“Can We Know Someone?”
It’s a question I return to over and over, in classes and in my writing on artists. It never stops fascinating me. What do we know when we know a person–as Dan McAdams once phrased it–and how much do we know?
First things first. There’s a sense out there, I hear it expressed now and again, that without Person X around to talk for himself, no trustworthy understanding of Person X can be reached. To put it more simply: If your subject is dead, you can’t grasp him psychologically. (Quick side note: this would cancel the field of biography, let alone psychobiography, since most biographies are written about people no longer living).
This critique strikes me as wrong-headed for several reasons. One thing to realize is that most famous people–artists, for instance–leave behind relatively thorough records of thought about themselves. They may be dead, but these records keep speaking eternally. Take Sylvia Plath (an artist I wrote about at length in my Handbook of Psychobiography). One can consult her journals, letters, poems, diaries, stories, autobiographical novels (The Bell Jar). In all these Plath speaks for herself. She addresses hundreds of questions on her own, questions you might have asked her had she been alive to talk with. So, the record, sometimes massive in scope and detail, tells you more than you need to know.
Plus, you can talk to other people who knew Person X well. They tell you what Person X told them. They also tell you what they observed on their own about Person X. All these intimacies are partial, of course. But as you add them up, a picture begins to form.
The other thing is this: People don’t know themselves all that well. We can certainly ask them why they wrote a particular song, what their motives were, what the song expresses, and they can venture an answer, but this answer is not necessarily correct. It’s just one piece in the jigsaw. It isn’t, axiomatically, a super-privileged viewpoint. Now, don’t get me wrong. I always want to know what my subjects say about their work. It’s more data to mull over. But I never treat what they say as THE ANSWER. There may be other answers, answers of which the artist himself is unaware, for simple reasons or for deep psychological reasons bound up in psychological defenses against knowing. Cognitive psychologists tend to agree these days on the fact that about 70% of what we do is generated unconsciously. We are mysteries to ourselves. We don’t think we are, but we are. We are.
What do you think? Can people no longer living be known? Or is it all a hopeless enterprise?