My mother was given to enigmatic pronouncements. "Where can they all be going?" she would puzzle, battling increasingly feral Auckland traffic, oblivious to the fact that she, too, was inexplicably going somewhere. "I like to know what I think," she would declare. That made me laugh when I was young and therefore knew everything and what I thought about it.
Now I spend way too much time wishing I knew what I thought about just about everything in an increasing complicated world. Imagine having the unclouded certainty to think that opening everything up during a global pandemic means sweet liberty. See such headlines from the UK as, "England's 'freedom day' marred by soaring cases and isolation chaos." Nearly 50,000 cases in a day as I write, with Boris Johnson in isolation and, arguably, in chaos.
There are other dilemmas, as old as human frailty. Can you love the art and think the artist is a horrible human being? Virginia Woolf was a fearful snob and, despite being married to her "penniless Jew", Leonard Woolf, wrote in her diary things like, "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh." She also wrote some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read.
There's inevitably an element of subjectivity in decisions about who you won't read again, whose movies you won't watch. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books remain on the shelf despite the fracas over her views on gender. I'll read Roald Dahl to my grandchildren though my experience of his stories is shadowed by - yes, again – the anti-Semitism he expressed in his lifetime.
I don't care if I ever see another Mel Gibson movie. Roman Polanski is harder. His movie The Pianist, based on story of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's survival in the Warsaw Ghetto, recounts my family's history. An extended family member told me that movie allowed her to forgive the demons of a parent who had lost almost everyone in the Holocaust. Polanski saw his mother taken to her death. He escaped the Krakow Ghetto at the age of 7. His father cut the wires of a fence and told him, "Walk, don't run." In 1978 he fled the United States after pleading guilty to the rape of a 13-year-old girl.
So I've had to put some time into finding a rationale for hanging on to the art I love. Otherwise, you might have to judge into oblivion Dickens, Shakespeare, Picasso and any number of flawed, supremely talented fellow human beings. You would also erase the work of great actors who worked on, say, Woody Allen's movies.
Sometimes the problem lies with art and artist. The Wasteland was a revelation when I read it at university at the age of 17. Yet T.S. Eliot wrote, in his poem Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, "On the Rialto once./ The rats are underneath the piles./ The Jew is underneath the lot./ Money in furs." That poem was written in 1920 but was reprinted in a volume of selected poems without change or comment, after the Holocaust in 1948.
Anthony Julius, who defended Deborah Lipstadt when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel, is Jewish and a fan of Eliot's poetry. He wrote a book grappling with the problem of Eliot's anti-Semitism. Julius proposes a way to think about great, sometimes defective, art from less-than-great people. What he calls an "adversarial stance". "One maintains one's relation with the work, but argues with it," he wrote in the Guardian. A lawyerly notion. "It is an alternative to two kinds of silence: the coercive silence of censorship, the passive silence of the submissive reader. It combines resistance with respect."
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He's talking about critical reading, critical watching. It's something that's difficult to learn if you only ever read or watch things you already agree with. You can define yourself through art. You can also define yourself in opposition to it. Maybe that's what I'm doing during my daily interchanges with the newspaper - "Oh, for the love of God!" etc. It helps you find out what you think. Don't submit but engage with resistance.