New Public Bios

May 26th, 20111:44 pm @

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Here’s my near-daily experience: I read an article I like, I search for the author to learn more about her, I read her five-sentence bio, and I’m resoundingly disappointed. Evidently, she was once a great hunter and now she sits on a throne.

Are all public bios, those one to two paragraph haikus, true but misleading?

There’s a joke I like from Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. The joke, I’m going to tell you in advance, has to do with statistics, and here’s one more thing about it: It’s not very funny. But I can be a boor, so:

It’s often said that new gamblers are unaccountably lucky. How can that be? After they’ve learned something about Black Jack or poker or whatever, their luck goes away. This is true, says Taleb the statistician, but misleading. Oh? Yes, well, think of the set consisting of new gamblers on day 1. Most will start out, lose money, and then leave the casino. At various stages, losers will bow out, leaving–yes, you’ve got it, the lucky few who’ve managed to seduce Lady Luck. So, yeah, it’s true that new gamblers are lucky: they’re lucky in virtue of having been survivors. However, they’re the only ones we see hanging around.

And that’s the thing, really. It’s a kind of Gestalt problem. We’re looking at the outliers, not at the corpses which, like good Greek tragedies, are lying somewhere off stage. Unseen, unrecorded, all that.

Oh, and the joke? We’re pretty stupid. Haha.

Stupid, yeah. But then so are all these highly stylized public bios of writers, professors, architects, politicians–that is to say, all these unrevealing portraits of throne dwellers. What we get in these five sentences is a story of accomplishments coupled with a tally of the number of seats this guy’s sat in. His ass was once at Cambridge but now–mark this, pay attention–it’s now at MIT. Thank God I’ve got a topos of the migratory patterns of his past lovers. And now, we read, he’s fat and contented. Oh, blessedness.

In these stories, there may be no lying but there’s a hell of a lot of deception. Here’s a place to begin. Let’s take a look at Ecclesiates 1.14: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Good stuff. Yummy sober. In Sermon 12, Samuel Johnson lists all the “miscarriages” of human action: all the pursuits unfulfilled, the desires unsatisfied, the hopes crushed, the ambitions scorned, the inquiries unanswered and, um, the sucky loves lost. If you get the point, then there’s no need to watch any Woody Allen movie since (Johnson here) “The history of mankind is little else than a narrative of designs which have failed, and hopes that have been disappointed.” Also: you can now cross Schopenhauer off your summer reading list.

Life, this my fair lady, is feted with disappointments and ennui. Well, never mind Johnson’s hyperbole, just listen to the undertone. All our successes (of which there are few) are “outliers”; meanwhile, all the failures–all those clever projects unfinished and crackpot ideas that never surfaced–these go unrecorded and unlisted.

That’s my first gripe anyway. Just to let you know most of my days are spent running around like a bull in the China something. So my plea for candor: Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other; let’s somehow or other get into the genre of the five-sentence public bio some account of our failures. Could be a beautiful account. I leave that up to you–I mean, to us.

And now my second disappointment. Where’s the place in this little bio for the idea of living well? How does my hero sleep at night–peacefully or anxiously? How has he brooked the disappointments he’s failed to mention? Is he old and sated with life, resilient in the face of disaster, made of good hard shit, or is he a pathetic, fidgety old fart whom you can’t stand to be around? It always sucks to meet someone you saw on paper and then learn that, in person, he’s a real life fuck-up.

To sum up: I’m inviting us to retrain ourselves in the art of sketching these little self-portraits with an eye to living well. I’d like to know whether this guy on the throne has his life in order, or whether he’s a mess that no obituary can truthfully cover up.

You probably think I’m hunting for some juicy private bits. No, just the opposite. I”m disheartened that we’ve resigned this question to someprivate realm that then once in a while gets exposed through gotcha journalism. Scandal: Senator has sex with–his wife! Horror: The poet laureate of Nantucket loves–boat shoes!

So, we’ve got a problem. This huge swath of life either gets chunked into the private bin and there neglected, or it gets dredged up into the public where it’s then sensationalized and greedily consumed.

Ah, but the memoir, you say, the memoir–now that’s the thing that will make up for this huge deficit! Maybe, but I’m not looking for sentimentalizing or psychoanalyzing childhood. I’d like to see a dignified public portrait wrought in those five sentences.

Here’s our assignment, yours and mine: Let’s get out the successes and the failures. Not all of them, just the important ones. Also, let’s give some sense of how we’ve handled those failures as well as those successes. Tell me, in measured public prose, not in mode of confession, how you’ve got on with life, how you’ve managed it all. Give me that portrait that’s not heroically epic and not stupidly tragic, but a nice blend of the moderately epic and the moderately comic. Now, don’t be trashy, but also don’t be demure. Let me see dignity and integrity in your demeanor. Allow me feel the nobility, the humble nobility?, of your brow. When I read about you, I’d like to find out whether we’re kindred spirits.

In short, I’d like to hear whether you’re all right standing on your own on your own two feet.