Friday, January 16, 2009

The bigot in the woodpile

I've written before about the difficulty of reconciling an artist's work and politics, and how it's sometimes necessary to draw a veil over some writers' more rabid asides.

For example, here's that old rogue Jorge Luis Borges, describing the return of the Gods in the parable 'Ragnarök':

It all began with a suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the Gods did not know how to talk. Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage.

...which isn't exactly an extract from Der Stürmer, but still, it's not really the sort of thing we like to hear nowadays, is it? There's a number of possible responses to this sort of thing. You can excuse it through context: it's a dream sequence; maybe it was translated badly; it's postmodern irony, stupid. Or you can treat it with polite, strained embarrassment, as if JLB were a glum uncle who's had one too many gins and starts mumbling about the blacks and the poofs and how they ought to bring back flogging.

In any case, within the space of a few lines, Borges offers up a sentence of pure, audacious magnificence:

We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Which is so glorious that it makes everything feel OK again. Doesn't it?

9 comments:

John Self said...

It's not quite Borges, but I've just finished reading John Christopher's 1956 end-of-the-world novel The Death of Grass (shortly to be reissued by Penguin). When a character says, "there's an awful lot of Chinks in China. They'll breed 'em back again in a couple of generations," another character considers him not racist but merely "cynical". Product of its - and his - time, I suppose.

Sniffer said...

"And will pardon Paul Claudel/ Pardons him for writing well"
Tricky one, isn't it? Middlebrow that I am, I'd rather read Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Graham Greene for pleasure than any other authors but how much does one trade off beauty of style and general insight into the human condition against entrenched racism and sexism?
Productions of The Merchant of Venice don't show much sign of going out of fashion anytime soon but neither do examinations of the problems surrounding the play.
Liberal guilt is a terrible thing, eh? Eh?

Annie said...

Hmm, interesting. Feel a bit let down by old Borges though.

I remember one of my friends sniffing that she didn't like the book of Breakfast at Tiffany's (one of my favourites) as much as the film, because the book was racist. I went through it with a fine tooth-comb but I can't see it... Holly Golightly says some racist things but that doesn't make Truman Capote a racist. They did make the character of the Japanese photographer a terrible caricature in the film, though, which wasn't in the book.

John Self said...

"how much does one trade off beauty of style and general insight into the human condition against entrenched racism and sexism?"

One doesn't. Beauty and insight win every time. Eliot was an anti-Semite, Larkin was racist ... but probably so were their contemporaries in my own family.

Agree, Annie - people confusing the narrator with the author drives me nuts every time.

Tim Footman said...

John: The language is racist, the comment merely cynical. Maybe we're more sensitive to language now.

Sniffer: Dickens too. See here.

Annie: I thought Holly's racism was meant to hint at her unsophisticated background. Capote's equation of hicks with bigotry was snobbish, but hardly racist in itself.

John again: the narrator/author thing can be annoying. But when (as with the Borges story) the division is kept deliberately obscure, it's understandable.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

How very seldom one finds oneself captivated by the writing - or any creation - by someone generally accepted as having feet of flesh and blood rather than clay. Personally I'd be uneasy about endorsing the canonisation of anyone who had not been a great sinner in his/her time.

pleite said...

There's some Vasari quote, which I can't find, about having to forgive and even applaud in those with talent what would be severely punished in those without.

Tim Footman said...

Quite agree, Christopher. A novel by Francis of Assissi would be sappy and tedious in the extreme.

Bet it was about Caravaggio, Pleite. He was a grade-a arsehole.

dh said...

I betting old JLB didn't give a toss what modern readers might think.