being so concerned about the health of your biographer friend.
    She can obviously speak better for herself then I can, but are your fears really justified? Is it not quite possible that she is « being true to her own self», in writing biographies ? And isn’t it also possible that Himmler was also following Plutonius’ platitude, in being his own detestable self throughoutbhis life? (I’m no historian, but is there any evidence that his life was « inauthentic »?)
    As for personal identity, it is very old-fashioned of me but I prefer to take the view of Hume that the identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fiction. You cite Shakespeare (or at least one of his characters – I suspect not his his own opinion) : allow me to cite the case of Mr Parent, in Guy de Maupassant’s short story in which, having separated himself from his awful unfaithful wife and her lover (his best friend) and the beloved son (who, he discovers, is not his own), and being a rentier with no need to work, realises finally that he has no personal identity left.
    I agree that there are many cases of affective bonds that distort reason, and association with a character even if dead might have some risk (but are biographers that naïve?). The Stockholm syndrome exemplifies this as an extreme case, but similar phenomena happen to members of political parties, multi-national corporations, revolutionary groups and probably even church choirs. Is biography so different ?

  2. Anthony: many thanks.
    As I said in the post: in the case of my friend, my generic fears about biographers are certainly not justified.
    I suspect that Himmler was indeed (malignantly) authentic. I never claimed otherwise.
    The dangers of biography are not different in kind from the dangers intrinsic in many arenas of human life. Indeed greater dangers of a similar kind are faced by some others – e.g., corporate apparatchiks. But nonetheless, for the reasons I state, I suspect that biographers are more at risk than most. I have no evidence whatever to support this assertion.

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