Saturday, June 27, 2009

Reading biographies and autobiographies

My grandmother told me to read biographies and auto-biographies. And I did – some of them.

A biography is good to know the facts about a person – as good biographies are meticulously researched – but conclusions from those facts – as most biographers do sweepingly but the most circumspect ones – should be entirely the reader’s effort; with the biographer only suggesting his own.

The reason is that our ideas of selves and other selves is very – how shall I say it – simplistic.(?) We view the self as a unity progressing through time despite our own awareness of the contradictions to this unity. Hume says that the idea of the self is nothing but a fiction – a bundle of perceptions – where even the unity of a bundle lacks. Our predictions (this is my bit again; to not falsely attribute to Hume anything beyond what he said to my knowledge) about our own behaviour are approximations of what we recollect behaving in similar circumstances in the past and even these fail in the extreme situations. Hence, the idea of the self, I think, is a vague photo album of images and approximations about our compulsions and actions. The things we learn, the things we experience get absorbed in our approximations.

Hence, autobiographies, which compel us to reconcile our images to a single thread of perceptions, are unreliable. We might remember more or less what our father told us once and the colour of the wall of our house but the sensation it produced is lost now and can only be remembered vaguely if there was an immediate effect – a sudden epiphany regarding some other idea, an action, ex. crying, which followed immediately after the father said his something, or an imagery which popped up immediately; and this, we have to hope, was attributable only to what the father had said a minute ago. The only way to recall that sensation accurately is to take away everything we experienced and read after that moment, to bring our minds to the same level of innocence (or ignorance, as you see it) and hope that somehow – and this is a big leap of faith – we feel and behave the same way as we did then even though we know we don’t many a times.

Hence, an ideal autobiography would read like: I was born in 19XX. My father was fatter than other men. I think he was meaner than other men too. The colour of the wall of my house was blue. My mother once told me she was going to name me Herpes. I think I felt sad by it since I remember crying immediately on hearing this nose unless it was some other association or thing boiling under that chose that moment to come to the top and which I am not aware of. And so on.


Take the case of biographies and how we perceive the other. We either perceive the other free of most of these inner contradictions we see in ourselves; or we attribute the same contradictions to him as ours. Only the very few get, to some degree, to actually empathize – and that’s a true genius – but that degree is far from the perfect. (You cannot step into someone else’s shoes just like you can’t understand fully what a guy locked in a cell for twenty years felt at the end of those twenty years but being locked in the same cell for a minute. Even if you did: your perceptions would only be your own.)

Hence, we judge others more or less by stereotypes – and by stereotype I mean of the type “habitus” – the context the person has inhabited and inhabits.

Hence if someone is writing my biography (the only possibility to this I see is if I succeed in murdering twenty coworkers with a laptop and then claiming to do it since they disagreed that Amisha Patel was a fine thespian), if he perceives that I have some tehzeeb and knows the fact that I was born in Lucknow, he might, with a flourish, pen ‘Being born into the tradition of tehzeeb of Lucknow in the eighties, BS grew a polite lad…’
He’s married a perception to an incidental fact and quoted it as a fact even though it’s an approximation (Facts can only be stringed to facts to remain facts and there the association has to be logical; like syllogism – A implies B. B implies C. Hence, A implies C).

Similarly, he might say that ‘BS’s mother loved him.’ since mothers usually love their sons and there’s no incident to the contrary that he knows of. Again, an approximation stated as a fact.

One other false fact emerges when we pass quotes, or other people’s stated perceptions about themselves, as facts. Notice the gaps. One – between the stated to others and the stated to ourselves. It might be subconscious: (‘No, I’m not a pedophile!’ Inside: ‘Then why do I like touching my son’s naked butt?’) or very well conscious: American presidents. Two – even if we’re so foolishly honest to state what we really feel about ourselves they’re still perceptions which, as I pointed out earlier, even in the case of self-judgment are just approximations.


But since we cannot have scraps of conversations like –

“Bhaisaab, Dilli ka rasta kaun sa hai?”

“Assuming that there is a self and that self is me and there is a self which is you, even though what I can only perceive of that self is qualities which do not a substance imply really, and assuming that self of yours is addressing me which I know is not a single self, not even a bundle, and come to think of it, I am not even sure not even a self…’

– we’ve agreed not to qualify our perceptions every time we speak of them.

But we have to be aware of this hidden covenant to read biographies and judge them ourselves – assuming of course we have a judgment.

1 comment:

TradeExpress said...

i didn't get most of what you wrote in my first reading :). but i agree totally, and have myself thought about it often, that the sense of Self derives from memory. I acted in such and such way in such and such situation in the past, which means i am like that and that, and must act thus and thus in a similar situation. when we think about "me" were usually thinking about mental images of "me" in the past. in an empty vacuum in space, the sense of "me" would most probably not arise.

but this is more a biologo-psychlo point of view. from a humanistic point of view, i would like to see a Self as a transcendent entity with endless potential, and unity, not quite defined by facts and events. which is why when i read a biogrpahy, no matter how great the achievements, i have this nagging feeling that the person has been limited.

i wrote something similar very recently, quite unaware that you had written this. i think there's a connection with you essay, not sure what what the connection is, but there's some connection for sure.

http://pankajunk.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/the-lightness-of-being/