IN a second-hand bookshop where I used to work, we were once overwhelmed with donations of Bill Cosby's book, Fatherhood. Cosby is on the cover with his goofy sweater, a lazy smile and eyes that were previously seen as mischievous. During the 1980s, The Cosby Show was the most popular programme in South Africa — ironically, the Huxtables were probably the first black family with whom white South Africans socialised in their living rooms. Cheerfully, Cosby's character and his family made jokes, teased each other, and playfully made the world aware of racial stereotypes. Did he drug and rape a woman moments after filming an episode? And why did Dr Huxtable have to be a gynaecologist, of all professions? The shop pulped the books.
“They did or said something awful and made something great," writes Claire Dederer in Monsters, and they are mostly men. How should she feel now about Roman Polanski, she wonders. She finds him a brilliant director, the creator of films such as Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, masterpieces she still watches on repeat, even though she knows Polanski has been found guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl. But Woody Allen's Manhattan makes her “a little urpy". Allen, amid accusations of child molestation, also had a relationship with his 17-year-old stepdaughter, Soon-Yi. Boldly enough, Manhattan is about an older man having a relationship with a 17-year-old high school student.
This is just one of the many ethical and aesthetic dilemmas that Dederer discusses, contradictions that defy logic. All the usual suspects emerge — the accused, the bullies, the sexual predators, racists, violent individuals, the cancelled, and a few other despicable figures. James Franco, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, R Kelly.
The writers Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway each have a chapter. Hemingway was toxic and belligerent, a mean man who belittled fellow writers and women. His books remain in print and are rightfully prescribed by universities. I regularly reread his short stories, but in my copy of The Complete Short Stories I have written the words of his wife, Martha Gellhorn: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being." Lest I forget.
Another writer mentioned — although I doubt it is appropriate — is Vladimir Nabokov and his novel, Lolita. Remember, Nabokov was not a paedophile; he merely wrote about an older man seducing a 12-year-old. Or is the writing process itself his monstrous behaviour? “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." I already feel the urge to mount my moral high horse.
There are female monsters, too. In a chapter titled “Abandoning Mothers", Dederer asks if women who abandon their children are monsters, their great sin being selfishness. “If the male crime is rape, the female crime is the failure to nurture." I and everyone around me choke in dismay. What about all the men who leave their children to pursue their dreams? But whether we like it or not, women are the primary caregivers, and if a woman abandons her children she is judged and accused much more harshly than any man. Doris Lessing, Paula Fox and Joni Mitchell are mentioned as abandoners. In each case, it was a forced choice, mostly for economic reasons. It is difficult to be a self-sustaining, struggling artist or writer and simultaneously care for young children. “Being a mother and being an artist. How to make them work in tandem?"
Now one reads more urgently because the question still lingers. What is the answer, Claire — please tell us. “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?" Because the further you read, the more the dust accumulates.
Scale of monstrosity
Is there a sliding scale of monstrosity, “calculating the badness of the act against the greatness of the work"? Are there mitigating circumstances, such as addiction and past trauma? How long until you can or should forgive? And if the person is still alive, do you withhold financial support as a consumer? If you want to follow the reasoning to its logical conclusion, can you borrow the book from the library or stream the film for free? The mind boggles.
So why not just separate the person and their work? In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, women are urged not to worry about men's scandalous behaviour but to sing a nonsense refrain and forget about it, “converting all your sounds of woe into hey nonny nonny".
We're fed up with nonny nonny. Somewhere, accountability is needed without sacrificing too much. Picasso extinguishes a cigarette on Françoise Gilot's face while calmly painting his next masterpiece. Perhaps this anecdote should be displayed alongside his paintings in museums.
Here is Dederer's reasoning: to consume art and literature is like looking through a window and seeing a reflection of yourself in the glass. You experience an interaction between your own biography, your bêtes noires and blind spots, and the artist, the writer, the actor, the comedian, their biography. An “all-embracing subjectivity". Within this subjectivity, you give yourself the freedom to decide whether the artwork, the performance, the literature, that which was created, is greater than the person who created it. Or, Dederer believes, sometimes you don't even decide; it's an emotional, subjective process that happens by itself.
Then Dederer makes it even more personal. “The real question is: what does it mean to love someone awful?" The person you've kicked out of your life, those you could forgive, and those who continue to live create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.
Mary Karr says the problem is not that someone hits you over the head with a brick. The problem is that you still love that person. And Karr would know, after a bitter flirtation with David Foster Wallace.
So, between Dederer's own thoughts and (sometimes frustrating) memoirs that occasionally deviate into confessions and reflections, philosophy, New Criticism, critical thinking, and a few preachy moments like “look for mirrors of what we are, rather than evidence for how wonderful we've become", one reads her book because we all have our own “unreconciled contradictions" between ethics and aesthetics. That's how life works.
I won't sing nonny nonny any more. I will make it bearable for myself. “The way you consume art doesn't make you a bad person or a good one. You'll find some other way to accomplish that."
♦ VWB ♦
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