Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Biography and Brevity
I have just finished reading Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong. Even as I write that sentence I blush at its exaggeration. The author is short, not his book. It’s a volume of about 750 pretty big pages with a huge dramatis personae whose names my aging and occidental brain finds it difficult to keep straight. But it was the book that several knowledgeable friends told me I should read if I hoped to begin to understand Mao, who by any way of looking at things was among the most consequential actors upon the historical stage of my own times. I did a good deal of skimming and hopping about as directed by Short’s comprehensive index. I did read major sections in their entirety, including that on the Cultural Revolution; so I will exercise a license to which I may well not be eligible and say that that “I read the book.”
What did I learn about Mao? I well remember idealistic young Americans marching in the streets chanting his praises. On my own campus there were those who affected his dismal haberdashery. In France in 1968 I saw a huge sign fashioned by the student revolutionaries for one of their rallies that read “Our cause is invincible, for we have a weapon forged in Sinkiang.” I didn’t know what it meant exactly, but it sounded persuasive. Philip Short is an engaging journalistic historian, not a moralist or a political polemicist; but the gist of his book, in my admittedly episodic reading, is that Mao was one of the very greatest monsters in recorded history, perhaps even Numero Uno. The man achieved hecatombs that surpassed the joint production of Hitler and Stalin. He inspired the admiration and emulation of other murderous despots limited in their ambitions only by the comparatively more modest size of the populations under their subjection.
You should not have to read seven hundred pages to find out that a man was a monster. My complaint about biography as a contemporary literary genre is that biographies seem destined to get longer and longer. Having just spent the better part of a week working under the direction of my son Luke in trying to clean up my study I have seen for myself how easily and how quickly junk mail can become sacralized as an “archive”. Technological developments in communication make it easy to create “documents” and way too easy to keep them. On Anthony Weiner’s seized laptop the FBI has found 650,000 emails of conceivable pertinence to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, fifteen-year-old girls in North Carolina and—who knows?—maybe even Carlos Danger himself. Most people seem to be concentrating on the “pertinence” issue, but I can’t get there, my intellectual energies having been drained by the preliminary effort to imagine six hundred and fifty-thousand emails. Someday some biographer of somebody is going to find it necessary to read them and tell me all about them.
Classical models teach us the wisdom of biographical brevity. Think of Plutarch, think of Seutonius. There are about twelve thousand words in the Gospel of Mark. Is there anything more biographically felicitous than Aubrey’s wonderful and wonderfully titled Brief Lives from the seventeenth century? Samuel Johnson published the Lives of the Poets—fifty-two of them, like a deck of cards—in a single collection. A century later the cultural critic Matthew Arnold would nominate six of the best of them as established, permanent “points which stand as so many natural centres, and by returning to which we can always find our way again." That’s pretty high praise. John Reed, a founder of the prelapsarian American Community Party, crammed more into his thirty-two years than the television lounge of your average pensioners’ home could pool together. When he was twenty-nine he wrote a little autobiographical gem, Almost Thirty, that practically electrified me when I first stumbled upon it.
Only after reading Philip Short did it occur to me to pull down from its shelf my favorite contemporary collection of short biographies: Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. This book, incidentally, is one I hope could be in my Desert Island Library should I ever be forced to put one together. Clive James was combating political correctness before it had even settled into its name. In this book he deploys his ideas through the medium of about a hundred biographical essays. For anyone inclined to respect learning, to honor history and try to be honest about it, and to value the Western cultural tradition and its distinctive achievements, one of the greatest obstacles is the slovenly but fashionable forgetfulness that he calls “cultural amnesia”. I suffer as well from forgetfulness of the more conventional kind. I could not remember for sure whether he had an essay on Mao, but of course he does. It is five pages long, and that includes an encomiastic review of Short’s biography and other relevant bibliographical information. His opening sentence: “The full evil of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is continually being rediscovered, because it is continually being forgotten.” So Short had to go long.