Columns

Against Genius by Laura Jean Moore

 

Laura Jean Moore

I have been at my Kipling again, and I know to say so can at once raise questions about my loyalties and inner politics. He was a notorious apologist of British colonialism and trucked in making the homes of others into exotic settings for fiction and travel narratives. When I read him, I find myself asking the same question Herr Landauer posed to Isherwood quite uncomfortably over dinner in Goodbye to Berlin: “Shall we allow that the man of genius is an exceptional person who may do exceptional things? Or shall we say: No—you may write a beautiful poem or paint a beautiful picture, but in your daily life you must behave like an ordinary person, and you must obey these laws which we have made for ordinary persons?”

Among peers, I have heard the same question asked about the careers of Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby, or really, about any artist or public figure who has revealed himself to be a rapist or proponent of an oppressive ideology. Examples of the latter that immediately come to mind are H.L. Mencken, who was a strict anti-Semite, and Susan B. Anthony, who was rather cheerfully racist. At its heart, I think people don’t want to believe that the people they have admired could be less than admirable, because they are afraid their love of any given figure’s work will make them complicit in the ways those creators have used their platform to hurt others. And, when people vehemently deny or defend the worst actions of great artists and celebrities and political heroes, they are often exercising a strange cost-benefit analysis, as though the work such people have produced for humanity makes up for the harm they have caused other individuals or groups.

Fred Craddock, the late theologian and Disciples of Christ pastor whose sermons more closely resembled the parables of Jesus than oral exegesis, told a story in his book Cherry Log Sermons about a man in prison for murder who piqued the interest of collectors and art enthusiasts with his beautiful paintings. Gallerists took up the cause to have the convict released, upon which he murdered someone again. Craddock did not share this anecdote to boost the legitimacy of our penal system or to demonstrate the folly of compassion; nor do I. Such simplistic readings betray the more complicated truth available to us here—and any time—we encounter the potential for great horror in the same body as the potential for great beauty. What the story illustrates best is much harder to swallow: it is fandom and community, not being, that insists on consistency of character.

Even among some who I know avoid stereotyping as much as possible, I have sometimes noticed a desire to treat public figures according to a simple rubric: if this, then that. If artist, then good; if an authority, then worthy of respect; if rich, then smart; if ever kind, then always so. I find this logic fallacious. It is much harder, but much more honest, to admit, wholly, the truth of any individual’s capacity for goodness and immorality, and to confront, quite uncomfortably, the instability of the moral conventions by which we determine so-called ‘good character.’

Friends and I were recently discussing the show “Hannibal” on Facebook, a show which, at its core, explores the gray lines of morality and immorality to viewers’ squirming delight; are not the titular character’s murders a kind of aesthetic achievement, even as they are also an example of the worst human savagery? I think when we encounter extremes of human behavior there is, unadmitted, also a touch of envy in the criticisms we level against the monstrous achievers among us: how dare they? And also: how dare we? Despite boycotts and criticisms, the great works of great evil live on. I am the first to admit that one of my favorite movies is Chinatown. How can I square my love of that film with the knowledge that its director raped a child?

The answer is that I do not. I do not square it. I do not add it up. I do not treat the thing produced as belonging to its producer. For this reason, I condemn artists as quickly as I defend their work. Kipling was absolutely a defender of British imperialist atrocities in India and should be judged for his enthusiastic complicity with the crown, but, as a writer, he is also one of the keenest observers of human anxieties and one of the most accomplished storytellers in the English language. All of these statements are true.

And because I believe it is the work itself, that, once produced, belongs to those who consume it, and not the producer of that work, I am not especially impressed with personality cults or writer worship or director geniuses or artists behaving badly. Among the writers for whom I have read a majority of their oeuvre, not a one wrote masterpiece after masterpiece. Not a one lived a life that should be entirely admired. Not a one demonstrated anything exceptional beyond a capacity, for a short time, to make something true and lasting. Such skill or even luck should not absolve the criminal. Quite the contrary. It should absolve us of the myth of genius.

We are all capable of stepping closer, cracking wider, listening harder, pursuing deeper until we, too, become conduits for truth. But perhaps we intuit that the act of accession to pure negative capability is itself the door through which we become separate from the world, suddenly without a definable sense of right or wrong. I suspect as much. I suspect, too, that no action is without consequence. Our heroes may live beyond us, but they must still live among us, and pay the price.


Laura Jean Moore’s poetry, essays, and stories have been featured in VICE, [PANK], the EEEL, FLUX WEEKLY, ENTROPY, the Brooklyn Rail, Corium, the Cobalt Review, and Change Seven, where she is a monthly columnist. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. http://laurajeanmoore.com/

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