by Chris Horner
One day, I used to say to myself and anyone else who’d listen, I’m going to write a book called ‘everything you know about these people is wrong’. I have given up on the idea, and I expect anyway that someone else has already done it. What prompted the repeated thought was the way in which so little of what well known thinkers and artists did or said is actually reflected in public consciousness, assuming it makes a showing at all. This can lead people to reject the idea of engaging with them before they’ve even had time to discover the ideas or experiences they might have learned from or enjoyed. Clearly, not everything will be to everyone’s taste, but you can’t know until you give it, or them, a try.
What makes this problematic is that it is the least credible – and creditable – things that they have supposedly said or did that hang round them like a bad smell: Nietzsche the proto facist, Freud the sex mad coke addict, Marx the totalitarian etc. Popular beliefs about many of the key figures of modernity are often seriously askew, and sometimes at 180′ from the truth: Nietzsche was neither anti Semitic, nor a nationalist; Freud didn’t say it was ‘all about sex’; Marx wasn’t a proponent of a one party state, etc. It is almost as if whatever the popular view is of these figures, the truth lies in the opposite direction. So my instinct is to try to put the record straight. But what to do when the popular idea of an artist or thinker actually does correspond to something real – something true and bad?
Take Richard Wagner as a classic example.
He was an avowed anti-Semite, consciously, vocally and in print. Knowing this, we cannot but be affected when we think about the man and his work – the question is what kind of response that should elicit. There are some responses that do seem inadequate: one is to simply reject the thinker or artist entirely on the grounds of biography, when the record shows repugnant actions or statements. But if we drop everyone who said or did bad things our list of acceptable novels, music and philosophy would be very short, and quite bland. Alternatively, perhaps, we should separate the artist from the work, which then stands free of the bad stuff he or she did. But it it is often the case that the maker will have left at least traces of that bad stuff in their productions. This might tempt us to do a bit of censoring, editing out the less palatable parts of the oeuvre. I think this is usually wrong headed. For a start the bad stuff may be deeply entwined and integral to the work, such that it cannot be removed without causing fatal damage to the production. Even if it isn’t, knowledge of the context in which the work was produced is part of the way we receive the work. But we need really to ask ourselves why we have this urge to purge. It can easily look like an act of disavowal – ‘I know this, but I also don’t want to know it’. We surely need to be able to look whole at at the work, warts and all. It should stand or fall with all we know about it and its creator. Any thing else is a lie to ourselves. The crucial thing is to assess the work itself, and to recall that the conditions of its production may be very different to those of today. This needn’t assume a relativist view: I don’t think racism, for instance, becomes ok as we go back a few decades, but it might encourage us to ease back on what EP Thompson called, in a different context, ‘the immense condescension of posterity’. It might also lead us to see if we can learn from the art of the past, rather than only adopt the pose of judge or censor.
I am inclined to think that good thinking – the grasp of others as real centres of consciousness, the sense of self criticism and self awareness, the ability to take a critical distance from the mores of one’s own time – often goes together with good art, or good philosophy. If the writer has a serious blind spot, then it is likely to affect the aesthetic worth of the art. At worst it may cripple it; in less serious cases it may still limit its reach and worth. This can be true of really fine artists. To take the recent example of Phillip Roth: I have loved much of his work, but his failure to really imagine women, to get some distance from a male perspective, surely limits him as a writer. It limits what he can show us because he can’t see certain things himself. Nietzsche’s silly remarks about women come to mind, too, although in his case the damage may bit more peripheral. But it is there, and it cannot be wished away.
To return to Wagner: does his antisemitism destroy the value of his work? People have certainly claimed that there are signs of it in his work, and they may be right. Fortunately, what traces there may be aren’t, I think, so great as wreck the work overall – there is too much else going on in his music dramas for that. However that may be, another idea ought to be considered in thinking about Wager, Roth and all the other art and thought we encounter. It is that the very flaws, gaps, prejudices and limitations of a writer, composer or thinker make the work possible in the first place. That one cannot have one without the all-to-human other, and we should not wish it otherwise. Further, that the work itself may cast its own light light on the stupidities of its creator, as well as our own. The work provides the criteria for an immanent critique. This is true of Richard Wagner’s greatest work. The impressive thing, I think, is how little a role the mean, the petty and the bigoted plays in his music. It’s hardly visible or audible at all. Wagner’s art is about the importance of love and compassion over power and money – and a lot else that is humane and life affirming. What it isn’t about is promoting hate. Whether it is the story of the Ring – and the way it destroys those that exchange love for power (in the form of gold, especially), the story of the Master-Singers and the search for a humane and progressive way of making art and living life, or Parsifal and the meaning of compassion, Wagner has a lot more to say than is commonly recognised by those who have only heard the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.
And the music! The music is utterly stunning in its beauty and depth. And no, it isn’t ‘bombastic’, either (another myth caused by too much exposure to those Valkyries). One can love or hate the work or be simply indifferent to it, but if one’s reasons for avoiding it are what one has heard about the nasty things he said, then all you may do is deny yourself the joy that his art can bring. An artist or a thinker of today or yesterday isn’t, somehow, simply the sum of what they said and did. Both creator and work are always imperfect, as we all are. But the art can shine a light by which we can see them and us as we really are, and as we might be, flaws and all.