An iron law of literary history

In early 19th century France, drinking from human skulls was regarded as eccentric

Petrus Borel the Lycanthrope

Enid Starkie, Petrus Borel, New Directions, 1954

The pioneer French avant-gardeist Petrus Borel (fl. 1830-1840) was noted for his extravagant attitudes and behavior and his violently republican political beliefs. His bitter, cynical fiction sold poorly, and before he abandoned writing he lived for a considerable time in real poverty.  By and large his writings have been forgotten, and he is generally regarded as having been important as a personage, and perhaps as an influence, but not as a writer.  (On this more later;  I have some books on order and wonder whether Borel might not be due for a revival.)

Enid Starkie, by contrast, is an Anglo-Irishwoman* of good family who spent her life going from success to success and who played a major role in introducing such authors as Rimbaud to English-language readers. Her biography of Borel is good for what it is, and it also can serve as a literary history of the time. She does not have the carefulness of contemporary biographers and occasionally takes stories too much at face value, but that’s more than made up for by the good anecdotes she passes along as a consequence of that.

The problem with Starkie is this: like every other biographer of a starving artist I’ve ever read, from time to time Starkie feels compelled to kibitz , or to wonder why Borel did the things he did, or to suggest maybe he was partly at fault for his difficulties, or to suggest other ways he could have gone at things. Borel is not the best case to make my point, since the value of his work is uncertain, but I have also seen similar attitudes taken toward artists like Musorgsky, Satie, and Nerval whose merit is unquestioned.

Subject to correction, I would like to generalize this into a law. There are no starving or avant-garde biographers. The biographers of starving artists will always have more common sense and be much more comfortably situated than their biographees, and in every case some degree of condescension must slip into their work. Readers are invited to suggest counterexamples.

As a corrective principle I’d like to propose that if the person you’re writing the biography of has been dead for a century or more, they should (except for idiot kings, mass murderers, etc.) be assumed to deserve a considerable degree of respect; whereas the same is not necessarily true of biographers.

* Along with Joanna Richardson’s The Bohemians and Pamela Pilbeam’s The 1830 Revolution in France, Starkie’s book has also led me to suspect that well-born Englishwomen, however hyphenated, are not the best choices for writing about Frenchpersons of any description.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 1:51 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. Satie’s merit is hardly unquestioned. But we can flip the praise and say it’s widely accepted, and your point stands.

  2. I’d be curious to know who questioned it. No one is required to like Satie, but it would be hard to argue that his work doesn’t have merit.

  3. “Life of Savage.” Biography of a starving writer by another starving writer. But perhaps the exception proves the rule.

  4. Dr. Johnson’s Life of Savage.

    Unfortunately, iron laws admit no exceptions. This may be an instance of Popperian refutation. Fortunately I’m an empirical scientist and am concerned only for Truth. So what if my philosophy of science is obsolete?

  5. My preliminary conclusion is that Johnson was impoverished but not starving, and thus was more comfortably situated than Savage. Starving artists in Paris really literally starved, though what they died of seemed mostly to be TB.

    I’m up to #50 in the Savage bio, and there’s been no condescension in his portrait of Savage, except that so far Savage is mostly treated as a victim of fate and we learn much more about his evil mother than about him. More to follow.

  6. Ending of Johnson’s Life of Savage

    [344] Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will any wise man presume to say, ‘Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.’

    [345] This relation will not be wholly without its use if those who languish under any part of his sufferings shall be enabled to fortify their patience by reflecting that they feel only those afflictions from which the abilities of Savage did not exempt him; or those who, in confidence of superior capacities or attainments, disregard the common maxims of life, shall be reminded that nothing will supply the want of prudence, and that negligence and irregularity long continued will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible.

    Johnson is about as fair as one could hope, and thus converts my iron law into an ordinary social-science law riddled with exceptions.

  7. […] further development of the previous post. At some point I will join the two posts into […]

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