“Part of the tribute that we pay great artists is to ignore many of their opinions.”
It’s a reckoning every thoughtful reader will face: what to do when an admired writer says something egregiously stupid or hateful, something unworthy of his gift? Consider the anti-Semitic sentiments strewn throughout Western literature. I refer not to rabid Jew-haters like Ezra Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose work long ago earned our disregard. (Perhaps the dumbest thing Philip Roth ever said was “Céline is my Proust!”) Rather, I mean the casual, presumptive distaste for Jews expressed by writers who otherwise appear to be reasonably decent human beings. For this reader, especially troublesome are Charles Lamb, George Santayana and H.L. Mencken.
Writers are an egotistical breed. Because their medium is words, they often are emboldened to use them for less than morally or aesthetically pleasing ends. I tend to assume that the least interesting things I can know about you are your opinions. The same applies even more so to writers. Please, don’t spout off like a cranky toddler. Use your words, as frustrated parents say. Articulate something interesting, amusing, consoling, beautiful or useful.
The sentence at the top is from an essay, “H. L. Mencken for Grown-ups,” published by Joseph Epstein in Encounter in 1980. He writes: “[A]rtists holding egregious opinions are an old story. The modern tendency is by and large to forgive artists their prejudices, to say, well, if these opinions do not spoil the artist’s work, then the devil take his opinions; and the modern tendency is, for the most part, correct.”
Things have changed. Many readers are no longer so forgiving. Of course, many readers are no longer readers but inquisitors with little love of literature. One linguistic misdemeanor and a career is “cancelled.” The situation is complicated by the fact that much of “cancel culture” is itself unambiguously anti-Semitic. What happens when you can’t be seen cancelling a writer for hating Jews? What’s an aspiring Torquemada (or Zhdanov) to do?