Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Breaking Bread with the Dead

March 31, 2010


Blossom and light – Photo by Liz Mathews

‘Art is the way we break bread with the dead’: W.H.Auden’s line perfectly expresses the close contact the reader or audience can experience with an artist who’s no longer living, but whose creative mind is still vital in their work.

It also, I think, gives an insight into the possible function of literary or artistic biography. Writers of this sort of book become used to remarks about the pointlessness of such life-writing, which are rarely based on the defensible critical position of considering that the work should stand absolutely alone, but generally express a more nebulous disapproval (and perhaps even some intellectual snobbery). These negative comments are countered by the assurances from some readers that discussion of the work in the context of the life has made it accessible/ comprehensible/ sympathetic for the first time.

As a writer who must plead guilty to having written about about a poet’s life as well as her work, I can understand both attitudes. Sometimes, after encountering over-simplified life-to-work readings, or particularly gossipy prurience, I’ve felt a strong revulsion against the whole idea. But on the occasions when I’ve seen somebody’s appreciation of a poem transformed – even to the extent where their attitude to poetry itself is radically altered – then the whole process seems more than justified.

Of course, it can illuminate a poem to know where, when, under what circumstances it was written. It can even sometimes transform what was obscure into a work that reveals. But – even if it does refer to autobiographical events – a poem is a separate entity with its own existence, which would continue even if virtually all knowledge of its author or context were lost, like a papyrus fragment bearing a line of Sappho.

Problems only begin to arise with the over-literal matching up of events in a life with its works of art, rather as though the artist is a sausage-machine; pour experiences in, and artworks pop out. This kind of interpretation is a complete denial of the creative process. The transformative alchemy, the fire of creation, radically alters the raw material into a different element, whether that initial material has been found in the maker’s actual experience or some remote landscape of the mind.

At its worst, the life and work study devalues the idea of art itself by ransacking works of creation merely for their clues to life-drama. This superficial approach leaves the more subtle interrelations between experience and creation unexplored, which, as a reader, I do find pointless. It’s much better to rely on one’s own perception than have the poems (or whatever) reduced to news-cuttings in this way. But, at its best, an artist’s biography may enable that breaking of bread through art; make it more possible by a work of interpretation which brings us close enough to contemplate the poetic ideal of feasting together. (What it can’t ever do, clearly, is replace that primary experience.)

Whether any such a book fits either of these descriptions depends partly on the way it is read; the interests of the reader as well as the intentions of the author. The reader who skims through for scandal can defeat the best intentions of the interpretative writer, while those who (while the life story may of course amuse or amaze) discover some common ground, are closer to the feast.

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