Eric Williams;The Myth and the Man, Selwyn Ryan - The Trinidad Express, March 22, 2009
Story Created: Mar 22, 2009 ECT
Story Updated: Feb 6, 2011 at 7:10 PM ECT
My biography of Dr Eric Williams has finally been released and will be launched on March 31. In this column, I share with readers some of the problems that writing a biography involve.
Biographies, like orbituaries, seek to tell readers something about the life and legacy of the person under scrutiny. They usually go beyond recitation of fact and detail to interrogate what was attempted by the actor, what was achieved or not achieved, and whether the failure was due to error, incompetence, willful departure, challenges of personality, or some objective constraint imposed by the physical, political or ideological environment. In doing so, biographers encounter a number of practical, methodological and epistemic problems, as well as issues relating to style and factuality. Questions arise as to what criteria should be used to judge the actor, especially if he (or she) is a controversial or a beloved and respected iconic public figure. Should he be judged by the heroic myths or legends that were officially constructed, the actions that were undertaken in seeking to fulfil the myth, or those that were contrary to those narratives? From whose perspectives should the story be told, that of the actor and those who were within his charmed circle and who "spun" on his behalf, or those who were negatively affected by what was done?
Whose narratives are to be privileged, those of the victor or those of the victim; the views of the educated elite and foreign critics or those of the inarticulate broad masses; those of individuals and groups who might have benefited by his programmes, or his rivals and his enemies? There are also those occasions when the lead actor is physically or psychiatrically ill and critical decisions are taken either by persons in the "throne room", or by the leader himself, who may be unaware that his vision and perspectives are affected by his illness.
There are also narratological considerations. Times change as do paradigms, perspectives and orthodoxies. Should the actor, the action or the vision be judged in terms of what obtained and was deemed legitimate at the time, or by contemporary standards of what is right or wrong? If the narrative is being scripted long after the event, or even shortly after, whose memories or perspectives are being privileged? It is well known that memories are capricious, selective and mediated by ideology and demographic factors, including ethnicity and gender. We have likewise seen many instances of leaders who were vilified in the immediate aftermath of their time in office, but who were rehabilitated and deemed heroes by successor generations whose experiences have led them to conclude that leaders who came later were worse, or because the difficulties faced were now better understood and appreciated. Kwame Nkrumah is one such leader. The reverse is the case with respect to Mao Tse-Tung. The official Communist Party line is that Mao was 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad. A recent biography, Mao, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, suggests that he was mostly bad. Biographies of Stalin, Mao's contemporary, have also come to diametrically opposed conclusions.
Another problem biographers face is the question of the subject's speeches or policy papers and the extent to which he understood, modified or owned them.
Most modern leaders have their speeches written for them by political specialists or public servants and sometimes deliver these without adding much value to the given text. Speech writers often force or slip ideas into such speeches without the leader's quite understanding what message is being sent. Contradictory messages may also be sent if more than one person authors the speech. And finally, modern technology has compounded the problems that authors face: a great deal that was once committed to paper is now electronically transmitted, and remains unseen and unrecorded.
Biographers must also wrestle with the question of whether they are writing mainly about the personal lives of their subjects, or about the times in which the subject lived.
Questions arise as to what pedagogic or political purpose or lesson the study is intended to achieve. Is it meant to be merely descriptive and analytical, or didactic as well? Plutarch posed the questions starkly when he insisted that he was not writing history but about "lives". The writing of "history" he left to others who were interested in great and dramatic encounters. Plutarch's aim was to tell stories of great men that he hoped would serve as guides to action and character development. Given this aim, he preferred to focus on lesser events, since, "It is not in the most conspicuous of a man's acts that good and bad qualities are necessarily best manifested. Some trivial act, a word, a jest often shows up character far more than [big] engagements."
Plutarch thus saw biography as portrait and not as photograph. Portraits were better able to capture the "real" hero. He was aware however that the "portrait" of a hero, to be a true likeness, must include that which might be unflattering. He agreed with Plato that "great natures produce great vices as well as great virtues", and that truth required that the full story be told. As Plutarch well put it,"it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to exhibit a "life" which is blameless and pure; and so we must select its good elements and in these we must satisfy truth and present a likeness.The shortcomings and faults which run through a man's conduct owing to individual passion or political necessity we should regard rather as the defects of goodness than the misdeeds of wickedness; these our narrative should not display eagerly or gratuitously; rather it should show restraint out of regard for human nature, which produces nothing of unalloyed nobility, no character beyond the criticism of goodness.
In this study of Williams, I have tried to follow Plutarch in his search for balance. I have focused on the good, the bad, and the very bad, and have found that Williams was not always the hero that the constructed myths made him out to be.
Neither was he the wicked genius that some saw and still see him to be. The truth about him lies in the middle, as readers shall discover. Williams was capable of great human warmth as well as rudeness and insensitivity. That, and much else, remains puzzling….
Professional historians have intensely debated the issues raised above. The post-modernists follow Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, who argued that "there are no facts in themselves", and that "it is always necessary to begin by introducing a meaning in order that there can be a fact". Post-modernists maintain that there are no "facts"or historical "data" that are "givens". "Facts" are ideologically elaborated, historicised, mythologised and processed by the culture before they become part of the historical edifice. Thus history is not about the past as such, but about ways of imagining and constructing the past from the "debris we find around us".
I have looked at Williams through various analytic and narrative lenses in the hope that by reading him "crooked" we will get to understand him "straight", or approximately so. At the sametime, I am aware that there are many Williams "experts" out there and that there will always be competing versions of what Williams said or meant when he spoke, and who he really was….
—Excerpted from Eric Williams:
The Myth and the Man, University of the West Indies Press,842pp