Cleaning the closets
There is a difference between amassing a great many facts, and acquiring or conveying knowledge or understanding. There is also a difference between exploring every possible detail and speculative possibility of Poet X’s sex life, and writing a good intellectual biography. The review of yet another new biography of Byron indicates that we have yet another example of the first part of the equation instead of the second. There has been a rash of such biographies in the last decade or so, profoundly anti-intellectual works that undertake to clean out the closets of various writers and thinkers without stopping to ask why we care about those closets if we don’t care about the work. We know more than we knew before about the neuroses of Virginia Woolf, the repressions of Henry James, the bad marriage of T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens’ secret mistress, and (over and over again) the undeniably colourful life of Byron. But so what? If that’s what we want, why bother to look to writers for it? Why not just watch a soap opera, or better yet, just go out and work up a colourful life of our own? As Duncan Wu says at the conclusion of his review,
But it is a sad comment on our culture that a fully researched biography such as this has little to say about what made Byron a great poet, while devoting several hundred pages to proving that he was a closet homosexual whose cover was the exaggerated number of female conquests which were his chief boast.