Does bad behavior trump genius in art?
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Misogyny is a big tent. Inside are Norman Mailer, Charles Dickens, Roman Polanski and Philip Roth. It broke my heart to read Claire Bloom’s account of her marriage to Roth. The disconnect between the man and the work he created disrupts the equilibrium. How can someone who wrote “American Pastoral,” with such gorgeous language and empathic characters, be capable of the crass and crazy behavior Bloom alleged? She said that he insisted she send her 15-year-old daughter to boarding school before he would marry her. She did. She said he helped her with her lines when she was preparing for a play, and when they split up and she returned to England, she got a bill from him for the time he coached her. This man, a prolific and formidable writer, turned out some of the best American literature of the 20th century. Can we get past his foibles? Should we?
Another Nobel laureate who apparently suffers more than his share of personality disorders is V.S. Naipaul. Laura Miller wrote in Salon that he is “unquestionably a bad man known for his floridly abusive relationships and bigoted ideas.” Sounds like a resume-buster to me. But Naipaul wrote “A Bend in the River” and “A House for Mr. Bismas.” How do we reconcile the discordant notes?
Same with T.S. Eliot. If you knew when you first read “The Wasteland” that Eliot was an outspoken anti-Semite, would it have made a difference? And what about Ezra Pound, author of “The Cantos,” who was also an ardent fascist? Anti-Semitism is also a big tent. Inside we find Degas, grand painter of the delicate ballerinas, who apparently sided with the French court that falsely accused and convicted Alfred Dreyfus of treason. Also inside, Theodore Dreiser. And H.G. Wells. Some say that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, based on his depiction of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” along with Dickens, who wrote the character of Fagan into “Oliver Twist.”