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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