On the Desire for Future Biographers
I sometimes imagine my life from the point of view of a future biographer. For instance, concerning the months my parents and I were living in India in 1961, I imagine something like the following:
“From an early age he showed sensitivity towards the miserable and downtrodden. This was dramatically evident in an incident involving the ‘untouchable’ Natu, the household ‘sweeper.’ One morning the child, in front of Natu, took his mop and began to clean the floor with it. The intention was apparently to show solidarity with the sweeper. But Natu, appalled at this transgression of caste boundaries, or perhaps simply afraid that his job was being taken away from him, grabbed back the mop, and the seven-year-old burst into tears. He was often afraid of—and even, it seems, ashamed before—the beggars that were a common sight on the streets of New Delhi, hiding his eyes from them when they would approach the family’s car stopped at a light. But there could also be occasional shows of cruelty, as when he spent an entire afternoon decapitating ants in the driveway, or when he would pull on the restraining leash of ‘Tiger,’ the worm-ridden Alsatian that the family’s rental agent, Mr. Singh, had procured for him after endless entreaties to his parents….”
However, this is misleading, because when the “biographizing impulse” strikes me, it is never in full sentences—or any kind of sentences, for that matter. It comes as a momentary consciousness, the wish for a biographically-shaped pattern guiding the shapeless here-and-now of my daily experience. An awareness that this life—the rainy-day train ride into New York City, for lunch with an old girlfriend; the prolonged Instant Messenger flirtation with same, which went on for three years, which my wife found out about, and which caused her pain, anger and humiliation—a sense that my life, in its daily delinquencies and partial fulfillments, may have a larger meaning and unity, which remain elusive to me, but will not prove so to my future biographer.
I know what you are probably thinking, and yes, there is surely some grandiosity in all of this. But let us make a distinction here. The desire for future biographers is less grandiose than the desire for, say, present biographers. The kind of biographers (they are really no more than intrusive personal reporters) who might hang around the house, watch you make breakfast, follow you to work, to the market, etc. I don’t want those kinds of biographers. I try to imagine them as little as possible. (Though sometimes I just can’t help it.) When the thought of present biographers comes to me, I nip it in the bud, and tell myself—in the words of Waymarsh to Strether in The Ambassadors—to just “stop it.”
(Speaking of Henry James, how nice it would be to have a Leon Edel as a future biographer! How alluring are the titles of the separate volumes of his magisterial biography, especially to those of us prone to such fantasies: “The Untried Years,” “The Middle Years,” “The Treacherous Years”—and finally, as if inevitably, “The Master.” To know that your life can be said to have had such a thing as “untried years,” “middle years,” “treacherous years”—culminating in the triumph of being “The Master”—how cool is that? Ah, the gratification, the posthumous gratification of it all! I realize, of course, that there can be no such thing as “posthumous gratification,” because when you are posthumous, you are in no position to be gratified by anything. But to imagine future biographers while you are still alive—is that not already to be living, as Keats put it, a “posthumous life”? And in a posthumous life, can there not be such a thing as posthumous gratification? Grant me then this day, O future biographers, my posthumous gratification!)
The idea behind the wish for future biographers is really quite simple, and perhaps more common than supposed. It is merely this: that someday, someone will care enough to ascertain how it all fits together. The task is beyond me, but I have seen it done many times before, in the literary biographies that I read. This doesn’t mean that I still hold hopes of becoming a famous writer. Those days are over; I know better. This isn’t about fame, or riches, or greatness. It’s about understanding. Understanding and forgiveness. And vindication. Understanding, forgiveness, and vindication. And the greatest of these is vindication.
Future biographers, you see, get it. They understand; they forgive their subject his trespasses; they set the record straight. They see pattern and sense where the subject seemed to live only muddle. They are wise and knowledgeable in the ways of one’s life. They discover purpose and meaning in it. That is their job—and they are better at it than shrinks. Because while shrinks might very well understand, they tend also to condemn—tacitly, subtly—ever so subtly—to condemn. Even the most understanding of shrinks—mine, for instance—tacitly condemns. They are in a superior position to us, at least for the duration of the therapy, and it is their job to whip us into shape. I read this as an implied condemnation, however well-intentioned. Paranoid? Maybe; then again, even paranoids have real shrinks! They need them as much as the rest of us. (More, actually.)
Future biographers, on the other hand, never tacitly condemn. Though they may, indeed they must, criticize judiciously. That’s very important in the matter of future biographers—their judiciousness. A balanced assessment of motive and action is something most of us aren’t normally accorded in our daily lives; which is another reason it is so important to enjoy it through our future biographers. It is their job to bring an informed understanding and forgiveness to the study of our lives. That’s what makes them good biographers. Needless to say, I don’t want bad biographers. Who does? Bad biographers can do a whole lot of damage. They can really screw things up. Bad biographers understand nothing, and so are in no position to grant forgiveness, let alone vindication. Give me good biographers, or give me … no biographers at all. Actually, that’s not true. I’d be willing to settle for a mediocre first biographer; but he or she must then be followed by a distinguished second biographer (preferably, Leon Edel) to set the record straight and vindicate me.
Because remember: of the three most important things a future biographer can give you—understanding, forgiveness and vindication—the greatest of these is vindication. When, through the unstinting efforts of our future biographer, our true, underlying motives are seen for what they were, and understood, and we are forgiven our trespasses, our lives will have been vindicated. (The future perfect tense, by the way, is the preferred tense of future biography. It is the tense of anticipated completion, of a promise already fulfilled, of the already-done deal. And who of us does not secretly wish for the already-done deal?) We will be found to have been living, all along, lives with a structure and purpose, lives that made sense. Our decisions will be shown to have been the right ones: made in the context of principles and patterns we could not possibly have envisioned at the time, but that our future biographers can now discern and lay out clearly, dispassionately, judiciously, in the wisdom of biographical hindsight. Our lives, apprehended now in full, at last, through understanding eyes, and in the light of biographical truth, will not have gone unappreciated by those who really know.