Intertextual Lives: The Novel of Biographical Quest as a Postmodern Genre
C’est en vain que d’eux tous le sang m’a fait descendre. Si j’écris leur histoire, ils descendront de moi.
-- Alfred de Vigny
I. Introduction. It is a sign of the times and an index of the widespread fascination with the actual methods of biography that two postmodern plays of the mid-1990’s, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Indian Ink, present frame stories featuring biographers. Stoppard has a knack for transforming contemporary intellectual issues into compelling theater. In these plays he dramatizes some of our postmodern doubts about biography and about our ability to know the past, doubts which provide the rationale for a growing number of symposia, literary review articles, academic conferences, and collections of essays by and about biographers. Now, these two plays have exposed a much broader public to the agonized soul-searching about biographical research that until recently has been the preserve of literary critics and biographers. In bringing these issues onto the stage Stoppard’s plays also reflect another interesting development: the emergence of the biographer as protagonist in postmodern literature of the late twentieth century.
In Arcadia the juxtaposition of scenes from the biographer’s present time and from the past time that the biographer is researching raises doubts about the whole biographical enterprise. The present-day biographer is a British academic whose interpretations are plainly wrong-headed. The play makes fun of the inaccuracies in the biographer’s researches by placing side by side scenes with the biographer at work and scenes from the actual milieu he is investigating, a period in the time of Byron, just before the poet left England in 1809. We clearly see how the hangups, blind ambition, and self-deception of the biographer lead to false views of past lives.
In the frame tales of these two plays Stoppard focuses relentlessly on the pitfalls of the biographical quest, on the unknowability of the historical past. At the same time, however, both plays incite and then satisfy the audience’s hunger for the intimate details of past lives, a hunger usually satisfied by modern biography. Both plays also develop the idea that whether we know it or not our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of those who came before us, with the lives of our literal ancestors and our cultural precursors. Though criticizing the methods and motives of modern biographers, each play paradoxically insists on the biographical imperative, on the human need to delve into past lives so that we may better make sense of our own.
It may be no accident that some of the thematic preoccupations and structural devices in these plays parallel in a striking way those found in A.S. Byatt’s widely-read postmodern novel Possession, first published in 1990. Byatt’s novel, too, features scholars in a biographical quest. Though Byatt offers us a very different picture of the possibility of accurate biography, she also juxtaposes chapters set in the present with ones set in the past of the biographical subjects. Stoppard’s plays may represent a new departure in theater. Byatt’s novel on the other hand is in many ways the culmination of a recent trend.
In the 1980's a new kind of fiction came of age in Europe and the Americas: the novel of biographical quest, or bioquest novel, for short. Bioquest novels, which feature protagonists who are biographers, typically have three narrative strands: the biographer's quest for the historical subject's life (the search for documents, informants, former dwelling places, etc.); the life of the historical subject, in whole or part; and, finally, an account of how the biographical quest affects the biographer's life. Unlike biographical novels or most biographies, bioquest novels expose the role of imagination and personal bias in historical research. They lay bare the constructedness of biographies by going into the actual methods of research, the quandaries revolving around interpretation, and the strategies used to shape a seamless, interesting, coherent story of the subject. In short, bioquest fiction explores in depth the precarious nature of historical knowledge and the ontological status of the past in its various modalities. More than this, however, bioquest novels dramatize the identity problems of the biographer and show how her life is enriched, complicated, or usurped by her intimate relations with the historical subject. Well-known examples of the genre include A.S. Byatt's Possession and Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot. A famous precursor is Henry James's The Aspern Papers. Other important writers who have written bioquest fiction include Vladimir Nabokov, Wallace Stegner, Peter Ackroyd, Alison Lurie, Daniele Del Giudice, Carol Shields, Graham Swift, Mario Vargas Llosa, Penelope Lively, Francesca Duranti, and Bharati Mukherjee.
The triple narrative structure of the bioquest novel makes it an ideal vehicle for the ironic, suspenseful treatment of the uses and abuses of historical research. Hence the emergence of the bioquest novel as a significant genre in the late twentieth century. In particular, the juxtaposition and interweaving of the lives of biographer and historical subject reveal the fascinating psychological puzzles that arise when we ask ourselves how personal identity is related to cultural memory. Increasingly, as the second millenium draws to a close, writers are intent on asking how the past, which is so essential to our identity, can be known and experienced in an age when neither academic historiography nor traditionalism seem viable, when postmodern economic and cultural conditions encourage the erasure, commodification, or deconstruction of a sense of history.
II. Definitions. The novel of biographical quest differs from the biographical novel or the biographie romancée, as practiced by Henri Troyat for instance, in two respects. In bioquest novels the biographical subject need never have really existed, though in some bioquest novels the biographical subjects are indeed historical, as in Ackroyd’s Chatterton, Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, or Del Giudice’s Lo stadio di Wimbledon, which focuses on the Italian writer Roberto Bazen. More often than not, however, the biographee is an invented character. In strictly biographical novels, on the other hand, the biographees are invariably historical figures, as in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (Tolstoy), Peter Härtling’s Hölderlin, or John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus. A second and more telling difference lies in the fact that biographical novels usually focus exclusively on the lives of the biographical subjects and their near contemporaries. In novels of biographical quest, on the other hand, the biographer is also a central figure in the story, which recounts his or her quest to find out about and interpret the life of the biographical subject.
The device of interweaving the biographer’s story with the life of the biographee is not entirely new--witness Henry James’s The Aspern Papers (1888). Even so, the frequent use of this device in important fiction of the 1980’s and 90’s seems unprecedented. By the 1990’s the device has become a convention or formula, as can be seen by its use in such novels as John Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration, Kingsley Amis’s The Biographer’s Moustache, Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, and Irina Korshunow’s Das Spiegelbild. An intriguing question is why there has been a proliferation of bioquest fiction in the 1980’s and 1990’s, especially at a time when the biographical enterprise itself has come under attack from several quarters. What are the origins of the novel of biographical quest? What are its psychological functions and intellectual implications? How does the vogue of this genre relate to the status of biography in the late twentieth century?
III. Backgrounds. The rise of bioquest fiction occurs in a period of intense scrutiny of the aims, ethics, and reliability of biography. The two developments are no doubt related. The various critiques of the biographical enterprise can be divided into two kinds: the sentimental and the academic. Sentimental critiques are built on fears about how biography can distort or reveal too much about a person’s life. Sentimental critics often feel personally vulnerable: they dread false, or all too truthful, accounts of the lives of friends or family. Not only do questions of impartiality arise, but also the ethical issue of the right to privacy. A truthful account of an individual’s intimate relations may, after all, be as damaging as sensationalist distortion. Even avid biography readers understand this line of argument. Though I may read other people’s lives with greedy pleasure, the thought that someone who barely knew me, or not at all, should write my life gives me pause. Sentimental critiques often target the figure of the predatory biographer who would violate the privacy of his or her subject, who uses such methods as lying, extortion, theft, and exaggeration. Not only does the predatory biographer figure in Natasha Spender’s eloquent “TLS” essay defending the rights of biographees and their friends and family, he also appears in bioquest fiction, as Mortimer Cropper in Possession, as Morton Jimroy in Shield’s Swann, as Raphael Hunter in Wilson’s Incline Our Hearts and as Mr. Goodman in Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
The academic critique of biography has two main sources: first, the New Critical depreciation of biographical approaches to literary criticism, and then, more recently, poststructuralist pronouncements about the “disappearance of the subject’’ and the ‘‘death of the author.’’ With poststructuralism the humanist conception of the self as autonomous, as a distinct coherent identity, loses ground. One of the major, enabling premises of biography comes into question. If, as the biographer Richard Holmes has written, biography strives for a ‘‘coherent and integral view of human affairs,’’ then this view goes against the poststructuralist grain. Yet these critiques have also served to lend biography an aura of excitement, of the forbidden. Moreover, the poststructuralist notion that the biographical subject is irretrievable is richly evoked in many bioquest novels, such as those by Ackroyd, Vargas Llosa, Barnes, and Del Guidice.
In spite of these influential critiques--sentimental and academic, middlebrow and highbrow--biography continues to thrive in the postmodern era. Biography may be ethically and epistemologically suspect, but it is also seems to be inescapable. The persistence of biography permits us to speak of a biographical imperative. On the one hand, the common reader’s curiosity about the lives of remarkable men and women seems insatiable. With respect to literary biography one often has the impression that the lives of writers are more widely read than the writers’ works themselves, than that which made the writer worthy of a biography in the first place. And despite the academic critiques of biography, both feminism and multicultural studies have encouraged positive reassessments of biography in the heart of the academy itself. Even theorists and poststructuralists seem to be wavering, as the surprising title of a recent collection of essays reveals: Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism (1991). The editor speaks of a ‘‘return to biography’’ (6) and concludes that ‘‘we all believe in the biographical . . . because we have faith in its ancient and yet still vital therapeutic powers’’ (6). In the same collection, Stanley Fish, one of the doyens of poststructuralist criticism, offers an interesting justification of the biographical imperative. All meaning, Fish argues, depends on understanding the context of the utterance. Because the speaker is a part of the context, the emergence of meaning depends on our hypotheses about his or her intention. To find out about intention we must learn about the speaker. And this is a kind of biographical project. The same applies to reading: ‘‘the only way to read unbiographically would be to refrain from construing meaning-- to refrain, that is, from regarding the marks before you as manifestations of intentional behavior; but that would be not to read at all’’ (14).
Such cross currents as these--for and against biography--form the cultural context out of which the new bioquest novel of the ‘80’s emerged, and they themselves become leading motifs in the intellectual and personal dramas that inform these novels.
The full-blown bioquest novel of the late twentieth century generally includes three interrelated narrative strands or subplots. One strand narrates the search for the hidden life of the biographical subject; it usually involves the pursuit and interpretation of documents and testimonies by informants. Sometimes, as in Lurie’s The Truth about Lorin Jones, this subplot shows how the researcher learns the skills of the biographer’s trade. Another narrative strand presents parts of the life story of the biographical subject. This story may be fragmentary or incoherent, and it may even fail to reveal the hidden life of the subject. In many bioquest novels, however, the essential story of the subject, his or her hidden life, stands revealed. Usually, the biographer, in a secondary narration, retells the life story, but often, as in Swift’s Ever After or Gordon’s Men and Angels, the biographee tells part of his or her own story through letters, journals, or an autobiography. More rarely, as in Byatt’s Possession (cf. chap. 15), an omniscient or unidentified third person narrator will recount part of the subject’s life as it actually happened. A third strand tells the story of how the biographical quest affects the life of the biographer-protagonist of the novel. Typically, but not always, the discovery of the hidden life of the subject will have important consequences for the biographer’s life. Often, contacts with informants or descendants of the subject result in an important turn in the biographer’s life, as in Colegate’s The Deceits of Time or Duranti’s Effetti personali. And though the researcher’s life and beliefs may seem to undergo little if any change, as in Swift’s and Del Guidice’s novels, this too is a kind of result, perhaps as significant as a major life change.
The presence of these three narrative strands is a helpful criterion for identifying bioquest novels and their precursors. Though there may well be earlier examples, the earliest bioquest novel I have been able to identify is Henry James’s The Aspern Papers (1888). In James’s short but powerful novel the biographical subject is a deceased poet whose former mistress, now very old, lives as a recluse in a Venetian palazzo; she evidently possesses letters and papers of the poet. To gain access to the papers the young researcher carries on a flirtation with the mistress’s elderly niece. In the end he has to leave empty handed. James’s novel has important elements that will recur in later bioquest fiction. There is the quest for the hidden treasure of personal documents which can reveal the innermost feelings, and perhaps even the secret self, of the biographee. Also, the quest forces the biographer to make a major life decision--in this case, whether or not to marry the niece in order to get the papers. Finally, James’s researcher prefigures the predatory biographer of later bioquest fiction. He is willing to deceive and harm the biographee’s loved ones in order to get the materials he needs. Yet James makes us, the readers, feel intensely the hunger to know the truth about another’s life. This dilemma or conflict is a staple of later bioquest fiction. In the romantic crisis at the center of the quest the researcher narrowly avoids abandoning himself completely to the interests of the biographee. He avoids, in short , marrying a woman he does not love in order to get the papers. The temptation of total self-abnegation in the interests of the subject’s biography is one that crops up time and again in later bioquest novels.
After James there appears to be a long hiatus in serious bioquest fiction until the late 1930’s, a period which sees the decline of literary modernism and the first stirrings--with the writings of Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov--of a postmodern turn or correction. In the first year of the decade that begins in 1938, there appear Sartre’s Nausea and Nabokov’s The Gift, both full-fledged novels of biographical quest. This decade also sees the publication of two other major bioquest novels: Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Anna Banti’s Artemisia (1947), which, under the impetus of the women’s movement, will be rediscovered and republished in the late 1980’s. Sartre’s Nausea and Nabokov’s Real Life seem at first glance to have little in common, yet both are first-person narrations whose protagonists are biographers. Both works explore the problems in biographical research, and both examine the impact of the quest on the biographer. Finally, both novels share a deeply pessimistic view about the possibility of knowing another person’s life. After another apparent hiatus, Wallace Stegner’s masterpiece Angle of Repose (1971) establishes the classical realist mode of the bioquest novel. Followed by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust in 1975, Stegner’s novel constitutes a kind of steppingstone linking the earlier decade of 1938-1948 to the heyday of bioquest fiction in the 1980’s.
Angle of Repose is a long, intricate work set in the American West. It offers a subtle examination of the suspect motives and psychological dangers involved in biographical questing, yet the novel stands finally as an apologia for its human usefulness. Stegner implicitly criticizes distorted views of the past that often inspire but also vitiate the quest to understand another person’s life, especially one from whom we are descended, for Angle of Repose, like many other bioquest novels, also involves a genealogical quest. One temptation of the quest is to adopt the genetic fallacy, the idea that the present can be wholly explained by the past. Another false approach embraces a nostalgic view of past lives, wherein the quester believes that in the past the authority of traditional values made the fundamental problems of life less agonizing than they are in the present. Stegner’s biographer-protagonist slowly learns to get beyond these myths. Finally, Stegner presents the reader with profound critiques of the American contempt for the past, of the historical determinism of ideologues, and of the myopic nostalgia of New Traditionalists. Yet his novel also argues for the possibility of biographical knowledge, which, illuminated by the artistic imagination, can give us access to past lives and therefore to hidden dimensions of ourselves.
The proposition that the biographical quest is both valid and valuable emerges in the bioquest fictions of Banti, Stegner, and Jhabvala. This proposition will continue to be influential in the bioquest fiction of the 1980’s. Henry James’s interest in the ethics of intrusion will also persist, as will his subtle probing into the motives, self-deceptions, and identity conflicts of the quester. Extending the skepticism of Sartre and Nabokov, a significant number of later novels, those most singlemindedly postmodern, will present the biographical quest as destructive, futile, or impossible (cf. Del Giudice, Barnes, Ackroyd 1987, Duranti 1984 and Vargas Llosa). Some of the most interesting bioquest novels of the 1980’s orchestrate a mixture of these antithetical tendencies.
IV. Cultural Memory in Bioquest Fiction. As a way of approaching the complex subject of how bioquest novels deal with postmodern concerns about the nature and accessibility of the historical past, I will use the concept of cultural memory (hereafter abbreviated as CM). These novels do not use the term cultural memory, but the term suits very well the processes of remembrance they evoke. The particular approach to the past epitomized in bioquest fiction overlaps but differs from other approaches, for example, historiography, new and old historicisms, or traditionalism. Cultural memory most often comes into play when the human longing for the past must confront postmodern skepticism about the past as an object of knowledge.
The origin of cultural memory (CM) lies in the painful postmodern recognition that we have lost the past, and that to know who we are we need to regain it. The loss of the past is cultural amnesia. Among the postmodern causes of this otherwise perennial condition are a. the mobility of populations and their loss of an organic sense of place; b. the destruction of inherited landscapes and historical settlements; c. the deconstruction of the belief that the past is knowable; and d. the reduction of the past to simulacra.
Born of the human longing for a past, CM is a response to the cultural amnesia of our time, and to the failure of historiography, traditionalism, or poststructuralism to deliver a usable past.
Cultural memory is a conscious process of retrieval, of pasts that are lost, forgotten or disappearing. CM differs from traditionalism by being critical and modern. It differs from historiography by being intensely personal. The term itself divides into "culture," which is collective, public, and "memory," which insinuates a personal, psychological factor.
As a source of personal identity, CM requires an emotional participation in the past. The personal, emotional element helps explain why literature, more than history, is so important a channel for CM. It also explains the pre-eminent role of biography, which unites historical research with the literary imagination in such a way that we moderns may enter into the subjective lives of historical persons, lives that become a metonymy for the inner life of the past, the longed-for object of CM.
Emotional participation leads the practioner of CM to immersion in the past. This can be a dangerous, even heroic, undertaking. For both readers and biographers identification with the historical subject is the gateway to immersion. As in Francesca Duranti's bioquest novel The House on Moon Lake, the biographer may literally become the historical subject, possessed by the dead person and reliving his life; Duranti’s protagonist re-enacts the last years of the fin-de-siècle Austrian writer whose life he has researched. In Byatt’s Possession the young researchers Roland and Maud become so wrapped up in the lives of their Victorian poets that for a while they lose sight of their own lives. Another aspect of immersion is nostalgia, a desire to escape the present. Ideally, CM in its bioquest mode unmasks nostalgia for what it is: a sentimentalization of the past. The nostalgic biographer in Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose wants to escape from his shattered life by immersing himself in the past of his forebears, but in the end he learns that the lives of his pioneering grandparents in the American West were no less bitter or full of betrayal than his own. This realization compels him to return to the present and confront his own life.
The major crisis in many bioquest novels is precisely the biographer’s realization that she must leave the past, return to the present, and confront her own life. Yet without immersion in the past life, the experience of the present lacks the depth and richness that comes from a sense of continuity. Finally, the task of CM, like that of Joseph Campbell's hero journey, demands a perilous double movement: immersion in the past, then return to the present. CM is necessary for the discovery of identity, but the quester may be swallowed by the past, possessed by the dead. Thus bioquest fiction poses two complementary questions: How can I know who I am if I do not know where I come from? How can I know who I am if I confuse where I come from with who I am?
V. The Bioquest Novel as a Testing Ground of Cultural Memory. In exploring the centrality of biography as a medium of CM, many bioquest novels privilege the role of literary imagination over that of historiography in the discovery and presentation of the whole life of the subject, especially the inner life. Thus an important motif in the bioquest novel is the “turn to fiction” on the part of the biographer-protagonist whose emotional participation in the life of the subject will demand more of the inner life than standard historical methods can supply. This is an interesting echo of the practice of some postmodern biographers who, like Peter Ackroyd in Dickens, invent imaginary scenes and dialogues for their subjects. In bioquest novels the biographer-protagonist may “turn to fiction” by introducing imaginary characters or episodes into a “life” or more commonly by imagining an interior monologue that reveals the deeper feelings of the subject. The latter practice may finally slip into omniscient narration. Two novels which highlight the “turn to fiction” are Vargas Llosa’s ironically-entitled The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta and its famous precursor, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Yet it is a common motif, found in bioquest novels by Duranti (in The House on Moon Lake), Stegner, Anna Banti, Ackroyd (in Chatterton), Barnes, Mukherjee, and Graham Swift. Concerning this phenomenon, Marie-Laure Ryan has argued that “the superiority of fiction as instrument of knowledge is being claimed (and arguably demonstrated) for those domains that lay beyond the reach of historical and scientific discourse (and perhaps beyond the reach of truth and knowledge altogether): the self, identity, the unicity and diversity of the subject” (private communication). These domains are also part of the realm of CM.
Another major motif of bioquest fiction is the contest between cultural memory as a source of personal identity and the postmodern susceptibility to self-dispersion. The evanescent or endangered subject, dear to poststructuralists, often appears in the character of the biographer-protagonist who lacks a strong identity, who, like Roland or Blackadder in Possession, seems a mere epigone to strong forebears. The biographer’s "negative capability"--the side benefit of insufficient selfhood--leads him to expend his own life in the pursuit of someone else's. Instable identity is typically emphasized by presenting the biographer as having recently lost a partner through death or divorce, a situation that occurs in novels by Duranti, Colegate, Lurie, Stegner, Swift, and Barnes. This loss provokes an identity crisis whose resolution is typically sought through CM. Often, the biographer's identification with the historical subject becomes a symbolic matrimony whose purpose is to restore a lost identity.
As in the above situation, bioquest fiction underlines the reciprocal nature of the biographer-historical subject relationship. Not only does the biographer uncover, reinvent, shape, and distort the life of the historical subject, so too, the biographee transforms, redefines, and disrupts the biographer’s life.
Though in bioquest fiction the apparent goal of the bioquest is to discover the hidden life of the biographee, the covert purpose is the self-discovery of the biographer. An unsuccessful bioquest may result in self-discovery. Likewise, a successful quest may only confirm the identity problem of the quester, as in the case of the appropriately-named Bill Unwin in Swift’s Ever After. Duranti’s novel Effetti personali provides perhaps the most outrageous example of a frustrated quest for the subject. A recently-divorced Italian journalist discovers that the famous East European dissident poet whose life she is researching does not really exist. He is an invention of the Communist state. Yet the protagonist comes out of this experience with a renewed sense of identity. Here we have the specter of a biography without a life, which, cynics will say, is no more than biography as usual. Even so, this novel shows the intimate personal workings of CM, and the risky but rewarding consequences of a serious engagement with even a pseudo-cultural tradition. Another example of the preceding plot pattern occurs in Del Giudice’s Lo Stadio di Wimbledon. A young researcher hopes to find out why the writer Roberto Bazen (1902-1965; he actually existed) refused to write. The researcher himself is clearly attracted to the idea of being a “writer without books.” Like many other bioquest novels this one is organized around a series of interviews with informants. Finally, the researcher discovers that there are as many “Bazens” as there are informants (cf. the novels of Lurie and Vargas Llosa). He also fails to find a compelling answer to his question about Bazen’s creativity. Yet in the end this lack of success enables him to find his own creative identity. By recording how he could find no persuasive answer to the question of why Bazen did not write, the protagonist becomes a writer himself. Here again, the reciprocal action of quest and self-quest comes to stand for the complex interplay of culture and memory in the more extended sense.
Another common plot pattern embraces the successful quest for the secret self of the subject, an undertaking that usually draws the biographer into confronting her own secret identity. A.S. Byatt's Possession, the most achieved example of this type, presents the gropings for identity of Roland and Maud, young researchers of the 1980’s focused on two different Victorian poets, one male, one female. There is also a host of secondary questers. A kind of summa of bioquest fiction, Possession covers a wide range of issues connected with CM. It voices postmodern doubts about our ability to know, as opposed to invent, the past. It satirizes the abuse of the past in the fetishism of Cropper and the mythologizations of Leonora Stern. It shows how people in the past interpreted their pasts, for example in the Victorian Ash’s biographical poems and in LaMotte’s reworkings of myths and folktales. It shows the dehumanizing effects of deconstructing the past, through the character of Fergus Wolf. It reveals the personal atrophy of academic scholars who live too much in the past, as in the cases of Roland’s professor and Roland himself, about whom his girlfriend says, “You have this thing about this dead man who had a thing about dead people” (23).
Maud and Roland have personalities that resemble postmodern paradigms of the decentered self. Each mistrusts biographical modes of inquiry. Roland's resigned acceptance of his epigone status and Maud's susceptibility to doctrinaire feminism reflect their lack of personal autonomy. And their repugnance towards sexual love betrays a deep uncertainty about who they are. As the plot unfolds they realize the value of investigating the past lives of their subjects, a project that helps them find their own mutual love, release their repressed sexualities, and in Roland's case discover his creative identity as an emerging poet. These discoveries all depend on their enactment of CM by means of the biographical quest. Both succeed in executing the difficult double movement of cultural remembrance: immersion in the lives of the Victorian lesbian poet LaMotte and the married celibate Ash, whose improbable affair unleashes hidden aspects of the personalities of both the Victorians and their researchers; and a meaningful return to their own present lives. Byatt’s novel is a compelling apologia for CM, for an imaginative engagement with the innermost lives of our antecedents, from whom we not only are descended, but also from whom we receive our cultural identities.
Bioquest novels like Possession are rich resources for understanding such complex modalities of cultural remembrance as identification, projection, introjection, disillusionment, necrophilia, and possession by the dead. Identification and empathy with the historical subject can have widely diverse effects on practitioners of CM. They may lead to a psychic transplant wherein the biographer, possessed by the dead, loses his own identity, as in Duranti's The House on Moon Lake and Nabokov's classic bioquest novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. In Alison Lurie's The Truth about Lorin Jones, the biographer Polly Alter identifies so intensely with her subject, a women painter apparently victimized by men, that she seriously misreads her subject's character. In the end her disillusionment with Lorin Jones gives her both a more nuanced view of male-female relations and a subtle understanding of the complexities of biographical quest. A similar transaction occurs between Maud and LaMotte in Byatt’s novel. Psychological projection, an important factor in identification, can be naive, as in Polly Alter’s case, or a conscious, imaginative reaching out to uncover elements of the subject’s personality undiscoverable by normal historical methods, as in Anna Banti’s Artemisia, where the narrator uses projection to provide the inner life of a seventeenth-century woman painter. Similarly, Geoffrey Braithwaite, when he invents an imaginary monologue for Louise Colet, projects his own feelings of betrayal into Flaubert’s abandoned mistress, in what is perhaps the most revealing chapter in Flaubert’s Parrot.
More sinister modalities of cultural remembrance include necrophagia, where the modern biographer figuratively feeds on the dead, and possession by the dead. A host of fictional biographers, such as Mortimer Cropper (in Byatt), who literally tries to rob a grave, Morton Jimroy in Shields’ Swann, whose name also has a mortal flavor, and Raphael Hunter in Wilson’s Incline Our Hearts, hark back to the predatory biographer in James’ The Aspern Papers. The assimilation of the dead by the living is a metaphor for the abuse of the past in order to satisfy the greed or vanity of the biographer. In its pathological mode necrophagia becomes a desecration of the dead, of the past itself. On the opposite end of the scale the attempt to assimilate the dead can cause the dead to reawaken and consume the identity of the living biographer. This is especially an occupational hazard for biographers who suffer from a postmodern vagueness of identity and who try to live through their dead subjects, the weak form of necrophagia. When this occurs, as in novels by Duranti (The House on Moon Lake), Ackroyd, Nabokov, and Richler, dead men return to usurp the autonomy of the present; they take the form of revenants or ghosts who possess or even destroy the identities of their biographers. Here the dead hand of the past strangles present life. This phenomenon not only represents the failure of the biographer to return to the present and reclaim his own identity, it also allegorizes the dangers of an unquestioning, hidebound traditionalism.
Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd (who is an established biographer) is a clever exploration of the sinister implications of CM in a postmodern universe made unstable by the laws of an all-pervasive intertextuality. In the world of his novel, texts are ubiquitous and subjects are forever vanishing. The attempt to engage in CM leads straight to a mise-en-abîme where personal identity dissolves into an uncontrollable intertextuality of pastiche and plagiarism. Every life is a text. Since all texts are intertexts, no life is able to demonstrate its autonomy or authenticity. Appropriately, the subject of the biographical quest is an eighteenth-century poet, Chatterton, who died in adolescence, i.e. before achieving an identity, and who wrote fake medieval poems, passed off as genuine. The documents and paintings concerning Chatterton and discovered by the researcher Wychwood are also forgeries. The labyrinthine intertextuality of cultural memory is epitomized in the figure of Harriet Scope, a contemporary novelist. Scope, for instance, asks Wychwood, who is himself possessed by Chatterton’s ghost, to ghost write, i.e. invent, her autobiography. Scope herself turns out to be a latterday Chatterton of plagiarism: she shamelessly copies and rewrites under her own name an obscure nineteenth-century bioquest novel. But the complexities of intertextuality do not end here, for the novel she plagiarizes also has plagiarism and false attribution as its theme: the biographer-protagonist of that novel finds out that his subject, an ailing poet, made his wife write the poems for which he later became famous (69). Thus, in Ackroyd’s bioquest novel, immersion in the past opens a breach in the infinite text of Time, a breach that allows the dead to return to life, to “textualize” and decenter the identities of the “living.” In Ackroyd’s postmodern world the “dead” live and the living pass through life as wraiths. His novelistic deconstruction of CM suggests that the I-Thou relationship of biographer and subject inexorably slides into a confusing, indissoluble intertextualization of the identities of both.
VI. Conclusions. As the novel of biographical quest shows, there are many ways in which the practice of CM can go awry. Nevertheless, CM still offers a vital and accessible means for engaging the past in the postmodern era. The complexity of CM-- and hence its aptness as a fictional theme--arises out of two antithetical functions. Through the literary imagination and intense identification with the inner life of the subject, CM works to make us feel that the past belongs to us. Through its passionate (though not uncritical) commitment to the value of history, it also works to preserve the autonomy, the otherness, of the past in the face of cultural amnesia, traditionalism (the sentimentalization of the past, as in multicultural nostalgia), and the poststructuralist textualization of past life.
I would like to conclude by sowing a seed of doubt about the deconstruction of CM in novels such as Chatterton, Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, and Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. Like other bioquest novels, these brilliant works revel in the metaphor of life as text, of biography as the play of intertextual lives. Texts are, after all, our major means of access to past lives. Yet the poststructuralist positions played out in these works, for all of the dazzling narrativity they generate, often strike me as counter-intuitive and needlessly reductive. In these novels we witness the relentless textualization of all life, past and present. Every person is text and intertext to such a degree that the autonomy of the individual seems to vanish. This is, of course, another version of the postmodern “disappearance of the subject,” the “death of the author.”
It is not surprising that writers, who spend their days writing--and living in--their texts, should see life as “written,” as a kind of writing. The poststructuralist reduction of life to text is a professional hazard for both critics and authors. A powerful intuition tells me, though, that life, even life in the past, has an existence independent of texts. Lives are much more than the auras of texts, more than insubstantial holograms conjured up by the writer’s magic.
As we enter the third millenium and become more and more dependent on screens, on electronic communication, on cybertexts and hypertexts, as we pour our lives into virtual reality programs, or pull our lives out of them, the tendency to think of life itself as virtual, as digital, as text, will gain force. The reckless transformation of the world through overpopulation, through the uncontrolled expansion of consumer capitalism, will result in the further textualization of the past as the historical fabric of towns and regions is obliterated, pastiched, or turned into museum exhibits. The past will seem less and less autonomous. Already, in American English, to be “history” is synonymous with being dead.
We will come to think more and more in terms of virtual pasts. Virtual reality has already intruded as a theme in bioquest fiction. In Mukherjee’s remarkable novel The Holder of the World the biographer-protagonist acquires a virtual reality program that reconstitutes seventeenth-century India. She then uses the program to solve a puzzle concerning her historical subject.
It is difficult to understand the full implications, for CM and for literature, of the translation of the past into “virtual reality.” Someone will already protest that the “past” has always been a product of literature, and is therefore nothing if not virtual. I would turn this argument around and say that the texts of the past and the texts of literature are the products of lives. Without these lives all of our texts and programs would lack both virtuality and reality. Whether in the end virtual reality programs of the past can serve the subtle, humane purposes of cultural remembrance remains to be seen.
The pre-eminence of Possession in the ranks of bioquest fiction, its importance in the postmodern debate over CM, owe a great deal to Byatt’s compelling representation of the non-virtual characteristics of the past. While this novel fully comprehends postmodern textualization through authorial ventriloquism and brilliant pastiche of a wide array of genres, it goes much deeper than this; it goes beyond intertextuality. Herein lies the power and originality of her narrative. Possession is itself a text; yet, paradoxically, the novel uses its literary devices to support the claim that past lives possess an irreducible extratextual dimension. Byatt shows how texts shape lives, but also how the aliveness and liveliness of texts owe a great debt to lived experience; how public texts spring out of the secret inner lives and passions of autonomous persons; and how knowing the private lives of writers powerfully serves to illuminate their texts. In effect the novel calls into question the coarse reduction of life to text. It works to re-establish the crucial difference, the invigorating dialectic between texts and what texts represent. Byatt somehow succeeds in conveying a past whose life extends beyond textuality.
In chapter 15, halfway through the novel, the author unexpectedly shifts into omniscient narration of the past, of Ash’s and LaMotte’s journey to Lincolnshire. Up to this point in the novel, we have only known the Victorian protagonists through the texts they left behind, letters, poems, diaries, stories, etc. Now we see them directly, through the omniscient narrator’s eyes, riding in the train. We enter into Ash’s consciousness. The reader is caught completely off guard. A colleague told me that he almost stopped reading the novel at that point. Byatt has made us enter the extratextual past: for postmoderns the experience is shocking, atrocious, bracing. We enter the consciousness of people long dead, who lived and loved in a rich extratextual world that we can never fully know, but a world whose existence we can readily presuppose, a world we can glimpse into and imagine. Historical subjects did write; many did live in order to write; but they also wrote in order intensify and extend the limits of their extratextual lives.
In this finest of all bioquest novels, Byatt has established new foundations for cultural remembrance. She has broken the tautology of the intertext. In doing so she has gone a long way towards defining what Daniele Del Giudice calls that “point at which the knowledge of how to be intersects with the knowledge of how to write.”
Ackroyd, Peter, Dickens, New York, HarperCollins, 1990.
---, Chatterton, New York, Grove Press, 1987.
Banti, Anna, Artemisia, Verona, Mondadori, 1953.
Barnes, Julian, Flaubert’s Parrot, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Byatt, A.S., Possession, New York, Random, 1990.
Colegate, Isabel, The Deceits of Time, New York, Penguin, 1989.
Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism, ed. W.H. Epstein, West Lafayette, Purdue UP, 1991.
Del Giudice, Daniele, Lo Stadio di Wimbledon, Torino, Einaudi, 1983.
Duranti, Francesca, The House on Moon Lake, tr. S. Sartarelli, New York, Random, 1986.
---, Effetti personali, Milano, Rizzoli, 1989.
Fish, Stanley, Biography and Intention, in Contesting the Subject, op. cit.
Gordon, Mary, Men and Angels, New York, 1985.
James, Henry, The Aspern Papers  and Other Stories, New York, Oxford UP, 1983.
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer, Heat and Dust, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991 (1975).
Korshunow, Irina, Das Spiegelbild, Hamburg, Goldmann, 1992.
Lively, Penelope, According to Mark, New York, Harper and Row, 1989.
Lurie, Alison, The Truth about Lorin Jones, Boston, Little Brown, 1988.
Mukherjee, Bharati, The Holder of the World, New York, Knopf, 1993.
Nabokov, Vladimir, The Gift, tr. M. Scammell and VN, New York, Putnam’s, 1963
---,The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, New York, New Directions, 1959 (1941).
Richler, Mordecai, Solomon Gursky was Here, New York, Penguin, 1991.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea, tr. L. Alexander, New York, New Directions, 1964 (1938).
Shields, Carol, Swann, New York, Viking, 1987.
Spender, Natasha, Private and Public Lives, in “The Times Literary Supplement,” 9 October 1992, pp. 13-14.
Stegner, Wallace, Angle of Repose, New York, Fawcett Crest, 1971.
Stoppard, Tom, Arcadia, London, Faber and Faber, 1993.
---, Indian Ink, London, Faber and Faber, 1995.
Swift, Graham, Ever After, New York, Knopf, 1992.
Vargas Llosa, Mario, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, tr. A. MacAdam, New York, Vintage, 1989.
Wilson, A.N., Incline Our Hearts, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
Davies, Robertson. Murther and Walking Spirits, New York,Penguin, 1991. see 267-268
Gupta, Sunetra. Moonlight into Marzipan, London, Phoenix House, 1995.
Hollinghurst, Alan. The Swimming Pool Library, New York, Random House, 1998.
McEwan, Ian. Black Dogs.
Work, James. The Tobermory Manuscript, Unity, Maine, Five Star, 2000.
This essay was first published in Sincronie III.5 (Milano: Jan.-June, 1999), 137-150.