A few years ago I read about newly published correspondence which supported allegations that Ted Hughes had abused his wife and fellow poet, Sylvia Plath. I made a note of this comment in the news report. “Academics, who have yet to study the letters, believe they may provide the “missing link” to understanding more about Plath’s state of mind in the final years of her life.”
I would have thought that academics might prefer to focus on Hughes’ state of mind as the alleged abuser. However, when it comes to ‘Great Men of Letters’ their questionable views and behaviour are often dismissed as peripheral to their body of work instead of providing a context for how they should be assessed.
Hughes’ personal relationships raise awkward questions, but at least he never embraced fascism. In fact he consciously rejected the fascism of his childhood hero, Henry Williamson, who wrote Tarka the Otter. I loved that book as a child and enjoyed the film before I ever learned that Williamson attended the Nuremburg Rally, admired the Hitler Youth and thought that Hitler was basically a good man. Ezra Pound was antisemitic and a supporter of Mussolini. Philip Larkin was a racist and a misogynist. Does that mean we should reject their work? Definitely not. But it should affect our reading of their work.
If all you have to go on is the work, you judge it on its merits without reference to the author. We do this all the time with ancient literature, Homer for example, or closer to home, some of the Norse sagas and Anglo Saxon poetry that has survived.
Sometimes that literature expresses attitudes and beliefs which are troublesome to the modern reader. So we try to contextualise it within the period in which it was written. Sometimes we have to decontextualise it and strip away misleading contexts ascribed by scholars from subsequent centuries who strove to impose their own patriarchal and imperialist framework on classical literature and then use the classical tradition, thus interpreted, to justify their own prejudices.
There are at least two strands here:
- Writing which, however glorious, promotes or assumes values which many of us would reject. A lot of it is ‘excused’ because of its antiquity. Although modern scholarship and modern translations and reinterpretations of the classical canon suggest that some of our Greek and Roman writers were more progressive than their more recent interpreters.
- Writing which presents no such immediate hurdles. But the work of the biographer reveals troubling attitudes and behaviour by the authors.
And what of other art forms?
Stephen Fry is Jewish and was enthralled by the musical compositions of Wagner long before he discovered Wagner’s own virulent antisemitism and the wholesale appropriation of Wagner’s work by Nazi Germany. He still loves the music but is conflicted.
Eric Gill was a designer and sculptor of note with a secret history of child sexual abuse. We have no qualms about removing statues and memorials to paedophiles and sexual predators today. But what about the statues and sculptures by a paedophile that still adorn our public buildings. Slave traders are another matter. Do their statues belong in a museum or the Bristol Channel? And in popular culture we have no qualms about losing the work of Gary Glitter. But what is our judgement on Michael Jackson?
One of our problems arises from the value attached to authorship and provenance. A work of art may sell for thousands on its own merits but be worth millions if we can prove it is the work of a recognised master. On the other hand, Hitler was a painter without merit whose very notoriety attracts interest in his daubings.
What about a pornographic work, which would be dismissed as being without merit if its author was not identified as a literary genius? Do we apply a different standard and, while not admitting it to the canon, at least give it the benefit of the doubt?
There is another dilemma concerning readers. What would Heine have made of the concentration camp guard who had a copy of his poems on his bedside table? All writers want readers, but what does it say for your work if it can be enjoyed by a Nazi war criminal? And how can I enjoy Heine after that? Perhaps I can persuade myself that the guard was not reading it ‘properly,’ that nobody who is an active participant in genocide could share my artistic sensibilities. I am not sure.
And to turn it around, Paul Foot was a revolutionary socialist who prized the novels of Balzac, a reactionary nineteenth century author, because Balzac honestly described the prejudices of contemporary French society. He was a reliable witness who knew how to write.
All this leads me to believe that we should not just restrict ourselves to culture that is politically correct, or to assume that having the right political line makes a work of art acceptable. Tony Cliff once remarked that, while his politics were better than those of the Redskins, their musical ability was far better than his. So his advice was to listen to their records and read his books.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Never voting Labour again.