Tag: Ezra Pound

Stupid Things Great Writers Say

Let’s start with V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate of 2001:

I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.

I’d be interested to see Mr. Naipaul put to a blind test. The closest thing we have online comes from The Guardian and from Nicole Bernier at Beyond the Margins. I took both, scored 60% accuracy on The Guardian’s test, but only 29% on Nicole’s test–my first eight answers were wrong. Statistically this makes me an average guesser, nothing more. Maybe Naipaul’s could hit 80% or better on both. Maybe that’s why he won the Nobel. (I kid, but don’t assume it’s because I love.)

The whole thing did get me thinking more broadly about the jackass pronouncements of brilliant writers. It’s strange. A author writes a compelling piece of fiction. It moves us, scares us, or makes us laugh. The author certainly has demonstrated a skill at spinning amusing and illuminating lies, but many try to translate this into erudition of a more general kind and turn authors into sages.

Given the nonsense a lot of brilliant authors take seriously, we should be at least a little more circumspect about doing this.

D.H. Lawrence, modernist author:

You have a Sam, a fat slow fellow, who has got slower and more slovenly as the weeks wear on. You have a master who has grown more irritable in his authority. Till Sam becomes simply wallowing in his slackness, makes your gorge rise. And the master is on red hot iron.

Now these two men, Captain and Sam, are there in a very unsteady equilibrium of command and obedience. A polarized flow. Definitely polarized.

The poles of will are the great ganglia of the voluntary nerve system, located beside the spinal column, in the back. From the poles of will in the backbone of the Captain, to the ganglia of will in the back of the sloucher Sam, runs a frazzled, jagged current, a staggering circuit of vital electricity. This circuit gets one jolt too many, and there is an explosion.

‘Tie up that lousy swine!’ roars the enraged Captain.

And whack! whack! down on the bare back of that sloucher Sam comes the cat.

What does it do? By Jove, it goes like ice-cold water into his spine. Down those lashes runs the current of the Captain’s rage, right into the blood and into the toneless ganglia of Sam’s voluntary system. Crash! Crash! runs the lightning flame, right into the cores of the living nerves.

And the living nerves respond. They start to vibrate. They brace up. The blood begins to go quicker. The nerves begin to recover their vividness. It is their tonic. The man Sam has a new clear day of intelligence, and a smarty back. The Captain has a new relief, a new ease in his authority, and a sore heart.

There is a new equilibrium, and a fresh start. The physical intelligence of a Sam is restored, the turgidity is relieved from the veins of the Captain.

It is a natural form of human coition, interchange.

It is good for Sam to be flogged. It is good, on this occasion, for the Captain to have Sam flogged. I say so. Because they were both in that physical condition.

It’s a good thing old D.H. was always broke. I’d hate to think what would have happened if he’d ever employed a housekeeper. Lawrence claimed that such a master/servant blood bond, strengthened through horrific violence, is infinitely preferable to contemporary employer/employee relationships. I don’t know. I’ve never much liked being an employee, but I’ve always been gratified to know that I could sic cops on any boss who raised a hand to me. I get that modern capitalist relationships have their alienating drawbacks, but Lawrence’s cure seems far worse than the disease.

Ezra Pound, modernist poet, rabid anti-semite:

You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-jewed the Jew.

And the big Jew has rotted every nation he has wormed into.

Your infamy is bound up with Judaea. You can not touch a sore or a shame in your empire but you find a Mond, a Sassoon, or a Goldsmid.

These gems came from Pound’s Italian radio broadcasts, made in support of Il Duce. I take it a close reading isn’t necessary. Pound gets credit for a great deal in literature. Certainly without him James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway would have had a rougher time getting their work out and noticed. Pound advanced 20th century literature. He also advanced 20th century fascism and gave intellectual cover to people who murdered millions out of bigotry. I’ll leave the question of which is more important to you.

Orson Scott Card, renowned sf author, homophobe:

 Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.The goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail. The goal is to discourage people from engaging in homosexual practices in the first place, and, when they nevertheless proceed in their homosexual behavior, to encourage them to do so discreetly, so as not to shake the confidence of the community in the polity’s ability to provide rules for safe, stable, dependable marriage and family relationships.

As a man of letters, Card doesn’t bat in the same league with Pound and Lawrence, but he is a figure of renown with the science fiction community, which by now must be well practiced in separating an author’s work from his personality. I wish them luck with that. With every statement like that, and Card just keeps on making ’em, it gets harder.

Henry Rollins, the rock and roll raconteur, once said that if you read the graffiti that your favorite band left backstage at a venue, your opinion of the band would plummet. The same is true of writers, and it’s going to get worse. Once upon a time, an author could cultivate a kind of semi-divine detachment from the audience, speak rarely, and every so often toss his work to the crowd the way John D. Rockefeller tossed dimes to the nobodies. But now, authors have to be on Facebook and Twitter, and have to push to do blog tours and interviews and speaking gigs, and thanks to the internet, every weird, stupid thing we say lives forever.

I’m not sure how to feel about that. What I try to do is ask myself whether the thoughts I express today will look barbaric twenty years from now. At the same time, I think about the bullet Shakespeare dodged. As far as we know, no one wrote down all the racist, sexist, monarchist shit that he surely must have thought.

How Far Is Too Far For An Artist?

Charles Krafft’s response to the charge that he’s a Holocaust denier raises the question of how audiences respond to artists they once admired once their opinions go round the twist. This can be tricky. Artists inspire a devotion in their fans that can rival, and in some cases surpass (or at least outlast), friendships and marriages. While that devotion can withstand bombardment from a lot of nasty news, it can also suddenly curdle into equally intense hatred of the artist.

Of course, defining round the twist is in itself difficult. I’ll turn the matter over to Mark Twain for the needed clarification:

Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other; it will unriddle many riddles; it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now.

 

Those of us who are not in the asylum, and not demonstrably due there, are nevertheless, no doubt, insane in one or two particulars. I think we must admit this; but I think that we are otherwise healthy-minded. I think that when we all see one thing alike, it is evidence that, as regards that one thing, our minds are perfectly sound. Now there are really several things which we do all see alike; things which we all accept, and about which we do not dispute. For instance, we who are outside of the asylum all agree that water seeks its level; that the sun gives light and heat; that fire consumes; that fog is damp; that six times six are thirty-six, that two from ten leaves eight; that eight and seven are fifteen. These are, perhaps, the only things we are agreed about; but, although they are so few, they are of inestimable value, because they make an infallible standard of sanity. Whosoever accepts them him we know to be substantially sane; sufficiently sane; in the working essentials, sane. Whoever disputes a single one of them him we know to be wholly insane, and qualified for the asylum.

 

Very well, the man who disputes none of them we concede to be entitled to go at large. But that is concession enough. We cannot go any further than that; for we know that in all matters of mere opinion that same man is insane–just as insane as we are; just as insane as Shakespeare was. We know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours.

 

This is a handy working definition of round the twist for our purposes. It allows me to exclude a number of artists from consideration. I may have been disappointed to learn, for example, of David Mamet’s emergence as a Tea Partier, but while I feel free to regard his stated reasons for his ideological shift to be baffling and shallow, I don’t think they are, on their own, a basis for rejecting his work. (I dislike current Mamet because he’s become a mannered writer who hasn’t grown an inch in the last ten years. But his earlier stuff, from American Buffalo to Glengarry Glen Ross, still plays.) I spent much of the 1990s laughing at Dennis Miller’s stand-up comedy, and some of the last 13 years bored with his new persona as a right wing pundit. Still, the old stuff remains funny, if dated. Tom Cruise’s adventures in Scientology may bemuse me, but I still loved Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Nabokov supported the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, two things I find insupportable, yet I can read Lolita with pleasure. So insanity, defined as a difference of opinion, is cause for a slight sting of disappointment, but not necessarily for divorce from the artist.

Charles Krafft, however, occupies a different position. We’re not dealing with a difference of opinion here. The historical reality of the Holocaust–that is, the Third Reich’s policy initiatives to exterminate Jews, Roma, Sinti, Slavs, Russian war prisoners,  Homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses–has been proven by mountains of physical, testimonial, photographic, and documentary evidence. Though the evidence can’t quite reach 8+7=15, that’s only because real world proof is always less compelling than mathematical proof. Historians will continue to refine our knowledge of events within the camps, ghettos, and on open fields of the western Soviet Union as further evidence emerges from archives. But none of that will change the fundamental facts. The evidence leaves no reasonable doubt of the Hitler regime’s guilt in the deliberate murder of 17 million people in Germany and German occupied territories, including 5-7 million Jews. That Krafft denies evidence that is available for anyone to investigate and instead prefers to believe that a racist conspiracy theory can account for Adolf Hitler’s poor reputation suggests that Krafft isn’t “in the working essentials” sane.

How then to treat Krafft’s art? I’m sure it’ll be necessary to reevaluate a great deal of it. How much of what was previously read as satirical or ironic can now be read as propaganda? Can great art be made from evil intentions and lies (see Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will)? Was Krafft’s art great or merely fashionable? If great, it may survive the controversy surrounding its creator (see Ezra Pound); if fashionable, Krafft’s disgrace will swallow it. Since I’ve seen Krafft’s work only after learning he’s a Holocaust denier, I find it hard to divorce myself from that knowledge when judging his art. Some of his pieces may still retain an irony, but the character of the irony is probably different and, at times, more than slightly nauseating.

Whether that says something about me or about the art, I can’t yet say. (JIllian Steinhauer makes the case that Krafft’s views completely change his art , while Russell Smith at the Global and Mail, argues the opposite.)

What do you, the readers at home, think? Can you appreciate the art of someone whose views turn your stomach? Can great art be made with evil intentions? Do you think that Krafft’s art can ever be separated from Krafft’s personal reputation?