Biography is an act of recovery. A few noteworthy events or works that have come to the attention of others are re-endowed with an entire history of daily incidents, trivial details, and developments that together yield the depth of a "life," of the story of one person's journey through the world. Even if the subject is still alive, a biography re-connects the living person with all the fading happenings of the past, and suggests that such a recovery and understanding, through a re-tracing of all that links an individual to an historical era, is possible for each of us.
But what can be recovered of the past? No matter how great a quantity of remnants and surviving traces of another time are collected, all that holds them together is the glue of the present. Our understanding of the past is necessarily fragmentary; we can never make the step from a knowledge of : events to a full experience of an earlier way of life. Our post- modern and post-Holocaust age, in which wars and political upheavals have destroyed peoples and erased communities, and incessant change and technology have disrupted the continuities of tradition, offers a challenge to the pretenses of biography: that a variety of historical moments can all be connected in the story of one life, with a formal continuity that extends from the moment of birth until the instant of death.
Some of the most insightful thinkers of the last hundred years have also radically questioned the conception of the subject that underlies biography, of a unique, autonomous, and self-directing individual. From Nietzsche's critique that exposes the "alte berühmte Ich" to be a construct of grammar and a superstition of logicians rather than an "unmittelbare Gewissheit," to Freud's explorations of the unconscious and the splitting of the ego, to the writings of Wittgenstein, Foucault, Derrida, and many others, the "subject" has undergone not only an historical, but also a theoretical fragmentation. If the use of biography is not to be essentially nostalgic, a projection of our own longing to find a home in the past, it must explore the tensions between fragmentation and recovery.
Each entry in a Who's Who presents only the barest traces of a life. Written in the present (one drops out of Who's Who when one dies), the book elevates all who are included to the status of "important people," but in turn reduces everyone to a few sparse facts of birth, education, accomplishments, and place of residence. Although a Who's Who contains the minimalist essence of biography, it challenges the pretense of any biographical project, as its listing of thousands of names undoes any illusion of absolute difference and individuality. Even the variances between one entry and another fall into patterns. A Who's Who depends on the myth of biography--that a story could be expanded from each entry that would capture the unique essence of the person--even as it assaults this myth, reducing a life to its smallest dimension, and repeating this reduction almost endlessly, so that the great moments in a life are nearly interchangeable, as each person becomes an entry hopelessly unable to escape from its companions.
A Who's Who of sixty years ago is a forlorn object, having lost its functionality, and is no longer able to depend on the lives and the memories that could resurrect its skeletal references. Arnold Dreyblatt's Who's Who in Central and East Europe 1933 extends the logic of the traditional Who's Who. Rather than seeking to recover the past by pretending that each entry, like a dried and condensed paper flower, only awaits the water of the historical imagination to bloom again, Dreyblatt continues the: inexorable fragmentation of the Who's Who, splitting each entry into its components, and reweaving them into new constellations. The importance of the surname, as the unique means of alphabetical ordering, gives way to a plethora of categories and lists: ancestors, teachers, expeditions, languages, philanthropy, professions, minorities, disappeared provinces, -isms, revolutions, personal philosophies, and more than a hundred other topics.
Each life is separated into the pieces by which we construct our understanding of what a life might be. The uniqueness of the individual gives way to the generalizing categories by which even the concept of the individual comes into being. The book literally deconstructs biography, revealing the scaffolding, the series of categories, that underlies each figure, even as it reconnects the pieces into new patterns, which still remain just touch these not so distant figures, and to reconstruct their activities.
Dreyblatt's Who's Who in Central & East Europe 1933 involves an immense re-organization and re-weaving of biographical elements, and this new presentation, with its numerous categories that each contain a : variety of fragments from the original entries, offers a semblance of a structuralist understanding of the era. Dreyblatt breaks down the occupations of the time into such categories as "Businessmen, Industrialists and Entrepreneurs,' "Financiers," Philanthropy," "Forgery," "Architects and Civil Engineers," "Inventors," "Flying Machines," "Railway Trams," "Water," Electric and Engineer," "Communications," "Radio," "Experts" (each followed by many specific entries), and along with lists of "Professions," "Banks," and "Businesses", they give an idea of what characterized "important" work (important enough to receive a notice in Who's Who) in the 1930s. Yet reading through the book challenges, and even frustrates, our desire to form a coherent and representative picture of the time. Under "Inventors", for example, we such entries as:
Frantisek Josef Havelka, He applied for a letters patent for his invention on stoneprints; which has been granted. Francis Hanaman, Inventor of the first tungsten filament incandescence lamp. Jaroslav Hevevkovsky, Invention of "relative colours" for transparent oil painting for which he received a Czechoslovakian patent. Robert Maurer, He patented his discovery to examine pictures by ultra violet rays. Victor Panaitescu, He has 8 licences as inventor and has introduced a new system which was officially recognized as being the best in the world: an electrical system for giving signs.
These inventions concerning light, pictures, and semiotics, raise so many further questions: how were these inventions used? what other inventors applied new technologies to art? what are "relative colours" for transparent oil painting? We are given too few pieces to build a complete picture, as each entry suggests further possibilities, yet too many to build a representative one. Our expectation of being able to move easily from part to whole--from a representative invention to an understanding of Eastern European inventors in the 1930s--is contested by this neutral recounting that refuses to distinguish between the historically significant and the immediately obsolete.
Despite the wonderful series of categories, whose variety and multiplicity disrupt as well as implement the organizing logic of hierarchical selection, it is not primarily for the larger patterns that this book is of such interest. The splitting of the biographical entries, the repetition of so many : examples, and the restriction to only the most basic of elements (to the building blocks of the original words of the Who's Who), defy every attempt to recover or re-create a past world in its totality. Instead, there is a revelation of the possibility that each little fragment can be caught in a net, that each detail, no matter how sparse, can be rewoven into another fabric. And even more strikingly, the book releases a potential in each fragment.
Arnold Dreyblatt has an extremely acute ear, and he enables us, and prods us, to hear a resonance, and an overtone, in each phrase. What prevents the experience of reading the book from collapsing into sheer repetition is learning to use our own ear, our own ability to pick out a fragment ["He spent childhood in the country and was educated in Russia. He had been excluded from the Institute of Art together with 43 other pupils on account of his new ideas."] and to hear, in its isolation and in its concatenation with other fragments ["From his childhood he recognized that sculpture would be his destination so that he followed this attachment without interruption." "Very young, as student, was a partisan of the revolutionary movement against the regime of the late King Nicolas of Montenegro by whom he was condemned to death."], the possibility of narrative and deviation, of a story being told and a difference from other stories, to hear an inflected voice, and a tinge of rhetoric. : The brilliance of this project is its letting loose, letting echo and reverberate, the deflections of language and life at their most minimal level.
The continual way in which each entry, despite a common context, fails to repeat the others opens an almost infinite horizon, even as it fixes each person along the various grids of the chapter headings. This is the real power of the work: the displacement of "biography" from the unique story of someone who has achieved prominence in a career and has entered into the imagination of the public, to the fragments themselves, the building blocks, ordinary and yet extraordinary, through which every "life" is constructed.
These fragments, these phrases providing only the briefest descriptions of each person's activities, are the public traces of lives. We are presented with none of the actual artworks, achievements, or adventures of these people, but only with their notation in a public record, in a Who's Who. The traces themselves do not possess an "aura" of unique existence, nor do they function as a successful synecdoche (as the part that represents the whole), that would allow us to resurrect the inner mind of the person. The wonderful pictures in this book are also not those of the actual people of the Who's Who, and they compel us to question further the possibilities of historical illustration,and to speculate about which occurences--and which faces--have been preserved for us. Arnold Dreyblatt's project--as in some of his other works, which employ nineteenth-century visiting cards, or display the residues in various European and American archives : of one man's enterprises--adheres to the external, the public, even the bureaucratic representation. In a more typical project of historical memory, we move (if awkwardly) from the found to the lost; from, perhaps, some remaining evidence of an interesting person or event, to an imaginary re-creation of their story. Here, the public trace is made to suffice; we are forced to confront these minimal details, rather than to use them as mere stepping stones to our own fantasy of a richer, earlier life. Yet as we do this, we learn to see, amidst the constant expansion of these traces (and one can imagine the difficulty that Arnold had in finally drawing the limits to this work), the poetry even of these very small pieces.
In the twentieth century, it is the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, with its mechanisms of public surveillance, such as the archive, that bestows "identity." The mode of so much recent work is to offer a gesture of resistance to the bureaucratization of modern society, by attempting to promote an alternate notion of identity. This often involves a retreat from the public to the private (to go from the Who's Who to the interior life of an individual), to an ethnic or communal heritage (resurrecting a fading tradition), or to the autobiographical (recovering the : past by linking it in some way to one's own personal history). Dreyblatt's project, in contrast, maintains its edge--and its importance for the rethinking of identity, history, culture, and memory--by refusing to retreat from or transcend these public, archival traces.
One could speak perhaps of a rescuing of the ordinary and of the bureaucratic in Dreyblatt's work, even as these are taken to a further extreme through their own logic of fragmentation, listing, juxtaposition, and leveling. But "rescue" would be the wrong word, since there is no real recovery here, either of the individual, of a culture, or of Central and East Europe. What we are given, through these traces, is a far more haunting glimpse of an absence. But to only say this would be to ignore the fascination of all that we can now see in these fragments, as they are released from serving solely as the standard elements for constructing accounts of a life, and become the pieces of an exceptionally challenging new book.
Jeffrey Wallen, Hampshire College