The Fiction Writer And The Biographer

By: Gaither Stewart

ceremonyI just read the novel, EUPHORIA, by the young American writer, Lily King, a TOP TEN BOOK OF THE YEAR in 2014, published by Grove Press, New York. Readers of this article do not have to worry; this is not to be a dry book review. Instead, I have permitted myself to examine some of the ideas of this thought-provoking intellectual novel, loosely based on the life of famed anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1901-1978).

I emphasize “loosely” because novelist Lily King agrees that you can’t feel like you really know someone from a biography as you can characters in fiction. Biographers can never know the person they write about in the way fictional writers write about their characters which they create.

Fictional characters act, say and are any way their creator wants them to. The writer knows the tone of their voices, how they think and feel, in good and evil, and even in the act of dying. I recall the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes who wrote an entire novel, La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz), about an evil/good politician who relives his whole life, the good and the bad, on his death bed. The fiction writer made it all up

When fictionalizing the lives of real persons the same rules largely hold. The writer is interested in the real person, but that person is only a vague model … and more at the beginning than at the end. Fiction writers have to keep in mind that since they are writing fiction, unlike the biographer, he or she still knows everything about their characters who are only “modeled” on real people.

In answer to a reader’s question on www.goodreads.com, Lily King says that as a writer of fiction she had “to feel her way” through Euphoria. Even though she started with a person resembling Margaret Mead. “I didn’t always know what would happen until I got there and felt what felt right. It’s strange in that way:… the novel kept changing as I was writing it—nothing happened like I thought it would when I started out. You have the freedom to let the characters do or say anything they want, until you just let the story go where it wants to go.”

However, ideas in such a work as Euphoria come as if from both biographer and fiction writer. And the ideas in this fiction are stimulated by Margaret Mead’s progressive social ideas, which toward the end of the book emerge from the fertile, imaginative, nearly hysterical minds of the fictional anthropologists, the heroine Nell, her husband, Fen, and the English scholar Bankson, during days and nights in the heat and humidity along the Sepik River in what was then called the Territory of New Guinea of 1933. Their ideas would be real ideas no matter in which genre they might emerge.

THE 1930S

While the Great Depression raged, imperialism and racism thrived, Fascism and Nazism were born, Italian Fascists invaded Ethiopia and German Nazis absorbed Austria and Bohemia and invaded Poland, Japan devastated China, the Soviet Union developed and defended itself, and the USA was forced to institute social security, pass legislation for better housing, give farm subsidies and prepare for war. Black Joe Louis beat the Aryan German boxer Max Schmeling and black Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in Nazi Berlin. WWII began though WWI had never really ended while people like Margaret Mead were studying and debating as to who we human beings are and how we should live.

Some of the best persons in the 1930s, those like Margaret Mead, and like King’s fictional Nell in Euphoria considered the world’s gravest problem the West’s lack of understanding of other people’s customs. Some of them were convinced that every culture has its unique goals and orients its society toward those goals; therefore, the need for tolerance and acceptance of cultural relativism, racial heredity is nonsense and culture is not handed down biologically but by tradition.

If I understand correctly, the author of Euphoria attributes to Margaret Mead the vision of human potentialities as one great arc and that each different culture is a selection somewhere along that arc.

According to Mead. Western civilization is not the result of a perfect evolution of culture. Therefore, the study of primitive societies by anthropologists like herself is not the study of our origins. Those primitives only seem easy to study because we Westerners, hubristically, refuse to even try to understand their very different beliefs such as sand dancing to bring on the rains.

For Westerners the idea of magic is for TV shows and has nothing to do with reality. Still, probably a great majority of human beings believe in magic as a vital force in life. Primitives, so-called, also have a different concept of time, of our relationship with both life and death and of our proximity to even distant ancestors.

Also in the 1930s, because of the studies and writings of anthropologists like Margaret Mead, the question arose of the objectivity of the individual dedicated to the study of strange peoples in distant lands. Were their findings valid? Trustworthy?

It is often the case that when only one person is expert in a particular subject (or, here, an expert on one society) we often learn from the expert’s analysis more about the lone reporter than about the subject of the study. I personally consider experts a dangerous species, even though admittedly some experts are more expert than others. Most certainly the subject studied—in this case the human being and human society—requires more than expertise. It requires enormous sensitivity and, as in the first sentence above, also a sincere desire to understand other peoples’ customs.

One of Lily King’s anthropologists found that he was most interested in the intersection of the anthropologist’s views of the observed people and the views of the people being analyzed … of how the anthropologist sees the others and how they see themselves. That, of course, is the precise place in the unfolding of the recorded action where the fiction writer can dig in and make his own mark.

In any case, surprisingly contemporary and socially advanced conclusions may be drawn from the findings of Margaret Mead as interpreted by Lily King: because of the West’s emphasis on private property, our freedom, she finds, is drastically restricted, much more than in many so-called primitive societies. It is often taboo in a culture to have real discussions about the culture’s dominant traits; in the West, a real discussion about capitalism, social justice, equality, or war is hardly permitted since representation of those traits has become pathologically addicted and binding. Social conformity has created in the West permanent alienation from real reality and traditions have become psychopathic rather that rewarding or protective.

Rome, January, 2016

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