A CONTAPUNTAL REVIEW
Voice Two: Deep Biography
Bazzana's book is a fine example of a 'thoughtful biography'.
There is a sad tendency for biographers to write what I call
'document biographies' where each fact is supported by a footnote,
usually involving a piece of written evidence. In this way the
author can never be questioned ('The facts are right there')
but rarely does he/she exceed the limits of this data. Numerous
modern investigations of eminent figures are sadly flawed by this.
What is left out is deep thought of the meanings, the ramifications
of these facts. It seems enough to state the facts baldly. There
is a fear that to go beyond them into the realm of speculation
is to exceed the scope of scholarship.
Document biographies are written by scholars who are generally
content to collect facts and are often loath to have anything
less than the final word. Since the document cannot be questioned
the scholar achieves by the fixation upon it as the ultimate arbiter
of truth, the luxury of indeed getting the final word.
As soon as an author suggests, considers, probes deeper than
the mere record of a life he/she is inviting argument and disagreement.
That sort of thing undermines the last word syndrome. But moreover,
there is the just question of 'What can one be justified
in saying?' One author recently told me 'If you can't
prove it, you can't write it.' Documents offer proof. Without
a document, no proof, then it follows that nothing should be said.
Ah ... How can you prove a profound consideration of the meaning
of a life's event? How can you prove a character analysis? How
can you prove the meaning of the overarching form of a human's
life (if there is such a thing)?
Well, I don't suppose you can. Yes, you can marshal your authorities
by quoting Jung, Aristotle, Carlyle or some such. You can draw
upon the expertise of authoritative observers. You can call in
the experts. But as any lawyer can tell you, for any authority
you summon another equally good one can be found to debunk it
(within limits) and certainly the right spin can lower (or raise)
the significance of many expert judgments. I suppose then that
the document biography is the final achievement of honest intellectual
labour. Nothing is beyond this; it is the limit.
But I rather think that we should expect more from people who
have immersed themselves for years in the data of a human's life.
If they have dug deep they should be able to tell us something,
something that is beyond the mere documents. For while documents
are important they cannot capture all of a human's life. As the
Sufis ask 'Can you send a kiss by mail?' The answer
is no, and there are many facets of life that are only barely
hinted at in the paper trail.
The document biography is only the first, albeit necessary,
stage. To stop there is to believe only that true which has been
written down. But there are many things that have not been written
down, cannot be written down, that are powerfully significant.
There is much more to life than ink and paper.
Here is where Bazzana's book shines. He has studied the data
in great detail. Bazzana is evidently thoroughly conversant with
the Gould literature. He has acted as editor of a Gould focused
journal. He has already written a detailed book of Gould's interpretational
method. That book, considered a model of its kind, is in depth,
scholarly and technical (though I think it readable even by the
In Wondrous Strange, Bazzana goes beyond the mere data
and dares to probe, dissect, weigh and contemplate Gould's life,
nature, method, personality and musicianship. I say he is entitled
to do this because he has mastered the facts and this is where
the real stuff of biography is found.
Was Gould a hypochondriac (Yes) and moreover, did it affect
his playing? Was he addicted to his medications (yes, in that
he believed a pill would cure his ills, yes in that he was a veritable
pharmacy) and did this hasten his death? Was he mentally unbalanced
(no, apart from at least one period of delusional behaviour probably
brought on by a bad combination of medications) and did this affect
his interpretations? Was Gould capable of being a barnstorming
Romantic pianist, or was his method defined by his physical limitations?
Why did Gould not excel at composition and what did he turn to
in order to satisfy his creative needs?
These are all legitimate questions and they are answered in
the book. But I will allow Bazzana himself to satisfy the reader's
curiosity. Read the book!
Footnote: (I am sure I will be misunderstood and accused of
suggesting shoddy research and preposterous imagination. I ask
that before anyone fire off a letter of complaint they carefully
consider exactly what I have written).
Copyright © 4 August 2004
Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada