But Art Just Isn’t Worth That Much

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GHyland Blog OK copy.jpguest post by Peter B. Hyland

Nabokov Lolita White 550.jpgWhen I was a teaching fellow in graduate school, one morning a colleague and I debated the virtues of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita over coffee in our campus office. I had added the novel to the booklist for my fall classes, and her initial vague disapproval now solidified into the contemplative frown and raised eyebrow that lets a man know his character is up for judgment. While checking her e-mail, she asked how my classes were coping with the text after fifty pages. I said “great,” and it was true. Although I felt a few minor tremors erupting here and there during my first lecture, the students began asking intelligent, probing questions once they actually started reading, and one went as far to say, “I really like this, but I hate Humbert. Is that all right?” My friend clicked her mouse a few times, turned away from the monitor, and asked, “But what do you want them to get from it?” I answered back with something about the nature of desire and the purpose of art and the astounding conflicts a psyche inevitably endures. She sipped her coffee. “Hmm…what else?”
Her point, as far as I could tell, was that my undergraduate students weren’t ready to handle a novel about a pedophile. It unnerved me a little. Once I put aside her tired reservations about literary taboo and propriety, her question prompted me to explore more vital considerations about my role as a writer, the impact of my work, and where I exist in an ethical community.

When discussing literature and ethics, we’re mostly concerned with the cultural function of a novel or poem. We less often consider what impact the activity of art-making has on our immediate community, mainly because our understanding of community tends to be macroscopic. In the second section of his brief poem “The Literary World,” Philip Larkin approaches the responsibility of a writer this way:

Mrs Alfred Tennyson


begging letters

admiring letters

insulting letters

enquiring letters
business letters

and publishers’ letters.

She also

looked after his clothes

saw to his food and drink

entertained visitors

protected him from gossip and criticism

And finally

(apart from running the household)

Brought up and educated the children.

While all this was going on

Mister Alfred Tennyson sat like a baby

Doing his poetic business.

med1851TL1.jpgI’ve not yet found a poem that disputes the old Romantic notion of genius quite like Larkin’s does. He strips Tennyson of all his literary majesty and points to something inherently pathetic and disappointing in the way writers sometimes conceptualize their purpose. One of the reasons the poem works so well, from its humor to its cataloging of the domestic, is that culturally we still endorse the idea that genius privileges its owner, placing him or her at least partially outside the shared ethical community. It’s perfectly fine and justifiable if Mr. Tennyson burdens his wife with domestic affairs because, after all, he’s writing poetry; moreover, excellent poetry. This mentality really only works with certain professions. We aren’t so apt to forgive the garbage man for neglecting his wife and children, no matter how much genius and dexterity he exhibits collecting the trash down Main Street.
In 1973, Robert Lowell published The Dolphin, a book that loosely fictionalizes the dissolution of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick and his subsequent marriage to Caroline Blackwood. It certainly isn’t unheard of for a writer to disguise his real life and pawn it off as fiction, but in this case Lowell includes and alters emotional letters Hardwick had written him without her consent. What resulted is a collection of poems that makes it difficult to separate autobiography from fiction, but in a way that perhaps violates the existence of real people. Many of Lowell’s close friends reacted harshly to The Dolphin, mainly because they felt an ethical line had been crossed. Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography cites responses from several of Lowell’s friends. Stanley Kunitz wrote to Lowell saying, “As for Dolphin. I should be less than honest if I didn’t tell you it both fascinates and repels me. There are details which seem to me monstrously heartless.” Elizabeth Bishop’s response to the book’s first version was more thorough:
I’m sure my point is only too plain…Lizzie is not dead, etc.–but there is a “mixture of fact & fiction,” and you have changed her letters. This is “infinite mischief,” I think […] One can use one’s life a [sic] material–one does, anyway–but these letters–aren’t you violating a trust? If you were given permission–If you hadn’t changed them…etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.
Bishop recognizes the danger in Lowell’s project. Although a good number of those who read the then unpublished draft of The Dolphin were disturbed by the book’s formation, they all also thought it was good poetry. Bishop admits this herself earlier in the letter, writing that it is “a great poem (I’ve never used the word ‘great’ before, that I remember).” Bishop’s criticism questions the attitude that writing is an amoral activity. I sometimes go back and forth about the legitimacy of Lowell’s book, but I always find myself siding with Bishop. The pursuit of art has real and inescapable consequences; it’s mere convenience for a writer to think otherwise.
Not all of Lowell’s friends looked down on The Dolphin. Frank Bidart eased Lowell’s anxiety about publishing the poems by stating, “the only thing posterity will not forgive you for is a bad book.” Bidart seems to casually trade Hardwick’s misery for the prospect of good literature. The book is the important thing, not the person who suffers because of it. Hardwick is one extreme of Larkin’s Mrs. Tennyson; Lowell has the luxury of performing his “poetic business” while her own experience is diminished. Is Bidart really saying that no one will remember or care what Lowell has done to Hardwick, so long as he writes a good book?
The idea that a writer should, without question, sacrifice his friends, family, and himself for art is a compelling stupidity, though it is equally silly to think he must sacrifice nothing at all. We are so given over to the privilege of genius that we can blindly forgive most anything it produces. Writers will invade the lives of those nearest to them. As a poet, I know this is unavoidable; I cannot imagine art unfolding in any other way. But I find it too simple to say that my activity as a writer conquers all other obligations, and I think the manner in which I conduct myself as a poet has larger social significance. Whenever we make allowances for a writer’s abuses, whether they are big or small, our reason for doing so is nearly always connected to the quality of their work. Larkin’s poem forces the question: If Tennyson produced some of the best English verse ever written, why should we care about Mrs. Tennyson and her domestic burdens? Should we care about Hardwick?
This is Peter’s final post for Get Behind the Plough.