Joanny Moulin, “Darwin Bashing”: Review of A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker

“DARWIN BASHING”, a review by Joanny Moulin.

 

Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker

by Andrew Norman Wilson

London: John Murray, 2017

448 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1444794908

The main temptation to read A. N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker is that it presents itself as a “damning biography”, written by a latter-day discipline of Lytton Stratchey, the great “debunker” and paragon of the New Biography: Wilson clearly sets out to tilt at the impavid statue of another eminent Victorian. Alas! His attempt soon proves Quixotic. Wilson’s tone and style are those of the polemicist, and he declares his intention in capital letters from the very start: ‘DARWIN WAS WRONG. That was the unlooked-for conclusion to which I was inexorably led while writing this book.’ This is a biographie à thèse, although the exact nature of Wilson’s thesis is rationalized only in the last chapters. To begin with, Wilson’s take is that Darwin’s theory was less a purely scientifically valid proposal that the produce of his historical time and social class: a vision of the world chiefly inspired by Malthus’s economics that operated as a justification of the bourgeoisie of which Charles Darwin was the unrepentant offspring. This pushing at open doors is the pretext to an unrelenting aggression, no doubt partly motivated by class resentment, as Wilson’s father was once an employee of Wedgwood’s, the family of Charles Darwin’s mother, Susannah, and of his wife, Emma, who was also his cousin. ‘It remains to be seen, as this class dies out, to be replaced by quite different social groupings, whether the Darwinian idea will survive, or whether, like other cranky Victorian fads’.

The syllogism on which this argument is based, as if to say: Darwinism is the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, and Darwin’s social class is being replaced by others at the top of the ladder, therefore Darwinism, especially social Darwinism is not scientifically valid, is disturbingly based on approximations, often so gross that they amount to falsehoods. For instance, Wilson purposefully forgets that ‘the survival of the fittest’ was not Darwin’s phrase in the first instance, and that Darwin himself said nothing at all of the social applications of his theory, which were developed later by some of his followers. That these remarks will eventually be made, very late in the book and as if grudgingly, does not exonerate the biographer from the fault of having ignored them in the first place. Paradoxically, Wilson practises a kind of implicit ‘Darwinism’, as if science was a matter of struggle between various theories, and scientific truth the result of the survival of the fittest of those at a given historical time.

To such approximations and blunt assertions made in blatant bad faith must be added a number of factual errors with which the book is literally ridden, but to point them out would not only be tedious, it would mean entering the lists of the time-worn polemic between defender and detractors of Darwin, which is precisely the sterile terrain on which Wilson hopes to thrive. By an inversion of the most arrant tricks of hagiography, Wilson insists on reading into the childhood of Charles Darwin the signs of his supposed intellectual dishonesty. The very title of the book, Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythographer, implies that Darwin was deliberately insincere from the start, as a man and therefore as a scientist. For instance, the biographer pounces on Darwin’s own confession, in his autobiography, of his propensity to tell fibs as a child, to jump to the conclusion that he was constitutionally dishonest: ‘“I may here also confess that as a little boy I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement.” The solipsism and the dishonesty would scarcely be worth mentioning in so small a child, were it not that both characteristics were carried on into grown-up life.’

In like manner, Wilson denies Darwin’s endorsement of Darwin-Wedgwood family’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement, going as far as to imply that his personal response to the question on the well-known Wedgwood medallion, “Am I not a man and brother?” was most certainly negative. On the contrary, in his narrative of the voyage of the Beagle, the biographer omits the episode of Darwin’s row with Fitzroy on the question of slavery, and his explicit disgust when he witnessed the behaviour of slaveholding planters in Brazil, but emphasizes every word in Darwin’s writing that do unfortunately reflect Victorian racial prejudices, which by twenty-first-century standards are bound to be deemed politically incorrect, to impart that in fact Darwin was a racist, and that he implicitly condoned in advance the social Darwinism and eugenics of some Darwinians, going as far as to imply that Darwin paved the way for Nazism. ‘Of these myths,’ write Wilson in the last chapter, ‘one of the most potent is the Darwinian belief that “all of nature is a constant struggle between power and weakness, a constant struggle of the strong over the weak”.’ […] ‘(The sentence I quoted at the end of the last paragraph was, of course, spoken not by Darwin or Huxley but by Adolf Hitler in a speech entitled “World Jewry and World Markets, the Guilty Men of the World War”.)’

This is guerrilla tactics: the biographer is dogging his subject at the heels, constantly on the lurk for the next opportunity to bite. From beginning to end, we are served with a drab, factually dubious narrative, interlarded with scathingly judgemental interventions by the biographer. Two drives, shooting at cross purposes, pull the narrative forward: chronology and criticism. Wilson is unravelling the yarn of Darwin’s life, leaving no stone unturned to find what his critical verve could pounce upon, declaring that he ‘would be cautious about judging men and women of the nineteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first’, yet constantly doing so in the same breath. On the whole, Wilson keeps looking down on Darwin, in a typical illustration of what C. S. Lewis called ‘”chronological snobbery”: the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited’ (Surprised by Joy).

What makes this a bad biography has nothing to do with the biographer’s opinions about his subject, or with his polemical style as such, but everything with his lack of subtlety and deontological responsibility as a writer. In other words, Wilson has jettisoned any idea of the indispensable self-discipline of a biographer to avoid a posture of omniscience that is purely a benefit of hindsight, and makes no effort whatsoever to try and understand the personages in their own time, but on the contrary, he manifests a willingness, and insistence on not doing so. If reading his book is an aesthetic experience of sorts, it is a negative one, very similar to that of reading one of those pulp fiction novels where awkward scenes of sex and violence are interspersed by lengthy passages that seem to be dull on purpose to create cheap suspense. Thus, the life narrative stretches are the run-of-the-mill episodes of Darwin’s well-known life, written out without any innovation or dramatization, watered down by unessential detailed portrayals of secondary characters, that serve as the background against which the next bilious onslaught of the biographer’s discourse will soon flare up.

Towards the middle of the book, one realizes that the writing oscillates between two modes: narration, or the life story, and argumentation, or the unfolding of the biographer’s discourse in reflexive commentaries. Some chapters, one feels, are predominantly narrative with a discursive minor, others the other way around, in irregular alternation. This goes on roughly for two thirds of the book, until the year 1859. Then, with the publication of the On the Origin of Species, Wilson shifts over to summarizing the main argument of Darwin’s work, and criticizing it from the point of view of 20th and 21st century science, convoking a plethora of modern scientists, among whom Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Michael Denton, Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, etc. Meanwhile, the biographer addresses the readers to comment on the versions of the Origin they have probably read, staging himself at his writing desk, describing the physical aspect of the sources, again relentlessly casting doubt on Darwin’s honesty, comparing him to a conjuror, as if he had been a mere self-server, propounding a theory that he knew to be false in his self-serving thirst for fame.

Putting aside matters of opinion and literary good manners, the major problem is that Wilson is transgressing the codes of the genre, stepping out of the biography into the essay, or more exactly the pamphlet. It is not a case of hybridization of the genres, but of code-shifting. Wilson is constantly jumping over the fence and back, leaving the stage as a biographer to reappear immediately in a pamphleteer’s costume, and then vice versa. The problem is not that a so-called ‘reading pact’ be breached, but that by doing so Wilson loses his credibility both as biographer and as pamphleteer. The result is farcical, Wilson’s antics producing an effect of involuntary humour, very much like a struggling stand-up artist, or a ventriloquist whose puppet interrupts him in an obstreperous voice and register. In other words, Wilson’s chronological snobbery goes into overdrive, and becomes caricatural.

Wilson’s role model is clearly Lytton Stratchey: he inherits his bias against yet another ‘eminent Victorian’, but without Strachey’s wit and humour, and from a standpoint rendered inefficient by the overextended time gap, as the satirical debunking of the Victorian simply cannot have the same relevance today as one century ago. In this respect, Wilson’s imitation Stracheyan style is as outdated as a ventriloquist’s show: it is hopelessly Kitsch.  Furthermore, Wilson commits a variant of Stachey’s redhibitory fault of style in Elizabeth and Essex, where the ‘New Biographer’ mixed fiction with non-fiction. Writing an essay to demonstrate, or a pamphlet to castigate, the supposed ineptitude of Darwin’s theory is one thing. Writing Darwin’s biography is another, because the arguments against the enduring validity of Darwin’s theory are not to be found in Darwin’s life, but in the afterlife of his work. Wilson would have had a point if he could have demonstrated that Darwin was a ‘mythographer’ in the sense that he deliberately set out, in his own time, to produce a myth, that is to say a fake theory, motivated only by his yearning for fame and riches. But that is not what Wilson is doing; although he repeatedly insinuates as much, his work as a biographer strictly speaking relentlessly demonstrates the contrary against his better knowledge. The shifting over from a narration of Darwin’s life to a discussion of the reception of Darwin’s theory would have been critically profitable as long as it remained historically consistent. The anachronism of assessing Darwin’s theory from the vantage point of ulterior knowledge — see for instance Wilson’s use of modern genetics: ‘Darwin wrote in complete ignorance of the modern science of genetics, and what he knew of embryology was, by the standards of our times, primitive in the extreme’—is damaging to the biographer’s work, not to his subject’s, because on the epistemological level it is a gross fault of method, while on the level of aesthetics it is a grotesque fault of taste, and on the deontological ground it is dreadfully inelegant.

For all its failings, Wilson’s book deserves some degree of critical redemption when he eventually explains his point, showing that he was perhaps not motivated so much by a hatred of Darwin, as by sheer disbelief, considering that Darwin’s theory does not hold water as an overall explanation of the world, and that it deserves to be deconstructed, just as ‘Freud and Marx have been toppled from their thrones in our own day’, as the ‘great narrative’ or ‘ideology’ that Wilson says it is, without having necessarily got to be replaced by an alternative theory. Here, Wilson the belated Romantic evokes John Keats, vindicating ‘negative capability’, that is, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the latter being, in Wilson’s eyes, ‘the foundation of the modern obsession with science.’

It seems most likely that A. N. Wilson started off to write yet another biography of Darwin, and that in the course of his work his ideas about Darwinism matured to the point of entailing a mutation of his project into a pamphlet on evolution theory. The other option may be that he deliberately set out to use the popular genre of biography as a potentially powerful vector for his ideas about the theory of evolution today. One way or another, he opted for a losing strategy, because by mixing the two genres, or rather by superimposing to different projects onto one another, he has exposed himself to unavoidably negative criticism on both sides. It is a well-known anecdote that the publisher John Murray III said that he considered the Origin of Species ‘as absurd as contemplating a fruitful union between a poker and a rabbit’, but decided to publish it all the same because he thought the book would be much discussed. Although it falls very short of equalling Darwin in scandalous fame, Wilson’s Darwin, also published by John Murray, sets out to puncture the myth of the great man, and is deservedly skewered in critical discussions.

Joanny Moulin
Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Joanny Moulin is Professor of English literature at the DEMA, Department of English Studies, Aix Marseille Univ, Aix-en-Provence, France. He is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) and the president of the Biography Society.

Yannick Gouchan: Le jeune Karl Marx, compte-rendu de film/ Film review

Compte-rendu de film par Yannick Gouchan:
Le jeune Karl Marx de  Raoul Peck.

 

 

 

    Le film du réalisateur haïtien Raoul Peck est sorti sur les écrans français le 27 septembre 2017. Il avait été présenté en sélection officielle à la 67e Berlinale, hors compétition. Il s’agit d’une co-production allemande, française et belge, avec un scénario de Raoul Peck et Pascal Bonitzer. Le film en version originale est en trois langues, allemand, français et anglais, en fonction des lieux où se trouvent les protagonistes.

 

Travailler pour l’humanité, tel était le titre d’un scénario italien, signé par Silvia D’Amico et Rafael Guzman, qui devait aboutir à une biographie cinématographique de Marx, après la tentative d’Eisenstein d’adapter le Capital. Le rêve inachevé de Roberto Rossellini de réaliser ce film trouve enfin un accomplissement derrière la caméra d’un réalisateur haïtien, partagé entre le Congo où il a vécu et Berlin où il s’est formé, remarqué en 2016 avec I’m Not Your Negro sur la lutte pour les droits civiques, à travers la figure de James Baldwin.

Ce qui semble s’annoncer comme un biopic historique centré sur une des icônes, adorée ou décriée selon les époques et les aires idéologiques, de la pensée économique, politique et de la philosophie, entre la fin du XIXe siècle et tout au long du XXe, constitue un exemple de démarche biographique sélective et ciblée, avec l’intention de dépoussiérer et de rendre actuelle – mais n’est-ce pas déjà une forme de simplification réductrice ? – l’image d’un personnage et de sa pensée. À commencer par un Marx qui porte une barbe brune de quelques centimètres seulement.

Le film de Peck consiste également à proposer deux biographies en même temps car, parallèlement au parcours de Marx, c’est l’éveil politique et l’engagement de Friedrich Engels qui constitue l’autre pôle. Entre la Rhénanie conservatrice des années 1840, le Paris des exilés et des socialistes proudhoniens, la Manchester parvenue à un premier apogée de sa puissance industrielle et de l’exploitation de la classe ouvrière qui en assure la survie, le Londres de la Ligue des Justes et la Bruxelles servant de refuge aux intellectuels bannis de France, c’est véritablement une effervescence, ponctuelle mais décisive, qui est analysée avec précision. La biographie n’élude en aucune façon les débats – longuement filmés – sur l’action à mener ni les dissensions au sein des partisans d’une même cause dont les moyens d’intervention pourtant finissent par diverger (par exemple la rupture avec Wilhelm Weitling). Un long-métrage de moins de deux heures ne peut affronter convenablement la complexité des confrontations entre Marx et ses contemporains, mais le film ne se contente pas de l’effleurer pour autant, il en restitue une version à la fois didactique et documentée, que certains jugeront sans doute caricaturale. Tout comme les images du générique de fin, maladroitement juxtaposées, avec pour intention de démontrer la postérité des idées de Marx dans un monde soumis à l’économie libérale. On passe alors de la biographie au mythe, mal digéré en voulant l’adapter à notre monde. À ce propos on a parlé, un peu trop sévèrement à notre avis, du « louable didactisme de cet europudding», dans les colonnes de Libération, le 27 septembre 2017.

 

L’acteur allemand August Diehl campe avec conviction un Karl Marx âgé de vingt-six ans au début du film, loin de l’image officielle de commandeur barbu représentée à l’envi, sur le point de s’exiler à Paris après que la police a tenté plusieurs fois de censurer le Rheinishe Zeitung à Cologne, dont il était rédacteur. Dans la capitale française où il réside avec son épouse – la sœur du futur ministre réactionnaire de Westphalie, Jenny von Westphalen, héritière d’une dynastie d’aristocrates, interprétée à l’écran par Vicky Krieps – Marx fait la rencontre de Engels, interprété par Stefan Konarske. Leur amitié et la complémentarité de leur collaboration intellectuelle constitue le cœur du film, peut-être même le vrai sujet du biopic.

Biographie intense et inspirée de la jeunesse d’un homme célèbre que l’histoire et ses représentations populaires et idéologiques ont partiellement dénaturé, mais également biographie d’un jeune héritier du monde capitaliste industriel britannique qui renie les valeurs de sa caste jusqu’à vivre avec une ancienne ouvrière de son père (Lizzie Burns, interprétée par Hannah Steele), le film est encore et surtout la biographie d’une pensée qui s’élabore difficilement durant cinq années cruciales qui aboutiront à la rédaction du “Manifeste du Parti Communisteˮ en 1847, à Londres, quelques mois avant l’effervescence européenne du Printemps des peuples, entre 1848 et 1849. Le Marx biographé à l’image n’est donc pas – encore – l’auteur du Capital, ni l’homme statufié sur les places des villes d’Europe de l’Est, mais un homme jeune convaincu de pouvoir et de devoir dépasser les idées anarchistes de Proudhon (interprété par un Olivier Gourmet soucieux de garder la distance nécessaire avec ce bouillonnant journaliste et philosophe allemand), tout en utilisant le relai de la Ligue des Justes qu’il contribue à réformer. Le parcours européen du jeune Karl Marx donne matière à une œuvre biographique qui oscille entre les données historiques fondamentales (par exemple l’attentat perpétré contre Frédéric-Guillaume IV de Prusse et l’article que Marx rédige immédiatement après, ce qui provoque, de manière concomitante, son expulsion de la France), les références circonstanciées à la culture de l’époque (on croise Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, Mikhaïl Bakounine, personnages volontairement minorés dans le scénario, et même Gustave Courbet dans son atelier) et les détails d’une micro-histoire domestique dont on saisit progressivement toute l’importance. En effet, la vie conjugale et la naissance de deux enfants, dans le film (alors que le couple aura sept enfants en tout, dont quatre mourront avant l’âge adulte), dans des conditions économiques précaires d’exilés, apportent une authenticité au récit et permet de ce fait d’échapper à une biographie intellectuelle stricte (ou pire, une biographie politique) qui aurait oublié que Marx était aussi un époux et un père de famille, avant de révolutionner les sciences économiques. La part fictionnelle, soutenue par des détails dont l’intention serait de garantir la “véritéˮ d’une vie, entretient l’attention du spectateur et fait office de “liantˮ en quelque sorte entre les grandes scènes de débat, de rédaction de textes, de confrontation d’idées et d’action militante. Ainsi, par exemple, les discussions privées entre époux, les responsabilités du père de famille, les nuits blanches parisiennes des deux amis, leur récupération le lendemain et le bol de soupe au petit déjeuner nourrissent-ils efficacement le récit.

Le segment chronologique correspondant aux quelques années qui séparent le départ de l’Allemagne (1843 et la collaboration parisienne aux Annales franco-allemandes) et la Révolution de 1848 fournit une matière suffisamment riche pour construire une belle biographie cinématographique dont un des enjeux réside dans la (re)découverte d’un Marx journaliste engagé, par le prisme de la genèse de sa pensée économique et politique, sans oublier le portrait complémentaire d’Engels qui entre dans sa vie en 1844. L’iconographie marxienne véhiculée depuis plus d’un siècle s’en trouve salutairement nuancée, grâce à une démarche qui prend soin de scruter de l’intérieur la nouveauté que pouvait constituer les idées d’émancipation du jeune Karl Marx, au sein d’une époque marquée par les combats contre un nouvel esclavage moderne du système industriel capitaliste. Le film de Peck n’est pas un exposé sur les débuts de la pensée marxiste – n’oublions pas qu’il s’agit de cinéma, pas d’un colloque d’historiens ou d’un congrès politique – mais la biographie d’un homme européen qui a pleinement incarné l’esprit de 1848.

 

Si Marx apparaît désormais, aussi, comme un jeune journaliste partagé entre la fougue émerveillée d’une pensée révolutionnaire en devenir, l’amitié nécessaire et sincère avec un aristocrate anglais d’origine allemande converti au communisme, et le quotidien d’une famille contrainte à se déplacer après chaque expulsion, n’est-ce pas en somme une intention biographique réussie, destinée non pas tant à réhabiliter une idéologie, largement dévoyée par ses thuriféraires, qu’à montrer la pertinence d’un discours et d’une attitude par le récit d’une vie, même sur quelques années ?

Yannick Gouchan

Yannick Gouchan  est Professeur de littérature et civilisation italiennes contemporaines à Aix Marseille Université.

Yannick Gouchan is Professor of contemporary Italian literature and Italian studies at Aix Marseille Université.

 

Charles Darwin: a Victorian Mythmaker, by A.N. Wilson

A. N. Wilson
(
John Murray, 7 September 2017)

Editor’s presentation

Charles Darwin: the man who discovered evolution? The man who killed off God? Or a flawed man of his age, part genius, part ruthless careerist who would not acknowledge his debts to other thinkers?

In this bold new life – the first single volume biography in twenty-five years – A. N. Wilson, the acclaimed author of The Victorians and God’s Funeral, goes in search of the celebrated but contradictory figure Charles Darwin.

Darwin was described by his friend and champion, Thomas Huxley, as a ‘symbol’. But what did he symbolize? In Wilson’s portrait, both sympathetic and critical, Darwin was two men. On the one hand, he was a naturalist of genius, a patient and precise collector and curator who greatly expanded the possibilities of taxonomy and geology. On the other hand, Darwin, a seemingly diffident man who appeared gentle and even lazy, hid a burning ambition to be a universal genius. He longed to have a theory which explained everything.

But was Darwin’s 1859 master work, On the Origin of Species, really what it seemed, a work about natural history? Or was it in fact a consolation myth for the Victorian middle classes, reassuring them that the selfishness and indifference to the poor were part of nature’s grand plan?

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is a radical reappraisal of one of the great Victorians, a book which isn’t afraid to challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy while bringing us closer to the man, his revolutionary idea and the wider Victorian age.

Biographical Notes

A. N. Wilson was born in North Staffordshire, and taught literature for seven years at New College Oxford, where he won the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize and the Ellerton Prize. He is the author of over twenty novels, and as many works of non-fiction. His biography of Tolstoy won the Whitbread Prize in 1988. His biography of Queen Victoria was published to critical acclaim. He is also the author of The Victorians and of God’s Funeral, an account of how the Victorians lost their faith. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in London, and is the father of three daughters.

Publication: Dumas fils ou l’Anti-Oedipe Marianne Schopp, Claude Schopp

GONCOURT DE LA BIOGRAPHIE 2017

Éditions Phébus  (4 May 2017)

 

Presentation des Editions Phebus:

“On connaît La Dame aux camélias, l’histoire d’une courtisane abandonnée, qui inspira La Traviata. Mais qui se souvient de son auteur, Alexandra Dumas fils ? Ce fut pourtant l’un des plus célèbres dramaturges de son temps, aussi illustre que son père, le créateur des Trois Mousquetaires.

Tout le poussait à détester son géniteur : sa naissance hors mariage, leurs rivalités d’écrivains, leurs caractères opposés…. Mais l’enfant indigne se révéla un anti-Œdipe : protecteur de son paternel, cet « enfant qu’il eut tout petit ».

À partir de correspondances inédites, Marianne et Claude Schopp nous offrent la première biographie d’Alexandre Dumas fils. Un véritable roman, riche en rebondissements pour raconter une personnalité complexe, tour à tour défenseur des filles perdues et pourfendeur de la dissolution des mœurs. L’une des incarnations les plus clinquantes de la France artiste et bourgeoise de Napoléon III.

Claude Schopp est l’un des plus grands spécialistes d’Alexandre Dumas. On lui doit de nombreuses éditions critiques et la découverte d’œuvres inconnues du romancier. C’est notamment à lui que l’on doit d’avoir sorti de l’oubli Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine. Il est le responsable des Cahiers Dumas.

An eminent expert in Alexandre Dumas studies, Claude Schopp has published numerous critical studies and has brought to the fore several unknown works by Dumas. He is in charge of the Cahiers Dumas.

Upcoming: the First Conference of the Biography Society 19-21 Oct.2017

 

Save the date!

The first Conference of the Biography Society, an interdisciplinary colloquium:

Affiche 4-Vérité d'une vie_HD
Programme:
Programme_la_verite_d_une_vie_HD_3
The Conference’s internet site :
Image credits: Basile Moulin

https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/

direct link to the programme: 
https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/data/pages/Programme_la_verite_d_une_vie_New_1909.pdf

 

Abstract:
Biography entertains a peculiar relationship to the notion of verity, by aiming far less at the Truth than at the fluctuating truths of unique individual lives. Indeed, in science and in the humanities alike, truth appears to us today as a construction, always conveyed by a discourse ; indeed, verity is an unattainable horizon, an object of desire that keeps receding on and on as we strive to get closer to it, but the very quest ceaselessly modifies the landscape of our knowledge. The recent development of ‘biofiction’ can be interpreted as a ‘biographisation’ of contemporary fiction, which characterises our time, and is comparable to the ‘novelisation’ of genres one century ago. This phenomenon is what Hans Renders, Binne de Haan et Jonne Harmsma investigate in The Biographical Turn : Lives in History (Routledge, 2016). In historiography and philosophy of history, Hayden White’s theses, especially in The Fiction of Narrative (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), like Ivan Jablonka’s in L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine (Seuil, 2014), clearly pose the problem of the partly fictional, and in any case literary nature of historiography. Biography, commonly described as a hybrid genre, between history and literature (see Michael Benton, Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), is distinguished by a peculiar aesthetics; it is assessed (by readers, critics, and the juries of literary awards) by the double standard of the verity of the knowledge it conveys, and the quality of the style in which it expresses it. A biographer is expected, on the one hand, to administrate the proof of what she writes in her texts and paratexts, and, on the other hand, to do so while producing a text where the pleasure to read must satisfy the desire to know: where scientific quest and aesthetic experience cross-fertilize one another. The most interesting biographers are those for whom literary writing is not a mere form but their very method, the very path of their thinking towards a better understanding of their subject. Some are fascinated by the gradual metamorphoses their character goes through, others keep swinging backward and forward in the chronological unravelling of a life, unwilling to wrench their eyes from the accomplished historical personage. Mixing memory and desire, scientific truth and literary verity, biography is a peculiar field, a crossroads of humanities, where a significant turn is taking place. The biographic turn partakes of a reprise, a new start, a reorientation of writing and reading towards this verity, always surprising, of which we cannot but see that it is the text that our lives are made of. Contributions can propose theoretical reflexions on the notion of verity in biography, or case studies, interrogating for instance the political uses of biography to inflect the “truth” about a person in the eyes of the public, addressing methods of investigation and verification of the facts, or analysing literary, rhetorical, strategies of administration of the proof. They can also be studies of the paratexts (footnote, prefaces, postfaces, documentary appendixes, etc.), or of the iconographic illustrations, taking especially into account the impact of photography. Considerations on the cinema are also expected, investigating the special relationship of biographical films to historical truth. In the field of digital humanities, the truth effect of on-line biographical notices and dictionaries of biography, as well as the impact of digital tools on biographical research are a case in point. Papers should also address fictionalisation as a method of investigative construction to fill in the gaps of documentation. Proposals, in French or in English, with a provisional title, an abstract no longer than 100 words, and 5 key-words, should be sent before February 1st, 2017, to Pr Yannick Gouchan yannick.gouchan@univ-amu.fr and Pr Joanny Moulin joanny.moulin@univ-amu.fr.

Go directly to the Conference’s internet site :
https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/

(Français)

Accèder au site internet du colloque :
https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/
Appel à contributions

La biographie sollicite de façon singulière la notion de vérité, en poursuivant moins la vérité que de celles de vies individuelles toutes uniques. Certes, en lettres comme en sciences, toute vérité nous apparaît désormais comme une construction, toujours portée par un discours ; certes, la vérité n’est qu’un horizon inaccessible, un objet de désir qui se dérobe au fur et à mesure qu’on s’en approche, mais cette quête modifie sans cesse le paysage de notre connaissance. Le développement actuel de la « biofiction » peut s’interpréter comme une « biographisation » du roman contemporain, caractéristique de l’époque actuelle au même titre que la « romanisation » des genres au début siècle dernier. Ce phénomène est ce que Hans Renders, Binne de Haan et Jonne Harmsma nomment « le tournant biographique », dans The Biographical Turn : Lives in History (Routledge, 2016). En philosophie de l’histoire, les thèses de Hayden White, particulièrement dans son ouvrage le plus récent, The Fiction of Narrative (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), comme celles d’Ivan Jablonka dans L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine (Seuil, 2014), posent clairement le problème de la nature en partie fictionnelle et en tout cas littéraire de l’écriture de l’historiographie. La biographie, genre communément décrit comme hybride entre histoire et littérature (voir Michael Benton, Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) se distingue par une esthétique particulière. Elle est évaluée (par le public, par la critique et par les jurys des prix littéraires) d’après le double standard de la justesse des connaissances qu’elle contient, et de la qualité du style dans lequel elle les exprime. On attend d’un biographe, d’une part, qu’il administre la preuve de ce qu’il avance dans son texte et ses paratextes, et d’autre part qu’il le fasse en produisant un texte où le plaisir de lire doit satisfaire le désir de savoir : où quête scientifique et expérience esthétique se fécondent l’une l’autre. Les biographes les plus intéressants sont ceux pour qui l’écriture littéraire n’est pas un outil formel, c’est leur méthode même, le chemin qu’emprunte la pensée pour mieux connaître et faire connaître leur sujet. Certains sont fascinés par les métamorphoses successives de leur personnage, d’autres font d’incessantes incursions dans son avenir, gardant toujours sous les yeux la personnalité accomplie. De vérité scientifique en vérité littéraire, la biographie est un champ bien particulier, au carrefour des lettres et des sciences humaines, où un tournant significatif semble bien se produire. Le tournant biographique participe d’une reprise, d’une relance, d’une réorientation de l’écriture et de la lecture vers cette « vérité » toujours surprenante, dont nous voyons bien qu’elle est le texte dont nos vies sont faites. Les contributions pourront proposer des réflexions théoriques sur la notion de vérité en biographie, ou bien des études de cas, interrogeant par exemple les utilisations politiques de la biographie, visant à infléchir la « vérité » d’une personne telle que le public la perçoit ; considérations sur les méthodes d’investigation et de vérification des faits dans les recherches, analyses des stratégies littéraires, rhétoriques et discursives, d’administration de la preuve. Il pourrait s’agir aussi d’analyses des paratextes et de leur valeur vérificative (notes, avant-propos et postfaces, annexes documentaires, etc.), ou des images illustratives et de l’impact de la photographie. On attend également des considérations sur la biographie au cinéma et le rapport du film biographique (ou biopic) à la vérité historique. Dans le domaine des humanités numériques, on s’interrogera sur l’effet de vérité des notices biographiques et dictionnaires biographiques en ligne, et l’impact des outils numériques de recherche biographique. D’autres contributions encore étudieront la fictionnalisation comme méthode de construction investigatrice pour pallier les lacunes de la documentation. Les propositions, en français ou en anglais, comprenant un titre provisoire, un abstract de 100 mots et 5 mots-clés, sont à remettre avant le 1er février 2016 au Pr Yannick Gouchan yannick.gouchan@univ-amu.fr et au Pr Joanny Moulin joanny.moulin@univ-amu.fr.

Programme:
Programme_la_verite_d_une_vie_HD_3

 

"Biography Theory & Practice" is the blog of a research network in biographical studies<hr />"Biography Theory & Practice" est le carnet d'un réseau de recherche en études biographiques.