There's only about a week & a half of classes left; my bag is full of papers to grade, however, & there are a thousand little administrative things hovering over my head, so I'm trying not even to think in terms of lights at ends of tunnels.
I fear I'm not doing the Aeneid justice; it deserves at least a week's more attention than I'm able to give it right now, and as we wind our way thru the second half of the poem, I'm feeling more & more daunted by the complexity and beauty of Virgil's narrative design & historical vision. A few years back my acquaintance the classicist David Wray, at the University of Chicago, team-taught a course on the Aeneid in translation – various translations, from Gavin Douglas thru Dryden down to the present – with Robert Von Hallberg. Now that must have been an epic course.
We spent last week in the graduate seminar sparring over James Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault. This week we'll do more sparring, & then venture into Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. I have my problems with Greenblatt's book: it's at once too conventional – so much more the standard speculative Shax life than one would have expected from a scholar who led a revolution in early modern studies; it could, one can't help feeling, have been written anytime in the last half century – and too "out there." It brings to a fine pitch, however, the central issue of specifically literary biography: how does one articulate, negotiate, theorize the relationship between life & works? Greenblatt's answer is that we work out the governing obsessions of Shakespeare's writings, then we locate them in what little we know of his life – at times, we invent whole tracts of his life for which we have no evidence, in order to account for something that dominates the writing.
Okay. But what's the payoff? Why pursue this exercise? Why not just fall back on a New Critical stance, and reject biographical connections entirely? Greenblatt's implicit argument is that Shakespeare's work shows the playwright to be a transcendent genius (I won't argue with him there), and that we naturally want to know more about the life-experience of such a guy. I don't think I'd argue with him there, either, tho it's also clear to me that the sort of knowledge displayed in Will in the World – even the best-attested stuff – doesn't really add anything to our reading of the Shax corpus.
But what then is the justification for a biography of a less than transcendently gifted author? If a writerly life issues only in handful of pretty good works, is there a specifically literary reason for pursuing (writing or reading) the biography of such an also-ran?
I fear I'm cutting the conceptual points a bit too close here. For the most part, we read biography, even literary biography, for reasons that have little to do with literary commentary, criticism, or even appreciation. We read a life of Whittier or Longfellow not to get insights into their poetry, but because they were interesting people, and we're naturally inclined to want to learn about the lives of interesting people. (How banal, how bourgeois. How hopelessly pre-theoretical.)
I wonder if there are 300 people in the world who would buy a biography of Ronald Johnson?