Category Archives: Writing

The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk

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“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014

“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night.  When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why.  While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists.  However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.

Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent.   However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.

In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein.   In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies,  Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.

In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759.  He addressed five questions from Johnson:

1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction?  His answer- there’s an overlap.

2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.

3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about.  He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.

4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.

5. Can one know the inner life?  Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.

There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures.  There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu.  Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.

He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.

There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.

More:

I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?

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Victor Hugo: Les Miserables From Page to Stage

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Well, the name says it all really. The stage version of Les Mis is back in town again and this display at the State Library explores the book Les Miserables and its adaptation for film or stage. It’s a paid exhibition ($15 adults; $10 for foundation members).

The highlight of the exhibition is the 1862 manuscript of Les Miserables- a real coup for the library as this is the first time that it has been seen in Australia. It’s a huge volume, and each page is written vertically on half the page only, so that Hugo could make his changes in the space on the other half of the page. The first drafts were written on loose paper, then transferred into the large bound book for further editing. A line was drawn through the loose paper version to show that it had been incorporated into the bound text.

With the increased frequency of travelling library exhibitions over recent years in Australia, we have been exposed to more and more of these draft versions of great books. For example, the National Gallery’s ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries showcased a number of first-draft documents.  It is almost unthinkable to many of us now to contemplate writing much by hand, although some writers still do ( but surely they will be a dwindling band in the future). [As an aside, there was an interesting segment on the Media Report about a journalist who decided to write everything by hand for -ahem, two days- then photographed her handwritten version to distribute electronically as usual.] I know that the State Library of Victoria holds Peter Carey’s laptop but  the machine is not the same thing as its contents. There is something so material and human about seeing the towering tome of volume one of Les Miserables with its additions in cartoon balloons on the blank side of the paper. What happened, I wondered, when he ran out of room on the blank section?

It took Victor Hugo seventeen years to write the book, much of it while in exile from France after he was involved in an attempt to overthrow Napoleon III – or “Napoleon the little” as Hugo dubbed him in a pamphlet smuggled into France.  I am rather embarrassed that I was completely oblivious to Hugo’s political involvement. On the basis of his eminence as a man of letters, he had been elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Phillipe  in 1841 and entered the higher chamber (similar to the House of Lords). In 1848 he was elected to the house as a conservative, but seemed to become increasingly progressive in his views about poverty, education, the suffrage and abolition of the death penalty. When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized power, Hugo left France.

I also hadn’t realized that the release of the first two volumes in 1862 was such a big occasion. It sold out almost instantly, and public readings were quickly organized for those who missed out. Within three months 100,000 official copies of the book had been sold, worldwide.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first deals with Hugo, the book, artistic depictions of the main characters, and sketches and photographic images of pre-Haussman Paris. As you might expect for a book that has been filmed so often, there were clips from the various versions, spliced together into a film loop. I was disappointed that the clips weren’t dated and labelled: there was a small panel to one side identifying the version, but once you moved back to see the film, you could no longer read the panel.

The second part of the exhibition is displayed in the Experimedia section of the library, which worked well as a space. This section is devoted to the Boubil and Schonberg “Les Mis” in its different manifestations all over the world.  It is appropriate, perhaps, that a book that had such a commercial and international debut 120 years earlier should spawn a truly global theatrical phenomenon.  There are publicity materials from productions all over the world: I found the Japanese Les Mis particularly interesting. This section was perhaps a little too commercial for my liking- capped off by the obligatory exit through the gift-shop- but I must confess to spending a good twenty minutes watching a film clip of the concert version.

And, I admit, I walked out humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Exhibition open 18 July – 9 November 2014

10-6 Daily, Thursday until 9.00 p.m., State Library of Victoria

Other links:  The Conversation has an interesting review from the perspective of a Dickens scholar.

‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’ Yvonne M. Ward

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2013,  173 p.

We’re told that it’s all about controlling the narrative.  Politicians all do it, it seems; and we risk losing control of our narrative by putting too much of our lives onto the internet, we’re told.  All this might seem far removed from good old Queen Victoria, but on reading Unsuitable for Publication, I’ve realized that it isn’t.  Then and now, it’s all about image creation and the interplay between the image we think we have constructed and the image that others might massage or manipulate from our words.

Queen Victoria was a huge correspondent.  She wrote 122 volumes of her diaries over her long life and she maintained a large correspondence with her family  members so widely dispersed amongst the royal families of Europe, as well as a vast network of communication amongst politicians, and other notables. It has been estimated that she wrote an average of 2500 words each day of her adult life, and perhaps sixty million words in the course of her reign (p.9).  What to do with all this writing?  Her daughter Princess Beatrice thought that she knew.  Queen Victoria had appointed her as her literary executor, and after her mother’s death and over 30 years she copied the entries of the 122 diary volumes into 111 thick exercise-books, altering and censoring anything liable to ‘affect any of the family painfully’, then burnt the originals.  Interestingly, Victoria herself had published extracts from her own journals while she was on the throne, so she wasn’t beyond a bit of image-creation herself. Continue reading

Is there a book in this thesis?

One of the dreams that is secretly cherished by Ph.D candidates is that perhaps, one day, they might have their thesis or a work arising from their thesis published.  Given my advanced age (!) and shrivelled career prospects (!!) the pressure is not as strong on me as it is for my much-younger doctoral candidate colleagues, but there is certainly strong encouragement to accrue research points for the faculty through publications arising from your thesis and ‘the book’ is the most highly sought trophy of all.   Quite apart from any career benefits, there’s the personal passion for your topic which has had to flicker sufficiently to light your way through the thesis, and the conviction that you have a story worth telling that makes publication such a magnet.

The advice we as PhD candidates receive about writing with an eye to future publication is somewhat contradictory.  Some academics encourage us to write in the way we want to and with an eye to a larger audience than just the examiners who are obliged to read our thesis. One of my fellow-PhD candidates, for example, wrote a very ‘brave’ thesis that has been snapped up for publication largely unaltered.  Others caution that a thesis has its own genre rules that must be obeyed and that a book for publication is a different creature entirely.  I’ve heard a historian I admire, who had a contract for publication before she’d even submitted, admit that she published her thesis too early.  I’ve seen another colleague work really hard for about two years after receiving her doctorate, rewriting her work and actively pursuing a contract- in this case, with success.  I’ve heard publishers and many academics say that you in effect have to throw the whole thesis out and rewrite from scratch for a new audience.

Complicating all this is the requirement that universities now have that theses have to be placed online.  There’s some merit in the argument: after all, taxpayers’ money has gone into supporting your candidature, and a hard copy of the thesis just sits there on the shelf, largely unavailable to a wide audience who are not likely to know of its existence anyway.  I know that I have certainly been deeply grateful for the theses on Upper Canada that I have been able to source electronically that would otherwise be unavailable to me.  On the other hand, though, publishers are wary of- and even refuse- taking on a work that is accessible in the public domain in digital form.  I’ve been interested to compare novels that have been published commercially with the academic product available online in an earlier incarnation as part of a creative writing course through a university (see my posting on I Dream of Magda where I also discuss this) .  I’m also wary and disappointed to see big publishing conglomerates like EBSCO swallowing up theses and putting them behind a paywall with, I assume?- no payment to the author.

It is possible to embargo your thesis for a number of years, and I know several people who have done this.  I was interested to read the American Historical Association Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations (a title almost as long as a thesis!)

It’s all rather fraught with difficulty and still in flux.  Often in pursuing a wide commercial readership, historians are forced to give up much of the academic scaffolding of footnotes and bibliographies that makes their work a history instead of a generalized non-fiction book.  University press publishers are more accommodating, but you wonder how they will survive in such a cut-throat, commercialized environment.  Many are moving to e-texts: I wonder if there’s the same frisson of excitement at seeing a web-page that has your book compared with seeing it physically on a bookshelf and being able to pick it up and sniff its bookishness?  Other histories are published by prestigious overseas academic publishers at an exorbitant price that ensures that only an academic library could afford to purchase them, thus making the work almost as inaccessible as the hard-copy thesis.

Still, I don’t know why I’m thinking about all this.  I have to write the damned thing first.

Others have written about this as well:

The Thesis Whisperer writes about publishing an academic e-book

 

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #18

Actually, a whole article this time.  And not so much ‘uplifting’ as ‘sobering’.

How not to write a PhD thesis by Tara Brabazon.

Judicial biography and Pamela Burton’s From Moree to Mabo.

Lurking under the general heading of ‘biography’ are a whole range of particular genres of biography that have their aficionados but are rarely found on the best-seller lists.  Judicial biography is one such genre.  Because my research interest is a nineteenth century judge, I’ve been delving into quite a few judicial biographies and becoming even more certain that my work could not usefully be described as ‘judicial biography’ at all.

The celebratory judicial biographies of the early Victorian era (e.g. Campbell’s Lives of the Lord Chancellors) were described by Phillip Girard (2003)  as “partisan, gossipy, cavalier with facts and delightfully titillating.”  Certainly John Raithby, who wrote The Study and Practice of the Law considered, in their various relations to society in a series of letters (2nd ed, 1816) felt that we would all be better men if we read judicial biography

  ‘When I look back upon the history of my own country, or search the records of those which are no more, I rejoice that the most elegant ornaments of the one, and the noblest monuments of the other, are to be found in the fame of those men who have studied the laws, and directed the jurisprudence of their respective nations … . Look up to these exalted characters, and resolve to imitate, if you cannot equal them. … [N]ot only their works but their actions ought to be the objects of investigation. Endeavour to mark their feelings while you peruse the accounts of their lives; see how the ambition of this man has led him too far, or the immoderate love of repose too greatly restrained him … how the intemperance of lust has destroyed another, or his want of social affection rendered his powers and acquisitions useless.” (p. 17, 28)

More recent judicial biographies are lighter on the moral lessons, but sometimes they do still tend to be rather hagiographical and worthy.  They are often written by judges and lawyers (and to a certain extent they need to be if the courtroom aspect of their life is to be examined critically)  but they are often permeated by a sense of deference that emerges, perhaps, from a life spent within a hierarchical system. In this regard, they remind me of military biographies, where everyone is named, lest offence be caused by omitting someone important; and there’s a masculine clubbability that underpins them as well.

James Thomson in 2007 wrote that:

Judicial biographies must provide explanations and analysis of, at least, the major cases; explore the judge’s interpretive strategies and decision-making processes; expose intra-mural relationships— collegiality, collaboration and confrontation—with other Justices; trace the origins and development of the judge’s character, beliefs, views and motivations; and delineate the influences—public and private—on the judge’s opinions and decisions.

Phillip Girard imposed another requirement:

“which is that the time spent by the subject in judicial office, as opposed to doing other things, should be of more than passing interest to the biographer.”

So, hedged with all these exhortations and injunctions, how does Pamela Burton’s From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story stack up?

For a start, that masculine clubbability is challenged from the outset. Mary Gaudron was Australia’s first female High Court judge, and her biographer is a woman as well.  There is still just a hint of that professional in-groupness that is so impenetrable to outsiders, but because it is interwoven with the personal and political, it does not skew the whole worldview of the book.

The author Pamela Burton is a barrister herself, and as well as founding her own law firm, was a Senior Member of the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal and was legal counsel for the Australian Medical Association.  Her experience serves her (and thus, us) well.  As Posner, Chief Judge U.S. Court of Appeal (1995)  wrote, it is difficult for a non-lawyer to write a judicial biography.

This is not only because judges deal with technical legal issues but also because the role of the judge is difficult for nonlawyers to understand. Nonlawyers tend either to be credulous about judges’ self-serving rhetoric of disinterest or to assume that judges are merely politicians (“statesmen” if the nonlawyer shares the judge’s politics) in disguise, whereas the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle….Judges are great bluffers, and it is particularly difficult for nonlawyers to penetrate the bluff unless they are highly cynical. (p. 513)

A quick flip through the index to the book highlights the heavy use of court records and case reports.  There is no doubt at all that this is a life spent in the law.  She presents the cases well, with enough background for someone unfamiliar with them to make sense of them.  It’s a difficult line for an author to tread: enough evidence from the judge’s behaviour in court to support the observations made in the biography, but not so many that the reader- particularly a non-lawyer reader- feels engulfed.

To my way of thinking, a biography is not just a chronicle of events.  While the elapse of time does impose a certain chronological shape to the subject’s life, it is the author’s decision where to place the emphasis and how much space in terms of pages to devote to various aspects of a life.  The author is an active agent in the telling by crafting an argument about what this life means.  Burton grapples with the issue of politics and the law by exploring the nature of ‘political connections’ as a means of progressing a career and yet resisting being captured by one side of politics.  She takes the issue of judicial logic and intellect very seriously, and in this regard the book could be just as easily conceptualized as an intellectual biography as a judicial one.  She balances the personal, the political and the professional.

Gaudron did not co-operate in the writing of this biography: in fact she said that she had a horror of biographies.  The bibliography of this book shows where the author mined to gather her material.  There are three boxes of her papers at the National Library, but these only go up to 1979 and the Conciliation and Arbitration phase of her career.  There are three oral histories, but one of them is closed to research and public use until 5 January 2043.   Gaudron herself has written the foreword to others’ books and some articles, but the bulk of the primary material is drawn from Gaudron’s speeches and court transcripts. The author undertook extensive interviews with Gaudron’s colleagues, although not all wished to be named.  As the author herself admits “A measure of boldness is required to write a biography of a living person who is not enthusiastic about it being written.” (p. xviii).  I must admit that I would quail at the thought.

References

Girard, Phillip  ‘Judging Lives: Judicial Biography from Hale to Holmes.’ Australian Journal of Legal History  Vol 7, No. 1, 2003 p. 87-106

Posner, Richard ‘Judicial Biography’ New York University Law Review, Vol 70, No. 3 1995, p. 502

Thomson, James ‘Biographies and Biographical Writing’ in  Michael Coper, Tony Blackshield and George Williams (eds.), The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, 2007 p.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

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Well, I did it in 2012 and I’ll do it again in 2013. I’ll probably read quite a bit of fiction because I tend to anyway, but this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013,  I want to concentrate on Australian Women Historians writing Australian History.

Last year Yvonne Perkins in her blog Stumbling Through the Past analysed the gender balance of book reviews in three major Australian history journals.  She found that by and large, History Australia and Australian Historical Studies have a fairly even gender balance the books that are reviewed (with even a slight leaning towards female writers), while The Australian Journal of Politics and History had more reviews of male authors.  It’s an interesting post- read it here– and it spurred her to develop a list of books written by women historians.

To be honest, I was surprised that there was such strong gender balance in two of the journals she analysed, because my perception is that more books are written by male historians.  I did a little detective work myself, counting the books in the ‘Australian Studies/Australian History’ section of Readings bookstore in Carlton.  Whatever the breakdown in the book review section of the major Australian historical journals, on the shelves male historians romped it in – only 28 of the 95 books I counted were written by women.

And certainly, if I turn my head to the left and look at my own bookshelves, there are many more books written by male historians.  I can think of a number of reasons for that.  First, I don’t very often buy history books new (whereas I do buy second-hand) and so any bias in the past will be reflected in the books I buy. I really am trying to have less clutter around, and so I borrow from the library, and try not to buy. But I’m often attracted to the remainder bin, the ‘Specials’ table and the second hand bookshop, and the piles of books that academics put outside their door when they’re cleaning up their offices…..and my bookshelves show the result.

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Second, my area of interest is nineteenth century colonial societies in white settler nations- especially Australia and Upper Canada.  It’s a fairly old-fashioned sort of interest now, and was mined fairly heavily in the 1960s and 1970s.  I’m coming to it imbued with all the ‘isms’ and ‘turns’ of the past fifty years, but I must admit that many of the books on my shelf are terribly dated- and the bias towards male authorship in the 60s and 70s shows.

Finally, and related to this, early women Australian historians writing Australian history had a hard time even being recognized as academics, let alone published academics.  Some time ago, I wrote a post about Kathleen Fitzpatrick , a historian at Melbourne University who wrote, but abandoned, a book on Charles La Trobe that she had been working on for some time.  There is a suggestion that she withdrew from the field because another (male) historian was writing on him as well, and she didn’t want to compete with him.

Just recently, I read an article called ‘ The Writing of Australian Biography’ by M. H. Ellis who is depicted in his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry as just the sort of male historian that one might want to step back from.  It was published in Historical Studies (Vol 6, No. 24, May 1955) after being read before Section E of the Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science held at Canberra in January 1954.  I disagree with much of what he says in his paper, but what really struck me was the language. I’m sure that any female biographer with the audacity to even sit in the room slunk away quietly, well aware that she had no right to be there:

 No very young writer, hastily scrambling over a rich reef of documentary material, is likely to have the natural insight to enable him to distill from it a living image that will appeal as being the stuff of life to readers of diverse ages and mental outlooks in different periods, and inspire confidence in any picture he may draw of the mind and motives of a man of mature years… Nothing but slow filtering of essentials through the sieve of parallel experience can teach one man what makes another man function and behave as he does and enable him to put his findings down on paper in a manner to convince those who have endured or are enduring life that he is setting down truth.”(p 434)

Or how about this one?

There must be in all true biographers a natural and honest bias toward good principles, which are the yardstick by which men are measured.  Biographers should be the most human of men and subject to the decent prejudices and preferences which guide the ordinary citizen.  It would be right against human nature if such men did not involuntarily exhibit their likes and dislikes, their amusement or lack of amusement, their approval or disapproval, if they write from the heart.  But if he tries to suppress or falsify his natural emotions, then the biographer’s work becomes sodden dough or dead meat or false in note.  But in any case the chances are that when his subject takes control of his imagination he will be at his mercy if the man is worth writing about.  (p. 437)

Just imagine if a female biographer wrote about a female subject!!…ah, but would she be worth writing about??  It is sobering to think that this is the intellectual climate that our early women academic historians operated in.  It makes their few publications even more significant.

And so, for my Australian Women Writer’s Challenge this year, I’d like to consciously read and review some histories written by women.  Where possible, I’ll look for histories related to my thesis to review, but I’ll try to review them as a reader, rather than for the contribution they make to my own work. I did review a couple of histories for the Australian Women Writers Challenge last year, and I found myself consciously trying to make my review more general than I might have otherwise, and I’ll take the same approach this year.  Other histories I find, that are unrelated to my own work, I’ll be reading just as anyone else would, as I won’t have much pre-existing knowledge to bring to the book.

I often feel a bit diffident about reviewing books when I know that I’m going to run into the author- which is quite likely when reviewing Australian History books by Australian historians.   I get an attack of the M. H. Ellis-es, and I feel that I really have no right to review and that I should just slink out of the room.  But I shall stand tall (take that M. H. Ellis!!), knowing that on the few occasions when the connection has been made “Oh, so YOU’RE the Resident Judge!” (and I cringe at the presumption of my blog-name), there has never been any unpleasantness- to the contrary, in fact.