Psychobiography Column – November 2014

523cbd9261cb51d68d0001f9-1379947275By: William Todd Schultz, PhD

This is the sort of essay that really ought to be about 25 pages. So, please forgive my concision as I try to build my own little “hive of suggestiveness,” to quote Henry Murray. I’m also going to break a cardinal rule and peer behind the curtain a bit in order to unpack a semi-common criticism of the study of lives. There’s no avoiding the criticism; all I want to do is describe and understand it.

First, a bit of context. I’ve been writing psychobiographical books and articles for the past thirty years, and I now curate and edit an Oxford Series called “Inner Lives,” with each relatively short volume focused on a provocative, paradigmatic figure (George W. Bush, Truman Capote, and John Lennon, with three more titles in the pipeline). As most of you may know, psychobiography is interpretive. One aims personality science at a complex life to see what light can be shed with it; the goal is to elucidate subtextual, subjective origins of objective work, art in most cases, or sometimes politics or theory-construction (as in, say, psychobiographies of Freud or Jung).

What you quickly come to discover, once your work appears in print, is that a small platoon of folks instinctively hate it, not so much for what I would consider sensible reasons, but more for the way in which it seems to trespass interior worlds–of motives, needs, desires, intentions, all more or less unconscious to the creator. Here’s what I mean. In a review of the third volume in the “Inner Lives” series, Tim Kasser’s “Lucy in the Mind of Lennon,” it’s said that Kasser applies “invasive methods of inquiry to something that falls into the category of art.” The key term here is invasive. I’ll come back to it. A review of my 2013 biography of the musician Elliott Smith adopts similar sentiments: “Just listen to the music; that’s all there is to it. . . Don’t bother with any biography at all and just listen to the music.” Then, as a last example, there’s the Diane Arbus Estate, a Platonic Form of anti-biographical attitude. Daughter Doon Arbus expresses the belief that her mother’s images need “protection” from “an onslaught of theory and interpretation,” that they “require no explanations, no sets of instructions on how to read them, no bits of biography to prop them up.” This contention the critic Janet Malcolm later called “breathtakingly silly.” I agree. But beyond that, the question is this: what is rubbing some people the wrong way? why these occasional objections to the interpretation of lives and works? what is the origin of the anti-psychobiographical impulse?

Back, first, to the term invasion. It implies intrusion. It brings to mind invasive species like English Ivy screwing up or even killing native vegetation. You aren’t meant to be there. Worse, you don’t belong. Worse still, you cause damage.

What is damaged? The intrinsic purity of the art, some critics say. Just listen to the music. Just look at the pictures. Don’t pry. Don’t analyze. Don’t interpret or explain.

On one hand, such thoughts imply a pretty sophomoric notion of art. That somehow it is unexplainable, fragile, infinitely mysterious. Interpretation equals subtraction. But there is a sanctimoniousness present too. One SHOULD NOT inquire. It’s impolite, presumptuous, rude.
On the other hand, you also run into a sort of hero-worship. Fans vigilantly protect their emotional connections to artists. They resent having them interfered with. They resent the resulting dissonance. Plus, they sometimes feel–usually wrongly–that they know the person better than anyone else. After all, they have devoted their lives to him or her. “Outsider” interpretations are therefore an affront by definition. They destabilize a fragile status-quo. They are, in short, a threat.

When it comes right down to it, it’s hard not to side with Nietzsche: there are no facts, only interpretations. Can you really just listen to music, just look at a photograph or a painting, just read a poem? I don’t know. I don’t think so. We automatically judge, analyze, see things that aren’t there, make inferences. My guess is that, most fundamentally, what people fear about qualitative studies of artists is that their feeling for the art itself will somehow be nullified or sullied. Maybe if you read a book about the subjective origins of John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” you won’t hear the song the same way ever again. Personally, I’ve never had that experience. Knowing more is, for me, an addition not a subtraction.

The moral of the story is this: Beware, intrepid qualitative psychobiographer! Most people will admire and appreciate your hard work. They will happily take your interpretations for what they are: careful, reasoned judgments. They’ll enjoy your fresh take, your new angle. Yet for a subset of readers you cannot win, no matter how wise you are, no matter how cogent. You are a stranger rudely crashing an invitation-only party. Don’t try talking your way in. You’re English Ivy.

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