"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, April 25, 2016

Biographies and Biographers

When I'm not reading military or martial history at bedtime, I am as often as not reading a biography. Lately those have included a few biographical studies of Churchill that have hitherto escaped my attention; and then re-reading at least two of the biographies of Evelyn Waugh. On my bedside table, soon to be read, is Robert Speaight's The Life of Hilaire Belloc

I've read enough biographies over the years to know that writing them is a tricky business, and in unskilled hands a badly done biography is scarcely worth reading. Shortly after he died earlier this year, I decided I should read another biography of Antonin Scalia, and picked up B.A. Murphy's Antonin Scalia: A Life of One. It's gruesome. Almost from the first page the author's clumsy tendentiousness clubs one over the head, making this an unreadable tome. (Joan Biskupic's American Original is a much less obnoxious study of Scalia.) I have no patience for impatient authors who cannot let the story of their subject unfold at its own pace and in its own terms without rushing to tell us how we ought to think about this person; I never read a biography about anybody in the hopes of discovering what the biographer thinks. Biographers should be like John the Baptist: decreasing in focus so that the subject comes ever more sharply into focus insofar as this is possible.

Having read more than a few biographies, I have fondly--perhaps foolishly--entertained for years the idea that one day I will have the time to sit down and write a full-scale biography of some worthy and deserving subject whose life I can treat at length after luxuriously solitary spells in archives, in reading diaries, in conversing with his or her contemporaries (if they are still alive). The one biography I have long wanted to do is that of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has by any stretch led a fascinating life as one of the most influential moral philosophers of the last half-century. But philosophers, especially modern philosophers, do not often seem to merit as much biographical attention as their ancient counterparts; this is true a fortiori of modern theologians and religious scholars, though there are of course some exceptions, especially in the modern West with figures like Paul Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Richard John Neuhaus, Henri de Lubac, etc.

In the realm of biographies in the Christian East, I have read Andrew Blane's rather uneven biography, Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual & Orthodox Churchman

More recently, one simply must read Paul Gavrilyuk's Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance which I discuss in detail here.

We have seen biography-like collections, including Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith, edited by Rico Vitz.

Scott Kenworthy has given us an updated version of Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon.

And of course just this year, as I recently noted, we have a full biography of Alexander Men.

But what about full-scale biographies of such figures as Alexander Schmemann, or John Meyendorff? Both have had any number of studies written on their theology and other aspects of their work but neither has been treated to a serious, comprehensive, full-length scholarly biography that I know of. Part of that, of course, has to do with protecting reputations both personal and institutional. (Otherwise we'd have all of Schmemann's journals published, not just select excerpts.) But let us hope that such concerns do not permanently prevent serious biographies of both men from emerging.

But what constitutes a 'serious scholarly biography'? And is it the biographer's job to 'protect reputations' or to 'tell it like it is, warts and all'? In treating, say, a theologian or churchman, must one be theologically literate to write a good biography--must one, perforce, be a part of the same Christian tradition as the subject of the biography? Will a Protestant make a hash of trying to write the life of Zizioulas? Can a Catholic fully understand and correctly portray the life of Staniloae? Is the temptation of the biographer to indulge in some armchair psychoanalysis always a bad one? In raising just a few such questions I have in mind to differentiate a biography from what is often conventionally called 'hagiography.' But there are many further additional and serious questions that go into the writing of a biography, and Rana Tekcan brings them to our attention in her recent book, Too Far for Comfort: A Study on Biographical Distance (Ibidem Press, 2015), 186pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The dynamic between the biographer and the subject is one of the most fascinating aspects of biography as a genre. How does the biographer stage the illusion that is the narrative life, the illusion that the subject assumes a living form through words? In contrast to purely fictional forms, biography writing does not allow total freedom to the biographer in this creative act. Ideally, a biography's backbone is structured by accurate historical facts. But its spirit lies elsewhere. Rana Tekcan explores how some of the most accomplished biographers manage to recreate "life" across time and space. She looks at their illusionary art through the narrative strategies in Samuel Johnson's Life of Savage, James Boswell's Life of Johnson, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey, Park Honan's Jane Austen, and Andrew Motion's Keats. She notes three types of distance in biographical narrative: First, where the biographer and the subject personally know one another; second, where the biographer is a near contemporary of the subject; and third, where biographer and subject are distinctly separated, in some cases, by hundreds of years.

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