Home > General Politics > Unpalatable ideas and the study of reading (and listening) habits or, an essay on Larkin, Wagner and Heidegger

Unpalatable ideas and the study of reading (and listening) habits or, an essay on Larkin, Wagner and Heidegger

Yesterday, the Financial Times published a truly great article on the poetry and life of Philip Larkin, by the writer Martin Amis, who has selected the poems for a forthcoming Larkin anthology.

As a personal friend of the poet’s whilst he was still alive, Amis is as good as any to recall the type of person Larkin was, as well as detail what may have been the inspiration for his poetry.

In it, however, Amis cuts to the chase, pointing out that:

Larkin died in 1985. And when the Letters [Anthony Thwaite’s collection of letters, 1992] and the Life [Andrew Motion’s biography, entitled in full A Writer’s Life, 1993] appeared, almost a decade later, I wrote a long piece in his defence. I should say that I too was struck by Larkin’s reflexive, stock-response “racism”, and by his peculiarly tightfisted “misogyny”. But I bore in mind the simple truth that writers’ private lives don’t matter; only the work matters. (My emphasis)

This initially made me regret the way in which I studied Larkin as a college student, then made me think about the difference between a writer’s life, and work, in general.

Firstly, while pulling apart my copy of The Whitsun Weddings, I took the care to try and decipher each and every word employed, the part they played, the images they brought up and the sound they made – but took little time in analysing the words as part of a whole. I tore those words up until the stanzas ceased to be part of a wider entity.

Then it was the way in which my class used the myth of Larkin – stories of the unkind, racist, sexist sour puss – to justify our theses and lazy hermeneutics.

The problem with such textual analysis is not that we were wrong, but that we could never tell if we were right. If we read, for example, “A Study of Reading Habits” do we consider the images they relay to us, or do we simply imagine a pieced together image of the bitter Larkin, as characterised by our feminist lecturers?


Later, with inch-thick specs,

Evil was just my lark:

Me and my cloak and fangs

Had ripping times in the dark.

The women I clubbed with sex!

I broke them up like meringues.

I think Amis might be right; we should try and disengage with what the private lives of writers are like, lest it interferes with correctly judging a piece of work – were such a thing possible, anyway.

And then this reminded me of another issue; the canonisation of writers linked to the very worst in unpalatable ideas: Nazism.

When it is a great piece of music or philosophy, scholars and commentators of all stripes would prefer you to appreciate the substance, not the individual behind it. When an Israeli orchestra wanted to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner, many were insulted and protested. But enough came out saying we must distinguish the person – a known anti-Semite, enjoyed by, among others, Hitler – from the art; and the art should be enjoyed by all regardless.

Indeed Roberto Paternostro, the conductor of the orchestra, was reported as saying: “Wagner’s ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but on the other hand he was a great composer”.

Others have pointed out that there was no explicit anti-Semitism in Wagner’s music, so its being listened to ought to be guilt free. Similarly, many in the world of philosophy, according to the Jewish online magazine Tablet, “recognize the difficulty of considering Martin Heidegger’s oeuvre without acknowledging the genocidal machine of which he was a part, but don’t believe that his Nazi sympathies underlie or undermine all of his works.”

The key word here is “underlie”; because no explicit reference to racism is made in Heidegger’s work, so it is not worth us white washing a great thinker (without Heidegger there would be no Arendt, no Foucault, no Rorty, and no Sartre for sure) and leaving that particular gap in the world of knowledge.

But, drawing this back to Larkin – what of writers where unpalatable sentiment is clearly expressed in the work, and which seem to fit with the writer’s own sentiments (here I purposefully conflate sexism and misogyny with anti-Semitism; a trilogy of rancorous motives)? Is it only above board that we read Heidegger and listen to Wagner today because in it there is no trace of their own personal prejudices? If there were, would we have to forgo them through principle?

Let us take another example, this time from popular culture. Michael Richards is most famous for playing Kramer in the popular American sitcom Seinfeld – indeed this is where he produced his best work. In 2006, while doing a stand-up comedy gig, he racially abused two black men who were near the front row of his audience by saying “”fifty years ago you would be hanging from a tree with a pitch-fork up your ass”. Very little is heard of the actor now, and though he denies being racist, and in spite of his great previous work, he has destroyed his career. In this instance, the separation from his acting and his terrible judgement cannot be made.

There is no simple answer for why we choose to keep (in the world of artistic respectability) some over others; possibly it has to do with the form of art produced, perhaps also it’s the amount of time elapsed since that art first emerged in the world. Whatever, keeping at arms length an artist’s personal life is a good principle to keep hold of, because they themselves are rarely the objects of our desire; but we should question as to why it is we forgive for our viewing/reading/listening pleasure.

  1. Paul S
    August 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Could there not also be a distinction between living artists and dead ones. People could avoid Richards’ work in order not to be rewarding bad behaviour since Richards would benefit from people buying his merchandise or tickets. There is no risk of giving any benefit to Wagner on the other hand, no matter how dispicable he may have been as a person.

    Having said that, Roman Polanski seems to do very well professionally despite being a confessed child rapist. Perhaps it depends on the quality of the works produced.

    • August 29, 2011 at 6:16 pm

      I got to say I think it is the quality – I’ll still watch Chinatown no matter what Polanski does, and Annie Hall no matter what Woody Allen does, but possibly I’ll cut my eye at whatever Richards does next because Seinfeld was the only thing of any worth that he did.

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