Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Biography: The Devilish Art

The schmick new Meanjin, edited by Sally Heath, is now out.

I've yet to read it all, but I've already enjoyed a characteristically punchy essay by Maria Tumarkin, 'Stories Without Borders'.  And Susan Fealy's poem 'Two Voices', riffing off Baudelaire, is a corker.

There's also a conversation between Tim Flannery and Annie Proulx I want to read, alongside 'The Higher, The Fewer', a poem by Mal McKimmie. (Anything beginning with 'Yes, the bees are leaving,' has my attention.)  Ben Pobjie's essay on comedy looks seriously good, too, as does Jane Sullivan's piece on translation.

I also have an essay in this edition, 'The Devilish Art', which probes the philosophical value of biography.  What can we learn from lives?  A sample:
When read intelligently and imaginatively, biography is vital for thought. And this is ‘vital’ in the original sense of the word: concerned with the stuff of life. It achieves this, not because it replaces philosophical analysis, but because it reveals the conditions in which thought flourishes or wanes. At its best, biography exposes the ties between psychology, society and cognition – the forces that enhance and inhibit the flourishing of ideas in everyday living. It teaches us what ideas look like when they’re most alive. 
Take the notion of freedom in Spinoza’s work. With his geometric, mathematical method, the great Dutch philosopher’s liberty seems mechanical and lifeless; a schematic of liberty, but not liberty embodied. But in biographies of Spinoza, we confront genuine freedom – not purely cognitive or logical, but incarnated in a crucial decision: to refuse employment in Heidelberg University. He gave up ‘a life worthy of a philosopher’, with all its prestige and economic stability, in favour of lens-grinding. ‘You see, distinguished Sir,’ he wrote to the Professor who offered him the position, ‘that I am not holding back in the hope of getting something better, but through my love of quietness, which I think I can in some measure secure, if I keep away from lecturing in public.’ This guaranteed him the peace-of-mind and freedom of movement he desired, and which allowed him to write his esteemed works. He chose his own laws – his own ‘necessity’ – over the seductive distractions of salaried life.

The result was genuine philosophy, but it was also illness and death: Spinoza died from tuberculosis not long after refusing the Heidelberg job, his condition no doubt worsened by the glass dust he inhaled every day. His freedom was entangled with quite ordinary physiological and economic constraints; the price of liberty was, quite literally, his life. This isn’t freedom preserved as a pure, logical concept, but realised in the painful, compromising, even embarrassing, choices of professional life.

For philosophers, this is more than a consoling anecdote – it offers a test of sorts. It asks: Does your ideal of freedom allow for these banal but vital decisions, or does it dismiss them as irrelevant or ‘worldly’? It provides a touchstone for so many metaphysical phantoms and, in doing so, it enhances the business of thought. This is what Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘The Art of Biography’, called ‘that high degree of tension which gives us reality’. For Woolf, fiction was the supreme imaginative act, which conjured up a vivid world. But only the finest writers were capable of this, whereas any accomplished biographer could produce a world of inspiring, revivifying facts. The biographer, wrote Woolf, ‘can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.’

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