Why Is Biography Irrelevant?
A Short List of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and Answers

Amittai F. Aviram

1. Why is the biography of the poet or author irrelevant to the interpretation of his or her work?

Because I cannot recognize what I do not already know. If I were supposed to know the author's biography already, prior to reading the work, in order to recognize what must be recognized so as to grasp and enjoy the game of recognition that the work has to offer, then the author's biography would have to have already been a matter of common knowledge. What people mean by "biography" is not mere common knowledge that readers of the work in its own time would have already had available. Rather, "biography" means a biographical study, an inquiry that reveals, precisely, things that people would not already have known. It makes no sense to think of a work of art as something that works — that gives pleasure, or that gives the full extent of its intended pleasure — only to people who know more than anybody would be expected to know without studying the story of the life of the artwork's creator.

Think of it this way. How does the biography of an author get written, and why? Because the author is famous enough for there to be a readership for the author's biography. But how did the author get famous in the first place? By virtue of the success of his or her work. But how could the work have succeeded if we need a biography to enjoy it, or to enjoy it as much as we should?

A work of fiction is a work of art made in the medium of language. Like any artwork, the work of fiction has its intended effect by engaging the reader's, hearer's, or beholder's capacity to recognize, in two ways:

  1. The reader recognizes the likeness of elements in the work to known elements of experience.

  2. The reader recgonizes an overall pattern or structure in the work, which is quite apart from the experiences recognized, and which embraces contraries and thus forms a paradoxical whole.

These two principles run contrary to each other, giving rise to the tension between (more or less realistic) representation and (aesthetic) means of representation.

The interpretation of a work of art is an accounting for how the parts come together to make up the whole. (See Ground Rules for Literary Interpretation.) Reference to bodies of fact that are not presumably common knowledge for the intended or designated reader — such as biography — prevents the reader from making such an accounting, because "the whole" is now no longer aesthetic but factual. Factual knowledge is by nature always incomplete. Therefore, there is never a real "whole" anymore, since the putative whole is no longer a complete aesthetic pattern but a puzzle from which pieces are always missing. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, a body of factual knowledge always has pieces missing — the more you find out, the more you become aware of your need to know more. Therefore, when you look for a body of fact in a work of art rather than for an aesthetic pattern, the tension between a and b above is necessarily destroyed. The "whole" is now determined by facts rather than by the pattern, and the point of the work has now become a reflection or communication of the facts. This is the death of art.

2. But why should that be the only way to think of literary fiction or art? Isn't it only one way among many?

By definition, of course it is one possibility. The effort here is not to come up with all possible things to do with a work of art, but rather to come up with the best way to approach a work of art that acknowledges that it is a work of art. You can use a lawnmower as a desk, but that is not using the lawnmower in the best way possible, drawing upon what specifically defines a lawnmower. The lawnmower, moreover, does not make as good a desk as a desk does. So, too, with poetry. You can use a poem as if it were a personal expression of the poet's thoughts, feelings, or beliefs, but that is pretending that the poem is something other than a poem. What, really, is the point of that?

The ultimate result of such mishandling of poetry — in particular — is to poetry's disadvantage. Poetry is forced to do something that it is not good at, for logical reasons, which is to communicate and express. It is therefore a failure at something it was not designed to do in the first place — but, if people expect the wrong thing out of poetry, and poetry thus appears to be a failure, then people will soon simply lose interest in poetry. And that has been the case, largely thanks to academic efforts to find "meaning" in poetry.

3. How is it that poetry cannot be considered an effective way of expressing the poet's thoughts, feelings, and beliefs?

Because you cannot possibly know what the poet meant by any of it — it is too ambiguous. This ambiguity is built into the fact that a poem is a work of fiction. We can define the work of fiction as the kind of text that permits of no possible further dialogue. That is, you can tell the poet that you liked or didn't like a poem, and you can even ask why the poet put a particular word in a poem, but you could not, for instance, tell Robert Frost — even if he were still alive — that he did not have miles to go before he slept, or that the horse did not mean anything by shaking his bells (since horses do not judge actions as mistakes) — without getting a smile and the only reasonable answer, which is this: but that's how it is in the poem. Likewise, it is out of court to argue about whether the Little Bear really asked who had been sleeping in his bed. Those are already elements of the works of fiction in question ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," respectively), and there is nothing to argue about or discuss on that level. This is not the case with thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. You can in fact discuss the latter, and that is most of what discussion is all about.

More abstractly speaking, truth can only arise out of a process of ongoing conversation. (See Poetry Plays, Dances, Sings; Poetry Does Not Communicate and Lyric Poetry and Subjectivity.) No single utterance in isolation can express truth, because the context in which the utterance makes sense is incomplete and thus indeterminate. Fiction, by design, is just such an utterance in isolation. There is no possible further process of conversation to fix the meanings of references over time.

4. Isn't this all just a return to the New Criticism and the constraints of Formalism, from which we have done well to have gotten free?

Yes, and no. The New Critics were brilliant and important, but they did not always express themselves with as much philosophical or logical rigor as we might wish. Once again, no utterance, including any of theirs, can contain the truth absolutely. It can only serve as a moment in an ongoing conversation. That does not mean, however, that one cannot be convinced by good arguments and change one's mind. This last is the whole point, both of this document and of most education in the Humanities.

The notion that formalism was "constraining" and that "newer trends" in criticism have "freed" us from these "constraints" is, to put it bluntly, the outcome of a very successful campaign of Marxist propaganda. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of this success is that most people who use such terms seem to have no idea that they are even drawing upon an essentially Marxist turn in literary criticism — the one that occurred in the 1980s and has, under a soft focus, been linked to all things "politically correct." But in fact, it is Marxism, and, with it, a move (or perhaps a return) toward reading works of literature as messages — whether personal or political — that places severe constraints on the appreciation of works of art, whether literary or otherwise. Formalism was, precisely, an effort to free art from the domination of political thick-headedness, and, in our age, political thick-headedness has triumphed among the members of the very profession whose task it should be to banish it.

It has come to be a very widespread misunderstanding, supported by popular journalists and endorsed by academics who should know better, that we have been "liberated" from Formalism by deconstruction and then by the cultural studies that followed. The claim for cultural studies makes some sense, because cultural studies is in origin and essence a kind of Marxist (or "post-Marxist") criticism. But the claim about deconstruction does deconstruction a great disservice and could not be further from the truth. Paul de Man's work was very much in line with that of the American New Critics, but with an effort to become more rigorous, both in logic and in vocabulary. The result, of course, is that his essays may be hard to read. As for Jacques Derrida, his work is concerned primarily with philosophy, and his goal may be summarized as showing how a philosophical text, insofar as it attempts to state the truth for all time in a single and unchanging utterance, winds up being, essentially, just like a work of literary fiction. (See Question 3, above.) Far from suggesting that "there is no truth" or that "everything is relative," he has shown in the philosophical context, once again, as many great philosophers have already shown, how reference to reality and truth depend upon the possibility of the ongoing exchange of conversation. He did not show that there is no truth but rather that truth has no final resting place. The idea that either De Man or Derrida, or, for that matter, Jacques Lacan have somehow "liberated" us from "positivism" and "Formalism" so as to "open up discourse" to the "new contexts" of cultural studies is a grotesque distortion of every term, concept, and principle quoted or used in any such statement.

5. But, even supposing that the Formalists and New Critics were right and that you can appreciate a work of fiction because of its intrinsic properties, can't knowledge of the author's biography enrich your experience of the work?

No, it cannot.

First, let us dispel the idea that the exclusion of biography somehow limits us to "intrinsic criticism." Contexts drawn from outside the words of a fictional text are not only useful, they are absolutely necessary. At the most obvious level, for instance, knowledge of the English language is necessary in order for anyone to read Shakespeare's Sonnets in any way that can properly be called "reading." Yet the English language is not merely an "intrinsic" element of the text in that case. The distinction of "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" is misleading and useless. The distinction advanced here is between useful and useless contexts. A useful context is one that allows the reader to follow the sense of a work of fiction and to appreciate it, as fiction A useless and damaging context is one that compels the reader to treat the work of fiction as if it were not a work of fiction,

When you bring biography to bear on a work of literary fiction, the biographical context will be treated as relevant in one of the following ways.

  1. The biography, as a body of facts, will help the reader to find out what the work is "really all about." In other words, the work becomes a hidden message, whose secret meaning can only be unlocked through resort to biography. This makes the work of fiction, in essence, an ineffectual form of communication, because the author has attempted to use it to express something, a meaning, but you have had to resort to information not available to its immediate, designated readership in order to understand that message. The message is thus communicating something you either do not understand or already know. This latter is not the same thing as recognizing what you already know, because, here, the focus is not on recognition of the known but on deciphering the mystifying.

  2. The literary work is treated as evidence for biographical facts or in support of biographical theories. In such a case, we are relying on what we already know is fiction in order to establish fact. Now, does that make any sense? How can it?

In the unusual situation in which the details of an author's life are already a matter of common knowledge before his or her work is set before the public, then these details count as "common knowledge" and are perfectly allowable as a normal context for following the sense of the text.

6. Are you saying that biographies of authors should never be written or read?

No, I am not saying that at all. Biographies of authors can be very interesting to read in the same way that biographies of any talented and famous people can be. I am only saying that what you read in the biography should have nothing to do with the sense you make of the author's fictional works — poetry, prose fiction, drama — in the process of deriving from them the specific pleasures that they offer.

It must said, moreover, that biographies often provide genuinely useful information to the reader of fiction by accident. While facts specifically about the author's life and personality are irrelevant to an appreciation of that author's works, facts that could be assumed to be common knowledge on the part of readers or listeners in the cultural setting to which the work was first destined are often necessary in order to enable us to recognize the real-world references so that we may then recognize the aesthetic pattern made out of the material consisting of these references. The biography of an author often provides information about the general cultural setting as a side-effect, and this information includes facts that would have been common knowledge for the work's intended readers. Here, however, the reader of the biography must pay attention to the background points — general facts that would have prevailed in common knowldge — rather than the author's person standing in the foreground.

7. Aren't you being dogmatic?

No.

To insist on the irrelevance of biography to reading fiction as fiction is no more dogmatic than it is to insist on the distinction between fiction and communication itself. You almost certainly already make such a distinction in life. Surely, you would not wish to have your doctor diagnose you with a fictitious illness but charge you a real fee, nor have someone pay you for a real debt with fictitious money.

Let us try to define dogmatism in a useful way. Let us agree that dogmatism is the action or habit of holding dogmas, and that a dogma is a conviction having two related properties:

  1. The person who holds the conviction attains it before engaging in the inquiry whose purpose it should be either to give rise to that conviction or to banish it. In other words, the dogmatist draws the conclusion at the outset instead of at the end, where conclusions belong.

  2. The person holding the conviction cannot be swayed from it by means of logical argument or evidence to the contrary.

It is not dogmatic to insist on some logical consistency and rigor. Quite on the contrary, if you insist on a position despite the requirements of logical consistency, and thus distinguish between fiction and communication when it comes to medical diagnosis but not to the reading of literature, then I should think that you would be more liable to the accusation of dogmatism.

© 2001 Amittai F. Aviram — all rights reserved.

Ver. 10 January 2003


This page last updated Thursday, May 6, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 2001 by Amittai F. Aviram.