Creating Biography: Bohemian Rhapsody, Carl Sagan, Getting Weird

I'm a sucker for the biopic genre no matter how many details they get wrong so I was probably going to like Bohemian Rhapsody anyway, but this review by Daniel Nester helps a lot. I think this movie really isolates why I'm a fan of this genre so much: You enter into this compartmentalized world that's familiar enough, though still strange, still mysterious. Real life, even filtered like this, has more details than our car ride sing-alongs, than the painting on the museum wall no matter how long you stare at it. And they come with these very stringent moral imperatives set up right from the beginning, as if the plot of the life was as certain as you were walking into the movie, already knowing the end.

There is something mystical about one famous person assuming the identity of another famous person, like they were both part of one celebrity matryoshka—maybe at the bottom there is a tiny real person in there. The fascination with these movies becomes not just part of watching the events of the life unfold dramatically, but by watching one person you know (superficially) become someone else you know (superficially). At its best, it looks like spirit possession. I'm Not There had six different people portray "Bob Dylan," though I'm Not There may not qualify as biopic proper—its several disconnected vignettes make it more of a Bob Dylan fantasia. A life told in the form of dreams.

I've written about people as such. I've taken Carl Sagan and put him in places where I knew he shouldn't have been, with people he shouldn't have been with, forced him into eating Cap'n Crunch. I've had Teddy Roosevelt shot so many times. For years I've been searching for the short story I read where the writer had Jim Morrison wake up one morning and go about an ordinary day where nothing much ever happened. So far, no luck. I guess when it comes to creative biographies like this, the author performs the same role as the actor in a biopic, inhabiting the famous person, or at least puppetmastering them into weird, possibly fictitious scenarios.

Biopics are of course creative biographies, closer to novelistic or poetic biographies than the journalistic ones. Creative biography is a topic which I talked about at AWP 2017 on the panel Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography along with Kathleen Rooney, Sarah Blake, Sarah Domet, and Kelcey Parker Ervick, who spoke about René Magritte in The Listening Room, Kanye West in Mr. West, St. Agatha and the lives of other saints in The Guineveres, and Božena Němcová in The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, respectively. I approached the topic via Carl Sagan as the biographic backbone of The Voyager Record. Here is a rundown of the event by Rachel Hanel.

Here's a collage I made for the event, loath as I am to look upon Kanye these days.

Since I never published that talk, and since we're on the topic of approaching biography through a creative lens, here's the full text of my notes for it (they're a bit sketched out at points, and meant to be improvised upon, but you get the idea):

There is a portion of The Voyager Record, a kind of short story inside

the text that I call "The World's Fair" [pgs. 122-127] that features all the

alternate approaches to biography I used in the book. I'm going to talk

a little bit about those approaches here.

There are a lot of good biographical takes of Carl Sagan’s life. One

that most people are familiar with is the NPR story about how he and

Ann Druyan fell in love working on the Voyager record. I wanted my

approach to Sagan in The Voyager Record to act as a counterbalance

to the narratives that have all mostly been positive. It’s not that I

wanted to harm his legacy, but that narrative was one to me that was

hagiographic. It’s ironic in that in his life Sagan was a strongly

agnostic and even atheistic, but in his afterlife a kind of secular hero

cult has developed around him.

At the time I was writing Voyager I was in a very intellectually

atheistic place. I had been in Israel two years, and by then, living in a

country that is predominantly not the religion I was raised in, I was

hyper-aware of religion and noticing its creep into things where I

didn’t expect to find it. It wasn’t a specific religion I was noticing,

but its heuristic.

That was something I noticed in the Carl Sagan story so when I started

to write about Voyager, its Carl Sagan sections became a sort of secular

Anti-hagiography. Anti-hagiography is a genre of biography that was

popular in Europe the Middle Ages for creating mistreatments of the life

of Muhammed. The most famous one was the Vita Mahumeti by Embrico

of Mainz. But by no means was anti-hagiography as a genre limited

to Europeans: there were also Jewish anti-hagiographies of the life of

Jesus, and Muslim anti-hagiographies of Jewish messiahs, and Jewish

anti-hagiographies of Jewish hagiographies, and anti-hagiographies

written by Hindus against other Hindu sects. These are pretty standard

texts as these things go when one religion wants to officially denigrate

another religion. So it’s a sign of progress that the genre is not so

popular anymore.

There aren’t that many secular saints, and of them, there aren’t that

many secular anti-hagiographies out there. But there are two that I can

think of. Albert Goldman’s John Lennon and Anthony Burgess’s take on

Shakespeare’s life in Nothing Like the Sun. Now, Goldman doesn’t help

very much because as much as he was assaulting a public saint, he did it

in very standard journalistic, biographical way. Burgess really got to

inject every possible misery into Shakespeare’s life in That’s the kind of

model I was using when I wanted to write about Carl Sagan.

Anti-hagiographies were meant to prove that sainted people who were

definitely not saints. Well Carl Sagan isn’t a saint, but I don’t hate Carl

Sagan, or anyone attached to the project. My feelings towards Sagan are

like those that you feel towards the people you love and who have

disappointed you the most: old friends, parents, kids, people you have sex

with. Approaching something that you love so much that you begin to see

serious faults in it, things that prevent you from loving it without an

asterisk.

The second alternate strategy that I employed in creating a biographical

portrait of Sagan was to focus on the extremely boring events. Shopping

for groceries. Coming home after work and getting high listening to music.

Not being able to close the trunk of his car. Meaningless stuff. Even from

a plot perspective this serves no purpose other than to place a familiar

figure in an unfamiliar setting, unfamiliar mostly because it is ordinary

and taken-for-granted and we imagine celebrities as being removed from

that world. I wonder if Carl Sagan did shop for groceries sometimes. I

think that would make me so happy to know that was accurate.

[In the next part I play this clip from Cosmos until minute 2:34]


Cosmos Episode 7 "The Backbone of Night"


What you saw in the video was my third strategy: the personal hijacking

of Sagan’s narrative to house my own anxieties. Sagan describing his

home planet: Brooklyn NY. The clip is from Cosmos but the music is

from the Golden Record: that’s the Louis Armstrong song “Melancholy

Blues.”

All of this resonates for me personally in a way that I can’t convey

straightforwardly. The visuals, the, sounds, the ethnicities, the year the

show was made, the year of my birth even the music, I went to a school

named after Louis Armstrong in Corona and we had to listen to him every

day all of this is home to me. Or it was.

I saw this vignette of Brooklyn and turned it into Carl Sagan’s nightmare

because it’s my nightmare. Now the border of the unknown is not 86th

Street: the unknown is everywhere around him. It’s dressed up as his world.

Not because he had lived long enough to see that nightmare come true, but

because I had. It’s about New York gentrifying, which whether Carl Sagan

would care about or not I think in the cosmic scheme of things he might

see it as insignificant but on a psychological level, on a personal level,

watching your past disappear so efficiently is a disturbing experience.

Instead of dissolving my subject into my life, and turning Carl Sagan and

the record into a way to describe my life, there was willful dissolution of

my life into Carl Sagan’s. There are things in this book that describe my

life that only I will recognize.

Anyway, here's my review of Bohemian Rhapsody:

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