How reliable are people’s diaries and letters?
Biography and the art of living. Part I.
Last week I ran an Interintellect salon called “Biography and the Art of Living” as part of the Thesis festival. The questions and discussion section was very stimulating so I am going to write a series of posts about some of the ideas we talked about. Long-time readers will know that biography is one of the main interests of The Common Reader. I will be using examples from the lives of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor because I have been writing a play about them recently.
First up, how reliable are people’s diaries and letters? It is hard for us to be honest with ourselves: try writing your own journal and see how you cringe. Should we not mistrust what people say about themselves? Yes! But there are three considerations here, noting that journals like Virginia Woolf’s are an art form in themselves, because writers are able to be more honest.
We don’t know what happened in history. Think not just of all the lost works, letters, and so on, but the conversation and the inner lives. Almost everything that really matters biographically is gone. Even if the known facts show someone’s statement up as false, perhaps that really was how it seemed to them. This should make you cautious about your ability to judge any statement’s accuracy.
We are bad judges. Since we are so unable to be honest with ourselves, when we find contradictions in the record we ought to stop and think—am I really best equipped to judge this? Lots of people disbelieve John Stuart Mill that Harriet Taylor was a genius. They point to defects of her own work, or the lack of such work. Mill’s perspective, the argument goes, was distorted by love and some weird psychology from his family. Very credible but since we can’t judge ourselves against these standards we should discount our ability to judge Mill. People struggle to believe even basic things about history.
They are bad judges. So often, what looks like the important factors in a biography are not. Of course John Stuart Mill overstated his case about Taylor’s genius. The real question is how much more inaccurate he was about his own life than anyone else would be. I expect not much. By sniping at the inaccuracy of one statement you are simply repeating the general point that people don’t know much about themselves. Including you!
Put all this together and I think the sensible position is that of taking people at their word, while trying to judge how strongly you take their claim. Was Harriet Taylor a genius? Probably not. Was she fundamental to Mill’s work? Obviously yes. Where is the truth between these two statements—we cannot know. Mill wasn’t wrong, he overstated. We should assign something like 70% accuracy to his views on Taylor.
We have no idea what they talked about in all those long evenings in Blackheath, what sort of effect that had on his thinking, or to what extent it was their thinking. We can see changes he made to his work while she was alive and then after she died, but we can’t ever untangle it all properly. I’m not going to second guess John Stuart Mill. If he says Harriet was remarkable, I’m largely going to believe him. (Here is an excellent essay from Cass Sunstein in the NYRB about this vexed question.) Nothing exists to disprove him and plenty exists to circumstantially back him up.
As Jenn Shapland says, in another context, “As with Proust, as with so many queer writers and artists, there is no way to know fully what has been lost or destroyed. It is only possible to let absence speak.”
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