Yup, it’s brain-hurting to enjoy the art while allowing oneself to admit the artist’s sometimes serious faults and flaws. Beethoven was pretty much a jerk, or so I’m told. Einstein was so rude and unkind to his wife. Tolkien, alas, was a classic Anglo racist (yikes, all those “swarthy” Orcs and sinister, evil, exotic Southrons!). I mean, the list is endless. Margaret Sanger was into eugenics. It’s so embarrassing when you see those big ugly feet of clay.
But it’s also a teachable moment, a useful reminder that we all wear blinkers of one kind or another, no matter how smart or gifted we (or others) think we are. We’re all trapped in our own inner narrative, overlooking someone, ignorant of someone else’s experience; we’re (most of us) taking for granted some privilege or good fortune that we should be more aware of. We’re all imperfectly engaged with the world, incompletely compassionate, only fractionally aware, making a lot of unwarranted assumptions. I agree with this writer that the point is not being perfect (which is more or less the opposite of human) but whether we’re trying to be more engaged/compassionate/aware, or just complacently parking in our comfort zone.
True confession: I still love to read Kim, a lifelong comfort book. But I read it with a split consciousness, revelling in the lovely prose yet aware of Kipling’s era and context (and arrogance!) and pretty gross deficiencies of empathy and understanding. It’s not quite a “guilty pleasure” — I don’t feel that I really should get rid of my treasured, much-thumbed copy and never let old Rudyard anywhere near my ideologically sound bookshelves again. But I wouldn’t get judgmental towards any person less Anglo/Euro than myself who felt exactly that way, needed to get the taint of that smug C19 Anglo racism out of their house and out of their world. I could see that point of view.
Despite my radical feminism I read authors who are sexist. I read authors who are homophobic, and I get irritated with them when their homophobia shows. I think “how dated,” “how sad,” “what an embarrassing flaw in an otherwise great story.” Like finding some really bad typos in a bound book: too bad, these are distracting flaws in the work, they interrupt my immersion and make me feel antagonistic to and disappointed in the author.
But all texts have authors, and all authors are imperfect. Some texts are overtly hateful and inciteful to hate, that being their primary purpose — and those I have no time for; I can’t read them, they make me feel sick. Those that show the limitations of their author’s perception and compassion, texts from an historical context that would have made the author truly extraordinary (and probably unpublishable) had he/she the consciousness we strive towards today, yet were not written in a spirit of hatemongering… those I can come to terms with and accept, as we might accept a cranky old relative: with exasperated affection, conditional trust, and occasional moments of “argh, how can you say that, you’re an embarrassment to the family.”