Hagiography

hagiography n, pl -phies 1 the writing of the lives of the saints 2 biography of the saints 3 any biography that idealizes or idolizes its subject > hagiographic or hagiographical adj

Etymology: via Late Latin from Greek, from hagios holy

Who are the saints, the heroes, the eternal idols? Leonardo Da Vinci? Steve Jobs? John Lennon? Winston Churchill? It seems every field of work feature someone who is highly respected, on a pedestal. Arguably, they all have been the subjects of overreaching praises of their lives and to the (subjective) diminution of their flaws as humans.

An hagiography is by definition biased, and thus cannot be genuinely relied upon. Although there may be nothing pejorative to say about its subject (the person), there is something firmly negative about such biographical work. If for a biography to be flawed, because the author is involved – in her thought, sentimentally or romantically – the analysis of the subject is in consequence equally (or exponentially) flawed. The value of her work is at risk, and she is better off attempting to hide the idolatry. Interestingly, we can imagine victims of the hagiographist and her pen – one does not always wish to appear as an idol.

Further, an hagiography does not have to be biographic in nature ; segments of life can be used to celebrate wholly a person. By selecting a small part of one’s life, as we see in the news or in biopic movies, the representation of the real person is only partial. One example might be Oscar Pistorius, who made headlines for his athletic achievements, and for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. While an athlete, the ‘parts’ of him we know of are positive and inspiring, but then we find out later that his girlfriend described him as ‘nasty‘ and that she wrote ‘I’m scared of you sometimes, of how you snap at me‘. This partial approach is certainly wrong if we are to know someone, but can often be witnessed: our media culture offering us pieces of a puzzle, never the full picture. Arguably, there cannot ever be a full picture.

Selecting the happy few deserving an hagiography is not a matter of taste and opinion, no one can and should be the subject of such idealization. Perhaps that is why the first definition of the word sends us to the lives of saints: how much reality is being described?