Both as a composer and writer I’ve been pretty lucky with reviews. Both my endeavors are on the one hand deeply absorbing, on the other hand perfectly idiotic ways to try to make a living. For all the misery involved in my so-called jobs, however, my reviews and my reception on Amazon and the like are one of the few things I have nothing to complain about. My main grief has come from one John Klapproth re the Beethoven bio (he attacks anyone who doesn’t embrace his book saying that Josephine Deym is Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved), and re the Brahms, a British woman who has staked her career on maintaining that the old story of Brahms playing piano in brothels in his teens, being abused by prostitutes for the amusement of sailors, isn’t true. I’m quite sure it is true, because Brahms was a highly honest and self-aware man, he talked about it all his life, and he said it wrecked his relations with women. Brahms was the last person in the world to spend his life promulgating a shameful and humiliating lie about himself.
But my real point is this: the two people above have an absolute stake in their point of view, because they both believe that if they’re wrong, or have no takers, their career is for nothing. I propose that a writer of history or biography should have no stake at all, nothing that isn’t up for revision if better information turns up, no stake in anything other than what appears to be the truth based on the best evidence available. Truth and objectivity are what history is about–however impossible it is, when all is said and done, to achieve either of them. History in that respect is like science: there are degrees of certainty, but ultimately everything is provisional. History and science are both imperfect because everything human beings do is imperfect. But that doesn’t mean you don’t strive toward the truth, the kind of truth that has nothing to do with what you prefer to believe, or with the dubious careerism involved in depending on an angle that defines you.
When my Brahms book came out virtually the only criticism it got had to do with the bars, the idea that they didn’t happen. A supposed friend of mine who had been on the Pulitzer committee told me, kind of gleefully, that the bar issue had sunk any chances I might have had. We weren’t friends after that.
That idea that the bars didn’t happen originated with a well-known German Brahms scholar named Hofmann. As a Brahms biographer I came out of nowhere, so most critics and scholars assumed the German guy had to be right. I hadn’t read Hofmann’s fairly slim book on Brahms. So I examined his evidence, found it unconvincing re the bars, but did find some points of his worthwhile–mainly that Brahms did not grow up in a slum. That in turn made me realize I’d overemphasized the poverty of his family, who were actually, more or less, intermittently, bourgeois. So for the paperback edition of the Brahms I revised a few pages having to do with those issues. If I’d been convinced of Hofmann’s position on the bars—and that of his British disciple–, that would have involved revising a few more pages. I would readily have done that because I wasn’t attached to the bars or to anything else. But I couldn’t honestly do it. I published an article defending my position, that entered the marketplace of ideas, and I left it at that. Some agree with me and some don’t.
Some postmodern historians say that since we ultimately can’t escape ourselves, our upbringing, our cultural prejudices and hegemonies, etc., there’s no reason to aim for truth and objectivity at all. I call that irresponsible. Knowing that we’ll never get there, in writing history and biography we should strive for absolute truth and objectivity, to the death if necessary. (Fortunately, in the West at least, right now at least, that’s not usually necessary.) And then we see what turns up.
To put it another way: to stop striving to find truth and objectivity is irresponsible and often dangerous; to assume that you have found absolute truth and objectivity is also delusional and dangerous. For examples of the former, see a lot of current academic “theorists.” For the latter, see jihadists, Nazis, right-wing ranters, fanatics of all flavors.