Biography – a short history

Plutarch, the most famous biographer of antiquity, in parallel life Before recounting the life of Alexander the Great, he is careful not to say that he does not write a story, but a biography: for here we do not write history, but rather tell the lives of some people, and then virtue or defect is not. It is always seen in the brightest of works, but often a trifle, a word, a joke, some revealing the nature of a man better than battles in which tens of thousands of soldiers fall.”

That is why the ancient Greeks distinguished between history and biography. The first, the most rigorous, presents the political and military realities as it happened. Historians must be serious and provide only information that can be substantiated by reliable documentary evidence. For example, avoid Thucydides in Peloponnesian War No biographical reference to the characters involved, although he took an active part in the great confrontation of the Greek world.

The biography had to meet a different demand: to show from a moral perspective who the great people were, to highlight their character, to bring them praise or criticism. Agesilaus And Cyropedia The first biographical texts of Xenophon (4th century BC) revolve around the life of the Spartan king Agassilus II and the Persian king Cyrus the Great, in which the author mixes reality and fiction. The distinction between the historian’s approach and that of the biographer lies precisely in the greater freedom afforded to the latter. A biographer can delve into aspects of anecdotal and private life, can make moral judgments and choose facts, choosing important facts in a character’s psychological scheme.

The manner of writing about a person’s life and autobiographical practices varies from one historical era to another, depending on different social, cultural, and religious contexts. In the Middle Ages, the biography of the saints was a favorite subject. Christian authors took the model of the ancient biography, adapting it to ecclesiastical discourse on the virtues, deeds and miraculous manifestations of the saints. This exemplary canonical life in the Middle Ages was intended to build the faithful religiously.

Renaissance scholars are discovering long-forgotten ancient classics. The books of Plutarch and Suetonius became a source of inspiration for biographies by human rights advocates. In the About brilliant men (1337), Petrarca tells of the lives of some famous Romans, from Romulus to Trajan, and Boccaccio contributes to the revival of the biographical genre through writing Dante’s life (1362). In 1550, Giorgio Vasari published his first major autobiographical works: Lives of Painters, Sculptors, and Architectswhich was a successful writing, a model that has been imitated throughout the West.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the lives of writers, writers and philosophers began to become more and more the subject of biographical explorations. In its infancy, the modern novel adopts the same biographical model that tells the lives of heroes (Mariana’s life from Marivaux, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding or Pamela by Samuel Richardson). Autobiographical writings reflect the individual’s new position in society and the significant changes that have taken place in terms of collective sensibilities. Biographies also focus on the subjects’ childhood – a neglected period in the past – and pay close attention to aspects of privacy.

John Boswell embodies the romantic vision of the autobiography with the antique life of samuel johnson (1791), the first modern autobiography, is considered a model for the subsequent development of the genre. In addition to long conversations (for 11 years) with the writer Samuel Johnson, the biographer used various sources: correspondence, diaries and the press of that time. To write the life of the Trappist De Rancé monk, Chateaubriand searches for his correspondence and visits the places where he lived.

An autobiographical letter for writers is subject to an examination of the relationships between their lives and their work. Sainte-Beuve, one of the founders of modern literary criticism, suggests the famous “autobiographical method”: to pursue the relationship between an author’s life and the aesthetic and objective choices in his work. The autobiography is placed at the heart of the new vision of literature.

The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next was a “golden age” for biography. Although it has been a preferred genre of historians, they have a monopoly not only on the practice of biography, as it is practiced by literary critics, historians and art historians, but also by journalists. Rigorous academic resumes coexist with gruesome resumes, intended for a wider audience. They borrow the literary techniques of the novel and make use of fictional elements.

Between the cultured and documented pole and the mundane romantic pole, there are a variety of processes and contaminations. The fluidity of frontiers has made the biographical genre viewed with suspicion, hybrid and impure. The assault on autobiography, which began with positivist historiography, was continued by the “new history” promoted by the School of I’m not , which emphasized the ‘long run’, the collective dimension, and the role of impersonal forces in the historical process. Until the 1980s, autobiography was considered a sub-genre and became a marginal practice, not only in historiography, but also in literary studies (due to the burgeoning structuralist fashion). When the “author’s death” (Roland Barthes) is announced, the attention to biographical detail can only wane.

The radical challenge comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who talks about it Biography illusion (1986), considering autobiography an “artifact”, an “artificial invention of meaning”, a retrospective intellectual construct by which biographers attempt to give meaning to a person’s life, meaning they never had. For Bourdieu, the life lived by man is polymorphic, discontinuous, contextual and cannot be seen as a single upward path.

However, the inspiring Cleo turned her face to the biographical genre by following the steps initiated by exact history – a trend in Italian historiography, which returns the individual to the center of historical research. Carlo Ginsburg cares about the life of an Italian miller (Cheese and worms. The mill world of the sixteenth century, 1976; cruiser. ROM. 1997), and Giovanni Levi, priest of a small country (Intangible heritage. The profession of an exorcist in the seventeenth century Piedmont,1985). The miller and the priest were ordinary people, who played no part in the “Great History”, but whose lives can be partially reconstructed by investigating the documents in the judicial archives of some of the trials in which they participated. The presence of these simple people is no less exciting than the presence of brilliant people. Giovanni Levi advocated “contextual biographies”, in which the focus is not only on a person’s life, but also on connections with the various historical, social and cultural contexts of the era in which he lived.

History of mindsets and autobiography were reconciled in the 1980s, when Jacques Le Goff set the standard for new historical biographies (“total biographies”). In the preamble to his book on the life of the French King Louis IX the Holy (Saint Louis , 1996), says that historical biography is one of the most difficult ways to write history. Indeed, for the historian, the practice of biography should be an excuse only for capturing the general meanings of the era in which the subject under investigation lived.

The biographer is always faced with the problem of available documentary sources. In recent years, new biographical methods have filled information gaps by opening up to new interpretations belonging to neighboring disciplines: cultural anthropology, ethnology, sociology, psychology, etc. This is how the French historian Alain Corbin sets out to reconstruct the life of an ordinary man who has left no written trace. (The Rediscovered World of Louis François BenagotAnd 1998). Corbin chose this name at random from the civil archives of a village in Lower Normandy. Louis Francois Pinagot He lived from 1798-1876, was a shoemaker, mom, married with two daughters, fitter from military service because he was only 1.66 meters tall. This is the only information about the unknown island in the small county village, but through it, Corbin recreates every aspect of the world of Pinagot that he can perceive and know: the physical and geographic environment, housing, work gestures, daily life, family, social relationships and sociability in Rural society in the nineteenth century, local political life, attitudes and sensibilities, etc.

The return of the CV is shown by the great commercial success it enjoys today. And in our country, the bookshelves (which have a special section: biographies – memoirs – magazines) are filled with titles presenting us with biographies of politicians, writers and celebrities from the world of music or sports, most of which are translations. Many of them are superficial, ordinary, circumstantial, written in haste under the pressure of the subject’s objectivity, so that their browsing evokes a paragraph from Kundera’s novel, immortality: “You were talking about resumes,” I said. “Ah, yes,” he remembers. “I was glad you finally read the Intimate Correspondence of the Dead.” “Yes, I know,” Paul agreed, as if to block the other party’s objections. – Believe me, I also think it is pure dirt to search someone’s intimate correspondence, to question their former mistresses, to persuade some doctors to betray medical secrecy, well, that’s really clean dirt.”

The recovery efforts that took place after 1989 did not include biographies, nor were they taken up much in the Roman historical space. We do not have the updated biographies of important Roman writers, nor do we have the strict biographies of our great politicians. So far, few contributions are worthwhile, but there are signs that autobiographical writing is on the cusp of a boom.

Alexandro Overeem University lecturer. Ph.D., teaches cultural history at the Faculty of Arts, University of Bucharest. Latest published book: The magic of subtle patina and other small cultural dates, Humanitas Publishing House, 2019.

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