Wednesday, November 22, 2017
I had already half decided on the topic of this week’s essay—the snappy title “Secular Donatism” had already sprung to mind—when Monday’s PBS “News Hour” definitively sealed the deal. It began with what looked like a large framed photograph of Charlie Rose, television interviewer par excellence, and the news that this eminent senior citizen had just been suspended from practically everything, down to and including his Cub Scout pack, on account of accusations of sexual harassment. The charges were numerous, specific, and sad. In this instance there was at least no suggestion of pedophilia. Most of his victims were, it is true, young enough to be his granddaughters. But a couple fell credibly in the daughter range, and that was a relief.
Our moral epidemic, which shows little sign of having yet peaked, has already propelled us to new heights of national hypocrisy and shamelessness and has created a truly surreal political casuistry. Is a right-wing judicial grope more or less appalling than the left-wing senatorial genital flash? Bird in hand, or two in bush? The Access Hollywood tape! Yes, but what about Bill Clinton? Don’t forget JFK. And how about Grover Cleveland while we’re at it.
Amidst all this there are a few engaging ponderables, mostly along the lines of hating sins while loving sinners. A recent offering in the Times’s “Editorial Notebook” by Clyde Haberman--entitled “He’s a Creep, but Wow, What an Artist!—raises an interesting philosophical question in a classical form. Do you have to be a good person in order to be a good writer, painter, musician, or whatever? A few purists, like Philip Sidney in the English Renaissance, thought that you did; but no one familiar with many biographies of modern artists is likely to agree.
When I first joined the Princeton faculty, two of my distinguished senior colleagues, Lawrence Thompson and Carlos Baker, were deep into the writing of the “authorized” biographies of two giants of twentieth-century American literature: Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. They had entered into their great enterprises flushed with enthusiasm and unalloyed admiration for their subjects. But they then discovered that these guys were such sons of bitches where women were concerned that they gagged, metaphysically speaking. The scholars carried on, of course, and produced prize-winning books. But duty is not the same thing as delight. In a small way I myself faced a similar unease in writing about Arthur Koestler. Koestler was in my opinion one of the most remarkable literary geniuses of the twentieth century and the author of perhaps the most politically consequential novel in all of our literature. He was also “a hell of a raper” as his friend Richard Crossman delicately put it.
Are you less admiring of the architectural boldness of the Guggenheim when you find out that Frank Lloyd Wright was an utter swine who abandoned his wife and children? Coming at things from the other end, must I research the sex life of Frederick Law Olmstead—a task likely to prove quite difficult, boring, and probably inconclusive—before I can fully enjoy a stroll in Central Park? At least I feel reasonably certain that authorial criminality doesn’t actually enhance artistic worth, as Norman Mailer seemed to believe. In 1981 he helped gain the release from prison of an eloquent felon named Jack Abbott, who rather spoiled the socio-literary triumph with a recidivist murder.
As a medievalist I have on the whole been protected from this sort of embarrassment. My awed admiration of Chartres Cathedral is not compromised by my worries about the politics of its architect, not that it had an architect. Much early literature is entirely anonymous. Was the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a “creep”? It seems unlikely, but no one would think to go there. Contemporary literary biography often seems to me nearly obsessed with sexual details that tell us as much about modern readers as modern writers. Earlier periods may seem woefully lacking in this regard, though I have to admit that my man Chaucer comes dangerously close to biographical modernity. There is among the poet’s life records a legal document in which a woman named Cecily Champaine attests to the fact that he did not rape her. I suppose that is better than one claiming that he did rape her, but it actually seems to me a rather near thing. It is somewhat reminiscent of the notation in the ship’s log that “the Captain was sober tonight.”
It appears that revelations of sexual misbehavior took Charlie Rose’s career from sixty to zero in less than a single day. Mr. Haberman, the author of the thoughtful essay on “creepy artists”, makes me pause in my evaluation of this extraordinary phenomenon. Is it not perhaps based in an essentializing view of human character? To embrace it is to deny what the wise have so long known: that the line between good and evil runs through every beating heart.