BOOKS AND THE CULTURE TO OVERCOME WITH TRUTH By Craig Clifford Stephenville IN 1982 THE Texas Committee for the Humanities devoted the Texas Lecture and Institute to the study of biography. The Biographer’s Gift is a record of that gathering, including three major papers, responses to the keynote address, and transcripts of interviews with four of the five biographers who were among the participants. Frank Vandiver, the 1982 Texas Lecturer on the Humanities, delivered the keynote address, “Biography as an Agent of Humanism,” providing the central focus of the entire conference. Vandiver argues persuasively that the goal of the biographer still remains “to evoke from the past the essence of the subject, the character that quickened blood and bone.” It is clear from Vandiver’s paper, and from much of the discussion, that one of the chief concerns of present-day biographers is the influence of the behavioral sciences and especially of psychoanalytic theory on the art of biography. Although the consensus here was against reductive Freudianism and in favor of broadlyconceived humanistic and artistic approaches, Freudianism seems to be one of the monkeys biographers today have to get off of their backs. Speaking of the Freudian monkey, the most disappointing ‘paper in the collection, to my mind, is Steven Weiland’s “The Humanities, the Professions, the Uses of Biography” disappointing because it starts off well, raises difficult questions, but then ends with an example that seems too specialized to cast a light upon the broader questions. Weiland begins his discussion of the relation between the humanities and the professions by quoting Yeats’s remark about choosing Craig Clifford is a frequent Observer contributor, who teaches at Tarleton State College in Stephenville. THE BIOGRAPHER’S GIFT: LIFE HISTORIES AND HUMANISM. Edited by James F. Veninga. Published for the Texas Committee for the Humanities by Texas A&M Press, College Station, 1983. $11.50. between the perfection of life and the perfection of work; he ends by discussing whether a biography of Freud should be Freudian. Weiland points out that. most biographers of Freud have managed to avoid a reductive psychoanalytic approach, and he offers the biographies of Freud as examples of one of the “uses” of biography namely; the elucidation of a profession through a humanistic biography of one of its major practitioners.. Frankly, though, I’m afraid that the sort of fascinating paradox which is generated by a biography of Freud tends to seduce us away from, rather than lead us into, the more fundamental questions about biography. Part of the problem stems from the TCH decision to focus the conference, at least in part, on the uses of biography. If biography is, as Vandiver argues, a genuine art form, it might well be deeply purposeful but supremely useless. Art discloses, reveals it uses us and, if it is great, it overcomes us with its truth but it is not a tool. I suspect that in the case of a great biography the notion of uses is as out of place as it is in the case of a great poem. What is at stake in the art of biography is the understanding of the self. The biographer’s acceptance or rejection of Freudianism, of humanistic or scientific accounts of the human personality, a belief that biography is or is not an art form, the acceptance or rejection of empathy between biographer and subject these commitments imply, or perhaps depend on, commitments towards fundamentally different views of the self. James F. Veninga’s paper, “Biography: The Self and the Sacred Canopy,” does wander through a bit of quasi-existentialist philosophizing on this subject, and I wouldn’t mind a more pointedly philosophical essay from Veninga on the question of the self. What is perhaps most interesting about this ‘particular gathering of individuals, though, is not the sophistication or depth of the philosophical conclusions, but the testimonies .that all five of the biographers give to the compelling force with which the humanity of their subjects overcame them. The humanistic side of biography emerges not so much from the theorizing as it does from the relation of biographer and subject, which the biographer experiences in the act of writing. All in all, judging The Biographer’s Gift: Life Histories and Humanism as an autonomous book, I am not convinced that it carries quite the weight that one would expect from such a lofty title. The book is, however, a good record of a conference that appears to have been worth attending and that is, of course, just what it purports to be. One century’s idiocy is another cen tury’s wisdom. An aged philosopher Idion applies “crazy wisdom” to our modern problems in THUS SPAKE IDION Afterword by Mark Adams “The wisdom of the classicist and the inelegant.” Franklin Jones, Sr. “Pithy observations from a first-rate thinker.” John Henry Faulk “Reading it will do your heart, soul, and mind good.” Herman Wright PACKRAT PRESS 4366 N. Diana, Oak Harbor, Wa 98277 6.95 paper, 10.95 troth 0 2.00 shipping THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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