Friday, 17 October 2014

Bad Taste

There's a facebook trendy-whatsit at the moment which asks people to list ten books which have had a profound influence on them. The rejoinder is to “not think too much about it”, and the unstated claim here is I think that 'overthinking' such a list would be potentially dishonest. Books, like music, are very easily thought of as spiritual, cultural and political indicators of some sort. If I list a Stephen King novel, that sends out a very different message from listing Proust, for example. So far, no one has nominated me to make my list. If they did, I can honestly say that I would find it very difficult to live up to the “not think too much about it” requirement: I read a lot, I think quite a lot about how my tastes have changed over time, and I tend to reflect critically on books that I have enjoyed. All this thinking I already do – and I am almost certainly guilty of 'overthinking' at least sometimes, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing always – means that I would find it pretty much impossible to spontaneously make a list of ten such books.

One aspect of my over-thinking concerns the ethics of taste: is it wrong to express admiration for books written by authors who say or do terrible things? There's a more general issue here which concerns all forms of art, which was recently raised in another facebook post which I commented on a few weeks ago. There was an article about James Brown, which talked about the fairly awful abuse he dealt out to various women in his life. One commentator wrote that this fact actually made it really hard for her to enjoy his music. This comment prompted me to reply with a list of 'dodgy' creative people, all of whom have either said or done terrible things, but have produced books / movies / art which I considered really valuable in some way. I said that if I let my moral sensitivities 'prohibit' me from enjoying the works of these dodgy artists, my life would a lot poorer. The examples I listed – just off the top of my head, without thinking too much (!) - were: Henry Miller, Roman Polanski, Ferdinand Celine and Martin Heidegger. I pointed out Celine's novel 'Journey to the Centre of the Night' as one of my favourite novels of all time, even though Celine was openly anti semitic and had fascist sympathies. Needless to say, no one responded to my comment, and it is still dangling there completely neglected in facebookland, where no one seems to want to actually engage in interesting debates or discussions.

I really wish someone had replied to my provocative comment, because I don't think the issue is a simple one which can be easily dismissed by listing examples and denying the rights of our moral or ethical scruples to have any influence over our judgements of taste. So I think it is perfectly valid and justified for people to highlight and discuss James Brown's sexism, and it isn't really tenable to draw a neat and unproblematic dividing line between James Brown as person, and James Brown as an artist. Likewise with the baddies I have mentioned, I think it is totally valid for people to reflect about the relationship between the badness of the people and the nature of their creative output, and our own engagement with those works.

Volumes upon volumes of philosophical books have been written on and around this subject, and I'm not going to go too far into the heavy territory in this blog. Instead, I am going to try and write a list of ten “bad taste” books which have influenced me significantly, by authors who are dodgy in some way. I am going to confess in advance that I have thought quite long and hard about this list. At the same time, I am being as honest as I can – all these books have had a deep impact on me at some stage of my life. Not all of them I would want to read again, and the stage of my life when I read these books is another significant variable. For each book there is an interesting link between the 'badness' of the author and the nature of the book itself.

  1. The Lord of the Rings – J R R Tolkien
  2. Being and Time – Martin Heidegger
  3. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
  4. Journey to the end of the Night – Ferdinand Celine
  5. Beyond Good and Evil – Freiderich Nietzsche
  6. 120 Days of Sodom – Marquis de Sade
  7. Moravigine – Blaise Cendrars
  8. Cthulhu mythos stories – H P Lovecraft
  9. Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe
  10. The Sailor who fell from grace with the sea – Yukio Mishima

A few comments: 120 Days is fairly clearly the baddest baddie on the list. From what I know about de Sade, he has written more valuable books, and 120 days is a standout more because it is a reflection of his sickness, and the most 'extremely evil' thing he wrote. I haven't read Justine or any of his other books, and I read 120 Days only because I was curious about this kind of extremity. I found about 80% of it repulsive and almost impossible to read. It had a powerful impact on me, but I don't think it is good in any sense of the word. At a certain stage of my life, I thought it was really important to seek out for the most disturbing extremes in books and art. I'm not in that stage of life anymore, and although I don't regret this sort of activity, I don't think I am going to be reading De Sade again anytime soon.

The “least baddest baddies” on the list are Tolkien and Gene Wolfe. They are only 'bad' because they have conservative christian views which I don't agree with. I think that for me, there is a much more interesting discussion to be had here. I really love fantasy as a genre, but at the same time I have almost always experienced a keen sense of disappointment with books like LOTR. This disappointment happens after I finish reading, and reflect on the content. I think that this has a lot to do with the difference in political outlook I have with these authors. I'm fascinated by the fact that I have enjoyed reading them so much, while at the same time experience a sense of extreme ideological distance.

Henry Miller is potentially the most embarrassing entry on my list. He's not only sexist in a really quite serious and problematic fashion, he is also quite frequently a really bad writer. The gigantic Sexus – Nexus – Plexus trilogy is about 70 or 80% turgid and repetitive crap. The biggest issue is his ego: it is so big that it pretty much dominates over almost every other sentence. One of my favourite quotes is from Ferdinand Celine's letter to Henry Miller regarding his book 'Tropic of Cancer': “Learn how to be wrong. The world is full of people who are Right, that is what makes it so nauseating”. Having said all that I remain guilty of greatly enjoying this book. I can't be bothered making any excuses.

Nietzsche is on my list because of his 'aristocratic radicalism'. I read Nietzsche in my early twenties, and at some stage I do want to re read his books and test out my reactions. I'm not sure that I would endure the intense romantic / isolated genius aesthetic as well as I did in my early twenties. Still, when he aims for those poetic heights so strenuously, I think he gets there at least some of the time. During a period of fairly severe depression I used to repeat this gnostic Nietzsche quote to myself : “The night is also a sun”.

Heidegger is on my list because he was a Nazi. Also, his philosophy has a whole raft of dubious and murky elements. He manages however to be a quite profound bastard.

Celine is guilty of anti semitism. I haven't read enough about this to understand this issue properly. I don't really understand anti semitism very well, because it is a foreign kind of racism. Although I hate racism, I think I understand the nature of racism better in a NZ context. I can fairly easily imagine the workings and emotions behind outpourings against “those bloody Maoris”, but I don't really 'get' anti semitism in the same way. What I do 'get' about Celine is his misanthropy. I think in his later books he sort of gives in to this completely, and the books lose their humour and value for me. It's interesting that someone as optimistic as Trotsky actually reviewed Journey quite positively. I'm sure Celine would probably hate Trotsky, but if it were possible to ressurect the dead and listen to their conversations, I would pay big money to listen to a debate between Trotsky and Celine.

Blaise Cendrars is a fairly marginal writer from what I know about him. He is really only 'bad' because he dismisses revolutionary thought, so I disagree with his politics. I read Moravagine and was blown away by the nihilistic insanity of it – it is a sort of sci fi / quasi psychedelic critique of revolutionary movements. It begins with a sect of russian anarchists in the late 19th century blowing things up, and somehow ends up with the characters landing in mars. I tried reading some of Cendrar's other books but I wasn't all that impressed. I'm a big fan of the idea of revolutionary movements, so of course I want to read books which intelligently and creatively examine this idea.

Lovecraft is a baddie because he was racist. It was a quite thorough-going kind of racism too: he wasn't just horrified by the barbaric and pagan activities of black people everywhere, he was also quite seriously freaked out by Irish and Italian immigrants in New York city. This is an interesting example I think because there's a convincing argument that the fear he experienced – to do with the radical 'otherness' of blacks and immigrants etc – actually was a necessary ingredient in his horror stories. So maybe without his idiotic prejudices, we would not have the likes of Mountains of madness and so on. This is the opposite of the Celine example: the anti semitism doesn't surface in Journey to the end of the Night. When he does write horrible anti semitic things (eg his contemptuous remarks about Anne Frank in North) these seriously impede me being able to appreciate his writing. But it looks like the xenophobia of Lovecraft is actually what makes his horror writing possible.

Mishima is a good example of an author I greatly admire, who also makes me feel very uncomfortable. He was a politically reactionary in a way I don't really understand because I don't know enough about the cultural situation in post war Japan. So while I can appreciate that his pro emperor views were objectionable, like with the anti semitism example I discussed above, I don't really have an intuitive sense of why he held these sorts of views. It's been a while since I read any of his books, but I'm reasonably confident that The sailor who fell from grace with the sea was my favourite. There was also a short story he wrote in which the main character commits seppuku – he is an incredibly driven idealistic young man who trains in martial arts. When he realises that his friends don't share his intensity and commitment, he commits ritual suicide – almost as an act of spite as I remember the story. The obvious parallels with Mishima himself were striking, and deeply disturbing for me.

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