When Great Art Happens to Bad People

Can we judge a book, opera, or symphony by its creator's racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic views?


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Every few years, it makes the papers: somebody opposes the teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in some high school, or even wants it banned from the local library. The reason, of course, is the book's frequent use of the word "nigger" (over 200 occurrences, according to people who count such things). When one such incident made a splash sometime in the '90s, and the minister who was leading the crusade made a large number of appearances on TV and radio, my friend Wendy Lesser, a distinguished literary critic and editor, protested to me, "But he's missing the whole point!"

She was right, of course. To seize on a single word, even a single word reiterated 200-plus times, without regard to its context or purpose represents a misreading that seems almost willful. But to my mind, defending the teaching of the book on those grounds, while justified on the merits, also misses the whole point, or at least concedes far too much. Because, what if the protest didn't in fact miss the point? What if Huckleberry Finn actually were a racist book, rather than a non-racist book that permits its characters to speak in an argot appropriate to their time and circumstance? Would the banning then be justified?

What if the book in question were "Benito Cereno," a work I was in fact taught in high school. Melville's story doesn't, as far as I'm able to recall, employ the word "nigger," but, even though the author was almost certainly an abolitionist, it reveals an implicit racism that I believe is entirely absent from Twain's novel. Or what if it were Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, which both uses the word and at least suggests the concomitant attitude (the author speaks disparagingly of something he sees fit to call "nigger democracy")? Should those books not be taught? Should they be banned from libraries, or at least hidden away from young readers?

In the case of Huckleberry Finn, the minister who was leading the charge back in the '90s delivered what he apparently regarded as a devastating clincher: the defenders of the book, he asserted, wouldn't be nearly so sanguine about it if it contained the word "kike." He was apparently unfamiliar with The Sun Also Rises, another great American novel, which does indeed contain the word "kike," and whose casual anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of the narrative.  (The Sun Also Rises contains the word "nigger," too, but, weirdly, the very minor character to whom it refers is treated with a modicum of respect.)

He also seemed unaware of the much-taught Merchant of Venice, which, while lacking the word "kike" (there is no entry for "kike" in the O.E.D., and I'm unfamiliar with its provenance, but I would wager it was not yet in circulation in the early 17th century), can hardly be defended against charges of racial prejudice.  Attempts to do precisely that are regularly made, of course, but they aren't especially convincing.

No, I think we are forced to deal with a very uncomfortable fact: Great art is sometimes -- perhaps often -- made by very bad people, or people who harbor very ugly attitudes, or attitudes we now find abhorrent. Anyone who cares about, anyone who feels an investment in, the Western Canon must come to private terms with this phenomenon.

One method is simple denial, the "he didn't really mean it" defense. We are actually meant to sympathize with Shylock, some critics assure us. "Gerontion" and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" are benign, not emblematic of any bigotry on T.S. Eliot's part. "Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuel" is just an evocative piano piece.

Perhaps the most interesting example of this tendency comes from Daniel Barenboim, who quite courageously chose to conduct Wagner in Israel, and was greeted with clamorous protests for doing so. Defending the choice, Barenboim claimed that while Wagner himself was unquestionably a very unpleasant fellow, "he did not compose one note of anti-Semitic music."

This is literally true, I suppose, since music by itself cannot express much of anything with that level of concreteness.  But it is also disingenuous. Wagner didn't just write music, he wrote operas, and the libretti of those operas often contain repellent characters who are meant to represent Jewry. Beckmesser, Alberich, Mime, and Klingsor are all examples. When Mahler first conducted Siegfried in Vienna, the singer who performed the role of Mime came to an early rehearsal with an interpretation that was a coarse anti-Semitic caricature. Mahler quickly stopped the rehearsal and told the singer not to do it. He then said something along the lines of, "I have no doubt that is what Wagner intended, but I will not permit it in my house."

Which is all well and good, and in Mahler's Viennese production the hateful subtext of the opera was thereby suppressed, if not expunged. Mahler, himself a Jew, was no doubt responding to a deliberate and mischievous provocation on the part of a singer as well as a desire to spare the sensibilities of a substantial portion of his audience.  But he still conducted the opera. In fact, he worshiped Wagner, and conducted him regularly and lovingly.

So what are we to make of all this? How should we react? Should Mahler and Barenboim not have performed Wagner? Should we not read Ezra Pound? Make an exception for Dickens only because he offered a tacit apology for Oliver Twist by writing Our Mutual Friend? Skip over Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Celine, Heidegger, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, D. W. Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl, and...and so on. The list is long. The list is too long.

The list is finally so long that I believe we're better off coming to terms with the complexities of history and the ambiguities of life rather than banning and censoring. Social attitudes do change, and we shouldn't necessarily impose our own values on the past even when we're convinced that we're right and people from an earlier era were grievously wrong. People with ideas we despise do sometimes make great art, and sometimes encode their despicable ideas into their art. But great art is capable of elevating us in spite of itself; it can provoke rather than soothe, it can create a dialectic that permits us to interrogate it and learn a great deal in the process. Learn more than the flawed people who made the great art might ever have intended. It's finally better to celebrate this conundrum than to avert our eyes or bowdlerize the things we find offensive.

The process can even be educational. The abrasion inflicted by work we find simultaneously exhilarating and offensive forces us out of our intellectual comfort zone. Any high school class would learn a great deal about irony, about literary verisimilitude, about evolving mores, about unexamined assumptions, about the power of language to wound and to assuage, by reading Huckleberry Finn in its entirety, with all its 200 "niggers" right where Twain conscientiously and deliberately put them. Doing so might even help prepare them for the ethical confusion, the sheer unholy messiness, of the reality they'll be confronting every day of their adult lives.