Wednesday, June 09, 2021

'Ignore Many of their Opinions'

“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?


Faze said...

I was in the middle of a Lamb love fest when when I almost choked on his essay on Jews. Tough one. Took a while work my way back into the Modern Library "Complete Works and Letters" and enjoy all else. But I did. Same with P.C. Wren's "Beau Geste" and its gratuitous episode of Jew-hatred. "Should I keep reading this?" I wondered, plunging on, nonetheless, because it's such a ripping yarn.

Tim Guirl said...

And then there are those who are falsely accused of anti-Semitism, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I've read all of his major books, including the three-volume Gulag Archipelago, and did not detect one iota. Thankfully, some public intellectuals, notably Elie Weisel and Robert Conquest, stuck up for him.

Montez said...

I'm black and jewish. That's a tough one to navigate in the realm of English literature. What's funny (in a dark way) is how much space and "reason" Lamb gives in defense of his ridiculous prejudice of jews only to come around to black folks, "full of compliments" (albeit in a condescending manner), simply to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand for the very same reason he considered them in the first place—they are black. It's unreasonableness is so striking that one can imagine that this would have been intended as a punch-line. Anyway, I only wanted to say it becomes especially difficult when a writer you admire, whose thoughts you find exciting, challenging, but ultimately right, comes your way...and then they drop a bomb by saying something that makes you realize they wouldn't even consider a word of parting ("Good-night!") worth giving to you. But the the truth is we love them still, mostly because we only take the things they give us that keep our world alive. Such things are too rare to waste on a few bad (even very bad) opinons. The "devil take his opinions" indeed for we have found his words of truth.