CFPs in Renaissance Intellectual History

EMF: Studies in Early Modern France, vol. 9 (2003)

New Biographical Criticism: On the Making New of an Old Discipline


Source of Information: FICINO 2000-10-05
Date of Event: n.a. (2003 volume of a journal)
Location of event: n.a. (volume of a journal)
Deadline for abstracts etc.: 2001-03-31




Call for papers for vol. 9 (2003) of EMF: Studies in Early Modern
France, edited by Anne Birberick and Russ Ganim, on the subject of "New 
Biographical Criticism: On the Making New of an Old Discipline."  Please
send proposals, by the end of March, 2001, to:

George Hoffmann, Co-editor
Dept. of Romance Languages & Literatures
University of Michigan
812 East Washington Street
4126 Modern Languages Building
Ann Arbor MI 48109-1275
734/647-2329  fax: 764-8163
<georgeh@umich.edu>

 "A Poem is the pearl that grows around a bit of grit in life"
 --Christopher Ricks

Biographical criticism appears today as the old Old School of modern
literary studies; it pre-dates the status quo ante now occupied by New
Criticism--a position which New Criticism owes to having deposed the
biographical as a meaningful field of inquiry for the literary critic.
Over the last two decades, the pendulum between contextual and formal
concerns has swung in the other direction, back toward what René Wellek
called "extrinsic" criticism.  But along the return trajectory, literary
critics have somehow managed to avoid a reappraisal of biographical
studies.  Historical disciplines--social, political, institutional, and
even stuffy old Intellectual History--have all reemerged as topics of
interest and even as dominant modes within certain approaches; but
biography has gone its own way, enjoying enduring commercial success
while remaining virtually unnoticed by academic critics.  For the most
part, this oversight can be ascribed to two developments.  First is the
enormous influence that the Annales School has exerted upon current
conception s of History: the new histoire sérielle introduced by Bloch
and Febvre, and perfected by Braudel, turned its attention to the longue
durée and seemed to discourage seeing the individual as a useful unit of
measure for historical investigation.  Second, over-frequent reference
to the "Death of the Author" has continued to cloud the issue over
whether it might not be time to reconsider the biographical dimension at
the same time as we renew our interest in other forms of history.
 With Jacques Le Goff's much-remarked return to individual history in
the recent Saint Louis, and a weariness with over-simplifications of
Foucault's thesis on the Author, the time would seem ripe to overcome
our reluctance, and to regard biography once again with a dispassionate
eye.   We have heard much, as students and literary scholars over the
last half century, on the abuses of biography; all too little has been
said on the subject of its uses.  The admonition that one must not
subordinate work's meaning to biographical fact still rings clear in
classrooms, lending to the biographical an air of disreputability that
suggests it might be one of the original literary sins, on par with the
dreaded pathetic fallacy.  Yet, in any serious attempt to relate a work
to its immediate social, political , and economic context, the
particular author's biography stands as a portal through which one must
inevitably pass.  In side-stepping the author's life, however, New
Historicism and New Cultural History have risked falling into what one
might call New Thematic Criticism, or, even, Old Thematic Criticism.
 That this is unfortunate in and of itself seems obvious, but the lack
of attention given to biographical criticism may be felt all the more
keenly once one realizes the vast potential in fact opened up for it by
Annales-School methods.  Rather than the tale of discreet "events," an
author's life can now be studied as itself a sort of longue durée, a
continuum acted upon by nearly imperceptible forces, punctuated by
apparent fits and starts, and, occasionally, by real crisis.  Such a
description calls for distinction from psychoanalytical criticism-the
one mode of study of the individual life that has seems to have
weathered the critical storms of past decades, and, indeed, has
flourished under the new theoretical schools.  Proust, after pointing
out a rather evident relationship between his narrator's obsession with
Albertine and a childhood dependency on his mother, affirms that the
rejection that an adult feels from a beloved can strike deeper,
traumatize more completely, and move more profoundly one's sensibility
than any loss one feels as a child.  Freud would have held few secrets
for Proust, yet for all his lucidity concerning the charades of the
human heart, he was reluctant to award the psychoanalytical perspective
the last word.  The "primal scene," Proust suggests, does not lie in the
past but, rather, in the present, no matter how entwined that present
may be with the past.  In this sense, Proust stands out sharply from
many literary critics who find in one or another psychoanalytic
complexes the end-point of their study, instead of its beginning.
 If it is fully to avail itself of new historical methods, biographical
criticism must likewise become a discipline of the "present," in the
sense of casting a wider net over the general conditions of life in the
author's time.  The oblique methods pioneered by French historians in
the effort to reconstruct, for example, the conditions of a peasant's
life serve one admirably well when it comes to filling gaps in our
knowledge about an author's life, in the absence--as is so often the
case-- of direct documents.  It can come as somewhat of a surprise to
recall twenty years later that the strongest pages in Renaissance
Self-Fashioning, the work that catapulted Stephen Greenblatt to academic
fame, are the opening ones devoted to Thomas More's life.  Having
assimilated Richard S. Sylvester's biographical studies Grrenblatt reads
More in a manner reminiscent of de Man, almost as a trope writ large,
collapsing in upon himself under the weight of insurmountable
contradictions , in what Greenblatt terms "self-cancellation."  It is
not just Utopia that becomes a self-consuming artefact, but More
himself.  The idiosyncrasy of his unexpected application of
deconstructive moves to more traditional literary history may be
inimitable, nor would one want to reproduce the reading upon an
indefinite number of subjects, but the example suffices to remind one
that critical schools of recent years are not so inimical to biography
as they are means by which to renew it.
 This volume hopes to bring together both theorizers and practitioners
in the art of biography in order to reflect upon the ways such a renewal
may be expected to advance literary study in the coming years.