Monday, June 4, 2001
A Spoonful of Cultural Relativism Makes the Heidegger Go Down...
Heidegger was a Nazi. Melville was gay. Beethoven was physically violent and abusive to women. To what degree is it possible to say, "Who cares?" How surgically can you separate the person from the product?
It seems to me that it's easier to separate odious personal choices from great art when the art is abstract. Everyone knows Heidegger was a Nazi -- this issue is debated all the time. But how many of those adoring worshippers whose pianos glow with busts of Beethoven would think to ask what he was like with his maid? Probably not relevant, right? There is an assumption at work that artists (the less representational the better -- don't paint figures if you want to be immune from biographical criticism, eh Picasso?) and musicians can manage to produce work largely separate from their political/personal beliefs, whereas fiction writers and philosophers cannot.
Now hold on a minute. Have I just equated being gay with making an odious personal choice? Of course I haven't! Because I'm an enlightened young female in the year 2001 who knows that being gay isn't wrong, being black isn't wrong, being female isn't wrong. I also know that owning slaves, beating your wife, and advocating the slaughter of a race of people -- these things are wrong. I can cleanly and cheerfully separate the "good" from the "bad" so that I know what authors to pay attention to, and what authors to pitch into the trash. Right? I know who I can trust and who I can't.
There are three things wrong with this, in my opinion. First, what the hell do I know? I know that being a woman is okay, and beating a woman is not okay. But 100 years ago I might have "known" the exact opposite. 100 years ago, you might actually trust the writings of a Nazi more than the writings of a woman. That's what they knew at the time. Now, we know better, but are we really so arrogant as to think that this is the pinnacle of our cultural development? That we can now stand on the mountaintop and pass down judgment on every era that came before -- who owned slaves? who was a misogynist? On this mountaintop, I know that being gay is just fine, but were I writing from the mountaintop that existed at the same time Melville was writing love letters to Hawthorne, I might have had a different opinion.
Furthermore, we don't know what people will be saying 100 years from now when they look back at us. Barbarism, to be eating cows. Sickening, to be leashing dogs. Appalling, to be burning fossil fuel. Stupid backward morons, how could we know anything about philosophy? And our entire body of work is affected by these insane horrible beliefs! Now, I'm not saying that in 100 years people are going to rethink genocide and decide it's okay, but I am saying that we are by no means finished with finding out what works and what doesn't. Any labeling of "good" and "bad" based on a self-righteous belief that we know with any finality what these terms mean... it's ludicrous.
My second problem with the dismissal of artists because of biographical criticism is this religious application of the good/bad dichotomy. As if someone who embraces a "bad" belief or behavior can produce nothing good. As if someone who produces something "good" couldn't possibly embrace a bad behavior. Did deconstruction even happen people? This irreducible dichotomies are fallacies... hello? Why are we still hearing about this stuff? Are we in a time machine? Did deconstruction never happen?
My final difficulty is exactly the belief that the art can be taken separately from the artist, or that this is even desirable. People are fragmented, but they are also whole. Neither fact can be ignored. If I want to know what Beethoven was, I'll listen to the music. And if I then find out that he beat the hell out of a female five minutes before he wrote "Ode to Joy" I am not going to recoil with horror from the music, I'm going to face the fragmentation and understand the whole more completely. Biographical criticism should be an inroad to interpretation, not an excuse to condemn or "disprove" the artist's work. Letting go of the good/bad either/or paradigm releases a reader from the obligation to judge a piece's morals, and simply experience it in the context from which it emerged.
Bah, I have a headache.
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