Tag Archives: Richard Holmes

The knowability of the human heart

One of my Ten Commandments for biographers in This Long Pursuit is ‘Thou shalt be Humble about it, for it demonstrates that we can never know, or write, the Last Word about the Human Heart’.

Richard Holmes , interview in The Paris Review, Winter 2017

Biography is not systematic. It doesn’t always  qualify as art and never qualifies as science. At its centre is something unknowable and inaccessible, the human heart.

Stacy Schiff, interview in The Paris Review, Winter 2017

Henry James’ words “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” . . .  is the antidote to any tendency we might have to think we can really know other people, that we can sum them up, define them, be certain about who or what they are. They are always more than we know. Just as we are always more than we know. For we are more than our means to know gives us to know. Howard Cooper  (from here)

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The critical voice in the head

(interviewer) Is fear a useful emotion for a biographer?

Hermione LEE

It can be, when it’s not disabling. You would have to be an idiot to take on board writing the life of Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton without any apprehension. The fear has to be channeled somehow into the energy of the work. While you’re doing it, I think you have to feel that she is yours and you alone understand her. But in order to arrive at that feeling you have to deal with, and master, your apprehension. I had a conversation with the biographer Richard Holmes, ages ago, when I said I always felt rather daunted by the task. I always had voices at the back of my head saying, She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She can’t do this. He said, “You know what I do? I get to my desk every morning and I hear these little voices saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing!’ and I raise my arm and I just sweep, I sweep them off the desk.” I had a vision of these little jabbering gremlins, like the germs in those advertisements for lavatory cleaners, being swept off and away. No more fear!

The Paris Review interview (from here) 


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Filed under the writing process