Friday, April 21, 2017
The Singer or the Song?
Should we – can we? – separate the artist from the art?
A few weeks ago, shortly after learning of the death of Derek Walcott, I posted a lovely poem of his in my column The Living Dead, to honour the fine poetic legacy he left us.
Not long after that, I was shocked to read about accusations that he had sexually harrassed two female students at separate universities where he was teaching, giving one a low grade for refusing his advances and threatening the other to stop a play of hers from being produced unless....
Here is a brief and fairly neutral article on the matter.
I found a number of other excellent articles online by Googling Derek Walcott accusations, in several of which the authors consider the thorny question of how much this should influence our opinion of him as a poet. The rights and wrongs of the matter are a bit complicated, due to the fact that Walcott denied the second allegation at least, and the case was settled out of court.
In the first case, apparently he did admit to it. The University dealt with it, upgrading the student's mark and giving Walcott a reprimand. We might think they didn't regard it very seriously. But the case was a factor in the University's eventual reform of its policies around such issues.
Some people think it was all a smear campaign to stop him accepting a posting to Oxford later in his life.
They might be excused for this view by the fact that the woman who was appointed to that posting instead of him was the one who reminded everyone of the allegations against him – unintentionally, she said – which persuaded him to take himself out of the running rather have the speculation revived. When that fact emerged, she herself felt obliged to vacate the position! (I told you it was complicated.) Some highly respected poets argued for Walcott's appointment, others spoke against it.
I found an article in The New Republic particularly thoughtful and interesting. It mentions other famous writers and public figures who are strongly suspected of conduct in their private lives (in some cases proven) which we might well find reprehensible – from Charles Dickens to David Bowie (and we could probably all add a few more names to those listed) – and postulates 'a literary patriarchy that stretches back centuries,' in which it has been 'easy for great men to hide their offenses behind the magisterial cloak of their art'.
It's not quite so easy any more, but still there are those who get away with a lot. I don't meant this Musing to be about Walcott in particular; he's one recent example (recent in my personal knowledge anyway). Let's take Bowie, an artist whose work I've long loved and admired. Again, it is only recently that I came across allegations that – early in his career at least – he was quite happy to intoxicate and seduce his under-age groupies. Indeed, it was a time when that was pretty much expected of rock stars, and we all thought the victims were willing. On the face of it, perhaps some were, but nowadays we would question whether immaturity and intoxication can really permit of consent.
Whatever may be true about these particular men, I think it's fair to say that not all famous writers are also good people. But then, most people are not entirely good, are we? How to judge? Where does one draw the line? Tolstoy, we are told, took his long-suffering wife for granted as she supported him selflessly so he could create his novels. Not very nice, not at all endearing; but does it rate with flagrant philanderers, thieves and brawlers (think Villon), addicts or sexual predators?
And, whatever the sin in the personal life, how does it affect our reading of the poetry?
Perhaps it's easier to investigate if we think of the visual arts. When I am moved by Picasso's Weeping Woman, do I also reflect on how badly he treated women in his life? Should I? (And what if I don't even know? I do, obviously, but there must be viewers who don't.)
Painting in National Gallery of Victoria. Image used here according to Fair Use.
Or, if I am basking in the sonorous words of Kubla Khan, does it worry me that Coleridge was reputedly under the influence of narcotics when he wrote it? Should it worry me? Should I, rather, rejoice in the way that this habit (presumably) enhanced his poetic gifts?
Perhaps you think drug addiction is a different kind of flaw, victimising only oneself? A man I once knew was a friend of Australian poet Michael Dransfield's mother, whom he met after her son had died from an overdose. This man was furious with Dransfield for the sorrow he had inflicted on his mother. Also, he had seen some of Dransfield's poems in manuscript and roundly castigated them as 'chicken scratchings' which in no way justified the drug use and early death. I don't know what he read, and it's true that Dransfield's last published poems were fragmentary compared with earlier ones, but many of his fellow-poets (myself included) will tell you he was a beautiful and important poet. I would say (and did say) that the quality of the verse is a separate issue: that the drug taking was a sad fact that didn't justify the writing whether it was chicken scrawlings or beautiful poetry; and also that it is beautiful, lasting poetry, which does not depend on his drug use to make it so.
But I am just reading a new memoir, The Green Bell, written decades after the event by Paula Keogh, who was Dransfield's fiancée at the time of his death. A beautifully honest book, it makes it clear that Dransfield himself believed that the drugs would serve to enhance his poetry (even if he was also vulnerable to them for less conscious reasons). I never met Dransfield in person, and I suppose no-one can be sure if he was right or wrong in his belief. (My only comparison is alcohol, and I learned a long time ago that writing while drunk doesn't produce good poetry.) But it's my opinion that he had a phenomenal talent which wouldn't have needed chemical enhancement.
However, it appears he did deliberately engage in self-destructive, illegal behaviour which caused great hurt to others as well as to himself. Does that stop me loving what he wrote? Does it taint my experience? No, not at all. I feel sad about it, but then much of the poetry is sad anyway. But what if he was right? What if the drugs did make the poetry more beautiful? If he should indeed prove to be an important and lasting poet, was he in fact justified by his immortality, no matter who else suffered? A difficult question!
I'm afraid I don't spare a thought for Picasso's lovers when I am sitting in front of Weeping Woman. At other times I am aware of what a nasty so-and-so he could be, and deplore it. But while I'm looking at the painting, that predominates.
On the other hand, I can't hear a Rolf Harris song any more without revulsion at the thought of what a hypocrite the man turned out to be. Is that because of the type of wrongdoing? Is it because of the relative powerlessness of the victims? Harm to children is particularly horrifying.
What about Walcott? Can we still read his magnificent verse with the same delight in its magnificence? Or does it seem different now? What about Bowie? Is our enjoyment of his work diminished in the face of his exploitation of minors? Or can we excuse and ignore that on the grounds that (a) it was a different era with different mores and (b) he was a multi-talented genius who left the word enriched by his art? (Do you wish I would have just shut up about them both and not destroyed your illusions?)
Should we all stop writing because we have done things we feel guilty and ashamed about? (I'm certain we all have.) Many of us are honest about our failings, I think, not trying to deny them but seeking to grow past them. This, if so, makes us better human beings – but does it have anything to do with our art, either way? Indeed, if we all lived perfectly clean and wholesome lives and had only pure thoughts, would our art even be interesting?
Relax, I'm not suggesting we should be evil. (Well, maybe just a little bit naughty would be OK? Just sometimes?) But I suppose if a law-abiding, kind-hearted citizen can write successful crime thrillers (and I know two commercially and critically successful women writers who fit this description) then perhaps a person with serious character defects can nevertheless create works of art that uplift the human spirit?
Is it a matter of degree? It is said that Hitler's master of propaganda, Goebbels, wrote poetry and thought of himself as a sensitive man. The mere idea makes me shudder! There is no way I would read poetry by Goebbels if I ever got the chance. I wouldn't care if it was the most brilliant poetry ever produced. (I doubt that it could be, coming from a person like that, but life is strange and human beings complex; anything's possible.) I wouldn't even bother finding out. The point is, in the end – and even though my life has revolved around poetry since I was seven – there are human values more important than art.
Which ones, and how much more important? And which art, come to that? Goebbels is an extreme case, on which it's very easy to take a stand. So is Rolf Harris, in a different way – no-one would claim Jake the Peg to be high art. But what about all the in-betweens? Where does one draw the line?
What do you think?
Feel free to express your opinion in the comments. I'd love to know how others deal with this dilemma – if indeed it is a dilemma for you. And do pop back during the week to see where the discussion leads!