[This is an expansion of a brief response I posted yesterday to Tumblr in reply to user macrolit, who, upon being denounced for sharing a quote from Simone de Beauvoir even though she and Jean-Paul Sartre seem to have sexually exploited young women, wondered:
I’ve already mentioned de Beauvoir and Sartre, but what about William Golding, who attempted to rape a 15 year old girl? What about William S. Burroughs, who got drunk and shot his wife? What about J.D. Salinger? I’m sure there are scores of other authors we could cite (and I’d appreciate it if people would chime in with more names we may need to reconsider.)
Do we ignore important works by these authors because of the lives they lived and the things they did? Does the fact that most of these authors are now dead make a difference? Does de Beauvoir’s actions negate her important feminist work The Second Sex? Or should we continue to read them but with mental asterisks in our minds?
My reply is as follows:]
If you throw out the books by people who behaved badly or believed badly, you might not have any books left! As the examples of de Beauvoir and Burroughs show, it’s not even just men, or straight men, or straight white men who are the problem, but simply humanity. Get rid of the straight white men and you’ll still have to deal with Toni Morrison’s rape apologism, Doris Lessing’s homophobia, Anne Sexton’s child abuse, Derek Walcott’s sexual harassment, Oscar Wilde’s pederasty, Charlotte Brontë’s racism, and all the rest of it.
On the other hand, I don’t believe in the death of the author; the author’s life informs the work—who but Burroughs could have written Naked Lunch? Yet Naked Lunch, and all the great works of all the bad people above named, are worthwhile not because they offer moral wisdom—very little great literature, aside from a few obvious exceptions (e.g., Middlemarch), does that—but because they provide irreplaceably intelligent or intricate or intense experiences of the world. And often the work is much bigger, if not much better, than the person who wrote it. I certainly hope mine is!
As Geoffrey Galt Harpham suggests, great works are possibly great because they give testimony from the other side of the moral looking glass:
A decidedly nonliberal response to the problem represented by the scoundrel genius would affirm that greatness is inseparable from certain kinds of reprehensibility. […] Modern, western culture does not revere those who write solely from within the culture, reproducing only narcissistic images of of its best moments or most admirable traits. […] [T]he dominant culture of modernity is eagerly receptive to representations of the transgressive or disavowed impulses it has supposedly overcome. Literature is the site of this return of modernity’s repressed, and one of the common threads running through canonical literature is an invitation to identify with that which has been stigmatized as morally or socially unacceptable.
The philosopher JEH Smith says something similar about contemplating not only novelists and poets but even monstrous historical actors and obviously erroneous thinkers:
I am freed up by Genghis’s historical distance to let him feed my imagination. And it’s my imagination, too, that is fed by Gregory of Nyssa: what I want from him is to gain a sense of the range of possible thoughts human beings can have. If I’m looking for the truth here, it’s a different order of truth than anything that can be found in the content of his claims. It’s a truth about the range of possible beliefs, rather than a particular true belief, that I’m after.
Relatedly, in a very controversial book of bygone days (now nearly forgotten), Dale Peck argues that there is not only no conflict between ideological questioning and aesthetic appreciation of literary works, but that each implies the other:
Lots of great books are built around flawed or at any rate contestable social theories, like Remembrance of Things Past, or Mishima’s novels, and let’s not forget our very own William Faulkner. In fact—and this may merely be a product of my own education in deconstruction and identity politics—I take it as a given that the social theories which inform works of fiction should be contested by the reader, precisely because they are made up; ultimately—and this may be just a product of my education in a more classical formalism—a novel’s true merit (or lack thereof) rests on aesthetic considerations.
Finally, maybe not every element of Wilde’s life will bear scrutiny, but I think he had a point when he wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:
As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for school-boys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurrence of crime.
Bad politics and bad personal behavior may indeed be bad, but from the Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution, public efforts to purify political and moral behavior have often been just as bad if not worse. Another reason to read great books by bad people: as a reminder of what humanity is capable of and a caution against self-righteousness. We could all be bad people and not even know it.