Norman and the Rats

My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well
I can see
Where we all soon will be.

If you strip away
The myth from the man
You will see
Where we all soon will be.

“Heaven on their Minds,” from Jesus Christ, Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

English: Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair Intern...
Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “The Naked Novelist and the Dead Reputation,” Algis Valiunas offers an essay that has to be one of the better-written post-mortems of Norman Mailer that is not a panegyric. Rather than lionize the man because of his work, Valiunas considers the man and the art together. If you are not a fan of Mailer and his work, the article is unsettling. If you are a fan, it should be.

After slogging through The Naked and the Dead, I never picked up any of Mailer’s later writings, and Valiunas has all but ensured that I won’t. Leave aside the critic’s obvious distaste for his subject and Commentary’s implicit agreement. Valiunas describes not a misunderstood genius wrestling with his shortcomings, but an unapologetic hedonist with an unmeasured streak of sociopathy. He shows us Mailer the confirmed narcissist, a habitual philanderer who knifed his second wife, lionized the hoods who killed a 50-year old candy-store owner, and advocated jousting tournaments to punish juvenile delinquents.

What is troubling about all of this is not that it makes Mailer’s writing worse than it might be otherwise. Valiunas tries to make a case that Mailer’s character flawed his writing, but he tries too hard: the worst he can muster about Harlot’s Ghost is:

Mailer has a real fascination with the world’s great secret machinery, and he is willing to give the intelligence agents he portrays, who are naturally great villains to his friends on the Left, the chance to present their anti-Communist case without undue irony directed at their insensate evil.

Still, Mailer cannot control his sheer boyish vulgarity. … Mailer sees himself as writing for the ages, like Hugo describing the Battle of Waterloo or Tolstoy the burning of Moscow; but at the climactic moments, his efforts prove to be potboiler swill served on a bed of journalism.

Even for a detractor, that’s grasping at straws. Suffice to say that if Mailer is worth reading, he is worth reading with his character flaws fully in mind. Indeed failure to do so – or failure to condemn his flaws as such – risks conflating the man and his art. This is Valiunas’ biggest bone with Mailer, and mine as well. It was less the puerile prurience of his prose than the fact that when we lionize a man, we make of his character an idol for ourselves and, worse, our youth. Valiunas writes:

He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.

And herein lies the problem with the aesthetic objectivists who protest that the art and the artist must be considered separately. When we do that, we fool ourselves into thinking that the artist separates himself from his art. This is nonsense; art, especially good art, is more than technique. It is the transmutation of an idea, a picture, or a feeling through the mind and soul and passion of the artist into symbolic expression. Even if we ascribe to the artist the purest of motives, the work itself is a vector of its creator’s essence.

If Mailer was a great writer or even a good one, it is because he poured himself into his work, and so when we consume his work, we consume his essence. We have two choices in that case: either take the work unknowingly and allow yourself to be subtly but importantly changed by it, or take it in the full knowledge that it is the work of a moral ogre, and that it must be read as such.

To do less is to surrender ourselves to the song of the Pied Piper, to agree to be led as a society to our undoing because we cared more about the sweetness of the music than what was in the mind of the musician as he played.

T.S. Eliot and the Art of Prejudice

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday ...
English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism”.
Gregory S. Jay
Journal of English and Germanic Philology

The more you flip through the history of belles-lettres, the more the anti-Semitic cockroaches scuttle out from behind the pretty facades of literary celebrity. Gregory Jay’s superb review of Anthony Julius’ 1995 work T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and the Literary Form manages to stomp on a fair handful of fine English writers. While Eliot, as the most open Jew-baiter among the Victorian scribes, is the focus of the book and the review, he was by no means alone. Jay points out that Charles Dickens, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Paul de Man each had to use “a different strategy to mitigate or evade his own anti-Semetic writing.”

Outing anti-Semites is all good sport, to a point, but if all we do is wave a flag around and say “hey, these guys hated Jews (or women, or African Americans, or Chinese),” we’ve accomplished nothing more than to soak another hate-filled artist in his own bile. In order for these outings to have some kind of meaning, we have to contend with two related questions.

The Hate-Filled Artist As A Young Man

First, we have to ask whether the art can be judged in isolation from the artist. There is a school of literary theory that supports this point of view, and that in turn has led to the canonization of writers like Dickens and Pound (not to mention Henry James and H.L. Mencken.) What is important, we are told, is not that these men were prejudiced and full of hatred-deftly-concealed. What is important is to judge these works independently of the failures of the artist, and indeed without reference to social and political issues.

To their credit, Julius (the author) and Jay (the reviewer) both question this thesis (what Jay calls “aesthetic objectivity,”) suggesting that instead the artifact must be examined in its context. They do not call for the de-canonization of the authors or their works. Rather, what I believe they seek is an examination of the works and their authors in toto, an act which I suspect will cause us to lose the taste for some yet gain interest in others.

There are obviously two schools here: judge the art by itself, or judge it in light of the author and his or her context. You could make an argument that the former school offers a chance for more unadulterated judgment, and you may be right. For me, though (and I’m probably showing my plebeian roots, here,) purity comes at a cost of completeness. My wife and I bought a painting from an artist in his Santa Barbara gallery about a year ago. We loved the painting for itself, a simple California landscape rendered in the style of 19th century English plein-air landscapes: Santa Barbara county with a Cornish feel. What made it more appealing, though, was learning of the artist’s English provenance and training. Here was California rendered through the eye and the hand of a Briton. For us, as Californians returning to our home state after decades abroad, the joy of the painting was thus deepened.

Vincent Van Gogh is not a lesser artist because of his madness, nor is Pablo Picasso for his womanizing. Yet the knowledge of those facts about these painters adds something essential to our appreciation of the art. Artists and theorists may not like that truth, but they cannot change it.

Knowing an artist’s bent and learning of its origins, I have an opportunity to appreciate the art through a filter. This fellow didn’t like Jews, this is why, this is how it shaped his writings, and now I can evaluate the work in that context. With Eliot, knowing his background, we recognize the anti-Semitism spewing out of poems not as an artistic depiction of someone who hates Jews, as the creation of a passion unshared by the artist to offer a portrayal (which would be high art, indeed); but as mere vitriol in verse. Spewing hate in iambic pentameter doesn’t raise the hate to art: it lowers the art into the gutter.

Dickens and other writers who attempt to contain their prejudices, by contrast, offer us a different opportunity. Is there hatred built into these works, however subtly? Is it of a piece with the thinking of the day? Or has the artist managed to expunge prejudice from his work, and to what end?

What Then Must We Do?

The second question follows from the first. Knowing that these authors are flawed in their hatred and prejudices, do we then read them? Or do we shun their works is inherently flawed or diseased? When is it acceptable to read the works of someone deeply, irredeemably prejudiced against you, and when is it appropriate to scorn them? And when is it appropriate to toss the book aside and spend time reading something else, canons be damned?

I have struggled with this question for years, and the best answer I have come up with is this: read it all, let your brain sort it out. I’d read Eliot in a heartbeat, just as I read Voltaire, Jack London, Charles Dickens, H.L. Mencken, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf), Mao Zedong, and the works of dozens of other less-well known writers with prejudices against me. We are intelligent beings, capable of holding a thought in our head and following its logic, even if we disagree with it, and in the end not be unduly influenced. This is what it means to read critically, and it is just as important to know why you disagree with someone as it is to know that you disagree.

At the same time,  following on from the first question above, we owe it to ourselves to be informed about the authors whose work we read. To be erudite, after all, somehow implies we are not duped through ignorance.  It is our very need to read widely that makes knowing the author and his/her context essential.

Read Eliot. Know he is a man of virulent hatreds. And then ask yourself – “how does what I know about the man change the way I see his art, and why?” If it makes no difference, then it doesn’t matter. If it makes a difference, then it is essential to the appreciation of the form.

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