- Enchantment and the Biographical Passion 1
It is my belief that a burning desire to write seriously and at length about the life of another is the product of enchantment.
Perhaps that is overstating the case a little. Still, from a purely subjective point of view, “enchantment” is hardly too strong a term for that intense, curious, insidious form of possession that besets writers smitten by what James Atlas, Saul Bellow’s biographer, calls “the biographical impulse.” 2 What the psychoanalyst points to as an example of transference, the newly mesmerized biographer experiences as the seductive bewitchment exerted by somebody else’s life. Passion, for a biographer, means falling in love with another person’s story.
That is probably because the impulse is a kind of seismic echo. In appropriating someone else’s history and producing a narrative about it, one seizes hold of an external story that resonates with some inchoate psychic drama of one’s own. Biographers, like novelists, are story junkies, and narrative—a linear story with a beginning, a middle, and a definite end—has the power to address and resolve, if only temporarily or obliquely, the ill-defined, intangible tale that lurks, often unacknowledged and unrecognized, in the writer’s own soul.
Hence the spell—a tenacious, all-but-irresistible urge to capture someone else’s literary, political, or other peregrinations in the tangible and gratifyingly conclusive form of a biography. Like love, the biographical passion owes little to whether the object of literary fixation arouses admiration, respect, or even much personal liking. Modern biography begins with the complex, ironic portraiture of Boswell, not with The Lives of the Saints; as a source of inspiration, admiration counts for a good deal less than those features of the life and personality that seem important—important, that is, to the biographer. For writers, as for many psychotherapists, [End Page 377] becoming deeply engaged with another person’s past is a way of wrestling with the chimera of meaning in one’s own.
This is not to say that every biography is inspired primarily, or even at all, by the hidden power of reverberating personal issues. But whenever one is, the biographer can expect those issues to have an impact that is all the greater when she is unaware of them. Moreover, biographers who do write in the grip of the siren’s song may be luckier than those sober captains of their souls who invariably seem to steer clear of its magic. Writing a life is the literary equivalent of toiling in a rice paddy. A biographer must spend years getting inside the mind of someone who may start out as a complete stranger (often a dead one at that) and who may not always seem to repay the effort in any obvious or conventional way.
This is where the spell becomes useful—perhaps even essential. It can inspire empathy and insight (as well as subtle and not-so-subtle antipathy), encourage the massive mobilization of inner resources, and help sustain years of research and writing. Yet because the siren-song is barely audible, the writer generally takes little notice of it, believing all her decisions perfectly rational. She may never fully realize—at any rate not until years later, long after the enchantment has worn off—how profoundly the spell influenced the way she saw the story, the insights she gained into the subject’s life, and her view of how to tell the tale.
As an extreme but perhaps not atypical demonstration case, I offer my own. More than ten years ago, I came under the spell of a life. The onset was abrupt.
The life’s owner was an Iranian princess, known—in roughly equal parts—for her distinguished achievements in the field of international social work and for the iron will that produced them.
Born in 1921 to a wife of a wealthy, elderly prince of the ruling Qajar dynasty, Sattareh Farman-Farmaian enjoyed a seemingly idyllic childhood within the walls of the huge Teheran harem compound of her progressive, benevolent, but [End Page 378] autocratic father. Her enclosed world included her mother and three stepmothers, more than two dozen siblings...