Monday, September 14, 2015

`The Larger View of His Subject's Grandeur'

A three-way pleasure: a gifted biographer writes about the greatest of all biographies, which in turn is devoted to the man who pioneered the form in English. That is, Joseph Epstein on James Boswell on Samuel Johnson. Regardless of his chosen form – stories, essays, book-length lives or anatomies – Epstein sooner or later gets around to biography, which prompts a thought: Perhaps all imaginative writing, everything short of computer manuals, is biography. Our species is obsessively interested in others of our kind, whether in the form of gossip (the subject of an Epstein volume) or Daniel Deronda. Why is this the case? Here is a possible partial explanation: When reading the life of another, we remain alert to what we share with him and how we differ. An analogous process is underway during the exploratory phase of a friendship or even romantic love. We recognize the essential humanity and mundane commonalities, while acknowledging the alien qualities that define every individual. Learning about another is a reliable way to learn about ourselves.                                                            

This seems especially true of Dr. Johnson, a genius who is like everyone else only more so. He is human to the nth degree, a representative human, whereas Shakespeare and Dante might as well be science fiction, defying everything we know about ourselves. Here is Epstein on the Life of Johnson: “Boswell set out to write a full portrait of the great man in all his weaknesses, failings, faults and oddities, of which Johnson offered a rich smorgasbord. He did so, however, only against the larger view of his subject’s grandeur.” In other words, the warts-and-all approach is not an end in itself. It doesn’t aim at bringing down the mighty. Johnson’s depression and occasional ferociousness heighten our respect for his accomplishments, his compassion, learning, generosity and sense of humor. Boswell isn’t trading in sensationalism; he is celebrating the potential possessed by every man and woman to transcend mere inheritance and environment. 

One hears the familiar complaint that we learn nothing about the work of a writer by reading his biography. I can’t argue with that, in most cases. I learn nothing useful about A Dance to the Music of Time if I treat it as a roman à clef and decrypt the identities of Powell’s real-life models for his characters. But then again, I’ve never read the biography of a writer in order to better appreciate or understand what he has written. Rather, I’m naturally interested in learning about a sensibility capable of creating books that earned my attention for a day, a week or a month, just as I would want to know more about anyone else who gave me a splendid gift.

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