I’ve given up on Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. I had a feeling from the outset that it wouldn’t go well: the book is 800+ pages long and totally unrelated to my dissertation and teaching responsibilities (meaning: I ain’t got time for this shit). Moreover, I’m just not that interested in Che. I’m sure he was a fascinating individual who could stare into someone’s soul and convince her/him that the Revolution is Now, but I don’t really care. It’s not about Che specifically; as a general rule, I don’t care enough about any individual to want to read her/his biography. I detest biographies: on the screen, the stage, or the page. Here’s why:
- Over an extended period of time, any one individual will annoy the hell out of me. I need my space, and biographies don’t give you your own space. You’re supposed to inhabit not just the subject’s world, but the subject’s brain, and there’s just not enough air in there for the both of us.
- Biographers always end up playing psychologist, and they always fail. “So, Che, what makes you tick?” asks Anderson of a man who is dead and who never would have revealed such secrets, anyway, partly because Che himself didn’t know. Just like you and me and everyone else, the subject of any biography is necessarily a mysterious and indecipherable stew of nature and nurture that even the subject herself can’t figure out. And if she says she knows, she’s a liar, a fool, or both. Such a mystery confounds efforts at the totalizing interpretation towards which all biographies tend. In short: biographers do not and can not know what they are ultimately talking about, which is who their subject really is.
- Biographies run against my understanding of how history works (which is to say, how things happen). Individuals are only nominally involved in the course of history. Deeper currents — like economic structures — exercise their power with much more force, consistency, and consequence than the isolated person. People matter, of course, but “people” in the plural sense, as in persons: groups of individuals whose collective energy (not to say deliberate cooperation) make things happen.
And that’s why I haven’t read David McCulough‘s Pulitzer Prize winners; it’s why I don’t like one-man plays; it’s why I don’t usually care for solo acts after the band breaks up. And it’s why my bookshelf sags once more under the weight of Jon Lee Anderson’s Che.