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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Duke, Capote, and Thoughts on Biography

There is something in the format of the conventional biography that leaves me unsatisfied, like an itch that refuses to be scratched. Teachout's biography of Duke Ellington certainly left that impression on me. Re-watching the biopic "Capote" again reminded me of this thought. The director of the movie, Bennett Miller, seems to have a fascination with real characters and his two subsequent movies were also biopics of sort: Moneyball and Foxcatcher (about the Dupont heir who murdered a wrestler).

While re-watching the movie, I looked up some stuff about Truman Capote's own stab at nonfiction in the form of "In Cold Blood" and discovered (perhaps not surprisingly) that he had made fabrications of his own and afterward vehemently defended the veracity of his accounts. In In Cold Blood, he is said to have "invented" a form of writing nonfiction, in which the author recounts real people's actions and thoughts known to only themselves, as if the author were with them in those past moments. Should I believe the author? That is the question. Indeed I am usually suspicious. The author can only base such narrative on his subject's confession. There may have been witnesses to someone's action, but the thoughts and motives are entirely invisible. In recalls, the power of deception and self-deception cannot be underestimated. Everyone is an unreliable narrator of his own history, especially his own thoughts.

Given the vast capability of self-deception, the human mind is by nature and by default untrustworthy. Autobiography is in many ways even more unreliable than biography. The problem is that the extent of deception, intentional or not, is unknown. Perhaps my problem is that I carry an expectation that I should learn something about the subject I'm reading about, but the biography leaves me with more questions than answers and a sense that I'm no closer to the subject than I was before I started reading. Not that I didn't learn a thing or two about Duke Ellington's limitations as a composer from the biography, but an assessment of his place in musical history is hardly what I wanted to know in the first place.

Sometimes I wonder if a person is able to truly understand another at all. When the end was near, Maugham's secretary found him frantically burning his private letters. Perhaps he needn't have bothered?

With biographies I remain unsatisfied, but perhaps that is inevitable.

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