Wednesday 26 June 2013

From myth to history and back - Marie Arana's Bolivar

Historical biography is probably the most difficult of historiographical genres. The early examples of (auto-) biography were little more than defensive treatises, rebutting accusations by real or perceived enemies of progress. Augustus' Res Gestae falls into this category and historians have sharpened their critical tools on the interpretation of it. 

As the religious wars kicked off in Europe and printing opened up new possibilities of publicising opinions, history often melted into something akin to propaganda and, again, it was the difficult job of historians to subsequently distil fact from fiction. Biography suffers from a heightened sense of all these ills. 

At the centre of the biography stands the person, and the outward line of events often casts little light on the inner life of the subject in question. The main preoccupation of readers however is not the event. We are not so much interested in knowing that Caesar crossed the Rubicon but what he thought when he saw Cleopatra. On top of that, people have a strong urge to cast themselves in a good light and few biographers can resist the pressure to write with critical distance about somebody they have likely chosen because they liked them in the first place. 

In constructing any narrative historians usually have two options. They either stick to the line of events which commonly delivers taut and paced accounts of what happened or they exhaust the subject matter in minute details, immersing and potentially drowning the account in quotes. The former produces annals rather than history, the latter usually produces boredom. 

Peter Longerich's Heinrich Himmler biography is rich in detail, so rich in fact that it swells to more than a thousand pages and whilst the reader gets a good understanding of every nook and cranny of Himmler's warped thinking through plenty of quotes, the overall picture is lost and the narrative resembles more a zig-zag path to historical oblivion. 

The trick of course is to use the material in the particular context in the most appropriate way. Quoting Himmler's deluded ruminations about races only confirm in the reader's mind that he had a fairly tenuous grip on reality, but insights into deluded minds rarely tell us much about what happened and why. 

Marie Arana's biography of Bolivar is of the other category. Arana does not like to busy the reader with the exhaustive interpretative turns of previous scholarship and she delivers a fast paced narrative of the events. Quickly, however the reader loses sight of Bolivar the person and Arana's partiality becomes a problem. 

Much of this is due to a creeping sense that Arana uses different terminology when describing the warring factions because she preconceives a righteousness in the liberating cause. As the narrative proceeds and Bolivar's early attempts to liberate Venezuela falter, everyone who opposes him becomes a traitor in Arana's account. 

Those who dare argue a different course are 'scheming' while Bolivar himself simply 'lacks genuine friends'. By page 170, Bolivar's righteousness is a function of the end he wants to achieve, and everything that may tempt other historians into a stance of critical distance (for example Bolivar's sexual preference for extremely young girls which he cast aside as soon as he 'conquered' them) is passed over. 

The result is a one dimensional account of the hero himself and Arana's narrative, though fast-paced, becomes difficult to trust. As the slave rebellion enters the picture this lack of critical distance becomes deeply troubling. Bolivar is by now more of a cut-out frame rather than a real person and the language Arana uses to describe the atrocities on all sides is more disturbing. Bove and his men 'revel' in the killings, while Bolivar is 'bewildered' by the storm of violence. 

Arana of course has a problem here given that it was Bolivar who unleashed the forces he could not control with his uncompromising call for the murder of all Spaniards. The proclamation still produces heated discussions amongst historians but Arana 'neutralises' it by attributing it to Bolivar's political 'naivite'. 

The section on Bove's rebellion also makes uncomfortable reading for the racial undertones that creep into Arana's writing. Bove and his men (mainly black and mixed raced) are blood thirsty and cruel by nature, whereas Bolivar and his men are civilised heros fighting for a righteous cause. 

What is lost in this teleological writing is an appreciation for the complexity of the civil war and the difficult position of those caught in it. At some point, Arana gives a glimpse of it when she mentions that some of the fighters easily changed sides up to ten times during the struggle, usually aligning themselves with the party of power. 

In short, the reader gradually grows suspicious of Arana's lack of nuance and critical distance. Most importantly, what is often lost in this sympathetic historical writing is Bolivar the person. Starting with his 'vow to rid Venezuela' of the Spaniards on Monte Sacro in Italy, Arana never manages to lift the mythical veil to glimpse the real person behind. Beginning with his pledge in Italy, Bolivar's life is a path of glory walked by a living saint while virgins are voluntarily throwing themselves in his way (or their fathers trying to throw them in his way to get Bolivar's attention), only temporarily frustrated by evil traitors and agents of Spain. 

Crafting certainty out of doubt - Golo Mann in 1990

The master of biographical writing was of course Golo Mann, who delivered an unsurpassed account of a real person in 'Wallenstein' that had all signs of human frailty and self-doubt. Mann's prose oscillates between historiographical certainty and questioning distance which is curiously mirrored in the actions of Wallenstein himself. Through this historiographical device, Mann made a virtue of the biggest shortcoming of biographical writing, that we can never know the mind of the other. His writing circles the subject matter ever more closely until the established facts are just about holding on to the human perceptions of them. 

Mann was of course aware that this was a historiographical trick. In a sense, he may have been simply lucky in his choice of subject matter. Wallenstein may have been a more tortured personality than Bolivar. But then again perhaps not. Arana's biography cannot tell us either way. What we do know is that writing a biography that turns people into one dimensional canvasses for our projections approximates myth rather than history. In other words, Arana's work gives us 'Res Gestae' rather than the man himself. 

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