I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard people being referred to as being “of their time”. It’s usually to excuse something about their lives that today we would find reprehensible or unacceptable. The Me Too movement is just the latest manifestation of our long painful progress towards the concept that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, colour, creed or orientation. And that it’s not alright just to sweep it all under the carpet and leave the burden of getting over it on the victim’s shoulders.
Does it make a difference when we discover that our heroes have feet of clay? When we learn that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress, Nelly Ternan; or that Chaucer is likely to have raped a woman, one Cecilia Chaumpaigne; or that the charismatic John F Kennedy turned out to be a terrible womaniser and numbered Marilyn Monroe among his probable conquests? I don’t know… Perhaps one does look differently at an author’s work when you understand more about the dark side of where it came from. Or can the truth, the art, stand independently from the artist? I am mindful of a couple of quotes from the late, great George Harrison:
I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else.
Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because its the very best of me and the part I give most willingly.
I suppose I’m largely content to go with that and read a book or listen to music on the understanding that I am sharing a vision, a truth, wherever it might have come from. That is valid in itself. If I know or learn something detrimental about the writer, that may or may not cause me to look differently at the work. After all, many of the lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes, our dark times. And I still feel inspired by the words of JFK when he declared in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Whether or not he actually ‘borrowed’ that phrase from his old headmaster or was a less than faithful husband, they are nonetheless stirring words, worth repeating.
And I still think of Charles Dickens as a great Victorian novelist who cared about the social conditions of his day and wrote most movingly about the plight of the poor. If he wasn’t in truth the unblemished family man he’d have you believe, he did on the other hand engage in many philanthropic deeds including setting up a home for “fallen women”. Perhaps I will read the cosy fireside scenes with a somewhat more cynical eye and make a mental nod to the hidden Ms Ternan, but I can still enjoy these marvellous books and wonderful writing.
As to more contemporary transgressions. With each new revelation about the movie industry, I find there are now certain films I can never watch in the same way again, if at all. Fiction or not, I don’t want to be drawn into falling in love with that handsome leading man, or a director who, it turns out, sees sex as a weapon to be wielded. These are more than private indiscretions, this is an abuse of power, a whole rotten system which needs to be called out for what it is. Me too!
So I suppose I’m saying that moral ambiguity does surely make a difference and does force you to encompass a wider picture of what you thought you knew. You might think “How amazing that someone like that could produce something so beautiful” or “No wonder he says that, look what was happening in his life when he wrote it”. Of course all this only highlights how little we really know of another person’s soul, of their motivations – someone like what, exactly? We see everything through the prism of our own experience, understanding and yes, preconceptions. Not to mention what we read in the press or social media.
What about right and wrong, black and white? Yes, there’s that too. If a thing’s wrong then it’s wrong – isn’t it? It’s wrong to kill. Even if it’s in self-defence or to save someone’s life? It’s wrong to steal. Even if it’s to feed your starving family? It’s wrong to lie. Is there anyone who hasn’t bent the truth or concealed it in order to protect the innocent? I suppose what I’m saying is that I always want to know the WHY; the story behind the headline, the circumstances, the mitigating factors, the actual facts and why they are being presented in the way they are.
Here’s a final headline for you to ponder: BODY OF PROSTITUTE FOUND IN ALLEY. I remember being stopped in my tracks by that one. I suddenly found myself feeling angry that some poor woman whose life had been cut short in the most brutal way possible had to suffer the final indignity of that heartless and judgemental headline. I found myself wondering what had happened to her in life to have brought her to the point where she was selling her body to men in a back alley. She could have been someone’s mother or sister or daughter or wife. She was a woman.
The paper could have chosen any of those words to describe her; they could have said ‘female body’. They could have had some consideration for the family who might have had to read about their loved one in such dismissive terms. But no, they went for the sensational. They summed her up in an attention grabbing headline for the sake of selling more papers and making the rest of us feel quite comfortable and safe, because, after all, it hadn’t happened to US, but to one of THEM.