The Biographer’s Stone

By Nigel Hamilton

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’”
James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.


I’ve always liked this story. Samuel Johnson, the father of modern biography – the man who openly dared to argue the case for biography (a term only recently invented at the time) to be taken more seriously than history in the mid-eighteenth century, as I tried to show in my Biography: A Brief History.

I see in my mind’s eye the great Doctor kicking the church stone (perhaps an old gravestone?) really hard – a mark of his exasperation with Bishop Berkeley and his brood.

Clever philosophical ruminations may certainly fascinate us, but they often miss the point: namely the simple truth. Stones actually exist independent of our senses – and woe to our toes if we pretend otherwise!

Philosophers, though, still dispute Johnson’s understanding of truth as something factual and independent of the senses. He was accused, posthumously, of “philosophical incompetence,” or argumentum ad lapidem – addressing the stone, rather than his opponent’s philosophical argument.

This difference of opinion reminds me, in certain ways, of the difference between biography and “life-writing” – at least in terms of those who study and philosophize on those two genres.

We biographers, by and large, are practical rather than philosophical folk. Like Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind we believe in fact. And in verifiable truth, as far as possible. We’ve been called many names, from journeymen to voyeurs: but even when trashing us for our invasive, investigative research, our critics hold our feet to the fire of verifiable truth. They rarely dispute it, if proven, as such; if they object to the truth we present, it is because they sometimes consider it inconvenient, or disrespectful, or hurtful. Or distracting, in the case of the study or enjoyment of art.

The reviewer of two new volumes of T.S. Eliot’s verse, for example, congratulated the editors (Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue) on presenting Eliot pure and unadulterated by biographers. “Eliot’s politics and anti-Semitism, as well as his fraught sexuality, have left us so bogged down in biographical criticism that we can lose sight of the poems,” the reviewer commented, in an article entitled “Deciphering the Old Stones.”[1] Literary criticism, yes; too much biographical information, no.

That uneasy, often troubling, sore lies at the heart of biography when the subject is a poet or painter. But there are many other sores with which the biographer must contend. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that the broadcasting of the truth can be dangerous. I was eventually dissuaded, for example, from publishing the manuscript of my admiring portrait of the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nehru family argued that my account of the prime minister’s late-life, platonic love affair with the wife of the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, would be misconstrued by Bharatiya Janata Party, and used to trash Nehru’s beloved Congress Party at the polls. It broke my heart to lock away the manuscript – which Lady Mountbatten’s daughters had read, and which, for their part, they said they loved. But how could I, living in the West, argue with Sonia Gandhi’s conviction that publication could lead to bloodshed in India? The cynical, take-no-prisoners rise of the BJP – a political party threatening to abandon her grandfather-in-law’s principles of peaceful co-existence – was just too real a prospect for her. And given that both her mother-in-law and her husband were assassinated, she had every right to be wary.

My point is this: biographers may have to suppress the truth for any number of reasons. Most often it is at the behest of heirs and flame-keepers, who can use – or misuse – copyright to protect the reputations of their patriarchs or matriarchs after death. Despite this, though, the search for truth remains for biographers the holy grail. That stone may be painful to kick, and in the end we may elect to tap it only gently with our toes. But it is still there, and will remain there for those who follow in our biographical footsteps, if we decide to spare our phalanges – or those of others.

I like the notion and the symbolic image of the biographer’s stone, therefore. I am also amused, though, by the story of that other stone: the philosopher’s stone.

Known as lapis philosophorum the stone began its saga in the Roman or late Hellenic period, around 300 AD: the idea of making gold out of base metal. As such the philosopher’s stone preoccupied scientists and sages for almost fifteen hundred years – until, in the end, they finally realized they were on a fool’s errand. Base metals couldn’t be turned into gold, however much the idea fascinated them.

Is the lack of concern with truth which the philosophers of “life-writing” demonstrate not similar, in its way, to lapis philosophorum?

I confess I had to laugh when reading an interview with the non-fiction writer Simon Winchester, a wonderful journalist, biographer and geographer, in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.[2] Winchester was asked what genres he liked reading. Novelists of the outback and detective stories, he said. And those that he avoids? “Frankly,” he responded, “anything that has the name Derrida in it.”

Nigel Hamilton

[1] David Mason, “Deciphering the Old Stones,” The Wall Street Journal, December 12-13, 2015.

[2] Simon Winchester, “By the Book,” New York Times Book Review, December 13, 2015

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