Friday, April 20, 2007

The Biographical "Would"

I’m moved by Josh Corey’s thoughtful comments in the aftermath of Monday’s Virginia Tech horror, & given pause especially by his final meditations:
I was dismayed to learn that Cho was an English major, as though that somehow tarnished the discipline, further tugging on my perhaps overdeveloped sense of responsibility. One of the New York Times' articles on the shootings today includes this sentence: "Carolyn D. Rude, chairwoman of the English department, said faculty members were pro-active, even attending seminars on helping students in distress, a skill particularly applicable in an English department, where creative writing teachers had intimate glimpses into their students’ troubles and temperaments." This intersection of the academic discipline of creative writing with mental health and crisis prevention frankly takes me aback. In what sense has my scholarly and literary training prepared me for "helping students in distress"? If I am supposed to be a mental health counselor for my students, give me the appropriate resources and training! It surely doesn't hurt to attend "seminars on helping students in distress," but is it really a creative writing teacher's job to counsel disturbed students and to search their work for evidence of pathology? And should we accept the culture's further demand to view "creative writing" as thinly veiled narratives of the pathological, as opposed to the difficult art of possibility that it is? I fear these attacks will lead to the further erosion of the dignity of writing—will encourage the tendency to view poetry and fiction as more or less transparent containers and blunt instruments for deeply impoverished notions of "the personal" and "the real."
Perhaps I’ve been remarkably lucky – or perhaps I somehow project an of air of prickly unapproachability to my undergraduates – but in my decade & a half of teaching I’ve only very rarely had to deal with students who had personal or social problems severe enough to merit institutional intervention. Those very few exceptions, however, invariably happened in creative writing classes.

It’s not that I encourage the unveiling of unvarnished personal histories, emotional autobiographies, present desires, in my workshops – on the contrary. But it happens anyway, inevitably. I think that by the time students reach college, many of them already have a conception of creative writing as a fundamentally confessional, therapeutic activity – in Josh’s words, of “poetry and fiction as more or less transparent containers and blunt instruments for deeply impoverished notions of ‘the personal’ and ‘the real.’” It may be, given our culture’s obsession with self-revelation & sensationalism, & with the way that creative writing is used in primary & secondary school (somehow the verb “taught” doesn’t seem quite right) – as an exercise not in making verbal objects, but in “self-expression” – that keeping tabs on the potentially dangerous pathologies of students in undergraduate workshops is simply part of the job description of the creative writing professor. I wonder if instructors in other disciplines – studio arts, for instance, or musical composition – have similar challenges.
It’s question with something of a connection to the issue of literary biography. A bit over 100 pages into Will in the World, his bestselling Shakespeare biography, Stephen Greenblatt lays his cards on the table: “the whole impulse to explore Shakespeare’s life arrives from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.” I’d begun dipping into Will in the World year before last, soon before Ron Silliman began blogging his way thru it in earnest, but had laid the book aside in irritation – that is, for all of Greenblatt’s forceful prose and encyclopedic command of early modern culture, his book seemed far more speculative & sensational than more sober, informative Shax bios – notably, books by Park Honan and Dennis Kay, and Samuel Schoenbaum’s beautifully spare Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, which simply presents all of the surviving documentary evidence of Shax’s life, woven together with restrained interpretation.

For all of Greenblatt’s captaining of the at-the-time revolutionary “New Historicism,” he’s produced a remarkably old-fashioned life of Shakespeare which reminds me of nothing so much as Sidney Lee’s & Georg Brandes’s turn of the century psychobiographies of the bard (Stephen Dedalus cribs most of his sensational interpretation of Shax in “Scylla & Charbydis” from Brandes). With Shax, one has almost a blank slate: the man was an early modern script doctor and content provider who left not a whole lot of traces of himself outside of his published writings (think fast – how much do you know, or expect to know, about the personal lives of the screenwriters of The Sopranos?); Greenblatt in essence reconstructs a highly speculative (which at rare moments he admits is highly speculative) personal history of the playwright from the evidence of the plays and poems themselves.

Greenblatt does it well & highly readably, so long as one keeps reminding oneself that what one is reading is more akin to historical fiction than to documentary history. What irks me, however, is how often one encounters what I’ve come to call the slippage of the “biographical would”: The biographer first posits that subject X “may” have done something; a page or two later, that “may” has metamorphosed into a “could have,” which soon after becomes by extrapolation a “would have”; and a couple of pages later it becomes a simple past tense “did.”

For instance, take Greenblatt’s argument about Shax’s Catholicism. He begins with a now-lost document discovered in the 18th century in which Shax’s father asserts his own Roman Catholicism. A lost document, mind you, whose authenticity has always been in question. He then speculates (along with a number of others, granted) that Shax worked for some time in a northern Catholic household as a schoolmaster, & might even have met the Catholic missionary Edmund Campion. Thruout, Greenblatt is careful to deploy the language of speculation: “would have,” “might have,” “may have been,” “it is at least possible,” “it is altogether possible,” and so forth.

It’s unfortunate, then, that when SG finally gets to an authentically Shaxperean document, an anti-papal diatribe from King John, he slips out of the language of speculation into the language of certainty: “This coarsely explicit piece of Protestant pope-baiting is by no means the sum of Shakespeare’s mature attitude toward the Catholicism in which he had been immersed as a young man.” The preceding 20 pages or so may indeed give the impression that Shax “had been immersed” in Catholicism in his youth, but SG hasn’t presented real evidence, but rather a chain of speculation and thin circumstantial coincidences. A whole stack of “maybes” doesn’t add up to a single “had been,” but rather a big “might have been.”

(Many thanks, by the way, for the stack of recommendations in response to my call for suggestions; comments to follow.)
Department of Self-Promotion: The most recent Chicago Review, an excellent issue on contemporary British poetry, includes my review of John Wilkinson’s Proud Flesh and Lake Shore Drive.


Amy said...

My CW students probably think I'm bitch-queen, but I don't let them "do" "self-expression" in my class. I make them think in terms of an audience, and what an audience expects, and how to play on those expectations... I thrust randomly selected (literally: they pull them from a bag) story elements on them so they have to work to meet the story's needs, rather than turning the story into their psyche's slave.

That said, when I started a section on poetry this term, I stood at the board and asked them to call out what poetry is: I got "image," and "rhythm," and so on, but I also got "emotional expression" - and I made them stop. I asked them, "now, if someone writes something really heart-felt, from deep in the soul, is that automatically poetry?" A few people said yes. "Really? Are you sure?" And I gave them hell. :-)

It might be a coincidence, but I've gotten amazing poems from this group!

Anonymous said...

You and I agree with Twain when it comes to what biographers pretend to know about Shakespeare. Clemens said that the Bard's life is a reconstructed brontosauraus, made of a few odd bones and seventy barrels of plaster of paris. Don't misunderstand, Greenblatt is a sensitive reader of Shakespeare who has many original and valuable things to say about the plays, but the connections he draws between the Life and the Works are far too speculative, so like you I treat such discursions as informed historical fiction. Biography written in the subjunctive is infuriatingly uncertain. Ackyroyd's bio of the Bard makes Greenblatt look like a model of restraint!