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19 August 2020

Reading about Sylvia Plath, I understand we should all reserve the right to lie about ourselves

It used to be that only celebrities were subjects of biography, but life online has changed this.

By Megan Nolan

None of us is truly alone in this world. Even those lives which are paralysed by loneliness have come into their state as a result of interactions with other lives. We are all authored by other parties, and cannot be the sole author of our own lives. Who, then, can be an expert on our lives? Who can say they know who we are and what we have done and, more meaningfully, what those doings add up to, what sort of a person we really are?

I read The Silent Woman lately, the brilliant Janet Malcolm book on Sylvia Plath’s biographers and their array of hostile or laudatory approaches, highly dependent in most cases on the author’s relationship to either Plath or her family. Who is entitled to authority on another person’s life? In Plath’s case, it seems, more or less anyone who ever spoke to her for five minutes.

Once you arrive at a level of celebrity or notoriety, it becomes commonly accepted that the facts of your life are available for general consumption. There is no way to be successful and avoid this. Even the lives of those who actively choose relative hermitage, like JD Salinger, are known to a fairly invasive degree. The only way to avoid prurient cataloguing of one’s existence is to be exceptionally boring, neutrally moral, to lead a life extraordinarily lacking in event.

I don’t know if it’s fair that one should be obliged to abdicate privacy in exchange for public renown, but what seems clearly wrong to me is to be fooled into thinking that even the most scholarly and thorough of biographical approach can ever really capture a person’s life. This is not to say I disregard the worth of biography, a form I read and admire an inordinate amount. Rather, that it disturbs me to think of anyone reading biography in whatever form it takes (be it the usual literary sort, or all the other kinds that exist more casually in culture) and believing they’ve come away with anything other than an inevitably partial and subjective view of a life.

This struck me when reading about Plath: that the search for absolute truth about the facts of a life can often serve to flatten the life itself. Facts, no matter how accurate, are not only incapable of accounting for the essential truth of a life, but can actually undermine that truth. There is a part of one Plath biography, Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson, in which a letter of Plath’s to her friend, the poet Richard Murphy, is quoted. She is making the case for her ability to withstand the harsh solitary conditions of rural Ireland, and writes to him: “I have wintered in a lighthouse.” Stevenson not only points out that Murphy disbelieved that Plath had ever spent a winter living in a lighthouse, but also assures the reader that Murphy was correct and that she had, indeed, never spent significant time in a lighthouse. Why must we be so tediously literal? Is it really necessary to fact-check this rather beautiful aside in a bit of personal correspondence?

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I often observe that women are punished for speaking metaphorically, or generally, or not-literally, while men who are creative are more likely to be given the assumption of artistry which need not adhere to the particulars of lived fact. When an Updike-type character opines some characteristic of women, it is assumed by the reader he is speaking fantastically and with the cloud of a subjective perspective – that the author has, basically, a sense of humour and that we may trust he does not believe what he is saying applies literally to every woman on Earth. Meanwhile, generalisations made by women are met with fact-checking and pointless accounting, even if, when a woman says “Men are forever talking over me”, she clearly doesn’t mean that all men speak over her at all times.

Facts cannot account for the irreducible and overwhelming fullness of a life. There is no single truth to anyone’s life, as everyone will die with secrets and things about themselves that nobody else knows – whether these are only internal (the dark thoughts of dashing the baby’s head on the mantle, or fantasies of sleeping with the neighbour while the husband is away), or if they are real, carefully contained second lives. When we forget this, we lose the right to self-invent, to be creative with ourselves. To put it bluntly, we lose the right to lie about ourselves, which is an important right. And, as any psychoanalyst will tell you, what we choose to lie about and to whom is just as revealing as factual truth. It comes down to a simple and endlessly complex question: how is it that we come to know another? We observe, but we also listen to what the other tells us directly, and these lies are part of the telling. She has wintered in a lighthouse.

It used to be that only celebrities were subjects of biography, but life online has come to mean that many of us are expected to maintain an unnatural degree of narrative fidelity. People my age – who were not yet adults when the opportunity arrived to make formal and apparently coherent digital presentations of ourselves – have been infected by the false belief that it is possible to create a singular curated image of ourselves, and feed it to the hungry world. It was never true, of course, and the fault lines in the image seem pathetically vivid when I look back on old social media posts now: embarrassingly transparent attempts to perform a happy, successful self.

We have no control over how others interpret us, and we must accept they have the ability to take the facts of our lives and do what they want with them, and even to offer their own subjective inventions of us as fact. We must accept this, and that our own perceptions of others are always fundamentally incomplete and wrong in deep and often comical ways. Once we do, once we try to know one another less literally, the business of living and of knowing each other becomes something different: indefinable, shifting, and altogether more fun. 

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