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Seeming adult, without actually being so

A reader, prompted by last week's commentary on whether great books can make you a better person, wrote in to ask a related question. Her favorite author is Charles Dickens; his books have been beacons for her. While she'd like to know more about him, she recalls reading long ago that Dickens behaved badly in his personal life. Should she investigate further, even though she worries that this will lead her to "doubt the impression I always had of Dickens: that he was a kind, sensitive soul who had suffered as a child"?

[. . .]

If Dickens sometimes behaved badly, Naipaul is unquestionably a bad man, notorious for his floridly abusive relationships and bigoted ideas. Does this diminish his work? Naipaul's fiction is not to everyone's taste, but the grace of his prose and the power of his early books, especially "A Bend in the River," is hard to deny; I admired much of that novel even as I gritted my teeth over its blinkered depiction of Africans. "A House for Mr. Biswas" is a veritable touchstone for New Yorker critic James Wood, a tough crowd if there ever was one.

For myself, I ended up feeling that Naipaul's prejudices (less glaring in his earlier books, but still evident and clearly fueled by cultural insecurity) bar him from the sort of insight that renders a novelist truly wise as opposed to merely smart. Other writers make for more ambiguous cases. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, Virginia Woolf a snob and Ezra Pound a flaming fascist, but I'm not ready to shrug off "The Waste Land," "To the Lighthouse" or "The Cantos."

[. . .]

Similarly, needing to believe that your favorite author lived in an exemplary way, embodying all the virtues of his best work, is an adolescent desire, passionate but ultimately unfair. Learning the truth is disillusioning at first, but enlightening in the end. Part of the sadly underrated process of growing up is realizing that people, the world and life are no less beautiful and amazing for being imperfect. (Laura Miller, “When bad people write great books,” Salon, 7 June 2011)

Hobbits

How is it grown up to enable a way to easily justify/excuse/not-contest your love for an artist's work, upon learning about their personal sideshow extras? Maybe the clearly damnable ostensible other side of the author is actually front in view of you within the text itself? Maybe you haven't just come to learn that the author you loved has aspects that are not at all admirable, but that the love you felt for the text itself was flawed --apparently simply damnable as well -- but ran away to the first opt-out you could find to avoid seriously considering that the sudden realization you had was just as much about your own being attracted to what is perhaps ultimately suspect, as it was the author's.

Also, really be brave: if you learn things about the author you do not like, but still very, very much like what they wrote: don't dismiss, but EXPLORE what they were doing in their lapses and villainy. It might not just be shadow, but, strangely, the light extended, from page to life. Let's not all be hobbits afraid to venture out our door.

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is Carroll = pedophile

William S. Burroughs = murderer

Gunter Grass = Nazi

Have read books by all of them, enjoyed all of them. (Krasnaya Zvezda)

@Krasnaya Zvezda

Have you considered that some part of you may be a pedophile, a murderer, a Nazi? Or is this dark-side-of an-otherwise-brilliant-artist concept, strong enough to keep you from ever feeling compelled to do so?

@Patrick

Have you considered that some part of you may be a pedophile, a murderer, a Nazi?

That is seriously the dumbest shit I've ever heard.

Have YOU considered that grown adults can read things objectively and enjoy them on their own merits without turning into monsters?

What are you, 11 years old? (Unsinkable Bastard)

@unsinkable bastard

What we're all concerned to protect is the idea that the vile Other we're aghast/disheartened to learn about, is not somehow very much ALSO within the work of art we enjoy. It maybe needed be -- but the only reason I would allow this possibility is that I know such things like that the majority of nazis had/have split personalities, where one part of them detached itself from what the vile other part concerned itself with and enjoyed: but clearly, even here, even dealing with their 'better' parts of themselves, we're not dealing with especially wonderful people -- the kind that would never feel the need to split off and do/experience such things -- and for liking THAT, finding worth in the artistic production produced by that, something is probably off with us. I don't think we're grown up if we're not considering this possibility. "Alas, we're all imperfect" is obviously mostly escape, not engagement. Look for immaturity there.

Of course, we're living at a time when the good person increasingly seems suspect of being just the NEUTERED person, determined at the cost of any self-elaboration to show how willing they are to sit in place for life; and at times like these, you must look for life, goodness, in strange places. In case this isn't clear -- never, however, in Nazism. Just use your imagination.

- - - - -

The unspoken contract is that art, once produced, exists in its own rarefied realm...

Though reputations and human foibles do shape which stories are told and lost.

Speaking of bastards... Caravaggio, perhaps the greatest artist of his or any age, was generally considered a fiend. He accidentally murdered a rival when attempting to castrate him.When Vasari wrote his profoundly influential work, The Lives of the Artists he deliberately made no mention of Caravaggio, because he personally knew and loathed him. As a result, for centuries Caravaggio had a diminished reputation in the art world.

Paul Gauguin abandoned his wife and children to frolic in Tahiti with a twelve-year-old.

As noted, Dickens forced his wife to leave their home, didn't allow her to visit her own children (her older daughter and son secretly visited her) all so that Dickens (one of my favorites) could cavort with a girl the age of his daughter, though there is still plenty of ambiguity surrounding whether the relationship was fully sexual.

Branwell Bronte was an opium eater whose habit forced his famously shy sisters to become governesses, jobs they loathed. His own art career was ruined in the process.

Christopher Marlowe was a brawling SOB who fatally stabbed himself in the eye while trying, in a drunken temper, to kill someone else (though there are persistent rumors that he may have been a spy). Doesn't make his work any less great.

Mary Lamb murdered, a la Lizzie Borden, her mother; she still wrote charming translations of 's plays for children (though modern adults would find her syntax and diction plenty challenging).

The man who wrote the most entries, by a large margin,for the OED walked up to a stranger and murdered him for no reason. W.C. Minor was a vet from the Civil War and it seems clear that he was suffering from PTSD. His contributions to the dictionary were written from his prison cell.

The pages of literature and art are literally splashed with blood, but it has always seemed to me that one of the fantastic paradoxes of art is how, once born into the world, it is both detached and connected to the hand that made it.

I may look askance at these lives, but I wouldn't dream of giving up the pleasures of the work. (Morning’s Minion)

@morning's minion

You have a way of making sins seem mostly about will, deviation, and activity -- very much part of Greatness/Genius, not its unfortunate accompanyment.

There's no way you'll lose this argument, phrasing it as you do: to go against you, to suggest that in your faith you've decided to shortchange yourself future growth, you have to go up against every significant pillar of Civilization.

But it seems like something of this sort has to be enabled, because most great artists I love -- and that I would think you should come to love -- are to be known mostly for their love (the core of it all, even/especially self-love) -- both on and off the page. Humanities departments were kind of up to that, actually, and for quite some while -- how many literature professors -- even at the cost of some self-deception -- were mostly concerned to involve themselves with 'Great' works but to undermine them? -- but I think that this hubris, though long lamented to be everywhere spread and unstoppable, is near close to coming a full stop, owing to the re-energizing of the power of elder-worship, youth-scorn/hate, Traditionalism.

I don't think we really care for what the Ancient Greeks were inspired by: our concern is for what they themselves were up to. Something like that has to be enabled for a future generation -- for them to be so great, and so good, it really becomes mostly about them now: bye-bye 500 years of Euro story, and so the authority implicit in every mention of its heroes. Most Great Art should at some point in human evolution be forgotten -- there's a better 'man' to come, and should look to what s/he's up to mostly for satisfaction and prompting self-awareness: we were historically mostly about making sure s/he got there, and personally about engaging thrillingly with life.

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very nice

Beautifully written, thought-provoking, insightful... and from a woman no less! That oughta show mr. v. What a dick.

As much of a feminist as I am as a man, however, I'm having a hard time thinking of books I've read that were written by woman... I guess I've never even thought about the subject. I'll have to make a point of reading a novel by a woman, a work of fiction that is. Any suggestions anyone, something modern? (colinjames71)

@colinjames71

If you have to make a point of reading a novel by a woman, do you think this may have to do with your not having found that they write as well as men do? Lots and lots of female writes out there -- What accounts for your forced effort, do you think?

Link: When bad people write great books (Salon)

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