Saturday, April 4, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 15.7 (Paul Celan)

Felstiner, John
Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

This 'F' authored book goes under 'C' because it's a biography of a 'C' author. See? It's my library and I'll organize it as I see fit. I bought this one at a remaindered bookstore in Sarasota, which I think is now defunct. I just tried to look it up -- it was called the 'Main Bookshop' -- and got a real estate ad for an empty building.

As far as I know, this is the only biography of Celan in English, or at least it was when I read it. I guess it falls under the category of "critical" biography, meaning it uses the details of the poet's life to illumine the poems. To the extent that that is possible, it's a pretty good read.

If I might digress a moment...

I went to see a performance of Kevin Killian's play, "Celebrity Hospital" last night, performed by many current UB Poetics students. Kevin was flown in for the affair and acted one of the parts. It was great fun.

Anyhow, I was talking to Kevin at the Essex St. Pub after the show (he was still wearing pinkish hospital scrubs from the play, and some stylish red suede shoes) and we got to talking about his biography of Spicer and this blog o' mine, which Kevin told me he'd been reading. He was telling me about how difficult it was to pin down factual information about people, especially about events that had occurred quite a long time ago. How trying to confirm, for instance, that a person was in a particular place in 1946, when that person has in fact no recollection of being there, is one of many obstacles he confronted in the research process.

That got me to thinking (and talking) about this blog. I got to thinking (and talking) about how trying to dredge up memories from my past has made me doubt the veracity of a lot of what I remember. I have at various times placed myself in situations that I was not party to; or confused my participation in one event with my participation in another; or made up some story about some experience I thought I had had, or thought that I would have liked to have had, and told myself and others it was so.

This constant slippage makes me doubt very much that I could be trusted to recount any remotely objective sense of myself or my life to another person. Kevin responded he thought writing an accurate biography of another person might be easier than writing an autobiogrphy, if for no other reason than that you are not the only one responsible for reconstructing memories of events that have occurred.

Which got me thinking further, (though not talking, as I was now home in bed, reading "Midwinter's Day" by Bernadette Mayer) about the different kinds of artist biographies that exist in the world and what they are actually doing. For instance, the Critical Biography takes the work of the artist, usually a writer, as an object of importance equal or very nearly equal to the life lived by that artist. The purpose of such a biography is often, as I stated earlier, to illumine the work with details of the life that produced that work. Critical Biographies assume that the life lived and the work produced mirror one another, even if their mirroring produces an infinite number of distortions the biographer must weed through in order to get to the truth.

Psychobiography, on the other hand, attempts to understand the internal struggles, tensions, motivations, pathologies, obsessions and so forth that drive the artist to produce the work. In this kind of Biography, the work is less important than the artist, and the real goal, it seems to me, is to explain individual genius to the non-genii among us (you know who you are!). It assumes that the work of genius is the by-product of the psychological states that constitute the category of genius.

Another version of biography is the Social Biography. In Social biography, the artist is simply a focal point used to bring into view a particular social and artistic milieu that has either disappeared from the earth or transmogrified into something else the biographer is trying to understand. For instance, one could write a biography of Frank O'Hara which is really about the art/poetry scene in New York in the 50's, or which is about gay culture in New York in the 50's, and so on. The assumption here is that the artist is the most representative figure of a particular social context the biographer would like to explore.

I think the reason I almost always put biographies down long before i finish them is that once I have been filled in on the factual details of the writer's life, I feel sated. I also feel a sense that no matter how many hundreds of pages I read about this person, I am at best going to gain a limited sense of who they are.

In the case of the Critical Biography, I want the writer to do something more than hold the mirror of the life up to the mirror of the poem. In the case of the Psychobiography, I want to know more about the work and less about the artist's oedipal struggles and so forth.

In the case of the Social Biography, which I'll admit is probably my favorite, I often find myself wishing for a more de-centered approach. I always wonder if the artist actually is a useful representative figure, or if s/he is a romanticized one we find convenient to represent a particular time and place, despite being quite unique for that time and place.

Anyhow, I have digressed enough. It was fun talking to Kevin Killian last night. I hope I get to do it again sometime.

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