Rendering a person in language is not an easy task, even less so in the controversial case of Margaret Thatcher. The ex-prime minister and late Baroness divorced public opinion to the furthest ends of the spectrum. Is it possible to reconcile these polar perceptions into one compact, comprehensive figure? Faced with this unenviable job, in his eulogy for Thatcher the Bishop of London opted to confront her controversy directly. ‘It’s almost as perplexing,’ he declared, ‘to identify the real me in life as it is in death. The atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time through wear and tear, eating and drinking; we are atomically distinct from what we were when we were young. What unites Margaret Roberts of Grantham with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven? What constitutes her identity?’ The Bishop’s musings extend beyond Thatcher, as he considers the absurdity of fixing an individual and their myriad, fluid forms, to one identity, to one centre of being. Can one ever truly describe a person?
Virginia Woolf felt that translating a person into linguistic form was devitalising: ‘Written words of a person who is dead or still alive tend most unfortunately to drape themselves in smooth folds annulling all evidence of life.’ Instead of revealing a person, to Woolf, words overlay, muffle, deaden. That ineffable, intangible essence – waftily referred to by many as the ‘soul’ – is metaphysical and so, by its very nature, cannot be captured by any concrete form. Carefully chosen adjectives, checklists of attributes, characteristics, and physical features will certainly sketch an image and might well convey a manner, but can they provide the same sensation as the experience of that person would?
Speaking of his attempt to write a biography of his friend, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster said that ‘a biography of him, if it succeeded, would resemble him; it would achieve the unattainable, express the inexpressible, turn the passing into the everlasting.’ If, to be successful, a description of a person has to have ‘expressed the inexpressible,’ that suggests that the project of biography is impossible. Forster asks of his own attempt, ‘have I done that? Das Unbeschreibliche hier ist’s getan?’ ‘No,’ he concludes. Language proves to have been an insufficient medium for communicating the essence of the person. Reflecting upon what might come closer to the truth, he muses that ‘perhaps it could only be done through music.’ Might music, in its more abstract quality, more sensory appeal, come closer to conveying something of the ineffable, indescribable aspect of a person? Perhaps, ultimately, we cannot render a person in any form other than themselves but, as Forster says of the prospect, ‘that is what has lured me on.’