Thank goodness books have a life of their own

I’ve been mostly disheartened by the elections to the Oxford Poetry Chair and finding out that Derek Walcott has harassed female students. And I’m even more disheartened by the impression that among the (mostly, but not exclusively, male) literary Greats, sexual harassment is still considered to be just a peccadillo, entirely forgivable if not almost inevitable in a writer of genius. I’m aware that many female students would regard it in pretty much the same way – however much we try to legislate it, what counts as harassment will always be to some extent personal to the one on the receiving end as much as to the one doing it – but the bottom line, as I see it, is that a teacher who equates award of grades with personal relationships is abusing his or her position of trust, and literary genius does not make that behaviour excusable.

I’ve been reminded of all this by a TV programme yesterday – ‘Storyville: The Genius and the Boys’. It was about the scientist Carleton Gajdusek, who spent years in Papua New Guinea researching a degenerative brain disease among the native people; as a result he discovered the cause of mad cow disease, for which he won the Nobel. He also adopted about 50 boys from Papua, brought them to America, and, it turned out, abused some of them.

It was a fascinating, sad and non-judgemental programme which deserves more comment than I’m giving it here, but I saw some parallels with Walcott (not that I am saying harassment and child abuse are at all the same thing, although neither do I consider harassment an innocent peccadillo). Here, instead of writers, were so many eminent scientists falling over themselves to defend Gajdusek, talking about how true brilliance is always unconventional or simply refusing to engage with the human consequences of his behaviour, as though great scientific achievements and therefore their makers exist in a separate world above and beyond the rest of us mortals.

The question both cases raise is, how far can we separate great achievements in art or science from the person making them? I don’t know much about science, but it’s something I’ve thought about in literature – I think as a feminist it’s impossible not to, when so many great books and writers from over the centuries ignore, disparage, disdain, infantilise or demonise women (and yes, I know we have to take them in historical context). An appreciation of literature pretty much requires that you make a distinction between a work and its maker, otherwise a person of any principle would find it hard to enjoy anything much. One example: Le Morte d’Arthur, which I love and admire. If the historical records are true, its author Thomas Malory was a rapist and a thief. The contrast between what he wrote, all about chivalry and honour, and how he apparently lived is vast. I couldn’t begin to defend his behaviour on the grounds that he is a great writer, but I still think he wrote a great book.

Me and my literature-loving friends used to play the game, if you could invite any writer, living or dead, to your dinner party, who would you ask? I can still think of many I’d invite because I’m sure they’d be wonderful company with witty, fascinating, beautiful, profound and challenging things to say. But if I were to invite only those I think I would actually like, as well as admire, as human beings rather than just as writers… the list gets a lot shorter (in fact, after a brief ponder I’ve come up with just one: Anton Chekhov). But in the end, for my ideal dinner party of writers I’d rather have their books for company, or the characters from their books, because I think great literary creations, like scientific discoveries, stand alone from the people who made them. That’s why I still love Walcott’s poetry.


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