“These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
The standard format of the biography is like a train schedule. Events are detailed and presented in order, moving from event to event in a linear fashion.
There is a type of logic to this. It is utilitarian and reflects and generates a faith in progress. The life revealed follows a kind of governing order and that order is shown to exist because the life examined progresses from one event to the next, in order.
The trajectory of time’s arrow is the governing principle but, without saying it, the form is also an affirmation of an ideal. The narrative follows a linear trajectory and affirms that no other method of organization either exists or if admitted to exist, is without enough merit to warrant discussion.
So for example, one can read that Einstein worked as a patent clerk or that Ben Franklin lived in Philadelphia. One can read that Alexander defeated the Persians and that Zapata rode a horse. These are not unimportant details.
But what goes missing is the idea that data, converted into information, can take different forms and that by constructing alternative narratives, the same data can be turned into a different piece of information even though it is the same story.
We have mentioned this elsewhere in regards to a related topic* and we return to the example we used previously: On June 18th, 1815, the French army, under Napoleon, was defeated.
This is a fact.
What goes missing is the idea that we have the ability to alter the meaning of the data (the fact) as it is turned into information (a battle occurred on this specific date at this specific time ending in a specific result).
For example, while waiting for word from the battlefield, the foreign minister, Talleyrand, and the empress, played whist. In the scheme of things, the battle is more important. In other and obvious terms, a game of whist does not determine the fate of an empire.
And yet, it falls to the novelists (having been successfully banished to the Platonic ghetto of the ideal city state) to construct a divergent, or different narrative in which, in order to provoke the reader into a state of dislocation, the game of whist becomes either as, or more important than a battle.
Our other example was/is to suggest that where some point to the battle as representing the moment when the French revolution(s) of 1789 came to an end – with Napoleon as the gravedigger of the revolution and the battle as its headstone – we suggested that either the revolution does not end, or that it ends with the death of Percy Shelley and at the moment Byron swam out to sea to watch Shelley’s body burn on the pyre.
This is to suggest the elasticity of potential narratives and we hasten to add is not in anyway to suggest that the facts are in dispute. The narrative however is a set of questions, provisional definitions and agreements – all subject to change.
Those who call themselves realists, rationalists, and pragmatists, will scoff if not scream their dismay at what they usually call Postmodern shenanigans, or some form of neo Marxist depravity in the service of political deviance, and subterfuge. In its liberal though no less reactionary form, the response will admit to the (limited) uses of this approach as it frees or libertates previously oppressed classes, but then reverses course and condemn it as the handmaid to the dangerous sophistry of assorted demagogues and would-be dictators who libel the truth by denouncing fake news.
Both reactions, are in league with the dominant paradigms of capitalist realism. The aesthetic of which can be summed up by the pop culture mantra – just the facts mam.
The need to be about the business of survival, from the first moment of Jamestown, to the conquest of the continent merged with an innate sense that the old world was a decadent cauldron of useless, and dangerous efforts at time wasting. This in turn was subsumed into the triumphalism of the postwar world as America became hegemon. Told in early 1945 that the British were going to send aircraft carriers to assist with the final push against Japan, the Chief of the Navy, (the appropriately named) Admiral Ernest J. King, responded: Not in my goddamned ocean.
Mass production, mass organization, mass war, created a system that in turn required, demanded, a specific system of thinking. That it was tautological – per Guy Debord and the culture of the spectacle – that which appears is good and that which is good appears – was either designated as irrelevant or non-existent. Victory on an epic scale is a great mental aphrodisiac.
Consider then Robert McNamara and the idea that x number of body bags, stuffed like obscene sausage casings, represents victory and could not represent anything but victory.
At the other end of the spectrum, jazz improv does not get you to the moon and back in one piece.
But if we posit the possibility that a game of whist is of the same weight in terms of the potential meaning we attach to it, as a battle, then while it is true that jazz improv does not power a rocket, it powers the culture that allows for the individual or group that creates the formula that powers the rocket. Dismissed as a cheep rhetorical stunt, or as a kind of dangerous subversion, we assert that the expansion of narrative possibilities is both essential for our understanding of events previously dissected and ordered, but also as a means to reinvigorate a culture grown stale from repetition of previous and now past their sell by date, systems of organizing our understanding.
In other words, we assert as pure provocation that, Jackson Pollock was the first man on the moon.
Consider that the game of whist involved the genius of the slithering, reptilian, morally gelatinous, Talleyrand – a man who had begun his public life as a captain of the ancien regime church, drifted to being a revolutionary, then to post revolutionary indispensable man, and then the vital cog in the machinery of the Bourbon restoration, and then the Bonapartist return, and then again the inescapable man needed to finesse the Bourbon return, 2.0.
Suddenly that game of whist becomes a hall of mirrors, and what one realises is not that the game is inconsequential but that the narrative(s) surrounding it are shallow if not dangerously ossified; locked in a kind of organizing aspic.
And so to biographies.
In a sense the standard format is a train schedule; a hangover from the 19th century novel in which everything proceeds in order. This is the world of the dead on arrival, encyclopedia style of Flaubert, about whom Sartre said, his sentences crush the life from their subject and each detail, thus recorded is stricken off the inventory.
Speaking of and to the landscape of this lost aesthetic, Italo Calvino says:
“…the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.”
Reactionaries demand a return to this era and are dismayed at its demise. It survives however in several places – in reactionary novels by the likes of the late Tom Wolfe and the zombie-esque Jonathan Franzen, and in romance novels, and in many alternative world epics that owe their allegiance to Tolkien and despite the use of magic, retain the linear structure of a+b=c.
And of course the form remains the dominant aesthetic in biographies.
As a result, at one end of the spectrum we have the morbidly obese Hemingway Biography Industry, in which “Hemingway” becomes a kind of imitation of the genuine article, utilizing all the facts and yet so detailed as to paradoxically provide no sense of the truth.
Or at the other end of the spectrum biographies of Camus, which are essentially all the same and as with Hemingway – if on a slightly smaller scale – present the facts and miss the truth.
The distinction being not that the facts presented are in anyway false, but that what goes missing is the essence of the subject; the qualia that make the art an electrified third rail in which certainty is splashed against the canvas of consciousness.
Thus, in the case of Camus, we offer the following: Asked to more or less direct Picasso’s surrealist play, Desire Caught by the Tail, Camus, at what we call (provisionally) The Theater of the Occupation, becomes provisionally, the central act of his life.
This is the Occupation. This is Picasso and therefore this is
N and fascism in that the exit i(s) by definition also the entrance. Disorder and chaos are systems of logic within the soul crushing certainties of the Occupation. Sarte and de Bouvoir play different roles. Picasso’s dog play the role of Picasso’s dog to perfection. In other roles are, Michel Leris, Raymond Queneau, and Valentin Hugo. The photo of the evening was taken by Brassai. In the audience are, Georges Braque, Henri Michaux, and Maria Casares.
Outside, history steals the night. The night is robbed of its gentleness, its seductions; the scarf that throws stars around your neck in a gesture of romantic elegance.
What is the meaning of this?
After the liberation, Hemingway arrives at Picasso’s studio on the Rue Grand Augustins and finds that Pablo is not home. The maid says she will deliver a note and Hemingway writes a brief greeting and places it on top of a crate of handgrenades.
Later, Camus travels to New York.
The universe is vast. So is Manhattan.
Camus in New York.
What does this mean?
There are so many trees and observes Camus, doormen in the uniform of comic operas.
Camus falls in love. He coughs blood. He speaks to students at Bryn Mar. Asked if he is an Existentialist, he says, no. His FBI file expands. He returns to France.
France returns to Camus.
What does this mean?
We must learn again, to ask questions not in order to reach a conclusion, but instead to return to our souls a sense of wonder, at not knowing the answer to become again
*For a previous and related examination of this topic see the following:
A biographical note on standard biographies.
Camus was a notorious serial philanderer. He was married and had children and numerous affairs though the most serious and longest was with Maria Casares. Simone de Beauvoir is, depending upon the source, said to have considered an affair with him but instead, among her other companions, she went with Arthur Koestler and Nelson Algren. And of course there was Sartre and he in turn maintained a string of other relationships and then there was Picasso who lived as a kind of Pasha with a rotating harem.
In his perfectly useful biography of Camus, Oliver Todd expends a fair amount of effort trying to explain Camus’ extra curricular activities. As Todd is a sober minded writer and the biography is a sober minded account the language is about what one should expect.
As a result nothing Todd says is wrong exactly, but what goes missing is the truth – Camus enjoyed sex and enjoyed women. He enjoyed seducing them and fucking is fun and seduction is enjoyable.
Additionally, and barely touched upon by Todd is that the war and the Occupation were aphrodisiacs. Morality was both eliminated and heightened by the Occupation releasing everyone from pre war requirements while enforcing them.
But what matters is that the subject – sex – has been captured by a kind of scientist and as a result it is as useful as attempting seduction, based on the details of an anatomy textbook.
Camus being Camus in Paris chasing pussy in one of the great cities of the world, all electric slow liquid drops of rain exploding in some sort of Neruda-esque fusion of history and myth, and the exquisite impossible reality of a world unmade and returning to itself from a fever dream; how shall we speak of this except with anguished cries and rude laughter, released from the dull, dead on arrival facts repeated as a catechism, as if fucking was a question of geometry.