Poisoned Arrow Pointillism

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Poisoned Arrow Pointillism


Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review


IN her brilliant memoir, Tiger's Eye, reflecting on the inadequacy of the accounts she offers of her parents, Inga Clendinnen writes: 'We build up our pictures of people intimately known by a kind of pointillism, a thousand flecks of experience laid on the canvas'. Given the multiplicity of impressions constituting such portrayals, Clendinnen realises the risk of 'grotesque simplification' in writing about them. Such a risk attends any biographical sketch.

Since Clendinnen was writing about her parents, her pointillism does not fall foul of Dr. Johnson's famous biographical rule that 'nobody can write the life of a man but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him'. The intimacy she can claim gives her picture credibility, even though she can convey so few of its constitutive pinpricks.

The figure on whom I wish to focus is remote compared to any parent. Over the centuries, countless 'flecks of experience' have been laid on the canvas of history in an attempt to catch something of his extraordinary personality. This has resulted in a whole gallery of competing pictures.

Lack of intimacy and diversity of interpretation means my account cannot lay claim to the kind of authority biography has when conducted at close quarters and with access to uncontested evidence. Is it worth proceeding given such limitations? Clendinnen focuses on parents, key figures in the personal politics of any family. My subject's life has relevance on so much wider a scale that, for all the difficulties involved in sketching it, it is well worth making the attempt.

I have so far shied away from the most obvious of the biographer's tasks: identifying the person in question. Such evasiveness is necessary given the weight of assumption borne on his name--or, more strictly, on the name by which we now know him, for as one commentator has observed: 'if we are historically sober we have to admit that we have no idea what he was originally called by his family and friends'. Revealed too soon, his 'name' risks prompting readings I do not wish to sanction. Using Clendinnen's private lives to preface this very public one is a tactic meant to stay the hand of presupposition and the stereotypes it holds.

There are many reasons for trying to retrieve a life after it has gone. Being aware of them helps identify, if not untie, the knots binding subject and biographer together. Love and loathing provide equally strong motives but will produce quite dissimilar accounts. In Clendinnen's terms, we emphasise different flecks of experience according to whether our intention is to celebrate or demonise. Even if in some particulars it may seem far from worthy (his desertion of wife and child, for example), I'm drawn to this particular life because it provides a touchstone for that most elusive of blueprints: how to live well.

The social and political challenges of the twenty-first century are so daunting that any attempt to address them can seem doomed to failure; thus the terrible slide into apathy evident in our culture--countless lives not lived well. The gulf in scale between problems and the remedial action open to individuals is such as to engender a sense of powerlessness. What can we do about global warming? Should we surrender some of our cherished liberties in the interests of prudent action against terrorism? To what extent should we countenance genetic engineering? What are the rights of the unborn? Who has first call on our charity, victims of a distant disaster or the disadvantaged who live only streets away? What responsibility do we have for the starving millions whose anonymous representatives crowd our media with their suffering? How can we respond to fundamentalism and bigotry without ourselves embracing intolerance? What should our relations be with those whose attitudes to woman or to education or to freedom are radically opposed to ideals we hold dear? When is military intervention justified? …

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