Rewriting Biography – the last (long) 25 years
Congress by the working group Biography at the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde (organised by Mineke Bosch, Gerard Borst, Nele Beyens, Anneke Ribberink and Rozemarijn van de Wal).
The Dutch Literary Society held a congress celebrating 250 years, at the University of Groningen on 19th October 2016. The theme of the congress was biography and the study of life-writing. The congress was opened with an address by Yvonne Hirdman, who spoke about self-expression and life-writing through the prism of gender and power. She addressed the structure-action dialectic and illuminated the ‘space’ of expression that is on the one hand, conditioned by gender, and on the other, reinforced through the segregating and hierarchical logic of male domination. Drawing on her study of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, she demonstrated how power structures in interpersonal communication are appropriated and negotiated by the subordinated. Analysing excerpts from the letters between Alva and Gunnar she shed light on the language of power. For example, Gunnar writes this to Alva:
“You may think little, beautiful, tidy thoughts, but beware of thinking hard and heavy and firmly as I do.”
To these imperatives, Alva responds by placing Gunnar on a pedestal, and ‘inflating’ his masculinity.
The performance of gender in life writing was taken forward by Elisabeth Leijnse, who sparked a lively discussion on the usage (or omission) of first names in biographical literature, betraying ideas about personhood and identity. She demonstrated how illness can be read in a narrative without scientific oversight by describing symbols and symptoms without using anachronistic labels. She looks at the lives of Cecile and Elsa de Jong van Beek en Donk in her work, but also draws on the life of Alma Mahler, to highlight the lapses in biographical writing, strongly criticising Françoise Giroud and Oliver Hilmes. Her talk connected a new thread of disaggregating dogma to the discussion, probing the paradoxical anti-Semitism in Cecile.
The third keynote speaker was Thomas Etzemüller, who demolished the boundaries of biographical writing. He looked at anti-biographies and argued that the biographical subject is often organised as a coherent entity, neatly packaged into watertight boxes of temporality. He stressed the importance of decomposing the figure of the individual into multiple figures, each with its own structured field of meaning. He spoke about the fictional figure of Claus Beck-Nielsen, and used this as a case to show how narrative frameworks may not necessarily resort to the idea of the ‘single true biography’.
The keynote speeches were followed by a Masterclass where two biographers in the making, Lies Netel and Rozemarijn van der Wal, presented their work. The first concerned the art of Marianne van der Heijden, who was not conventionally famous, but exhibited expertise across different media. Netel proposed to understand the formation of the canon through this. The experts suggested that she should study the legacy in context, and reformulate her ideas based on the sociological nature of her questions. The second was a study of Eileen Power, an economic historian and medievalist. Rozemarijn van der Wal probed the notion of the scientific persona. In analysing practices of self-fashioning, she drew on the perception of the self by the other. By examining Power’s sartorial choices, which included heavy influences of the ‘East’, she demonstrated simultaneously the consumption of the unknown, and elevation to the status of expert by contact with the unknown. The commentators lauded her study. They suggested that she also should look at interactions between class and privilege and the performance of femininity as the creation of a space outside the ‘normal’. Thereafter, the biographer’s market was opened, and biographies in progress were presented through posters and short soapbox speeches.
The last speaker of the congress was journalist and writer Elizabeth Lockhorn. This year she won the prize for best biography for her lifewriting on Andreas Burnier. Lockhorn decided to have her lecture less scientific than the other speakers and focus more on the life of Burnier. Burnier was born in 1931 as Catharina Irma Dessaur, and died in 2002 at the age of 71. She was known as professor in criminology at the University of Nijmegen, her poetry, and for her books like “The Crying Libertine”, and “The Boys’ Hour”. In her books, Burnier struggles with her identity as a lesbian and transgender, with hidden Jewish roots. Burnier also shows interest in the fields of philosophy, antroposophy, and essayism. Lockhorn praises her luck as a biography writer on her subject, since she experienced something called “Biographers luck”. Burnier left elements of her personal life in her general work. By studying the relationship between fiction and reality in these works, Lockhorn could discover more details of the personal life of this extraordinary woman and role model than she ever dared to imagine.
The stimulating discussions following each lecture brought out the different strands of debate effectively. One would have perhaps liked to see better inclusion of other dimensions of power, such as race and colonialism, and the interplay of different dimensions to produce new kinds of subalterity.
Vicky van der Linden