There’s an interesting conversation ping-ponging back and forth right now between Books and Bicycles and The Reading Experience on the utility of biography in analyzing and understanding the works of an author. This discussion is not new. It was famously undertaken, albeit posthumously, by Sainte-Beuve and Proust. Here’s a glimpse at what the debate looked like 100 odd years ago. It plays nicely into what Dorothy and Dan, and all the various comment contributors have been saying during the past several days.
First Sainte-Beauve, from his Selected Essays (Anchor, Doubleday, 1963), written in the 1890s:
"I may enjoy a work, but it is hard for me to judge it independently of my knowledge of the man who produced in, and I am inclined to say, tel arbre, tel fruit –the fruit is like the tree. Thus the study of literature leads me naturally to the study of human nature."
"It is very useful to begin at the beginning and, whenever possible, to place the superior or distinguished writer in his own country, among his own people. If we knew his lineage thoroughly, physiologically speaking, including his remoter ancestors, we should gain much light on the essential hidden quality of his mind, but these deeper roots most often remain obscure and elusive. Whenever they do not escape us completely, we gain a great deal by observing them. "
We surely recognize the superior man, at least in part, in his parents, especially in his mother, the more immediate and more certain parent; also in his sisters, in his brothers, even in his children."
"Once we have learned as much as possible about the origins of an eminent writer, his parents and nearest relatives, an essential point to be determined, after examining his education and studies, is his first milieu, the group of friends and contemporaries among whom he was living when his talent first manifested itself, took shape, and matured. Whatever his subsequent achievements, he will always show the influence of this early group."
"…in order to gain insight into a talent it is useful to determine the first poetic or critical center in which he was formed, the natural literary group to which he belongs, and to relate him to it exactly. That will supply the true date of his beginnings."
"Every work of an author seen in this way, after it has been situated in its framework and studied in the light of all the circumstances that attended its birth, takes on its full meaning – historical and literary – and discloses its true degree of originality, novelty, or imitation; and in judging it we do not run the risk of admiring it for qualities it does not possess, of missing the mark, as is inevitable when we are guided solely by rhetorical considerations. This is not to imply that I reject rhetoric entirely, nor do I exclude judgments based on taste, on sharp, immediate impressions. I do not denounce Quintilian, I merely assign him his proper place."
"Criticism based on a first reading, on first impressions, will always be important, as well as the opinions of the fashionable and academic criticism. Such passion for thoroughness, as all this implies, is no cause for alarm: there are times and places for it, as well as times and places where it would be inappropriate."
"However, analysis involves a kind of emotion, too; indeed, one might say that it has an eloquence of its own and even a poetic quality. Those who know a writer of talent and appreciate him only when he has been fully developed, or in his last works, who did not see him in his youth, at the moment when he first took wing, will never form a complete and natural idea of him, the only living kind."
"Nothing gives us as good an idea of a man’s range and elevation as to see what antagonist, what rival, he chose at an early date. One serves as measure of the other. Calpe is as high as Abyla."
"What were his religious ideas? How was he affected by the spectacle of nature? How did he behave toward women? What was his attitude toward money? Was he rich, poor? What was his routine, his daily life? Finally, what was his vice or weakness? Every man has one. None of these questions is immaterial when it comes to judging the author of a book or the book itself (unless it is a treatise of pure geometry) –above all, if it is a literary work, for no aspect of human life is alien to literature."
"Superior minds tend to put their seal on the corner of every page they write; others seem to use a mold, into which everything they do falls indiscriminately, over and over again. Up to a certain point it is possible to study talents through their descendants, their disciples and natural admirers."
"If it is right to judge a talent by his friends and natural followers, it is no less legitimate to verify one’s judgment by the enemies he makes without intending to, those who are antipathetic to him or those who instinctively cannot suffer him."
These are passages that Proust targets in his Contre Sainte-Beuve, written exactly 100 years ago. The truth is, according to the editors of this volume at least, these considerations play a subordinate role in Sainte-Beuve’s criticism, serving mainly to confirm or illustrate insights obtained from a close study of the works themselves.
Proust disagrees. No subordinate role, he says:
"To have written the natural history of minds, to have looked to the biography of the man, to the history of the family, to all his peculiarities for an understanding of his work and the nature of his genius, that is what everyone recognizes to have been his originality, and what he recognized himself, in which moreover he was right."
"But in art there are no initiators or precursors (at least in the scientific sense). Everything is in the individual, each individual starts the artistic or literary endeavour over again, on his own account; the works of his predecessors do not constitute, unlike a science, an acquired truth for which he who follows after may profit. A writer of genius today has everything to do. He is not much further advanced than Homer."
"Sainte Beuve’s is not a profound oeuvre. [His]…method fails to recognize what any more than merely superficial acquaintance with ourselves teaches us: that a book is the product of a self other than that which we display in our habits, in company, in our vices. If we want to try and understand this self, it is deep inside us, by trying to recreate it within us, that we may succeed. This is an effort of the heart from which nothing can absolve us. IT is a truth every bit of which we have to create and…It is too easy to suppose that it will arrive one fine morning among our mail, in the form of an unpublished letter imparted to us by a librarian friend, or that we shall gather it from the lips of someone who knew the author well."
"At no time does Sainte-Beuve seem to have grasped what is peculiar to inspiration or the activity of writing, and what marks it off totally from the occupations of other men and the other occupations of the writer. He drew no dividing line between the occupation of writing, in which, in solitude and suppressing those words which belong as much to others as to ourselves, and with which, even when alone, we judge things without being ourselves, we come face to face once more with ourselves, and seek to hear and to render the true sound of our hearts – and conversation! ‘Writing…’
"…he continued not to understand the unique, enclosed world, incommunicado with the outside, which is the soul of the poet. He believed that others could offer it advice, could excite or repress it…"
"…in order to understand the poet or writer, in questioning avidly those who knew him, who frequented him, who may be able to tell us how he behaved in the matter of women, etc., that is, on all those very points where the poet’s true self is not involved."
Proust goes on to conclude his essay saying that all of Sainte-Beuve’s ‘vast, marvelous, ebullient oeuvre as a critic’ amounts to nothing. "Mere appearance…" That all he’ll be remembered for is a handful of poems.
Based on what we have here, what I know of Proust’s life, and my experience reading Holmes and Coleridge, Marchand and Byron, Ellmann and Joyce, Steegmuller and Flaubert, for example, I’m with Sainte-Beuve. Knowing about Coleridge’s life struggles, his politics, his relationship with women (and I’m relying on the accuracy of Holmes’ research), knowing Coleridge this way, enriched my experience of his work, influenced the way I understood it, and increased my appreciation and enjoyment of it. The text remains the same. Its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same, what changes is my reception of them. Because of the biographical information additional layers of interpretation open themselves up to me. Because of the new tenderness I feel for the man, my reading is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn’t replace close reading, it augments it.
Text and the social life of the author may never touch in Proust’s cork-lined world, but they do, I’d say, in the normal, communal one in which most authors and people live. It seems to me that the more facts one can solicit in the search for truth, the better one’s chances are of finding it.