Theories, Facts and Biography

In a back corner of the Pigsty some guys have been arguing about how the character Sal Paradise in Kerouac’s novel On The Road gained his interesting name. The discussion started out as an entertaining digression but has, in my humble opinion, become tedious in the extreme. If you bother to look, you will be astounded at how many comments, even heated debate, can be generated about such a small pebble of literature.

The other day, in a futile effort to stop the beating of this poor dead horse, I suggested that Anonymous, who had written in quoting a 1947 letter from Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, had given us “the last word” on the subject.

One of our regular commenters, the.chronicler, immediately reminded me that theories, no matter how plausible, are never the “last word” about anything

He got me wondering. Can theories ever be “the last word”? A fact is a fact and a theory is a theory, yet we fight on as if theories were unshakeable truth. For instance, creationists base their reality and world view on the unproveable theory that God created the universe in seven days, while evolutionists base their reality on the equally unproveable theory that life came from mutations of some carbon molecules over hundreds of millions of years. When someone invents time travel and we can go back and see – then one or the other will be a fact. Till then…pick your worldview and good luck.

“My parents moved up to San Francisco in, I think, somewhere round 1929.” That’s about as shaky a fact as there could be, yet I’m comfortable with it – doesn’t shake up my reality one bit. Why should it?

“Hmmm, not sure when this picture was taken. Nothing written on the back. But Suzie’s still a kid – must be in the Eighties sometime.” I’m basing my understanding of time and history on a reasonable conjecture. And I’m happy and comfortable with it. Let’s go on to the next picture.

Over in the Congo, folk are beating up their children and chasing them out of their villages because they have a theory these kids are practicing magic to bring ill-fortune on the family. Pretty good plan, if their theory is a fact. The fiendish kids deserve it. Safety of the village and all that. But of course, if their theory turns out to be incorrect, then massive suffering has been laid on some little kids who just wanted to be home with their mommies and daddies. So they’d better be right!

Sometimes it matters whether or not you have your theories and your facts straight. And facts are few and far between. Useful facts are even harder to find. Theories, on the other hand, rise with the sun and drop like the dew.

I pity the poor biographers, including our recent guest commenter Paul Maher Jr. Here is a paltry pile of facts – some letters, some journals; an address in an old phone book, a bus transfer used as a bookmark, an interview with a doddering survivor – and from these they must build their airy cloud of theory and reasonable conjecture – and come up with that wondrous thing, a living biography. A story that makes sense, that gives meaning to the jumble of one life, now complete. They mustn’t give way to scholarly disputation about who started a fist fight in the schoolyard in 1928. They can’t drift too far into explaining their subject’s motivation or they’ll end up with a work of fiction. Who can ever know the deep heart?

Yet, somehow, a biography that feels like the true story of a true person – what an act of homage. To rescue a life from the night of forgetting, to entertain us and teach us and deepen our understanding of this wispy thing called life. That’s a mountain to climb that’s worth climbing.

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