Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Atlantic: the world still spins around male genius, defenses of genius and cruelty in artists, revisiting my dissent from an article at Mbird

On Monday evening, The New Yorker published yet more proof that the #MeToo moment continues apace: a report containing the testimony of four women accusing the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, of a range of physical and emotional abuses. The story, under the powerhouse co-byline of Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, was striking—and nauseating—for several reasons, among them allegations of hitting, of threatening, of racism. One of the other reasons, though, was this line: “After the former girlfriend ended the relationship, she told several friends about the abuse. A number of them advised her to keep the story to herself, arguing that Schneiderman was too valuable a politician for the Democrats to lose.” [emphases added]
It’s a common sentiment in politics—the centrifugal forces of “the greater good”—and it is, of course, absurd. Schneiderman, as a matter of policy, may have been a professed ally of women and, indeed, of the aims of #MeToo; that changes nothing about the accountability he bears for his alleged behavior, or about the right of the women to seek a small measure of justice through the telling of their stories. But the absurdity itself was revealing: about the moral compromises so many people are willing to make in the name of broader political progress; about the ways women, in particular, are asked—still, despite it all—to be accommodating and compliant and convenient; about the fickle avenues of our empathies.
Schneiderman, shortly after the New Yorker piece was published—the news cycle is a flat circle—resigned. The notion that the women’s stories about his behavior were somehow a nuisance, though—the notion that things would be so much simpler, macrocosmically, had they kept their experiences to themselves—remains with us. I know that because, shortly before The New Yorker published its story about Eric Schneiderman, the poet and memoirist and essayist Mary Karr published her own story on Twitter. This one was about David Foster Wallace. It was about the writer stalking her and abusing her and, in general, refusing to take no for an answer. As Karr elaborated, in one tweet that reads, in the #MeToo context, as its own form of starkly tragic poetry: “tried to buy a gun. kicked me. climbed up the side of my house at night. followed my son age 5 home from school. had to change my number twice, and he still got it. months and months it went on.” [emphasis added]
The added tragedy of all this—kicked, climbed, son, gun, months—is the fact that Karr was not, specifically, making allegations. As Jezebel’s Whitney Kimball pointed out, “The fact that [Wallace] abused [Karr] is not a revelation; this has been documented and adopted by the literary world as one of Wallace’s character traits.” D.T. Max’s 2012 biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, documented those abuses: Wallace, Max alleges, once pushed Karr from a vehicle. During another fight, he threw a coffee table at her. Karr, in her tweets, was merely repeating the story she has told many times before. A story that has been treated—stop me if this sounds familiar—largely as a complication to another story. In this case, the story of the romantically unruly genius of one David Foster Wallace.
And, so, within the space of a few days, the stories of government officials and prodigious writers tangled together, reminders of the pathological ways American culture approaches power in its many forms. For Schneiderman, it’s political power: the alleged entitlements of one man who claims to serve the higher purpose of the public good. For Karr and Wallace, though, it’s an even more complicated proposition: our insistent fealty to—our implicit faith in—the notion of genius itself. Karr’s #MeToo stories were not so much an open secret as an open revelation. They were not hiding in plain sight; they were, worse, strategically ignored. They were the collateral damage of a culture that prefers convenient idols.
“Talent is its own expectation,” Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest, and he was, of course, correct: There’s a canny tautology to all of this. Genius, a means to godliness and its best evidence, cannot be argued with. Genius cannot be reasoned with. Genius is the answer and the question. It will be heard. It will be respected. Even when it kicks and stalks and climbs up the side of the house at night. [emphasis added]

Although, as I think about it, it's dubious to insist that this is somehow an American pathology.  It's not the way American culture approaches power in its many forms.  Did not Jesus say in the Gospels that the men of the world lord it over one another?  There have been people who have observed this capacity in human nature over millennia.  That "our" genius can be excused for being terrible has been around for a while.  All of that in mind, it is possible that since the Romantic era the trope of the Byronic genius or the genius as conceived in the wake of German idealism may need a specific, targeted dismantling. 
Here is the etymology the Oxford English Dictionary provides for the word genius, imported to English straight from the Latin: “male spirit of a family, existing in the head of the family and subsequently in the divine or spiritual part of each individual, personification of a person’s natural appetites, spirit or personality of an emperor regarded as an object of worship, spirit of a place, spirit of a corporation, (in literature) talent, inspiration, person endowed with talent, also demon or spiritual being in general.”

There’s more, but there’s already so much: genius, by definition a male condition. Genius, a male condition that inflects its maleness on the individual soul. Genius, an object of worship. Genius, perhaps slightly demonic. The derivation isn’t surprising on its own (no one would mistake a typical Roman for a feminist). What is striking, though, is that, millennia later, the biases of the language remain with us, tugging at the edges. Genius itself, the way we typically conceive of it, remains infused with the male gaze, or perhaps more aptly, the male haze: It is gendered by implication. It is a designation reserved, almost exclusively, for men. Guess who the first season of that new show Genius is about? (I’ll give you a hint: The first name of the genius in question is Albert.) And the second? Pablo.

These dynamics are unavoidably at play when Mary Karr, the famous and celebrated writer, reminds the world of Wallace’s behavior toward her—reminds the world, indeed, that it needed the reminding in the first place. The horror stories had simply been subsumed into the broader story—the “greater good,” as it were—of Wallace’s personal genius: as evidence of his uncontainable passion, of the singular depth of his wanting. He wore his trademark bandana, he once said, not only to keep perspiration at bay, but also because “I’m just kind of worried my head’s gonna explode”; there is a certain romance to the admission. And Wallace has often, indeed, particularly in the popular press, been treated as a rom-comic hero: besotted, helpless, desperate. (Wallace once suggested that the writing of Infinite Jest was a grand gesture meant to impress Karr: “a means to her end (as it were),” he wrote in the margin of a book, seeming to have intended the sexual pun.) There Wallace was, then, thrusting the boombox. There he was, dropping the cards. There he was, refusing to take no for an answer.

One time, Karr recalled, Wallace arrived at a pool party she was attending with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought perhaps he had been cutting himself; it turned out that the wounds being hidden had come from a tattoo Wallace had gotten: her name, and a heart.

“Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no,” Max notes in an excerpt of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story; “he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway.”
In another section of the book: “A month later, in May 1992, Wallace packed up what little he had and drove to Syracuse,” Max writes. “He had rented a first-floor apartment in a house around the corner from Karr and a few blocks from the main campus. It was in a typical graduate-student neighborhood, full of warping clapboard houses and semi-kempt lawns and right across from the food co-op. But being near the woman he loved made all the difference.”

Here, once again, is the male genius centered while the female genius is relegated to the margins. Karr is there, as a slight character, in Max’s biography of Wallace; she’s there, too, as a kind of human predicate, in interviews about him, in assessments of his literary contributions, in effusions about his genius. And often, too—the world can be so myopic that it can fail to see the genius sitting right in front of it—she is directly asked about him: what he was like. What it was like. How it was to have had, for a brief time, the privilege to spin around such an axis. “Sometimes people go on and on about David Foster Wallace,” Karr noted last year. “As though my contribution to literature is that I fucked him a couple times in the early ’90s … Everybody in America owes me a dollar who read Infinite Jest.” ...
I have managed to go the last twenty years without reading two sentences by David Foster Wallace.  I don't see that my literary, philosophical or cultural life has in any way suffered for it.  I also don't much care for the beatniks, who were the rage among my literary college acquaintances some twenty-five years ago.  What makes the veneration of genius seem so galling is that one person's literary idol is someone whose work means absolutely nothing to other people or may even be emblematic of bad trends in literature.  For as many young guys who revered Hunter S Thompson or Tom Wolfe there were a majority of them who adopted the posture rather than the writerly craft.  Beethoven can be thought of as having ruined the range of possibilities for German music in his wake with help from essayists like Hoffmann or Wagner. 

But it's not clear to me that scapegoating white males as the locus of the cult of genius is entirely the way to go.  Who christened BeyoncĂ© "Queen Bea"? Does she deserve that royalty?  When Michael Jackson billed himself as the King of Pop was he? 

The thing is, in contrast to Andrew Durkin, I don't think anyone with a mind to think of these things can say that if we just reject or deny the idea of greatness that accomplishes anything.  In the wake of the election of Trump what we can see in progressive writing and progressive writers is that every last one of them believes greatness is real.  Why?  Because whether or not they believe in greatness as good they surely believe in greatness as evil.  If you can believe that the current President is a great evil for our society and the world you're granting the concept of greatness even if you would say you don't believe in greatness in the arts.  Jesus did not attempt to dislodge the human mania for greatness, he taught in a way that challenged people to come up with a dramatically different definition of what greatness was and who "qualified" for that measure of greatness.  The greatest among you will be the servant of all.  So in Christian ethical terms the counter-definition of greatness has been around for a while even if a lot of self-described Christians want a more traditional definition of the greatness where you "own" your adversaries in symbolic or physical battle.

I do believe there's such a thing as greatness and I even believe there are men and women who are possessed of genius.  I think Jane Austen was one of the greatest comedic geniuses of English language literature.  I think Rumiko Takahashi is a comedic genius with manga.  I regard Joan Didion as one of the great geniuses of the New Journalism.  I've heard some brilliant chamber music for double bass and guitar by Annette Kruisbrink that I believe should be the foundation of the doublebass and guitar chamber repertoire for generations to come.  There are women geniuses out there in the arts and sciences and we should celebrate their work. 

None of that requires some equivocating bromides about how if we don't want monsters in the arts we'll have no art left.

I just can't buy this line of argument because if there's any attempt to compare the arts to athletics nobody would suggest that what Larry Nassar did to girls was just part of the genius of amazing athletic performance.  I know that some people reject the Tolstoy conviction that great artists should also actually be moral people.  Yes, we're all vaguely aware that brilliant people can be damaged or even dangerous.  That doesn't mean we can't insist that there are some men and women who, however brilliant they may genuinely be, do not receive an exemption from humand ecency simply on account of that brilliance.  Is there no room for advising people that it is better to be a middling artist but a decent human being over against aspiring to be a "genius"? 

Besides which genius can be thought of as a social verdict.  A thing Leonard Meyer wrote decades ago was that  the difference between a genius and a crackpot came down to whether the person solved a problem that  a large chunk of people in society wanted solved.  If you solve a problem that only concerns you then you're a crackpot.  If you solve a problem that a culture or subculture wants solved that gives you a shot at consideration for "genius" as a social verdict about the nature of your work.  But there was something else Meyer proposed, which was that innovation by itself was never as important as replication of methods and solutions.  If you come up with a "solution" to a challenge and nobody can replicate its elements or results then you're still, at a functional level, the crackpot.  Haydn became a genius in historical and social verdict because he made music that solved expressive and formal problems perceived in his era and did so in a way that inspired disciples to replicate and expand upon his approach, most famously Mozart and Beethoven and substantially less famously Wenzel Matiegka, who very, very obviously adapted Haydn's materials into his own guitar compositions.

We're not going to get rid of the idea of genius or the insistence that "our" heroes need a clemency we don't want to grant to "their" heroes, who are often as not our villains. 

I wrote a haiku years ago that feels about as grimly apt now as it did then.

Heroes are monsters
whose use for a cause outweighs
their well-known vices

It seems this is able to happen across any and all spectrums.  Would that we could appreciate remarkable art without assuming the artists get a pass from being decent humans because rock stars get to do what rock stars do.  Whether it's rock stars or rock star pastors or rock star politicians or rock star authors; whether it's a Mark Driscoll or a Sherman Alexie or all sorts of other people, we don't have to say that if you get rid of the ethically dubious to downright terrible human beings there would be no art left.  That's not even what the polemic requires, it's really begging the question of whether there will be any great art left if we excise the monsters from an artistic canon.  Absolutely no one on earth could seriously claim there won't be any art left if there's no, say, Caravaggio in art history.  No, the real argument is that if we get rid of the monstrous men and women who mad great art then all we're going to be left with is the artistic or literary equivalents of Family Circus or Garfield in comics without a Bloom County or a Doonsbury or even a Peanuts. If we get rid of the Beatles catalog if it turned out John Lennon could be a physically and verbally abusive drunk then we're stuck with the Monkees is where the real "teeth" of the argument goes, to which I would say, well, you know the Monkees weren't all that bad ... .  Not my favorite but ... .

My objection to the argument that says if we get rid of art by bad people we won't have art left is that it's the kind of argument that ultimately seems to be made in bad faith, because, well, the aforementioned Family Circus.  People are afraid that without these terrible men and women who have flashes of brilliant insight we're going to be stuck with anodyne bromides and axioms.  Well, maybe, but why do we have to use anodyne bromides and axioms in arguing for a retention of art made by terrible people along the way? 


Cal of Chelcice said...

I don't deny the unique contributions of talented individuals, but great accomplishments and genius do not drop out of the sky, but depend upon a whole lot of complex forces in one's social environment. So while we ought to praise Newton for his theory of gravity, we should have circumspect humility to notice that someone who've figured that out eventually. It's not like Newton alone invented physics, but his own work was in dialogue with a growing body of people who were investigating the same questions, within a similar social milieu.

And that's a hard science, let alone the arts, which requires a whole lot of more subjective evaluation to judge whether its great or not. I like John Carpenter movies and random internet synthwave music; I don't think of it as "genius" or high quality, but I like it. But that kind of approach can send shiver up the arts' critics spines. I really don't think it matters much about tracing pedigree. That's the stuff of myth. But, as Jacques Ellul pointed out, the modern world is not disenchanted, it's just the haunt of a different set of demons. So, we don't have a druidic priesthood in recoil if you say that tree is just a tree, but now we have our own sacerdotal gatekeepers who recoil when you think a book is just a book, a song is just a song, and none of it was worth it if it results in abuse and insanity.

And yeah, the histrionics about the maleness of genius is stupid. I have no respect for someone who, in total seriousness, does a word analysis to explain the present situation. I still remember reading bits and pieces of how Ayn Rand had abusive relationships with a string of boytoys over her literary career. It doesn't have to do with men or women, but with the wielding of power.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I feel like we're looking at a long and grisly hangover in criticism and the historiography and commentary on criticism that comes from a bender of "the long 19th century" and its connection to German idealism. I couldn't finish A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism, and have said a few times that the meta-art religion of arts criticism just doesn't convince me. Richard Taruskin has riffed on how the two world wars should have shown us that the humanities do not humanize and that there have to be better reasons to love the arts than the Matthew Arnoldian notion that the best that has been thought and said will actually make us better people. I might throw a bone to Tolstoy's version of the argument because at least he pointed people toward Chelcicky. :) I.e. he was willing to direct people to the form of Christian spirituality he thought artists should take their cue from rather than "just" having a generic post-German idealist art religion.

I picked up The New Demons, The Empire of Non-Sense and The Humiliation of the Word in the last month or so. Not sure when I will manage to carve out time to read them all with my other projects but they're in hand, and The Technological Society. I don't think my brother anticipated that I'd end up picking up so manY Ellul books when he recommended Propaganda. He's got some weak spots (like he was wildly wrong about the trajectory of race relations in America) but his strong points are still very worthy of consideration.

From the day I met my first set of self-identified Rand fans I found Rand and Randroids to be some of the most insufferable people I've ever come across in my life. :(

The word analysis ... it's funny you mention that because that's the part of the Atlantic article that most resembles the Christian blogosphere axioms in which citing a dictionary definition of the word is considered a profound entry point for cultural analysis. :)