Playing God?

Robert Darnton, “Skeletons in the Closet” (Chapter 8 of George Washington’s False Teeth, 2003)

Is it necessary to point out that there’s a little element of personality cult going on here? Darnton’s personal memoir is interesting, because it’s Darnton. His observations about the historian’s role are almost an afterthought – a justification for the memoir?

Facts have indeed gone soft – or it’s finally been admitted they were soft all along. But do biographers REALLY believe they’re digging out “nuggets of reality” any more or less than they ever did? The “nuggets” –whether you’re writing a nonfiction biography or a historical fiction—are what anchors your story to something that the reader can recognize as an acceptable story. Or story-world; since may of those “facts” go toward establishing setting and populating the story with characters for your subject to interact with. We can never know the “real” Virginia Woolf. Did anybody? EVER? But surely, we can (even if we’re non-specialists, reading popular history) sense when a particular depiction might be “realer” than a competing account.

Darnton doesn’t really describe his own decision-making process in full, and I’d be interested to know more of the details of his
Brissot story. He had a manuscript in a drawer for thirty years, but all of a sudden he’s writing a “protective prolegomenon.” What changed? Why did he decide to go ahead with the project now? How might the manuscript need to change, after all these years?

It DOES sound like Brissot’s life would make a good story. Not least because he isn’t a straight-ahead hero. It seems like post-hagiographical bios are “in” right now, and a guy who had a second-rate publishing career, followed by a brief period of power in Revolutionary France; who visited America and may have been a police spy, might make an excellent subject. If you wanted to portray the times as chaotic, a period when even the revolutionaries didn’t agree much, and where loyalties were nearly impossible to maintain.

Darnton gave up the Brissot project when he took up the one that would define his career. That’s fair. But it’s a long step from there to the question of whether Brissot is worth the trouble. Is that doubt justified – or is Darnton suggesting that NO individual is worth the trouble. That using a well-known figure as “the incarnation of a crucial process” is in fact illegitimate.

I’ll agree that finding “the key to Brissot’s life” and building a birth-to-death narrative around it seems a little old-fashioned, and might even be “playing God.” But the other issue, “pronouncing verdicts about…individuals I had never met,” seems entirely within the scope of what a historian/biographer is understood to do. If the (brand-new, previously unknown) evidence says that Marat was in France when he was thought to have been in England, then by all means say so! I think the court-room analogy is a much better one than the “playing God” one. It suggests reasonable doubt as a standard, rather than omniscient certainty.

Darnton’s discovery, that previous biographers had followed Brissot’s memoirs too credulously, suggests a change in our interests. In the era of great men, Brissot was considered a philosopher because that’s what he claimed to be. But when Darnton “began to read his works against the grain, they lost their luster.” Is this a nice way of saying that Brissot’s ideas and writing were second-rate, and that close reading of the primary texts made this fact painfully obvious?

The police-spying question is fascinating, because it points the spotlight on Brissot’s place in the actual setting in which he lived. Not in his books, pamphlets and memoirs. What did he do, and how did it square with the “public image” he tried to create? How did his contemporaries actually view Brissot? And, what did they base their opinions on?

Erik Erikson’s screen memory is a reminder of Dr. House’s first law: everybody lies. But a sophisticated biographer (and reader of biographies) would know that without being warned. The more interesting observation is, that Darnton found a lot of his own biography in the 1968 paper he wrote on Brissot. The ever darker patterns he arranged his facts into were apparently predetermined ones Darnton chose unconsciously. Were they also interests of the times? The sixties may have been “looking” for different stories and patterns than the 2000s are…but is this “discourse,” or the spirit of the times?

Is the appeal to discourse really necessary? Do we really need to deconstruct history and biography to answer Darnton’s concerns? Or just apply common sense and avoid over-reaching in our truth claims? In the end, as Darnton says, all lives are probably “a bundle of contradictions,” and none is an unambiguous metaphor for any historical insight (except maybe, complexity). So, the onus is on the author, to avoid narrative determinism. Unless he’s writing a novel – in which case he should say so and revel in it.