Biography – a short history

Plutarch, the most famous biographer of antiquity, in a parallel life, before recounting the life of Alexander the Great, took caution by saying that he was not writing a story, but a biography: “We ask readers not to blame us. I did.” Therefore, it would not be true , for here we do not write history, but tell the lives of some people, and then virtue or defect is not always seen in the brightest of deeds, but often something trivial, a word, a certain thing A joke that reveals the nature of a man better than battles in which soldiers fall by tens of thousands “.

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, Thucydides avoided any biographical reference to the figures involved in the Peloponnesian War, despite his active participation 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. Cyropedia by Agesilaus and Xenophon is the first biographical texts (4th century BC) on the life of the Spartan king Agesilaus 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 his book On Brilliant Men (1337), Petrarca recounts the lives of famous Romans, from Romulus to Trajan, and Boccaccio contributes to the revival of the biographical genre by writing Dante’s Life (1362). In 1550 Giorgio Vasari published his first major autobiographical work: Lives of Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which was a successful writing, and a model that was 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 autobiographical model, recounting the lives of the heroes (The Life of Marivaux by Marivaux, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and 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 view of the autobiography, with The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), considered the first modern autobiography, a model for the later 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, proposes the famous “autobiographical method”: to pursue the relationship between the 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 do not have a monopoly 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 attack on autobiography, which began with positivist historiography, was continued by the “new history” promoted by the Annales School, which emphasized “the long run”, the collective dimension, and the role of impersonal forces in historical development. 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 the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who spoke of the illusion of autobiography (1986), considering the autobiography an “artifact,” an “artificial creation of meaning,” a retrospective intellectual construct by which autobiographical authors attempt to give meaning to a person’s life. This means that he did not have it. 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 Ginzburg is interested in the lives of an Italian miller (Cheese and Worms. A Mill World of the Sixteenth Century, 1976; Via Rom. 1997), and Giovanni Levi of a Young Country Priest (L’eredità immateriale 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 (Saint-Louis, 1996), he says that the 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 (Le monde retrouvé by Louis-François Pinagot, 1998). Corbin chose this name at random from the civil archives of a village in Lower Normandy. Louis François Benagot lived between 1798-1876, was a shoemaker, illiterate, married with two daughters, reformed 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 Pinagot world that he can perceive and know: physical and geographic environment, housing, work gestures, daily life, family, social relationships and social contact in the community rural 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 are so shallow, banal, witty, hastily written under the pressure of the subject’s objectivity, that browsing them can conjure up a passage from Kundera’s novel, Eternity: “You were talking about biographies, you blew them up. “Ah, yeah,” he remembers. “I was glad you read it.” At last the intimate correspondence of the dead.” “Yes, I know,” Paul agreed, as if to prevent the objections of the other party.—Believe me, I also think it is pure dirt to research someone’s intimate correspondence, to interrogate their former mistresses, to persuade some doctors to betray medical secrecy, Well, that’s really clean shit.”

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 a Hidden Patina and Another Small Cultural History, Humanitas Publishing, 2019.

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