Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eighteen Books and Five Wives

Reading over obituaries of archaeologist Lewis Binford, I was struck that in addition to his 18 books, dozens of articles, and numerous honors, he had five wives. This is the same number as Saul Bellow, I believe, but then Bellow was a cantankerous, misogynist jerk who put really nasty caricatures of his ex-wives into his books. I can imagine why Bellow had so many wives: women were attracted to his intellect, his confidence, and his reputation as an artist, but the reality of living with him quickly turned ugly.

Binford, on the other hand, was not really that sort of person. He was sometimes accused of megalomania, and he could be witheringly dismissive of scholarly work he did not like, but that sort of goes with being a genius determined to change the direction of his whole field. I am sure he could be a jerk, but one has the impression that he had no more than the usual human complement of that vice. One does not hear the sort of poisonous rumors about him that float around noted academic assholes. His former students remained devoted to him, and I never heard one run him down. What gives?

One obit I have found has this to say about his days at the University of Chicago, where he was first a professor:
There he gathered around his charismatic (some would say demagogic) personality a veritable Who's Who of the New Archeology (fueled by what witnesses and participants say was a great deal of carousing).
With such a lifestyle, and such close relationships with his students, he no doubt had many opportunities for infidelity; was that his problem? He was certainly a workaholic; did his wives eventually get tired of being ignored, of his habit of disappearing into the Alaskan or African bush for months at a time? He was always restlessly searching around for new topics to investigate and new ideas to pursue; did he bring the same restlessness to love?

More broadly, does this kind of question have any place in the obituaries of famous men? Should accounts of, say, Jean-Paul Sartre focus on his philosophical contributions and his political stands, or should they also take up his bizarre personal life and habitual cruelty to those around him? Are we only interested in work of intellectuals, or in their lives? When we assess a man at his death, are we assessing only his contributions to the intellectual world, or are we assessing him as a human being? I find that in the case of Binford I am dissatisfied with the glowing summaries of his scholarship that one can read everywhere, and curious to know more about who he was, what really drove him, and how the various parts of his life fit together.Link

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