The theme, rendered in the form of a question, recurs over and over again in the history of the arts: Why are so many creative geniuses such terrible, mean-spirited human beings? Then the second question rising from its wake, forcing a decision by all admirers of any given artist’s work: “Can I still love the art if I come to hate the artist for all his misdeeds?”
(I use the masculine pronoun there with purpose, given that most artists whose creations have been admitted to the canon of so-called Great Works over the centuries have been male [and been chosen by other males, surprise surprise!]. That bare and sorry fact means vastly more of them present the archetype of the rebellious, inner-directed artist than do women, and do so in a much more dramatic, outward-bound way.)
The critic (and creative artist in her own right) Claire Dederer has been rolling these questions over in her fertile mind for many years now. Late in 2017, she published an essay in “The Paris Review” entitled, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”
How can a scoundrel like Miles Davis write and play something as achingly beautiful and vulnerable-sounding as ‘Kind of Blue?’ The mind reels, the heart sinks.
These nearly six years later, the result of Dederer’s protracted intellectual pursuit of that question has given us a much longer and more comprehensive work with a much shorter title: “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.” In it, she scans the creative firmament of the past two centuries, reaching as far back as the composer (and virulent anti-Semite) Richard Wagner (born 1813) but focused more on the modern era.
Her exploration offers up a rogue’s gallery of awful people (or at least people who have done many awful things) who happened to have produced great art.
The 250+ pages open with segments on film director Roman Polanski (chapter title: “The Child Rapist;” the girl was 13) and then proceeds through a “Roll Call” of call-outs and questions regarding other such norm-defying creatives whose art Dederer (and millions of others) adores to varying degrees.
The list includes but is not limited to filmmaker Woody Allen (who conducted an affair with and later married his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter), the artists Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, writer Ernest Hemingway, jazzman Miles Davis—the latter quartet all misogynists who treated women as property, pets and worse.
Two women who come under her probe—novelist Doris Lessing and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell—earn their “monstrous” stripes under the chapter title: “The Abandoning Mothers.” I should note that Dederer casts no judgment on their actions—only that society generally regards leaving children as a particularly grievous, often unpardonable sin. (At least for mothers…)
Lessing had left two of her three children behind with their father in Rhodesia to pursue her writing career in London. Mitchell, famously prickly though now mellowed with age, illness and gobs of adulation, gave her first and only child up for adoption early in her career, when she realized it would surely and severely restrict the time she could devote to her music.
Two others—the poet Anne Sexton and poet-novelist Sylvia Plath—abused or neglected their children before ending their own lives. Plath at age 30 with her head in an oven, Sexton at 45 in a closed garage with her engine idling.
Dederer wrestles mightily with the questions and challenges these artists pose for all those who are drawn or become devoted to their art, only to find out various biographical details later that chill those hearts.
“Et tu??” such fans cry. “But I thought…”
The next step frequently involves the withdrawal of their affection—often bordering on or confused with love—and the divestiture of all the artist-become-ogre’s works. (Which at least offers the consolation of being much easier than splitting up property or haggling over child custody in actual love affairs.)
Dederer understands the impulse of this radical rejection, but resists such easy solutions to “the fan’s dilemma.”
For one thing, she is an artist herself, often balancing on a high wire of exquisite attention to the questions and conundrums posed by art and its creators, none of which she spares herself. Witness the late chapter: “Am I a Monster?”
There and elsewhere, she skillfully weaves in memoir-like reflections of her long-running attempts to balance, always imperfectly, the demands of family life (two children, now grown) with her longing to barricade the door to her room for extended periods to answer the siren call of her own art.
Besides which, like another artist whose case she considers further along in the book—the late short story writer and poet Raymond Carver—she used to drink far too much, and she doesn’t anymore. (At all, actually.) But that is to get slightly ahead of ourselves—and her.
Having accepted a foundation fellowship to hole herself up for five weeks of unfettered writing in a New Mexico retreat facility years ago, Dederer, with her daughter already gone to college but a son still at home, observes her own tormented questioning of whether she is doing the right thing.
Reflecting on Doris Lessing’s passage in her masterwork, “The Golden Notebook,” which describes a mother named Anna Wulf “playing” robotically on the floor with her young daughter, bored to the point of stupor, Dederer writes:
“This sense of being an imposter, this quiet chafing against the role of mother—I lived it. For years and years, I lived this fear that I was not, am not, a good enough mother because I cannot inhabit the role with my entire being, cannot cast out the artist self, or maybe the true self, a self that is not entirely good. That is why, when my daughter was three years old, I used to pay myself to play with her. I chivvied myself into behaving like a good mother, but inside, sometimes, I felt like Anna Wulf: a machine, a film shot, a photograph, a simulacrum, a bifurcation, an other, a divided self.”
Both her children now flourishing as adults, we can assume Dederer’s conscience has enjoyed some ease, but the wrestling she did with her own (slight, compared to say, Polanski) monstrosity of the time seems to have held her in good stead.
Indeed, it persists in her still, because no human being, least of all those with an overpowering passion for artistic expression, is free of at least an occasional monstrous spell, crazy as loons for a moment’s (or a lifetime’s) foul logic, resentment, jealousy, aggression, cruelty.
So before we dump all our Hemingway novels into tiny free libraries or vow never again to stream a Woody Allen or Polanski movie or crank up a Miles Davis solo on our speakers in the lonely dead of a bourbon-swilling Friday night, we do well to remember Dederer’s gentle admonition:
“What do we do with the art of monsters from the past? Look for ourselves there—in the monstrousness. Look for mirrors of what we are, rather than evidence for how wonderful we’ve become.”
Dederer’s discussion of genius exemplifies genius itself. A chapter (The Anti-Monster”) on perhaps the most controversial novel of the 20th century—the widely banned and vilified-to-this-day “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov—presents it not as it is often portrayed: an affront to human decency in its depiction of a lecherous old literature professor essentially kidnapping his stepdaughter and dragging her around the country rape by rape.
The revolting premise has long been used to accuse Nabokov of harboring the qualities he ascribes to his character, pseudonymously named “Humbert Humbert.” Not so fast, Dederer says.
In a dazzling 16-page literary analysis written in plain-speak rather than academese, she instead sees “Lolita” as a brave portrait of the hidden recesses of the male psyche for one, but also the hidden, dark and disreputable recesses of the human psyche at large.
And also: the propensity of society to “annihilate” the individuality of young girls and ultimately, young women, older women, and every other suppressed, helpless population thrown to the curb at the whims and will of dominant parties, a phenomenon as old and ordinary as the trash blown up against that curb and every other curb around the world.
“If Humbert is ordinary, then Lolita is too. She too is everywhere. She’s all around us—the girl whose life has been destroyed. The ubiquitous victim of the ubiquitous monster. And it’s her ubiquity that ultimately concerns Nabokov….He has overlooked the person he is destroying. And we have too….the theme of ordinariness serves to remind us: not just one girl’s annihilation, but a whole world of Lolitas, ruined by a whole world of Humberts, ruined not just bodily but existentially.”
And to those who cancel Nabokov and clear their shelves of his work while attempting to clear their minds of him as well, Dederer emphasizes a corollary tenet of her investigation into the “Monster” theme:
“(Nabokov) had the great artist’s impulse to step toward what was most awful in himself, rather than away from it…He had to risk his own conflation with Humbert in order to make the reader see and feel Lolita’a annihilation. But thoughts are not deeds….Nabokov is in fact a kind of anti-monster. He was willing to have the world think the worst of him. By doing so—by telling the worst story, and letting himself be implicated in that story—he created a way for us to understand, to feel, the enormity of what it is to steal a childhood.”
Ultimately, we make a huge mistake as readers, listeners or viewers when we confuse the artist with his or her art. And yet…
Dederer admits her own ambivalence and haltingness in considering the prismatic nature of creators and creations, offered up to those who consume them. One hundred art works are digested by 100 people in 100 different ways. All of us come to art with everything we have been and are in our own lives, just as artists themselves do in producing it.
“Consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting: the biography of the artist, which might disrupt the consuming of the art, and the biography of the audience member, which might shape the viewing of the art. I repeat: this occurs in every case.”
As audience members, we are thrown into conflict upon discovering the personal heinousness of a creator and our love for the beauty of the artist’s creation. How can a scoundrel like Miles Davis write and play something as achingly beautiful and vulnerable-sounding as “Kind of Blue?” The mind reels, the heart sinks.
But then what about us, in our worst moments? Maybe those moments aren’t half as bad as Miles’s, or Woody’s or Roman’s, but still: pretty bad. Not something we’d ever want splayed out to the world in a Facebook video. (Perish the thought!)
“We’ve all loved terrible people,” Dederer tells us. “How do I know this? Because I know people, and people are terrible.”
Not necessarily in their essence, of course (though some truly evil people probably are, and may God forgive them, because I’m not about to…)
But in everyone’s capacity to be terrible, there is no doubt.
And then Dederer brings it home: Sometimes people we love behave terribly. Sometimes for a long while, or forever. Our mothers, spouses, even children. What do we do about them? “Mostly we keep loving them.”
And so it is—or can be, if we so choose—with works of art, as we forgive, or at least set aside, their creators, however grudgingly, for their failures of character. Because very likely, their art we love was an exercise in courage for them, among many other attributes. And it spoke to us, moved us, broadened our sensibilities and appreciations for what it is to be human, and alive, and beautiful, and flawed.
Copyright restrictions mean certain You Tube videos will only play on You Tube rather than embedded as below. Just click the “Watch on You Tube” link below, but first:
The one and only time I saw Miles Davis live was at the San Francisco Opera House, just about the time of this recording below. His band of young turks blazed through an upbeat, slightly cacophonous first set before Miles waved them away, sat down on the top stair stage left as the lights dimmed, and a lone thin spotlight trained on him as he blew the first faint notes of a solo “Time After Time.” It was and remains the most solemn, gorgeous piece of live music I have ever heard, a mesmerizing few minutes of lasting, ethereal beauty, for which you can color me grateful till the day I pass from this earth.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shadow by Tilly Mint, United Kingdom https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogret/
Monster by Adam Flockemann, Kelowna, British Columbia https://unsplash.com/photos/BqVVC73t8KQ
Dark forest by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/