Judging Books But Not Their Authors

Laura Miller has written an insightful post about the problem of appreciating books that have been written by cads, scoundrels, or worse. Literary history has given us plenty of opportunities to come to grips with this problem. Miller mentions Dickens, Naipaul, Eliot, and Pound, but the list, God knows, is much longer than that.

Miller’s post reminded me of something the critic Neil Cross had written years ago, and after a little searching I found it buried in a footnote to Chapter 1 of The Turgikov Correspondence, the potboiler Cross wrote under great duress in the fall of 1992 in order to maintain his tenuous teaching post at Swivens College. His defense of Heidegger was typical of those times. His defense of de Man was as fervent here as it was in his other writings, and it strikes me now as a little shrill. One could accuse him of reductio ad absurdum. And his argument rests upon evaluating theorems, rather than subject matter as inherently ambiguous as fiction. Nonetheless, the chopping action of his logic might serve to clear away a few weeds . . . .

Here’s the bulk of the footnote.

Paul de Man, who eluded received ideas as nimbly as he eluded received offspring, knew all too well how tenuous the connections are between writing and life. For those who cared to read his work, he put the point bluntly: “Considerations of the actual and historical existence of writers are a waste of time from a critical viewpoint. These regressive stage can only reveal an emptiness of which the writer himself is well aware when he begins to write” (Blindness and Insight, p. 35).

And yet it is rare to read an analysis of a text, particularly a so-called literary text, that does not present some statement concerning the author’s life and suggest that it applies to the text. These analyses make the meaning (or, rather, the possible meanings) of the text contingent upon biographical details. But should we judge the truth of a text according to the biography of the author? Does any action on the part of a math professor render his theorems more or less true? His propositions are autonomous; at least, in relation to his life. Their value and validity should be determined in their context: mathematics. Similarly, the propositions of critics (such as de Man) and philosophers (such as Heidegger) should be judged in their proper contexts. Farias’ error begins where his analysis begins: “In studying the genesis of any philosopher’s thought, we can hardly doubt that the setting of his birth and early life will provide an important element” (p. 11). Any philosophy worthy of its name derives from reflection, not reduction. (Of course, as Derrida reminds us in Of Grammatology, we have only texts; the question of examining a “life” per se, rather than simply another text, is specious.)

But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that in evaluating a text, we do consider the events—that is, the morally charged events—of a writer’s life. And let us suppose that we discover, to our alarm, that the author of a text we admire had, during the same hours he had written this text, beaten his wife. Everyone would condemn one of these acts (the beating), but many would also come to condemn the other (the writing), because they would consider it tainted. (Here, a text is identified as act, that is, with its having been written, just as a blow is identified with its having been delivered.) They would denigrate the book because it was written by a wife-beater, just as many today condemn Blindness and Insight because of Le Soir. (Incidentally, do any of de Man’s detractors still enjoy reading Pound?)

And yet if all actions tainted each other so directly, our culture could not have a concept of hypocrisy, for hypocrisy is the committing of one act independently of the committing of another. And the worse the act that is committed, we say, the greater the hypocrite—that is, the more ironic and pronounced is the independence of the two actions. (The patron of the children’s hospital who returns home from a fund-raising gala and beats his child is a greater hypocrite, according to common judgment, than a similar patron who returns home and is merely indifferent to his child.)

Now let us suppose that one action really could taint another. Then, to evaluate a book, we must consider all the morally charged actions (that is, the actions that may be considered good or bad) of the author’s life. If an author’s life is unknown—as is the case with anonymous texts—or little known—as is the case with authors such as Sophocles and Shakespeare—the reader must withhold all judgment. So right away this logic requires that a significant portion, perhaps the majority, of texts never be judged.

Even if an author’s life is known, it is cannot be known well enough for this kind of study. No biographer could honestly claim to have surveyed all the morally charged actions of another person’s life. Even if one could amass this knowledge, it would surely take a monumental effort to sift through it and reach a conclusion every time one read a text, even a text as short as a sonnet, a couplet, or a maxim. In practical terms, this requirement is absurd.

(And, faced with a multiplication of biographical middenheaps, it would be impossible to read anything written by a committee—but that is perhaps already the case.)

Finally, if an otherwise blameless text can be condemned on the basis of its origin, then any otherwise blameless result can be condemned on the same basis. No virtuous act can be praised, because a vicious act may have tainted it.

This logic quickly reaches an aporia and begins to back up like a clogged drain. It requires that a love poem written by a philanderer be condemned because of the philandering–but then it cannot condemn the philandering, because it must suspend all judgment. But if all judgment is suspended, what is wrong with the philandering? And we cannot condemn the philandering, how can we condemn the poem because of the philandering?

But why should we assume that immoral acts irrevocably taint moral ones? Why can’t the love poem taint (imbue) the philandering with its goodness? What drive to censure underlies this insistence that an immoral blot cannot be cleansed? Suppose this progress of contamination and decay paused, changed, and reversed direction?

This confusion vanishes if one simply separates the life of the text from (the text of) the life of the author. Recognizing that actions can be judged separately allows one to praise fund-raising for hospitals, condemn wife-beating, and enjoy War and Peace without worrying about Tolstoy raping his serfs.

Note bene: To recognize the autonomy of a text is not to posit its immunity. Any philosophical text that promotes evil and oppression should be thoroughly condemned. But the text itself must be found to bear this taint. It is illogical, inconsistent, and immoral to suggest that text of a philosopher is baleful simply because its author taught at a German university under the Nazis, while the texts of math professors and physicists, who taught at the same place under the same conditions, remain aseptically valid.
Another kind of biographical confusion frequently appears in discussions of novels. This is the confusion of cause and effect, the search for a biographical cause for an artistic effect. A simple example should suffice; later, this book will provide one.

Clearly a text from the time of the culture wars. You can fairly hear the shouting in the trenches of the untenured. Or am I succumbing to the biographical impulse?

Ultimately, I agree with Miller: authors, like all people, are a mix of good and bad, and so are their books. Cherish the good things, shun the bad, learn from it all, and avoid idolatry.

(But I can imagine Neil Cross quibbling with each of these terms.)