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Biography and the Art of Being Human

The historian cannot reduce his subject to a set of facts. He must get to know the man.

“I happen to believe that you can’t study men; you can only get to know them.” So spoke C.S. Lewis’s William Hingest in That Hideous Strength (1945). The fascists murder this doomed curmudgeon only a few pages later.

Hingest, of course, is correct. We really cannot study men. We can only get to know them. This is as true of those closest to us as it is of ourselves. The farther away from our own daily reach, the person becomes harder to understand. Equally important, even the most introspective and the wisest among us barely know themselves. 

A thought experiment: try to recreate everything you’ve done since you started reading this article. Every thought, every distraction, every movement, every feeling. Have you wanted some coffee? Have you thought about closing this page? Have you scratched that itch on the side of your head? Have you wondered if you should call the kids today? Have you thought about what you’ll do for lunch? Now, take each of these things we can barely construct in the shortest moments of our lives—the impulses, the questions, the longings, the satisfactions—and multiply that by the minutes of the day, the days of the year, and the years of our lives. Then, multiply this again by seven billion distinct persons walking this world in any 24-hour period. Where to start? The possibilities, the decisions, the desires, and the frustrations are unaccountable and uncountable. No graph, no data set, and no equation can incorporate all of the complexities and nuances of a single human person, let alone seven billion of them.

We know names and dates and facts, and we often create a narrative to connect these varied and various things, but we surprise ourselves as much as we surprise others in our daily moments. Some of us are just better at hiding this surprise behind a practiced veneer. This mystery of the human person is as it should be. Every single person is vastly complex, known, perhaps, only to his creator, and, as J.R.R. Tolkien once mused, possibly to his guardian angel.

Though the Left has made a mockery of diversity, real diversity is always stunning and often glorious. Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about life is our individual ability to create, to imagine, to tinker, to innovate, to improve, and to see across the bounds of time itself. In that first grand story ever written about the western tradition, The Histories, Herodotus notes that every person lives only about 26,250 days, “and any one of these days brings with it something completely unlike any other.” Account for the shortening and lengthening of lifespan depending on available technology and standards of living, and Herodotus’ statement is as apt in 2016 as it was in the fifth century, BC. 

In all the genres of literature and in all the schools of scholarship, the non-fiction writer who best understands the human condition is arguably the biographer. Pick up three separate biographies—say, by David McCulloch, by Joseph Pearce, and by Robert Utley—and read them with delight. Even the most cursory examination of the subjects each biographer reveals just how infinitely complex, nuanced, and subtle the human person can be. At the moment we believe we understand man’s motivations, we find that he is capable of even higher highs and lower lows. Man can paint the Sistine Chapel one moment and mow down his fellows in concentration camps the next.

The art of a biographer is a high one. She has the duty of honoring a person’s life by taking the subject (for good or ill) seriously and by judging it according not only to the standards of the time but also to the standards of the ages. She must be faithful to every name, date, and fact of a person’s life without becoming a mere antiquarian, a slave to the information. The subject might have kept extraordinary diaries during his late teens—a young man full of anxiety, full of passion, and full of life—but left no records for the next twenty years. How does the biographer faithfully render judgment, knowing that few women or men escape their youth without some mischievousness? Or, perhaps the subject behaves charitably to ninety-nine folks but treats just one with seething contempt. Do we dismiss the 99 because of the evidence of the one? If a subject expresses one view at age 30 but another at age 60, do we merely overlook one, or privilege one, or mock one? Who casts the first stone?

Because of the sheer complexities of each person—subject as well as writer—the biographer must always and everywhere be poetic, connecting the things that are seen with those that are unseen. When we read a great biography, we instinctively know it is such. Why? Because we have met the subject as well as the biographer in the work, and they each make themselves known to us, at least to the extent they are capable, in all their excellences and failings and in the spaces they left blank out of humility, and those they connected because of imagination.

The biographer makes the fact the story, and, along the way, the story becomes the fact.

Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and author of the biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative.