What symbiosis between narrative and life permits us to conceive of a “life-narrative”? Why is the information content of a book, some 100,000 or 200,000 words (I won’t hazard a guess as to how many bits), appropriate for telling the story of someone’s life? The multi-volume lives of the super-important are scarcely a degree of magnitude longer than the biography of a minor figure. Yet even the longest biography has no inherent proportionality to the information content of even the shortest lifetime.
We can tell someone’s life story because we organize our lives in the form of stories, and only a story that occupies a book is acceptable for purchase and consumption as an independent unit. Book-length biography is a genre reserved for the extraordinary, which the ordinary can adopt only through pastiche or naiveté. The great life occupies the equivalent of a novel; the less-than-great life is tellable only as a short story. The thinness and triteness of Maupassant’s characters is appropriate to this literary form–lives too thin for a full biography briefly recounted as failed, or trivially successful, experiments. Short-story characters live only to illustrate the futility of living–unless it be to show us that there is more in life than can be told in a story. But these latter are fictions whose lives can be sacrificed without qualm to the lesson they convey; a real person in such circumstances would easily find a biographer. Conversely, to be the subject of a book is a tangible sign of greatness. Carole Landis’ career frustrations and suicide would seem less irredeemable were her life commemorated otherwise than in brief and ill-informed essays.
Commemoration in language is as old as language itself; it is the atemporality of the abstract sign that guarantees the time-bound permanence of the physical monument. Biography replaces legend as the social order becomes both more complex and more aware of its complexity. There can be only “one” legend–if multiple, legends compete–whereas biographies can line the shelves. Even if ordinary people are unworthy of biography, uncountably many can be classified as extraordinary. Indeed, the phenomenon of celebrity having weakened the link between this status and demonstrated achievement, we are all justified in thinking ourselves at least virtually extraordinary.
Most of what we consider our major cultural forms–movies, operas, plays, short stories, symphonies, concertos, suites, narrative poems–occupy in our lives the mediate duration of a typical rite (a mass, a synagogue service, a wedding ceremony); lyric poems, along with songs and short instrumental pieces, belong to the briefer category typified in ritual by a single prayer or gesture, whereas novels, epic poems, and Wagner’s Ring cycle share the temporality of festivals, such as the Panathenaean where the Homeric epics were recited. The mediate form has the time-frame of a human event, composed in turn of individual moments, throughout all of which the periphery-center structure of the human scene is maintained. Conversely, it is virtually impossible to maintain one’s concentration for the length of a long form; one cannot normally read a novel at a single sitting, and certainly not remain continuously active throughout a week-long festival. The long form is distinguished from the mediate one by an episodic structure incorporating our experienced variation in meaningfulness between explicit and implicit–sacred and profane–scenic moments, with biological roots in cycles of concentration and relaxation, sleep and wakefulness. The long form is not inherently more significant than the mediate: novels are not greater than dramas. But they involve a greater investment of time by both creator and audience because they transmit a degree of magnitude more information. The mediate form depends upon a shared context that in the modern world is cultural rather than empirical, so that it cannot help us to judge whether a real life is or is not of extraordinary significance. Thus a film biography tends to rely on a book’s prior guarantee, normally even when fictional, inevitably when factual.
In the naturalistic short story that became a mass-produced genre in the late nineteenth century, scenic concentration subordinates living reality to form: a life that can be made into a short story is a life insignificant for all but a single moment. Conversely, the long narrative that extends over the unexceptional time separating one scene from another (the function of description in the novel being to fill the gaps between narrative scenes with something other than narration) models the temporality of human life as a whole rather than that of the sacred scene alone. The sacred is not indeed an end in itself; it defers the danger the human community poses to itself, which for our species alone is the greatest danger, in order that we may concentrate our energies on the lesser but crucial dangers of our environment, including the human environment outside the boundaries of our own society. Long cultural forms not merely reproduce the scene of sacred deferral but illustrate, and reflect upon, the function of this scene in everyday life. The greater significance of long as compared with mediate narration paradoxically corresponds to the presence in the former, in contrast with the latter, of the profane together with the sacred, the duration of dispersion together with the moment of concentration. The story of a life worth living is less rather than more intensely revelatory, farther from rather than closer to sacredness, than that of a life worthy only of sacrificing.
What then brings unity to the extended temporality of novelistic or biographical existence? In the Homeric epics that are the ancestors of all Western fictional narratives, what ties the beginning to the end is resentment. The “tragic” Iliad is the story of Achilles’ (unjustified) resentment against Agamemnon, which he renounces by returning to battle and then magnanimously returning Hector’s body to Priam; the “comic” Odyssey is that of Odysseus’ (justified) resentment against Penelope’s suitors, whom he massacres at the climax of the story. The French saying La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid (recently quoted in Tarantino’s Kill Bill as a “Klingon proverb”) succinctly describes the basic structure of long narratives: “hot” resentment, preserved in memory, generates a strategy of “cold” revenge whose implementation can sustain an indefinite series of episodes. Integrated human time contrasts with the entropy of natural life whose continuity is genetic rather than individual; epic fiction is about resentment because resentment lies at the foundation of human temporality. Resentment is our mode of relationship to the mimetic configuration that controls our desires; it acknowledges both our dependency and our disaffection, as figured in the Homeric epics by Achilles’ abortive withdrawal from battle and Odysseus’ disguise as a beggar at the door of his own house.
This model makes sense for fiction, which commemorates the dependency of the very notion of “life history” on the narrative logic of the originary scene, but a model that gives meaning to an individual life cannot present this life as itself productive of meaning. We should not be too hasty to assimilate reality to representation, fearing to affirm “naively” that meaning is generated in our experience of a reality behind representation and only subsequently captured within it. What would indeed be naïve would be to assume that our models of human action are independent of cultural representations. Fiction provides new models for understanding facts; facts provide new data for the testing and modification of these models. Biography is one means for adjusting narrative form to new content.
At the public pole of biography, the historical significance of the subject is uncontested. In such cases, human temporality may be taken for granted rather than constituted; our overriding concern is not what makes possible the biographee’s participation in the world but what he has accomplished during his time in it. At the limit, such biography simply borrows its formal coherence from that of the events it recounts and becomes what wed may call biographical history. If the subject has accomplished great things, it suffices to give an account of these accomplishments; his biography is a collection of stories that only incidentally form a narrative totality. But because it finds its coherence in events rather than in their subject, biographical history can tell us nothing about the relationship between individual life and the scene of origin from which it derives its categories of significance.
To the extent that biography exists as a distinct narrative genre, it is as the attempt to find in a real life the material of a coherent narration. The purest form of biography is that in which the biographer is obliged to make a case for the significance of his subject to a public that has not yet accorded it. In this case alone is biography an independent cultural form.. The significance of the biographee remains latent until the biography reveals it; historically it is the creation of the biography itself. The life of someone who cannot be shown to have played a crucial role in significant events signifies not by contiguity but by example, like that of an actor in a drama rather than of an actor on the world stage. This mode of exemplarity is tragic by the very fact of its historical marginality. One thinks of Hegel’s reading of Sophocles’ Antigone as incarnating a set of values incompatible with the world as it is, but pregnant with the world of the future.
In the second part of this analysis I will attempt to make a case for Carole Landis as such a person; someone not behind but ahead of her time, who revealed in her lifetime, a revelation never really lost, a new potentiality of human beauty. It is surely a distortion to speak of Carole, as do some of her defenders, as a feminist avant la lettre. Carole did not disdain to exploit her unique beauty in ways incompatible with today’s sexual egalitarianism; but her lesson for all of us is that the cultivation of our personal esthetic is a means to exchange both pleasure and moral reinforcement. Carole’s beauty, so powerfully sexual, nonetheless suggests to us a path toward transcending the asymmetry of gender in mutual respect.
Since beginning my project on Carole I am better able to understand why no one has written a book about her. There are few sources of information other than movie magazines and gossip columns. Although she was friendly and easy to work with, although her beauty was spectacular and her personality scintillating, not a single one of her associates, not even actors who co-starred with her in several films, has written more than a sentence or two about her–in many cases, not even that. Perhaps they were deterred by the scandal of her suicide; perhaps they felt guilty to have done nothing to prevent her death; perhaps they sensed that she was not wholly of the world in which she lived and worked, even in the milieux where the gossip columnists assure us she was found. The “four Jills” is the only collective with which she is reliably identified–yet the memoirs of her colleague Martha Raye give her no more than a few sentences either.
Thus I must find a novel in a life seemingly earmarked for a short story. The talented girl typecast because of her figure; the wild girl whose body was her sole claim to fame; the sweet girl too vulnerable for Hollywood; the proto-feminist crushed by the patriarchy; the hopeless romantic who never found true love: one-line definitions of a one-page life, each less false than unworthy of its subject. The difference in the tribute we pay to objects of love and objects of resentment corresponds to that between story and novel; to care for someone, even dead and never known alive, is to want to make her the subject of a book. And whereas the biography of someone whose historical significance is assured takes its departure from the world’s affection rather than one’s own, no devotion is more personal than that which constructs a full-length story for one previously confined to the anecdotal. Like a declaration of love, the promise of a book is a commitment of the fullness of time made in a revelatory moment of unsustainable plenitude.