On The Creation Of Biographies

Nacho Oliden

There is a German painter, named Denner, who has strived to render in his portraits the small details of the skin and the hairs of the beard; his works are sought after and have their fanatics. Truly, they are mediocre and do not produce the effect of nature. It may be objected that it was because he lacked genius, but genius itself is only the gift of generalizing and choosing”.

                                                               Eugene Delacroix

Historians look at the advances on their field by writers from other disciplines as mere fiction or entertainment. I — not being a historian — am able to find certain truth in the beauty of some works. History is science, it is art, it is philosophy, and to write history is to compose with these potencies. Certainly there are plenty of historical accounts made by men of letters that do not deserve to be considered proper studies of the universal events, but historians ignore that leaving aside the science and standing only in art and philosophy may provide truths that do not rely on data, or facts, and yet are sufficient.

Of course this may be a very deficient path towards the understanding of concatenations, but for biographies, it works justly. And if there is properly no history but biographies as Emerson asserts, well, much better! But that is not an issue I dare to defend...

The relations of events that lead people with feelings and thoughts through life has not always been a genre that belonged to history. Plutarch tried to draw the line when he claimed “we write lives, not history”. How else could he have portrayed the love and fondness from the roman soldiers towards Julius Caesar, and the confidence he represented among them? He says

such a man, for instance, was Acilius, who, in the sea-fight at Massalia, boarded a hostile ship and had his right hand cut off with a sword, but clung with the other hand to his shield, and dashing it into the faces of  his foes, routed them all and got possession of the vessel


Cassius Scaeva, who, in the battle at Dyrrhachium, had his eye struck out with an arrow, his shoulder transfixed with one javelin and his thigh with another, and received on his shield the blows of one hundred and thirty missiles. In this plight, he called the enemy to him as though he would surrender. Two of them, accordingly, coming up, he lopped off the shoulder of one with his sword, smote the other in the face and put him to flight, and came off safely himself with the aid of his comrades.

Poetry is not manipulating to convince about the verity of the scene, but it is employed to portray the moment as if it may have happened: it may have taken place in reality or it may be an invention of the author, but it is no more than a lateral way of describing Caesar’s great influence and his soldiers’ good will and courage, which are a fact.

There are subjects that demand the invention of poetical events, and there are also events that demand poetic invention. Carlyle recreates the unmasking of Louis XVI according to the memories of Drouet, the man who recognized the king. In the revolutionary’s Memoires we read

I thought I recognized the queen; and seeing a man in the back of the car on the left, I was struck by the resemblance of his physiognomy with the effigy of a 50 pound assignat.

Carlyle found this not enough, and thus he puts it this way

Nor is Post-master Drouet unobservant, all this while; but steps out and steps in, with his long-flowing nightgown, in the level sunlight; prying into several things. When a man's faculties, at the right time, are sharpened by choler, it may lead to much. That Lady in slouched gypsy-hat, though sitting back in the Carriage, does she not resemble some one we have seen, some time; — at the Feast of Pikes, or elsewhere? And this Grosse-Tête in round hat and peruke, which, looking rearward, pokes itself out from time to time, methinks there are features in it —? Quick, Sieur Guillaume, Clerk of the Directoire, bring me a new Assignat! Drouet scans the new Assignat; compares the Paper-money Picture with the Gross-Head in round hat there: by Day and Night! you might say the one was an attempted Engraving of the other. And this march of Troops; this sauntering and whispering, — I see it!

Carlyle needs to add sentiments in order to avoid moral judgements and philosophical commentaries. But who dares criticize Carlyle’s depiction? There is no aggression to history in any manner; he takes an element and exhibits it the way he thinks best. He or she who discredits this form has trouble in separating the medium from the aim.

French historian Paul Groussac said “while the lines of the drawing must be scrupulosuly exact, this is not the case of colour, which is essentially artistic and personal”. That is to say, that as long as it lives in harmony with the whole composition, imaginative observations are valid. This may be more accurate if we consider that the passing moments can only be stopped by the eye of an artist, and with talent, the scene may be pretty much described with veracity. It is a matter of essences, and in order to portray not the appearance, but the soul of the moment, it is not an exact eye that is serviceable, but genius; not the faculty of reproducing objects in real shape and light, but the capacity of understanding the scenery and creating relations. We must not trip on the fault of broadening the margins of history, or deriving history through poetry. Deepening historical truths by the use of poetry is what we seek.

In any case, it is true that the difference in passions between the historical document and our way of interpreting it finds its cause almost entirely in the inventive mind of the latter author. Yet it is necessary, in order to explain a revolution, or the first hoisting of a flag, or the birth of a child, heir to the throne, not only to describe the moment, but to exteriorize the drama and talk directly to the mind. Here lies poetic reason, and in this sense, realism falls behind, as Delacroix argued.

Take Goya’s El 3 de mayo en Madrid, and look at the purity of the man’s white shirt, and at his face disfigured in perplexed fear. Certainly Goya was capable of creating a more realistic gesture but, are we able to form even a remote idea in our minds of what is a man’s gesture upon a firing squad?

Or when Sarmiento is describing the gaucho in Life of Facundo Quiroga and physical aspect, customs, and habits of the Republic of Argentina, we read:

He arrives, for instance, at the camp of a train from the interior; its master offers to buy of him a horse of some unusual colour, of a particular shape and particular quality, with a white star on the shoulder. The gaucho collects his thoughts, considers a moment, and replies, after a moment of silence : “There is no such horse". What thoughts have been passing through the gaucho’s mind? In that moment his memory has traversed a thousand states upon the pampa; has seen and examined every horse in the province, with its marks, colour, and special traits, and he has convinced himself that not one of them has a star on its shoulder; some have on their foreheads, others have a white spot on their haunch. Is this power of memory amazing? No! Napoleon knew two hundred thousand soldiers by name, and remembered, when he saw any one of them, all the facts relating to him.

There he is, the owner of the pampas whose omnipresent mind fills every inch of the immeasurable plains. I testify on Sarmiento’s favour! He achieves the truth through lies and, cheeky him, tries to convince us that he is not lying... by using another lie, which at the same time, is true! Such excesses are needed when the idea conveyed is distant – taking into account that it is not malice but good will which alters the subject — for when the quality of a feeling is not explained efficiently, it is often associated to that which we already know.

So what must be done for a proper biography? A life completed is a perfect sphere. We can take it by the hand and weight it: this was a worthy woman of the most extraordinary passions! This man was a coward!!

Dante knew this and in his Inferno we get the following kind of procedure:

Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.
Whereupon said I: "Master, who are those
People, whom the black air so castigates?"

"The first of those, of whom intelligence
Thou fain wouldst have," then said he unto me,
"The empress was of many languages.

To sensual vices she was so abandoned,
That lustful she made licit in her law,
To remove the blame to which she had been led.

She is Semiramis, of whom we read
That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.

The next is she who killed herself for love,
And broke faith with the ashes of Sichaeus;
Then Cleopatra the voluptuous [...]”

Throughout the poem, lives are numbered and their presence are justified for each case. Dante needs to be concise, but apart from this practical detail, he understands there exists an instant that determines the road a life should take, or that explains the past. Even Johnson has a moment according to Boswell:

He had no settled plan of life, nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. He used to mention one curious instance of his casual reading, when but a boy….

And there he narrates an episode where by thinking his brother had hidden an apple on a high shelf, he instead found poems by Petrarch, and from that moment on he read with no rest. Lamartine’s Nelson has his essential moment at Trafalgar, Condivi’s Michelangelo in the painting of the Final Judgement, de Varagine’s Magdalene has it when going to leper Simon’s to meet the Saviour. A moment that puts light on the walked path or that stands North where the thread of actions are pulled.

Delacroix’s statement is not that we should not count the hairs of the head, but that we must count them all very studiously, see the colours and trace the differences between this and that little hair, and conceive a depiction of the head which does not show them all, but portrays their nature in fairness. The same is applied to the shoes, to the eyes, to the chin, and what you end up getting is the character. Just as we act and every action serves, each brushstroke in the portrait must contain its totality, and must lead to another brushstroke; there must be no gravels. But the gravels are not seen by the ordinary man nor the historian; the artist leaps to attain through selection that which escapes the photograph: the spirit.

When Boswell reproduces Johnson’s conversations, it is probable that Johnson did not deliver such an immediate and extended discourse of intellect about every topic thrown at him. We have read Boswell’s London Journals and we realized how people around him speak, so we can say that the effect of Johnson’s conversation is perfectly achieved. In any case, some say Boswell acted as a fool so he could be Johnson’s Sancho and thus enlarge his subject’s figure. Macaulay, on the other hand, claims Boswell was effectively a fool, and that his impertinence got him several gems by surpassing the limits of embarrassment. Well, Boswell was no fool, we have seen his credentials, and either Boswell or Macaulay were modifying their subject for a better depiction.

So, history advances at giant strides, leaving behind her the actions of great people, and for another leap to be made, another figure must emerge. Societies look back and see each of these heroes as a peak of human activity. That is why I think there is something from the art of carving that can be found in a biography: the moment which depicts all moments, the beautiful that contains the good, the pedestal on which virtue stands high. The bronze that once mirrored a certain age will mirror the next one, and then the next one, being a motive of example.

But the issue appears at the moment of generalizing in order to capture nature at its finest, if we are to follow Delacroix’s advice. Remy de Gourmout puts it justly: “select from a series of illogical episodes, those whose association is susceptible of providing an exterior quality that overlaps, without suppressing it, the interior quality of the subject”. What we need is the biographer to carve the subject, emphasizing the features, but without deforming it. It is necessary to reject what is common to everyone in order to create the most distinguished portraits, and by trying to make sense out of the emphasized features, the figure will appear by itself. Here, poetic reason is handy when approaching the subjects of history.

Nacho Oliden

Ignacio Oliden (Buenos Aires, 1997) is a poet, translator and literary critic. He is Co-Editor in Chief of the literary magazine La Piccioletta Barca, and is a member of the editorial comittee of Buenos Aires Poetry (magazine and publishing house). He also writes poetry criticism in the Culture Supplement of the newspaper Perfil (Argentina). His work has appeared in print in newspapers, anthologies, and literary magazines in various countries, and his poetry has been translated into English, Italian and Greek. He has published Poetas del Renacimiento de Harlem (2023, in collaboration with Juan Arabia), and Mester de Juglaría (2024).

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