A “sneaking suspicion of our own badness”

Claire Dederer
from clairedederer.com

current reading 2Not everyone will like (or should like) this fascinating piece by Claire Dederer (@ClaireDederer) in The Paris Review: “What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men?” [link] She begins by contemplating the unassailable fact that many people who have created great art have also done monstrous acts (think of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen).

How do we deal with what they have made after we know what they have done?

As such, it is an interesting piece. What makes it more than another of the many think-pieces about the Trump-Weinstein-Spacey storyline is the fact that she becomes introspective about it without letting go of her appropriate moral outrage:

When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.

Reminder: not “you,” not “we,” but “I.” Stop side-stepping ownership. I am the audience. And I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

In the end, she properly calls attention to the fact that even in the midst of doing something apparently praiseworthy — finishing her writing project — she may do (does do!) some “little savageries” to come to the end of her work.

Either way, the questions remain:

What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]

And the question is a fair one, not just about art, but about all accomplishment.

It is not a comfortable question, and the answer is not that their/your/my monstrosity is a fair trade for the art or the accomplishment, never that. The answer must include the incredible fact of the monstrosity in all of us.

Still, there is a grace that comes in the introspection itself. It is not the final grace, but it is an elegant beginning.

Thank you, Ms. Dederer.

Doom

Some very interesting designs for a Holocaust Museum in London.  This one is my favorite — the sense of something vastly dangerous and beyond individual control*:

akzh-holocaust

Rory Stott, “10 Shortlisted Designs for London Holocaust Memorial Revealed,” Arch Daily (Jan. 17, 2017) [link].

Though not, of course beyond individual action: “…and yet, in the end, did Klara Hitler’s sickly son ever fire a gun? One hollow, hateful little man. One last awful thought: all the harm he ever did was done for him by others.” Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace (2005).

Silence & Beauty

9780830844593-194x300I am very much looking forward to reading  Makoto Fujimura‘s Silence and Beauty, which is described as using Shusako Endo’s Silence as a starting place for consideration of issues of suffering and faith.  Fujimura is a painter of great power and a believer.  I taught Endo’s book several times in my World Lit class.

I will let you know.

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell, it seems to me, has a gift for conjuring a story-illusion, seducing the reader into the narrative, and then dropping the reader out of the dream abruptly.  I find myself initially frustrated (” . . . but I wanted to know what was going to happen to that character!  I liked her and I want to . . . .”).  Then within 2-3 pages, he has drawn me into the next dream.  He is very, very skilled at this.

Cloud Atlas (2004) wraps back on itself in a chiastic structure which is fun to sketch:

Cloud Atlas

The structures of Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House are unique, but Mitchell displays his maddening, enthralling, wonderful gift in each of them.

Thank you, Mr. Mitchell.

Rembrandt at sea

MatthewWhen Rembrandt painted, he (more than occasionally) placed himself in the picture as a literal witness to the events.*  When I was studying for Matthew class, I noticed that Rembrandt placed himself in “Christ in the Storm” (Rembrandt is in the pink beret, holding a rope, looking out at us):

1.  Rembrandt, “Christ in the Storm” (1632) (stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1990) (1):

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee detail detail 2

The nose is a dead giveaway!

2.  Rembrandt, Self portrait (1629) (private collection) (2)

self-portrait-in-a-gorget

3.  Rembrandt, Self portrait (1630) (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum) (3)

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4.  Rembrandt, Self portrait (1630) (4)

Br011SelfPortrait1630Stockholm

*For me, it was Francis Schaeffer who first pointed this out in How Should We Then Live? (1976): “Rembrandt had flaws in his life . . . but he was a true Christian; he believed in the death of Christ for him personally.  In 1633 he painted the Raising of the Cross . . . .  A man in a blue painter’s beret raises Christ upon the cross.  That man is Rembrandt himself — a self-portrait.  He thus stated for all the world to see that his sins had sent Christ to the cross.”