Autobiographies

While I was improvising last month’s blog, I was introduced to an autobiography by Benedict Anderson, the first chapter of which (available to see on Google Books) is interesting from an Irish perspective (why he chose to be an Irish citizen) and the remainder, which I discovered after picking up the book from an Irish seller, is mostly about Indonesia and academic politics. Anderson’s response to the question “why an autobiography?” was simple. He was asked to do it. His book, first published in Japanese, was written on request so that Asians could have a sense where western academics were “coming from”.

Literary theorists have probably spent more time theorising answers to the question “why are there autobiographies?” than the likes of me, even if they have not necessarily spent any more time thinking about the nature of writing. Historians spend time interrogating literary “sources”. They offer interpretations about others, but can they offer an “interpretation of themselves”? Can autobiographies by scholars be worthwhile, and what actually constitutes an autobiography? Can creators of popular Twitter or Youtube accounts possibly be conceived as engaging in an act of autobiography? Where does the divide between the creator and creation lie?

I had almost forgotten that I own another autobiography by a historian: Eric Hobsbawm’s “Interesting Times”, which I picked up less from interest in Hobsbawm than the fact that these days charity shops in Ireland sell off what were once expensive items to collect – books, records, videos – for next to nothing. “No risk purchases”. Although I am not an admirer of either’s writings, an impressive aspect of both Hobsbawm and Anderson’s erudition was their knowledge of different languages was such that they could have been diplomats. What might an autobiography by a historian teach you? Hobsbawm and Anderson liked to think of themselves as internationalists (they certain had “international” backgrounds), although one might be inclined to think of them as simply British and American respectively. From Hobsbawm’s autobiography one can see that he was a politically active and committed British labour activist who saw political ideology as an essential lens on life (no surprises there) but one can also find surprising, if inconsequential, details such as that he used to hang around New York blues and folk clubs with people like John Hammond (the man who “discovered” Bob Dylan). And he also deemed the fact that he never wore blue jeans to be a historically significant action on his own part. Oh well.

If correspondence is raw material to historians, who bothers to keep it? A close relative donated to an archive a few suitcases of Dublin theatre and concert programmes, dating from the 1950s to the 1980s. She had once corresponded with critics but the thought of keeping that material seemed absurd and so it was not. I recall some of the first historical memoirs that I read were, at the time of their initial publication, political memoirs and the authors evidently kept their lifelong correspondence purely for that motive. It can be that an individual who was neither published as an author nor someone who kept his private correspondence for posterity becomes, as far as historians are concerned, someone who practically never existed because the sources are missing. Now you know why politicians write memoirs/books or why the Americans started naming libraries after their successive presidents. And if your postman donates all his private letters to an archive and you do not, historians will, in the future, be writing about him and not you. But who writes the history of these people? As per the “interesting times” autobiography of Eric Hobsbawm, people like this are immortalised in history by the enforced working-class status symbol of wearing a peaked cap. I guess some people have turned dress into an ideology too, but I doubt any such perspective assists in telling the story of people whom neither published nor kept private papers.

If historians interrogate sources to get an idea of “where someone is coming from”, do others? If traditional journalists are often critical of social media as a supposed unreliable source of information and vice versa (“fake news”), if one looks up the backgrounds of the authors of some of these “polemics” online they are often affiliated with think-tanks that operate with governments. I recall hearing politically important Irish figures praising a Dublin-born historian as if he was “one of their own”, by virtue of his place of birth and his willingness to speak at Irish events, but I do not think those same Irish figures were even aware that he was also a member of the Henry Jackson Society, the priorities of which are not necessarily similar to the author’s “fans”. Of course, there is also a danger of labeling or classifying individuals as being of a particular mindset that is neither fair nor accurate. If “life is a broad church” it is generally because people tend to be catholic in their interests and are not all of the one cloth. Who is? Although it does seem clear that ideologies can often come into play whenever authors on societal trends, contemporary or historical, either exercise their tongue or their pen. For many participants, that is evidently “the whole point” or the motive or the “fun”.

And where do I, or any of “us”, fit into “all this?” The expression “god knows” may seem a cop-out but it may also seems appropriate. My self-interrogations usually revolve around a purely personal perspective on personal efficiency. “When my intellect is active, my body is tired. When my body is energetic, my mind is gone (or I am like “a big hot-water bottle without thought”). That says nothing about me, I guess, other than the existence of some kind of sensitive temperament that, to me, is disappointingly inefficient, like “a cross to bear”. If I were an ideologue with a taste for social networking, would I have a drive in life that is more efficient? Is narrowing one’s vision to a self-serving or self-justifying ambition akin to a dumb or restricting materialism?

In my usual impressionable way, I was pondering along such “not entirely logical” lines recently before I suddenly discovered a couple of unknown sources on a theme I was writing about – American-Irish relations – that opened my eyes to a different, or more “personal”, way at looking at the same “impersonal” subject. I don’t believe it will affect my judgement; it may (at best) feed, slightly, into my perspective as but one small of very many myriad factors. But anyway, “here goes”: in private, some Irish nationalists who met American government officials a century ago deemed the latter to be incapable of seeing any value in life beyond a man’s level of personal wealth. In private, some of these same American government officials deemed the same Irish nationalists to be strangely inefficient creatures that were evidently burdened by some vague mysticism and poverty that made their reasoning obscure, inconsequential or irrelevant. There’s an interesting little snapshot of a moment in time that could be said to mean something or nothing at all. Let us take the premise that it means nothing at all. What conclusion could one draw? People met and were instinctively or purposely imagining the biography of someone they could hardly be said to have known. A social interrogation became a moment of biography. But did it become a moment of autobiography or self-interrogation? Evidently it did not. And with that thought I’ll sign off from this blog, still unsure if there is any real consequence to the introspective act of autobiographies. If autobiographies of entertainers can be entertaining in their perspective, the autobiographies of historians are unlikely to attract a wide readership for understandable reasons. And yet it is surprising sometimes how many writers end up writing one or more autobiographies. Is it a vanity or a confessional exercise? Perhaps neither. It is just another excuse to write? And there may be an answer in terms of the question “why are there historians?” Some love to write. Some love to teach. Some love both. But perhaps not all are cut out for both. The didactic can be pedantic.

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