Thursday, November 01, 2007

Sincerity & Ajectification

Last time around I was speculating on the possible usefulness of Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History (Harvard UP, 2007) for my upcoming (much-dreaded) seminar in Biography: Theory & Practice, & worrying about its "breeziness & occasional flyspecks." Well, I've finished the book (it's almost 300 pages, but they're teeny tiny pages with big margins & lots of pictures), & can confidently pronounce upon it: As the painter (Hugh Grant) in the film of Rose Tremain's Restoration tells Robert Downey Jr., on being shown the latter's amateurish canvas, "It is an excrescence." As Bart Simpson would say: "Craptacular."

While bad reviews are deliciously fun to write, some books are so painfully ill-conceived & superficially thought thru that criticizing them in detail feels like a species of cruelty to slow animals. What's worst is that Biography is a really great idea – sfarz I know there is, as Hamilton points out over & over again, no short summary history of the field – and seems to spring from a congeries of good intentions: to introduce & critique the history of biography; to pronounce upon its present state & future prospects; to give the field some of the respect that it's been lacking in the academy.

(Note to M. Hamilton: A conceptually sloppy, excrementally copy-edited, inadequately referenced "pop" overview of biography – even if it does have pretty pictures – is unlikely to help establish biography among the academic disciplines. But I sympathize with its marginalization – a marginalization even more extreme than that which proponents of "creative nonfiction" have been vigorously fighting against for however long. For my take on the subject of biography & literary/cultural studies, see this paper from half a decade ago.)

Part of the problem is Hamilton's desire to write for a popular audience, which is a laudable one – something which I attempted in The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (tho my publisher let drop at one point that the book still has a "scholarly tone" – but you're welcome to buy it anyway & decide for yourself). But as Janet Malcolm shows in The Silent Woman, her book on Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, & the politics of posthumous biographical reputation, you don't have to dumb down to achieve readability. Hamilton rightly recognizes Samuel Johnson & James Boswell as terrifically important figures in the history of biography; but he spends as much time on the racy anecdote of Boswell getting it on with Rousseau's mistress (13 times!) as he does on the structure and method of Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, & makes almost no mention of Boswell's own methods in writing Johnson's Life.

I guess I'd call that "breeziness" – passing over the meat of the argument to linger over the not particularly nourishing garnishes. What's more troubling is the number of times Hamilton simply gets things wrong.
•He claims that the main reason Sir Walter Raleigh was executed was some unflattering implications about contemporary monarchs in The History of the World, thereby making SWR the "first martyr to biography." Well, he's already stretching terminology past the place where I'll follow when he lumps Raleigh's History in the field of biography, but any student of early modern history & culture can tell you the reasons for Raleigh's execution were far more complex than that (& really had little to do with his writing).

•Carlyle gets name-checked & quoted once or twice, but his seminal biographical writings – in Heroes & Hero-Worship, the life of Frederick the Great, & his edition of Cromwell – get nary a mention, which is sort of like writing about Victorian poetry without noticing Tennyson.

•Hamilton makes the interesting argument that during the period of the huge, reputation-whitewashing, Victorian mausoleum biographies, life-writing energies got drawn off into fiction. This works pretty well for Jane Eyre & David Copperfield, but why in God's name does he adduce Moby-Dick & Heart of Darkness, two utterly unbiographical novels?

•In a fantastically distorted account of structuralist & post-structuralist thought (which could have been written by a Bill O'Reilly scriptwriter), Hamilton blames it all on Mikhail Bakhtin – adducing tons of illustrative quotations, not from Bakhtin's authenticated works, but from Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language: yes, theory-heads still slaver over the possibility that Bakhtin used V.'s name in some early writings, but the weight of scholarly opinion is that Voloshinov should be acknowledged as the author of the work bearing his name. Hamilton, fighting the theory-wars of the '80s, doesn't seem to have noticed. (Indeed, he seems entirely innocent of theoretical developments since about 1979.)
This is just the tip Рhere goes the clich̩ Рof the proverbial iceberg, a vast chilly density of flippant verbiage, misremembered facts, & high-sounding puffery. But what should I have expected, I guess, from a biographer who issued a revised edition of his biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery under the clever title The Full Monty. (For a suitably scathing review РI love the word "twaddle" Рsee here.)
Last time around, I quoted Oscar Wilde "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling" – which prompted a useful comment from Don Share: "I'm not sure if genuine feeling is the same as sentimentality, but of the latter, Richard Hugo said: 'Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake.'" That's a good observation, & deserves as follow-up a bit more of the context of Wilde's remark (which gets quoted as if it were a free-standing aphorism, rather than a line from Gilbert in "The Critic as Artist"):
the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion. He does not first conceive an idea, and then say to himself, 'I will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines,' but, realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete. From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has 'nothing to say.' But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message, that he can do beautiful work. He gains his inspiration from form, and from form purely, as an artist should. A real passion would ruin him. Whatever actually occurs is spoiled for art. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.
To which Ernest replies: "I wonder do you really believe what you say?" A good question – one might argue, I suppose, that by this point in the dialogue Gilbert has become rather shall we say "carried away" by his own rhetoric on behalf of a formalist insincerity, a method for the artist to "multiply his personalities."

The simplest thing to say is that "genuine feeling" – "sincerity" – is not enough to make good poetry (tho it's great for voyeuristically interesting blogs), but that poetry can be a way of embodying such genuine feeling in form – a sincere regard for which (& here I follow Zukofsky, & suspect the Divine Oscar would agree) is a necessity for successful verse.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Great post, Mark! I have nothing much to add but want to thank you for the great read... in both cases, the bio book seeking wider audience, and the form-feeling debate, moderation is doubtless the (too) easy answer, but it is exactly what I'm expecting from your Zukofsky book, and happily found in your read-piece last weekend: fun in the scholarship!