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When bad people do good things

4 June 2017

Recently, I posted some photos from Copenhagen’s Churchill Park on my weekly photo blog. For me, Churchill is the greatest figure of the 20th century, the man who stood up to Hitler at the darkest hour in 1940, when Britain was all alone, with the Continent occupied, America neutral, and Hitler conquering all before him. But then I got an e-mail from a friend in India. For him, Churchill was not a great man. He viewed him as a butcher in the same league as Hitler and Stalin, because of his role in colonial India and in particular the Bengal famine. This is a side of Churchill of which I knew little or nothing until my friend from Chennai made me aware of it. What it does show me is that history is complex. Churchill still is a great man in my eyes but I recognise that not everyone will share my perspective.

In a similar vein, the world of art, entertainment and sports is full of good people and bad people, just like the rest of society. This raises the question (for me, anyway): how to deal with a great performer/creater who is also a bigot, a racist, an extreme right-winger, or similar scum.

Of course, if the artist in question is no good, there is no problem. For example, Mel Gibson is an utterly disgusting character, but since his films are by and large forgettable garbage, it is no sacrifice for me to ignore him.

No, the problematic cases are those people whose work I admire but who have despicable traits or views that are anathema to me. Take the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, for example. His novel Sult (“Hunger”) is one of the great pieces of world literature, and his Nobel Prize in 1920 was thoroughly deserved. But alas, Hamsun was also a Nazi. Not just a Nazi sympathiser but someone who met with senior figures, up to and including Hitler, and who was unrepentent even after the war (he died in 1952). His mastery of the language is such that even his last work, Paa Gjengrodde Stier (“On Overgrown Paths”) from 1949 makes for great literature despite its defense of his repugnant views during the war.

Or take Ernest Hemingway, probably my favourite writer of all. In this excellent article in the Jewish Forward, Mary Dearborn discusses the very dilemma that is the subject of this post. Hemingway was clearly an anti-Semite, as were many Americans in the 1920s or 1930s. As Dearborn notes, however, later Hemingway showed his strong anti-Fascist stance, beginning with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which for many serves as a mitigating circumstance and is certainly in contrast to Hamsun. I conclude as Dearborn does: we should continue reading Hemingway, but we should also not close our eyes to the nasty aspects.

Things become even more complex when I consider Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer. Obviously, given that Wagner died in 1883, I cannot blame him for the rise of Nazism 50 years later. But the connection is still there because of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings and the nature of his music. And so, despite the undeniable merits of his operas and other compositions, I shun Wagner. It is wholly irrational, I know.

So what is the point of this post? Not much except to say that the world is complex and things are rarely black & white. Most of the time, they are a shade of grey.

 

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