“How does it feel to work on something so theoretically regressive?”(academic colleague to biographer Brenda Wineapple)
This is the first of two issues of American Imago to focus on the transferences underlying biographical creation. It is the fundamental premise for nearly all that follows that during the writing of biographies such transferences unfold as latent narratives that provide much of the motivating force for the biographers’ manifest texts.
Biography is still seen by post-structuralists as a bastion of the conservative, and in consequence the genre has largely been excluded from their discourses. The ubiquity of transference in the biographer’s work therefore presents something of a paradox: the resemblances between (counter)transference phenomena and post-structuralism’s proto-philosophical and formalist programmatics are striking. Transferences—re-enactments with contemporaneous figures in adult life of relations experienced with our original (customarily parental) objects—problematize identity and agency, confuse absence with presence, create slippages in time and place, substitute obsessive allegiances and actions for memories, claim gratification in repetition, regress rather than advance, and, while bound in these circularities, reintroduce the loves and hates of earlier and more primitive psychic stages. Thereby (re)appear, in and behind the mirrors of biography, blurrings of boundaries between self and other, and reflections that problematize author and subject, past and present, sex and gender—not to mention those presuppositions so central to post-structuralists, interrogations of empirical evidences and the established interpretive communities and discourses arising from them. 1 [End Page 323]
That in many biographers’ workrooms transference phenomena are deliberately and programmatically set aside wherever and whenever that is possible—or denied or otherwise repressed where it is not—in every sense goes without saying; until very recently, whatever transferences were recognized in the biographer’s workspace were considered intrusions. That many of these repressions return in some (dis)guise during the long labor of researching and writing biography is also predictable, although helping to mask any such conflicts are the conventional attachments to more acceptable and widely-understood biographical materials (which often come to carry their own transferential investments): the archives, letters, official documents, and circles of contemporaries; the biographer’s deepening relation to a lengthening text (curiously, in these discourse-obsessed times, a transferential object in biography that is little commented on); allegiances to the biographer’s own ideological and ethnic agendas, those transferential derivatives in the form of ego ideals that do so much to constitute us; and the yearning for reputation, the fear of critics, and the scramble for status that implicates nearly everybody.
All the same, what often proves implicit in biography, and what surfaces explicitly in the journals, meditations, narratives and analyses that follow here, are repeated evidences that for many biographers transferences attain the powers in biographical creation that they have long been granted in the psychoanalytic consulting room. In biography as in psychoanalysis, transferences often become both the chief impediment to, and the chief instrument available for, the construal of a coherent life-text. 2
Parallels between psychoanalysis and biography as our two most prominent ways of constituting life histories make close relations inevitable; psychoanalysts are always doing biography [End Page 324] as they reconstruct and record their patients’ case histories, and contemporary biographers are virtually obligated to anatomize the psychic lives of their subjects. Nonetheless, most biographies, even when they are explicit psychobiographies, deploy their psychoanalytic sophistication to analyze the biographical subject rather than the biographer’s relation to him; the subset of writings including the biographer’s self-analyses is much smaller. Smaller still—despite the ubiquity of these relations—are those studies which analyze in any detail the history of affects compacted in the biographer’s transference to his or her biographical subject. 3
Good theoretical overviews of transference in biography, as might be expected in this era of theory, are easier to come by. And yet—and especially with a phenomenon as elusive and protean as transference—it is testimony (the phenomenology of lived experience clarified in retrospection) that provides the materials for subsequent theory. This symposium therefore consists in good part of narratives which retrace the transferences that colored and shaped biographies the contributors themselves have...