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Dec 03

The Explainer: Other people’s lives in print

That was a scene from the movie “Quills” where Napoleon, before the era of libel suits, proposed a bullet as a solution for a troubling author. But an adviser says there are other ways to deal with irritating authors like the Marquis de Sade.

Not all of us may read the lives of people, but we watch movies about the lives of others. Whether it’s the biography or the biopic, other people’s lives are interesting to us. Tonight, other people’s lives –as they’re immortalized in print.

 

I’m Manolo Quezon, the Explainer.

 

I. Past lives

 

FROM the ancients two words in Greek, bios meaning life, and graphein, meaning to write, were cobbled together and gave us biography. A biography is the story of a life. It involves putting forward a selection of places, events, dates and personalities for a purpose. A biographer sifts information, picks through the past, to present a picture, a well-rounded image of someone, to instruct, , inspire or destroy, but always to interest and entertain.

The ancients, in eras before psychology, were interested less in what people thought, than in what they did. They were, most of all, interested in the lives of great people because of the lessons such lives might teach, negative or positive lessons as the case might be. Myth and reality, hearsay, gossip, and the archives, were used, and perhaps even abused, freely.

From the ancient world comes down biographies that survived the centuries to titillate and to awe; Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives, in which he picked great Greeks and Romans to represent, through the their lives, particular vices or virtues. Soetoneus wrote the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, a catalog of great deeds and depraved behavior.

Julius Caesar knew better than to trust the story of his life to potentially hostile biographers, and achieved literary and political success writing his own biography –his autobiography. For centuries, his Commentaries on the War in Gaul, present-day France, was the introductory text for students of Latin, with its famous opening words, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”,  or “All Gaul is divided into three parts,” familiar to Filipino students from as recently as forty years ago. The Roman historian Tacitus gave us the antidote to Ceasar’s self-promotion, and militarism and imperialism in general, when he concluded, there was little glory the Roman conquest of Gaul, but that, instead, “they made a wasteland and called it peace.”

Christianity brought its fair share of biographies, centered as the religion was on the combined biographies of Christ known as the Gospels. Christianity’s focus on the heroic lives of saints brought forth, in more skeptical times, a term for biographies that insist only on the positive –what we call, today, hagiography, otherwise known as praise releases.

In the Renaissance, Georgio Vasari wrote Lives of the Artists, reintroducing artists as a subject for admiration and study. Autobiographical writings gained renewed currency; if Christianity had faith-centered autobiographies, such as St. Agustine’s Confessions, the Renaissance brought us the Autobiography of Beinvenito Cellini, a tell-all book; the Enlightenment would bring other autobiographies to the fore, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and Johann Wofgang von Goethe being among the most famous examples.

All these biographies and autobiographies I’ve mentioned, remain in print. You can find them in bookstores and even download them online.

For us, biography is often associated with the campaign biography, that is, political hagiography. Perhaps the very first being Felixberto Bustos’ And Now Comes Roxas published in 1945. By 1965, biographies themselves could become a political issue, as Hartzell Spence’s life of Ferdinand Marcos, “For Every Tear A Victory” was dissected, sued, and tackled in the media along with “Macapagal The Incorruptible”. The book on Marcos proved more controversial –and thus, more successful.

In the 1980s, the biggest-selling biography in Philippine publishing came out in print: Nick Joaquin’s “The Aquinos of Tarlac” told the stories of three Aquinos: and sold thousands, even tens of thousands, of copies.

Perhaps its because of politics that the art of biography hasn’t reached its full potential in the Philippines. The British make a useful distinction between what they call authorized and unauthorized biographies.

An authorized biography is officially approved, either by the subject of the biography or by the estate or family of the subject of the book, this includes not only what’s in the book, but who’s been approved to write it. Unauthorized biographies are precisely that –books whose authorship has received neither support, nor any official mark of approval, from the subject of the book or his heirs.

Nearly all Philippine biographies are approved biographies; and the biographies produced, with either political purposes or family sensibilities in mind, are therefore understandably careful to avoid offending those paying for the book or their friends. Because of such limitations, there are surely many books of merit which haven’t merited the public attention they deserve.

With this reality in mind, it might be useful for authors and potential readers to enter into a dialogue, to determine what really goes into the writing of a life.

The famous 17th Century letter writer Madame de Sevigne famously wrote, “no man is a hero to his valet.” The well known snob, two centuries added, “because he is only a valet.” The biographer tasked with writing a life, immediately encounters a problem: does familiarity with one’s subject breed contempt? We’ll be asking a biographer that question when we return.

 

II. Warts and All

 

That was a scene from the award-winning play and move, “Amadeus” where Salieri recounts his first encounter with Mozart and his music. He adored the music; he was filled with contempt for Mozart.

Our guest today is the biographer of a family and a famous member of that family. Raul Rodrigo wrote “Phoenix,” the story of the Lopez family in two volumes. This year, his biography of Eugenio Lopez, Jr., “Kapitan,” hit the shelves.

 

My view

 

Early in their marriage, Winston Churchill told his wife, “all men are worms.” But then, he dramatically paused, looked at his wife, and added: “but I am a glow-worm.”

There are individuals privileged to have molded the times in which they lived. Fame has often accompanied their achievements. What matters to you affects the kind of celebrity you find yourself curious about. It might be a statesman, a politician or a swindler (sometimes one and the same thing). It might be a scientist, a soldier, a doctor or an artist. Sooner or later, we all want to know more, about the people we admire or hate; and sooner or later, some of us end up filled with the desire to study a life, and share what we find out about that life, whether through a book or a film.

This is an urge that has been with humanity even before writing was invented; it is one made easier by printing. And it is something we could profit from, in so many ways, if only more biographies were produced, involving Filipinos.

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