The biography is a form of portrait. It seeks to render a (once-)living and fallible character accurately and completely, to create a better and fuller picture than memory alone can muster. Authors of biographies aim for the most definitive and authoritative air, for the widest possible scope to deal with every anecdote and psychological foible which can be attributed or sourced to a single person. To present their subject objectively and exhaustively, like a photograph which can forever be expanded to reveal newer levels of depth and detail — the effect of which often reveals more of the biographer’s reach for authority than the subject has objectivity to offer. To me there’s a fraudulence here — in the claims to authenticity and objective authority — for what are essentially works of writing like any other. There’s a leap of presumption made by readers in turn which buys into the myth of the Most Complete and Authoritative Work Yet — a presumption riding the comfortably wide gap between pure and well-nigh impossible written objectivity on the one hand and speculative, interpretative fiction riding the coattails of fame, a famous persona rendered by gossip and tabloid innuendo, on the other extreme. For the bio sits somewhere in between, between lies and precise truth. Most biographers choose to fill the gap with as much of themselves as they can master (style, presentation, the authoritative and editorial conclusion). The process of biography is not unlike shadowing and ghosting for nothing — beside being a narrative, a biography is always a dual character accounting. In turn, biographers enjoy the same authorial perks and popularity as hardcore fiction writers do with their readers.

It’s a double trade-off considering the difficulties of accurately rendering character and identity in print, creating yet more print, and more detailed circles of speculation. The facts of a person (as much as they can be recorded) become representations, which are then annexed by further interpretations which beget more definitive interpretations by other biographers and commentators, which all then feed into the broader discourse about a subject: his work and influence, relations and friendships, coincidences and appearances and parallels and a thousand other streams tied in. Perspectives from the family, lovers, friends and associates, minders and hairdressers, astrologers and trainers, whomever could possibly claim a degree of intimacy — the thinner the better it seems, pushing the bio closer to tabloid gossip. But which in the end only look like so many stories and historical novels neatly arrayed on shelves.

The patent aura of fiction seems to have entered these great reads. From the way these books are written to the way they’re marketed and consumed, little seems to separate them from novels. Or rather, the slightly fraudulent claims to truth and clarity they purport seem hollower than ever.

Here’s my proof of fraudulence:

  1. The many and secret forces which shape a personality, which constitute identity, are inexplicable. If we could add up the net effects of personal psychology, origins and culture, circumstance and life event — everything that could possibly go to constitute the manifold facets of identity, we’d still have an incomplete frame or gestalt to explain and render that particular person.
  2. Therefore all biographies which claim to paint authoritative or exhaustive pictures along this supposedly objective line must/should concede this essential shortcoming in their attempt — which, since they don’t, makes biographies suspect failures, or, at best, fictional representations. All supposed truth and fact, when represented, involve approximation, editing, metaphor and perspectival slant, ie the tropes of fiction.
  3. Or, at the very least, biographies should admit that narrative-fictive concerns like readability, action-packing, intrigue and dramatic characterisation and conflict are just as important to their authoritative concerns.
There is of course as much truth in biographies as there is in novels, except the latter doesn’t exploit the semblance so fraudulently. The thin categorical difference separating the two is merely for the convenience of bookstores — the difference no longer exists in the reality of the works. But for all intents we act like it does.

So much for a quick character sketch of the biography.

There is of course no palliative course of action which can be undertaken here without seeming petty and pedantic, and I don’t mean to offer any directly. Biographies exist expressly because we trust their authors and their claims to thoroughness, intimacy and objectivity, not the work. The Author Function is just as relevant here. We (I mean the biography-reading public) are just as likely to be true to the biographer’s brand as to the novelists’. And especially where there is debate about the future of the novel, we often miss the glaring fact that it is biographers who have taken over the reins and carriage of the classical novel. Only they have the cash incentive and easy footwork to deal with what Norman Mailer called the ‘bitch’ medium, willing to carry on the themes of grand narrative and character drama. Our modern novels, in turn, read like so many biographies. Manqué biographies.


I had an idea, in thinking about profiles and biographies, to exploit this (occasional) nearness to fiction and personally-motivated perspective to the full by writing against the journalistic approach of objectivity and observation — that is, not by interviews and direct access, by reasonable quote and assured rendition, by chumming up the distance between profiler and subject (faithfully noting the subject’s habits and quirks, facial and expressive peculiarities, his tone-setting background and contexts, entrances and departures, the usual stab at upbeat ending etc) but by taking that distance for granted. Never by reconciling the work and the man for a mealy audience hungry for drama and gossip, but by sheer extrapolation from works alone. To take the subject’s works as the real biography, unified by personality. Reliant, therefore, on the profiler’s skill and imaginative force as a writer to render character by what are, ultimately, fictive- or narrative-oriented techniques (in journalism) anyway. To draw a biography without apparent facts. To use the intuitions of the reader-interpreter, the paint abstractly. To paint knowing-interpretatively.

[Actually, this partly came in reaction to a profile of New Yorker profiler John Lahr (who’s profiled Roseanne, Mike Nichols, Sontag, Spielberg et al, to drop names). Lahr habitually spends several months shadowing a subject in building up his piece. And I mean closely — he follows them down, follows them out amongst friends and colleagues; on the crapper and off — which I think is totally admirable and warranted when it comes do doing the footwork for a biographical portrait, as any portrait is complex and broad. The qualities and essences of a person only come across slowly, indirectly, in a long and gradual conversation of interaction and collaboration, where a mere hour is never enough. Fair nuff. As a journalist, this lends credence to Lahr’s opinion and weight in other fields of comment. But the method is by no means as absolute as it seems, nor might it be the healthiest from a creative POV. Lahr is at least masterful at reducing or effacing his own presence from the profile; to which I’d say, why not all the way?]

One learns everything one needs to know about Mailer from his novels and extended biographies in fiction. One doesn’t need to know how ugly the real character of Agatha Christie really was. One perceives Ballard fully from his range. As with Hemingway. There will always be room for the full journalistic approach — but I’d be interested in reading a profile of an artist (preferably a helpfully reclusive one) where the writer consciously and unhesitatingly announces his profile an appreciation of identity by exegesis alone. At least then the presence and quality of the interpretation would come to the acknowledged fore (remember every representation is an interpretation). The distance between his subject might also incline the writer to greater honesty because it’s his reputation that’s on the line, character-wise, as there’d be no safe nook or editorialising vantage point from which to dismiss the artist and his personal faults or failings. The entire narrative premise would sink like a turd. Because the writer can keep more of himself, he doesn’t have to condescend to effacement in the hope of seeming objective.

A biographical painting based purely on the works, an hermeneutic biography. Its nearness to criticism could lead to alarmingly academic thinking, but with the accent on imagination and the explicit acknowledgement ‘I never met him’ and ‘This is almost a fictional characterisation’ — coupled with the fact that no artist wants to be nailed or packaged into a reductive and often misrepresentative column anyway, might lead to a profile which even the subject might want to read for its divergence, otherness and honest fiction. So much better than all that feigned intimate acquaintance.

Especially when considering that what we consider ‘an author’ is usually a multiple construct or projection anyway. The author of his own fiction might grin and chortle to recognise the same fiction from another storyteller’s POV.


Letter to Gabe in LA

I’ve been keeping a kind of distanced view of the whole US election campaign with all its dirty tricks and blatant misrepresentations etc, mostly thru Tom Tomorrow, AlterNet and cartoonist Steve Bell in the Guardian etc. Nothing on the truly Hunter S Thompson scale of sheer addiction in ‘72. It’s like a storm in the distance, you only hear the occasional thunderclap here in Ireland. People are still flapping about the new inverted commas Socialist government in Spain. Even Australia is doing its bit for the “Alliance” that indirectly caused the attack by urging ‘Spain's newly elected Socialist Government not to pull its troops out of Iraq, saying such a move could be interpreted as a victory for terrorism.’ This is classic spin. This is the worst kind of US-toadying, and it begs going into the shambles that is the cause for war with Iraq, and frankly I don’t have time for that here.

But the sad thing about the year-long election process in the States (and this is by no means limited to the States alone) is that it’s all based on personality politics and PR and ad/advertorial slander of the most blatant kind. It’s the furthest thing from intelligent debate on real issues, from dialogue and concern and foresight; in essence, the furthest thing from participatory democracy. It’s more like conspiratorial mediation. Sorry to sound slightly excessive here, but it’s an extreme thing in itself, and I’m sure this is obvious to you guys already. How does one overhaul a system (from the primaries to the TV debates up) that is inherently flawed, skewed, bought-out and open to the biggest lobbyists and campaign contributors? Why wasn’t there more of a concerted push for election reform after the last election fiasco? Simply put, because I think the American system (in the broadest sense) is in nature a republican system. Compare the way Bill Clinton was hounded and George Bush never at all, even though he is a much riper candidate for proper investigative hounding. GWB is the least accountable president of all time I think. All those promises to fund the NY firefighters and then cut, all that flipflopping about the 9/11 investigation, flipflopping about everything else, I mean this is a scandal compared to the profits Boeing and Haliburton and Lockheed are raking in. This is the greatest obscenity of our age, an obscenity masquerading as spin. Like Redford says, listen to the speeches and substitute ‘Industrial interests’ for the ‘American people’. The people are being taken for a ride while on the surface they seem to be spoken for. Why isn't there more debate on the imminent militarisation of space, the revamp of the arms race, the dreadful state of American interventionism and diplomacy and corporate corruption and social and welfare inequality...

I think it sad to see how the concerted push for youth voting and voter awareness (even on MTV) is not offset with an effective range of voting options (and sadly Ralph Nader never was an option). Republican or Republican-lite as the saying goes; one person holding both puppets (Bill Hicks); or the general feeling of uselessness which many feel by not choosing to turn up. Sad how people’s best interests can be bent and abused by mediated rubbish. Something George Lakoff said about politics in America is pertinent: frames trump facts. No matter how pressing or significant the facts, if the frame of debate within which they are viewed is skewed, then you can forget the facts because people’s minds are constrained already (his example has to do with the perception of taxes as either a necessity or burden when it comes to election spin).

Further to the mediated/deliberate constraint of debate, as though the American public are condescendingly incapable of handling more than one or two issues per election, I hate the way it does always turn into a single election-winning issue. It looks like it’s gay marriage this time. And then watch the misrepresentation of American freedoms: if you support another’s right to self-determination and belief, then what gives you the right to say it’s a crime, or godless and worse, and change the constitution? It used to be race-baiting, and now it’s gay-baiting. How far we’ve travelled.

Spain sets a rather disturbing precedent: everyone’s saying how Bin Laden has now directly affected Western democracy (this in itself is a misrepresentation: the people voted against their government because of its speed in blaming ETA, and since 90% are against the war in Iraq which for them is the reason for the latest attack). I think this might be an indirect warning to the States for election times. Of course the Bush junta will take any attack on US interests or land as an excuse for martial law and worse excesses of intervention, cronyism and what have you. Like Thatcher in 83 or 84, turning a war into full re-election potential, and cutting off real debate in the progress (by becoming more authoritarian all along: see the way only one senator voted against the usa patriot act because he wanted time to READ it). This is the way it has always been, it seems. Bush I think will play it cosy for a while and wait for something nasty to come his way, then ride it all the way.

But, if even Howard Stern is against you, then surely you’ll have little chance of re-election. Right?

Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos, as they say in space.
I found an interesting article about 'The Rules you work by' on recently.
    "Lykken's First Law:
    The quality of one's intellectual productions is a function of the product of talent (e.g., intelligence) times mental energy. Although there are many and varied tests for assessing intelligence, psychologists have not as yet even attempted to construct a measure of individual differences in mental energy."

This is interesting because, like all questions that seem to cross the boundaries between fields of inquiry or addressing the shortcomings thereof, it seems to be the natural domain of another science: in this case I’d say that of philosophy. What Lykken alludes to in my reading of his law is the power of Will — in the broadest sense, as a phenomenon in itself. Philosophy has been thinking on the issue for centuries.

Science has been able to make personality mappings, neurological analyses of the brain’s composition, and has gone some way to explaine the interaction of these to form consciousness and thought. But it has kept relatively quiet on the wider differentiations of subjectivity amongst people, like for instance their relative willpowers, and why some people are tireless mental workers and others seem to lack the ability to marshal their abilities consistently despite talent or desire.

One need only look at the world of artists (one cannot get more subjective than that) to see the difference at work in an extreme form: some artists are masters of expression and can work systematically and consistently for all hours – they are in fact workers of expression. There are other artists, however, who work almost purely on an inspirational basis, whenever the mood or idea takes them – they are often unstable or riddled with doubt or fragile in other ways and consequently fashion their lives around this unpredictability with bohemian airs. But what if this difference could be expressed simply as a difference of willpower, of the ability to apply and execute demanding tasks with determination and consistent force. Or, as Lykken calls it, mental energy.

And anyone who’s ever had to write an essay due the next day will recall those midnight dialogues of self, of having to force the brain to generate perceptive sentences and correct deductions from references and research; of all the distractions, little breaks and indulgent snacks and the perpetual fact of tomorrow’s deadline and the possibility of extending it etc. One is really struggling with Will in a way that obviously defies essay planning and practice, one smarts against the necessity and urgency of working on demand at such a late and unprofitable hour. I mean there’s no one else to blame of course; it’s that having to apply oneself against the body’s need for sleep that drags out the hours. You find yourself thinking ‘if only I had more willpower and attention I would’ve started this essay weeks ago…’ It comes down to an issue of discipline, but really that implies a certain mastery of will as well.

At least, in those quiet midnight hours with the blank page in front of me, that is the time I start to think of the Will as possibly some universal force, say as Schopenhauer conceived it and Nietzsche extended to a theory of power. Some common motivating force in the universe which can also be applied to the small and particular; a common explanation for movement and action above and below. And that if one had a tap into such universal Will then one could also pump out several thousand seemly words on any topic at all. Which is of course childish reasoning fed on a steady intake of caffeine and exasperation.

But it takes that air of desperation to fully appreciate mental energy — and how little we appreciate its workings or sources and conditions. I think it is something subtler than motivational force like the millions of deluded positive therapies out there in New Age land. It’s a question of learning mental work, learning to exercise the brain and creating good habits and environments. But it’s also an issue of understanding action in the sense that thought can be an act. Every action in the world has its origin in a thought, in one simple combination and expression of idea. And if this is the primary or only way in which we truly affect the world, then it’s also the way to appreciate mastering one’s own life and actions. From the wilful control of thinking up. And by turning on that little edge of necessity in all one’s actions.

Mental work = discipline = will.