Saturday, May 11, 2024


I've been reading biographies for a while now and thought I'd write a little about their inconsistencies. On average, I still think that a good biography is likely to be better than a good memoir, mainly because biographers usually attempt to impose some standard of objectivity on their work, whereas memoirists may tend to distort facts either through a lack of knowledge or intentional deception. To some extent, biographers can become academic specialists who follow disciplined procedures for discussing the details of a person's life. In contrast, a memoirist may set the bar much lower, literally writing off the top of his or her head without resorting to fact-checking or exploring alternate explanations. In my case, I may occasionally prefer a well-written memoir to a poorly written biography, mainly for aesthetic reasons, but generally I think that a biography, if it isn't hagiographic, is more likely to be accurate and complete.

While the bar may be set very low for memoirs, it may also be quite low for biographies. In both cases, the expectations of the publisher can place an upper limit on quality. If a book is a bestseller, readers like me are likely to find it deficient. For example, I don't think I'll ever read a book by or about Prince Harry or Britney Spears. Most of the ones I read aren't popular at all. For example, the one I just read on Carson McCullers, which I thought was good, was nowhere near becoming a bestseller. I should also mention that reviews are often poor indicators of the quality of a book. A review tends to have more to do with the group an author is associated with and the group the reviewer is associated with, and objectivity and thoroughness are often secondary requirements. Also, the time constraints for writing a review often result in inadequate analyses. I saw some awful reviews of Determined, by Robert Sapolsky, which I think were based on out-group rejection of Sapolsky's worldview, though I think Sapolsky is on the right track. Reviews are rarely taken seriously, so the standards are generally quite low for their credibility.

As my biographical reading increases, I am on the lookout for the strengths and weaknesses of the biographer and particularly which biases a biographer may harbor. For example, while I enjoyed Maurice Cranston's biography of Rousseau, because he writes well, I think that he adored Rousseau and refrained from critiquing his behavior adequately. For me, there was an inadequate analysis of Rousseau's social interactions, and I gradually pieced together a better picture by reading separately about Mme. de Warens, Diderot, Thérèse Levasseur, Sophie d'Houdetot and Voltaire. This isn't entirely Cranston's fault, because he was by nature conservative and wrote before psychological characteristics appeared regularly in biographies. I think that biographies have generally become more psychologically nuanced only in the last few years. For example, the standard biography for George Eliot for many years, by Gordon Haight, which was published in 1968, is pretty awful compared to some of the more recent ones.

I am also beginning to notice more subtle prejudices in biographers that aren't always readily apparent. I read Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk, when it was originally published in 1990. It is a favorable portrayal, and because I was a Wittgenstein fan at the time, I liked it. In the intervening years, my opinion of Wittgenstein has generally declined, and, from a biographical perspective, that biography completely misses the boat in terms of psychological analysis. More recently, I read Monk's two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. While I think that Monk generally gave more credit to Russell for his work in mathematical logic than he actually deserved, he was merciless in his revelations about Russell's personal life. It would be difficult to think positively about Russell after reading those books. From what I've read since then, Monk does not appear to be what I would consider neutral on Wittgenstein and Russell. In Monk's account of Wittgenstein, he is an eccentric genius and the greatest philosopher of his century. Russell, on the other hand, is presented as a forerunner to Alan Turing, whose works led to modern computers. It may be that Turing was integral to the development of modern computers, but I don't think that Monk established a convincing connection between Turing and Russell. The feeling I had after reading the Russell biography was that he was really creepy and made no significant intellectual contributions. Separately, I now think that Monk got Wittgenstein wrong, and, because he favored Wittgenstein, that biography is sanitized. After Russell and Wittgenstein broke permanently in the 1920's, Wittgenstein developed a cult following in Cambridge and Russell left academia almost entirely. I have recently been trying to piece together why Wittgenstein became so popular. It would appear that many philosophers, later including Monk, came to dislike "scientism." While Russell had no scientific credentials, he was firmly on the science bandwagon. I now think that Wittgenstein appealed to some students because he was open to mysticism, religion and the arts far more than the analytic philosophers then popular in England and Vienna.

In Monk's biography of Russell, the word "schizophrenia" comes up repeatedly. Monk shows the progression of schizophrenia in five generations of Russell's family. In contrast, I think that the Wittgenstein biography barely scratches the surface on his personality. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wittgenstein was almost definitely on the autism spectrum. He did manage to attract a few followers (also with ASD?), but many people disliked him. Freeman Dyson thought poorly of him, and he frequently alienated people. Wittgenstein's sexuality isn't really cleared up by Monk either. While I don't follow current philosophical discourse, I think that Wittgenstein has probably disappeared into academic obscurity. The same happened to Russell, but, in his case, Monk goes to great trouble to document it. I can't really blame Monk for having prejudices – they are a fact of life – but it is still worth pointing out how they can skew biographical works. It is also worth noting that the Wittgenstein biography was Monk's first – a labor of love – but, by the time he got around to Russell, he was a professional biographer.

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