There is a sense in which no biography has ever yet been written. Sartre’s Saint Genet, if one pursues this argument, may be seen as the first biography—and in a sense the last, since it defines prototypically the minimum and perhaps nearly the maximum limits of all future biography.
For some critics a biographical study and a philosophical treatise are mutually exclusive types of work. It might perhaps be argued with more force that all biographies must, today, be philosophical treatises (if the writer aims at an thing more than a chronological collection of facts) and that philosophy on the other hand must often assume the form of biography, as well as that of novel and theatre. The reasons for this change lie, first, in the profound transformation of philosophical concern since Hegel, the turning away from the eternal, supra-mundane, and essential towards the historical, human, existential. A second cause has been the radical methodological sophistication of the passion in men to understand other men and their relations to each other, expressed in—for example—depth-psychology, group dynamics and existential analysis.
The publication of Saint Genet: Comedien et Martyrfootnote1 in 1952 marked a crucial transition in Sartre’s thought, from the phenomenological ontology of L’Etre et le Néant (1943) to the Critique de la Raison Dialectique (1960). In the first of these works Sartre was concerned to discover the ontological ground of human existence in terms of the ‘ultimates’ Being and Nothingnes, and thence to delineate the modes of insertion of a totally translucent, desubstantialized consciousness into the world. In the last work, the Critique, he is concerned with historical, specific forms of sociality, or rather through a consideration of these forms he aims to discover the limits of validity of the type of rationality necessary for their comprehension. This philosophical development entailed the dépassement (a dialectical process c.f. Hegel’s aufheben) of the categories of the earlier work by those of the later, and Saint Genet may usefully be seen as an expression of the working out of this dépassement. Some of the basic categories of L’Etre et le Néant such as being in-itself
No work can be truly biographical, in the sense that it offers a radical comprehension of another’s life, if it does not take into full account the ontogenetic roots of a life in early infantile conflicts. This is the Freudian invention of this century, but most psycho-analytic biography, even the best, such as Erickson’s Young Man Luther, remains more or less crudely reductive. dissolving the person away into an abstract bundle of unintelligible innate drives. Real biography on the other hand must both start and finish with the person. It must commence with this disturbing irruption of the other (biographical subject) into my (biographer’s) world, and then trace its way from this apprehension of the other as inchoate, uncomprehended object to the portrayal of the other as a fully intelligable presence in the world, a subject at the centre of his autonomous world in which I find myself as an object in turn, hidden in the periphery.
But this subject is also an historical subject, living a certain social and economic reality as an objectively defined member of a certain class. As a subject he ‘sums up’ the world, but he sums it up only on the basis of its summation of him. Sartre takes this dimension of the analysis fully into account but, as he says, he has attempted to show the limits of psycho-analytic interpretation and of Marxist explanation, and to demonstrate that it is only through tracing the vicissitudes of a freedom that we can grasp a person in his totality. Through all the conditioning forces, constitutional-somatic, social—historical, it is a freedom that is being conditioned. A freedom that projects itself freely—in compliance with, or rebelliously in the teeth of, all fatedness or determination. This is both the contemporary centre of philosophical concern and the true stuff of biography. Biography is the critical experiment of philosophical hypothesizing. This argument cannot be reduced to the conventional quibbling conceptualizations of free-will versus determinism, nor can it be reduced without fatuity to a lexicographical exercise. It is a matter for concrete demonstration. The truth, when it is discovered, of one man’s life may call the bluff of countless philosophical mystifications.