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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Academic biographies

The trouble with writing the biography of  an academic is that by and large they don't have very interesting lives. All the action is, so to speak, inside their heads and if the thought is less than riveting in the first place then the biographer really has a tough job, one that it would be  wiser not to take on. Still, some make a success of it. I enjoyed and felt I learned something, for example, from Ben Rogers' biography of Freddie Ayer and Michael Ignatieff's life of Isaiah Berlin. Two less successful exemplars of the genre I've read recently are Fred Inglis' History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood and Dai Smith's Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale.
Collingwood is  a  thinker  I suspect is oft cited  but little read. One of the reasons for this is that his thought is difficult to pigeon-hole within conventional intellectual categories: he was an archaeologists, an historian and a philosopher. Personally I find his philosophical writing an acquired taste, in fact a taste that I have never managed to acquire. He's usually regarded as one of the last of the Oxford Idealists picking up the baton from wherever the likes of T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley and a host of obscure and now long forgotten Oxford philosophy dons dropped it in the first couple of decades of the Twentieth Century. How much there is to this view I can't really say mainly because I have a profound distaste for the writing of the Oxford Idealists based on the fact that  for the most part I can't understand what their metaphysics is actually about. One mention of the Absolute and I reach for my conceptual revolver. I imagine it was an infinitely subtler version of that reaction that got Oxford ordinary language philosophy off to a flying start. (Of course in my own day we had versions of the same kind of thing. As an undergraduate I had great fun learning the arcane vocabulary of Althusserian  Marxism and could  'interpellate' with the best of them, uttering long and apparently grammatically correct, but essentially meaningless, sentences at will. The members of the sacred circle nodded their heads in sage agreement. Nobody challenged it. I might as well have been making farm-yard noises: in fact I was making farm-yard noises).
Anyway I turned to Inglis' book hoping to learn something about the man and a lot about his thought. I'm sorry to say that I learned little of either. Essentially Inglis has little to say  and he says it at great length. The reasons for this are rather plain, firstly he doesn't seem to have much to work with apart from Collingwood's books themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that the family refused him access to personal papers  in their possession and therefore one of the key sources for an illuminating biography is missing. Secondly, Inglis doesn't appear to have the sort of philosophical insight that made Rogers' and Ignatieff's books illuminating (at least to me). Beyond the few windy generalities that I already possessed I'm not much the wiser as to the significance of Collingwood's thought. What I do sense is a biographer who is out of his depth and would have been wise not to have got into the pool in the first place. What is particularly irritating are the vast number of pages devoted, not to Collingwood's, but to Inglis' opinions about this, that and the other, none of which are particularly interesting (tip - in a biography it is the subject not the writer who should be at the front of the stage). So Collingwood still awaits a serious biographer. Whether the wait will be worthwhile I can't say, but you may feel that life is too short to  fill in the time with Inglis' effort.
Raymond Williams is one of those iconic figures who for my generation of left leaning undergraduates sat at the right hand of Marx (or was it Lukacs or Goldmann?). Anyway,  he was one of those figures like Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawn and Rodney Hilton who were supposed to be, as far as we were concerned, beyond reproach or criticism. Of course I made the appropriate reverential noises, but actually, a lot of the time I felt guilty because although I believed that ideas about a "common culture" and "structures of feeling" should have some analytical value, I could never quite put my finger on what that value was, other than as emotional rallying calls for a particular English intellectual generation, that even by the time I was an undergraduate, had had its day. I can't say anything about his works on drama, which I've never read, but I do recall the first bewildering time I read Culture and Society. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. What did all these little essays add up to? Williams clearly believed there was a thread, there probably is a thread of some vague sort, but where did it lead? I was dammed if I knew. Later I read the book again. I got more out of the individual essays, but I still wasn't really able to understand why it had such a big impact when it was first published in 1958. I was similarly disappointed by The Long Revolution. Cultural studies types seemed to regard it as a source of endless insights but to me it just seemed to be a lot of cod sociology much of it at a level of generality which meant it was never precise enough ever to be wrong.  People whose views I respect tell me that Williams' fiction is worth reading: I'll save that pleasure for a rainy day.
Dai Smith's problem is the opposite of Inglis'. Whereas the latter had too little material to work with, Smith has too much and he never misses an opportunity to present it to the reader. On the whole Williams didn't lead an especially interesting life, unless you find drafts of syllabuses for WEA courses fascinating. An unfair, but not entirely inaccurate synopsis might be: school, Cambridge, active service in WWII (start a short lived literary magazine), Cambridge (start another short lived literary magazine), Extra-mural tutor (start various short-lived literary magazines), write a lot of novels that are never published...
Smith pads out the bare bones of the story with pages and pages and pages of verbatim quotations from Williams' largely unpublished and endlessly recycled fiction. Some of this stuff can reasonably be regarded as  subliminary evidence of biographical value, but  we really don't need so much. The story could have been told in 200 rather than 500 pages and that story, at least up to 1961 which is where the biography ends, is really that of a man very much caught up in trying to understand his own roots, and his own place in the world to pretty much the exclusion of everything and everybody else. Friends and comrades appear on the scene, some are around for years only to be suddenly dropped for the flimsiest of reasons (Wolf Mankowitz, Clifford Collins) or no reasons at all (Michael Orrom) and all the while the abiding image is of a man sitting at home in Hastings surrounded by notebooks and work in progress (which is never finished) almost oblivious to the existence of his wife and three small children. There are intriguing  references to depression, apparently keeping him in bed for days, but this does not seem to have kept him from his main occupation: scribble, scribble scribble Mr Williams (and why not start another literary magazine?). As a political actor on the left he was involved, yet not really, or only reluctantly, at the centre. Perhaps he was just too much of his own man to be straightforwardly committed to any political cause and in fact his grounds for refusing military service in the Korean War contain strong hints of this (his case was essentially that he objected to the subordination of the individual to the dictates of military authority). Williams was clearly a complex man and I suspect one with many inner demons that he could only exorcise through his writing. Whether that exorcism leaves us a legacy that is of anything but historical interest is something that I'm not sure of.

1 comment:

rr128a said...

I agree with your comments on Raymond Williams, lovely man though he was. While a graduate student at Cambridge, I was once seated next to hm at the Jesus College Supervisors' Dinner. It was at the time when Sociology was newly 'accepted' at Cambridge and I think he was at first pleased to be next to a young, aspiring sociologist. Sadly, once I had explained what my PhD was about (very much one inspired by Lockwood and Goldthorpe), his interest in me waned fast! But it was a very good dinner!