Sunday, June 12, 2011 | Categories: Michael's Essays
Richard Wagner was a self-proclaimed anti-Semite and composed some of the most beautiful music ever heard.
Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl and directed one or two of the best movies in the last century.
Charles Dickens was a terrible husband who was appallingly cruel to his wife, yet wrote some of the best novels in the English language.
Carravaggio was a murderer and a fugitive but his painting can stir our souls.
It has been like this since time and art began; human monsters who can create beautiful things.
Which stirs the ageless debate----can we separate the artist from the art---and in fact should we?
It all bubbled up again this past week following an interview on British television of the Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul.
Sir Vidia, as he is called, was, as usual talking about himself and his work when he let it drop that no female writer could ever be his equal.
This is not a huge leap from one of his earlier assertions that he is the greatest writer in the English language.
Having put one foot in his mouth, Sir Vidia twisted around to make room for the other one.
He went on to say that female authors are inferior because of their " sentimental attitude" and their " narrow view of the world."
Naturally, the book chat shows and the literary critics went berserk. Editorials blasted Naipaul, calling him delusional, arrogant and narcissistic.
All of which uproar undoubtedly played directly into Naipaul's hand and served only to delight him.
After all, he once told an interviewer "If a writer doesn't generate hostility, he is dead."
Sir Vidia has been generating personal hostility for decades.
In his memoir of Naipaul, Sir Vidia's Shadow, the American writer Paul Theroux told of how Sir Vidia had treated his wife and his mistress abysmally for more than a quarter of a century.
And how he seemed obsessed with race, having said that the only way to deal with Africans was to kick them.
So there seems to be a general agreement that Mr. Naipaul is a mean-minded misogynist with an inflated view of himself and generally a bit of a dick.
But he is also a marvelous writer and the author of a number of magical novels, including A House for Mister Biswas and A Bend in the River.
Which raises two questions.
Does his insufferable character demean his work as an artist?
And does it follow from that that we should Never read one of his novels?
Does genius ever excuse appalling behavior?
I have a very close friend who refuses to watch a Woody Allen movie because he dumped his grown-up girl friend for his teenage step daughter.
How does one square an uncomfortable feeling on the pit of one's stomach over an artist's behaviour with a fondness for the artist's work?
For example, I happen to think that Jussi Bjoerling was the greatest tenor of the 20th Century.
But he was also a drunk who refused to let his son, an aspiring singer, to use the family name. One famous Bjoerling singer was apparently enough.
Or Wagner. Can't stand the man but the prelude to Tristan can reduce me to a burbling mass of jelly.
Or the genius craft of Herbert Von Karajan who was a Nazi or the poetry of T. S. Eliot who was anti-Semitic or the art of Picasso who treated his various wives and mistresses with breathtaking cruelty.
True art stands alone and speaks with its own voice, no matter how awful the personality of its creator.
Art is created not by angels or devils but by humans, which is the wonder of it all.
In the long run, it doesn't really matter how terrible is the human hand that makes it.