Public and private lives, literary and political - Macleans.ca
 

Public and private lives, literary and political


 

I’m struck by the similarity of the opening lines of two recent book reviews.

Reviewing the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing in the Oct. 10 issue of The Guardian, Simon Callow writes:

“In terms of what we know about them, the contrast between our two greatest men of letters, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, could scarcely be sharper. Of Shakespeare, we know next to nothing; of Dickens we know next to everything.”

And reviewing the new biography Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life in the Sept. 24 issue of The New York Review of Books, Harold Bloom writes:

“The ultimate contrast in English poetry is between Byron and Shakespeare. Of Byron the passional man, we know nearly everything, while of Shakespeare’s inwardness we know nothing.”

What’s notable here is how the sagas of Lord Byron and Charles Dickens, both massive celebrities in their day, foreshadow our preoccupation with the lives, rather than only the works, of artists in our own times.

And not just artists. We’ve long since gotten used to the notion that we deserve to know a lot about all public figures, including of course politicians. We pretend that we can somehow use scraps of information to assess their characters, and this will in turn give us insight into their leadership qualities.

The problem is that we really know very little about the private spheres of famous people. That doesn’t matter when they are movie stars or novelists.

But politicians are different. Lately, I’m more troubled than usual by our fixation on hobbies (like piano playing) or supposed mindsets (like intellectual elitism) or family life (kids and spouses and such).

It’s inevitable that we take an interest in what we think are unguarded or revealing moments in otherwise carefully staged lives. No point pretending we can ignore this stuff. We’ll go on gawking.

The problem is one of balance and realism: we need to pay far more attention to their stated ideas and definitive actions in the public square, and put way less emphasis on what we imagine we can learn about the how they might live, behind closed doors and inwardly.

Sometimes it’s just as well not to know. After all, we get as much or more out of Shakespeare, the mystery man of English letters, as we do from those two open books, Dickens and Byron.


 
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Public and private lives, literary and political

  1. You know, I wonder how many people without an English degree spent time going through Byron's works. But I digress.

    It's an interesting observation, certainly, that we are obsessed with our political leaders' private lives. But perhaps we have no choice, when what is most widely expressed (and thusly, reported) are not their ideas for policy or governance, but rather their mannerisms that speak to what their ideas, values, or policy leanings *might* be.

    Call it amateur psychology, but I think a lot of us are trying to parse political behaviour from private (or semi-private) attitudes.

    Consider, for example, the rumor of Harper's "hidden agenda". Would we be so obsessed with his personal background and partisan statements if that rumor didn't exist?

  2. You know, I wonder how many people without an English degree spent time going through Byron's works. But I digress.

    It's an interesting observation, certainly, that we are obsessed with our political leaders' private lives. But perhaps we have no choice, when what is most widely expressed (and thusly, reported) are not their ideas for policy or governance, but rather their mannerisms that speak to what their ideas, values, or policy leanings *might* be.

    Call it amateur psychology, but I think a lot of us are trying to suss out political behaviour from private (or semi-private) attitudes.

    Consider, for example, the rumor of Harper's "hidden agenda". Would we be so obsessed with his personal background and partisan statements if that rumor didn't exist?

    • Yes, we never would've known about his 'firewalls' and feelings that Canada is 'second-tier' if it weren't for the rumours.

  3. This all comes back to that infamous question of who would you rather have a beer with in the GWB years, whihc is a proxy for likeability.

    The problem is that as the publc moments invade the private, or is the other way around, the private becomes equally scripted and less revealing. Although if the scripted privatre moments dont hold authenticity (reflections of who they are) they they will look scripted.

    The genie is out out of the bottle and there is no going back, but I hope we and the politicians are spared most of the attempts to peer behind the curtain.

  4. "But politicians are different."

    They aren't, really. Pols take an inordinate interest in my private life so I am not sure why pols don't deserve the same treatment the rest of us get.

    • "Pols take an inordinate interest in my private life."

      Huh?

  5. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of our atomized societies. As much as I think people are dumb to worry about the personal lives of politicians (or worse yet, long for leaders who are 'just like us'.), it's a consequence of social interactions that have become largely functional and partial, and where the values lean toward focus on the individual.

    In the same way that Twitter and Facebook can be seen as attempts to create community style interactions, our approach to politicians might be one reaction to the abstract and disconnected broad structures we are faced with.

    And whether it's Harper on piano or watching some actor on Oprah, the fetish of learning about celebrities' personal lives has two "benefits" (at least in terms of our cultural worldview): first, it somewhat satisfies a longing for community and meaningful social bonds; and second, it's cost free to the individual (by which I mean it requires none of the risk, effort or ongoing maintenance associated with real life relationships).

  6. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of our atomized societies. As much as I think people are dumb to worry about the personal lives of politicians (or worse yet, long for leaders who are 'just like us'.), it's a consequence of social interactions that have become largely functional and partial, and where the values lean toward focus on the individual (as opposed to the extended family, village, community, etc).

    In the same way that Twitter and Facebook can be seen as attempts to create community style interactions, our approach to politicians might be one reaction to the abstract and disconnected broad structures we are faced with.

    And whether it's Harper on piano or watching some actor on Oprah, the fetish of learning about celebrities' personal lives has two "benefits" (at least in terms of our cultural worldview): first, it somewhat satisfies a longing for community and meaningful social bonds; and second, it's cost free to the individual (by which I mean it requires none of the risk, effort or ongoing maintenance associated with real life relationships).

  7. I don't know JG. As a young man i couldn't read enough Orwell. Like many i idealized the man [ i still do] but inevitably i became interested in his inner life, and his private one. It didn't diminish the man. on the contrary it fleshed him out and gave him real weight.
    Perhaps we risk losing our illusions when we discover the 'real' story of our politicians; but it's necessary and right. It's the obssessing over trivia and nit-picking, the refusal to see the individual in scale or perspective that bugs me; perhaps this can only happen with distance and time? This does leave open the question however, of whether we have the right to know all this personal stuff, and to draw subjective conclusions while the individual is still in office? We all want transparency. But when you put the person under a 24/7 spotlight and lay enormous demands upon them, is it at all surprising that they fall short, or create a public personae that just isn't real. I blame the 24hr news cycle myself.

  8. I'm sidetracked by trying to imagine an American equivalent to Simon Callow – a highly accomplished actor who is also a highly-accomplished author.