A few days ago, I translated a verse by a mighty Indian poet — a sprawling banyan tree of literary consciousness — from his mother tongue to English. It is a sensitive, minor poem that avoids easy sentimentalism or glib endings. Then, I made a critical mistake. I looked up the poet on YouTube. For all of the poet’s literary sensitivities on page, on stage, in the presence of an audience, he metamorphosed into a moralist who took it upon himself to catalogue the failings of society, all the while self-aggrandising his own commitment to literature and higher ideals.
To an extent, among the great crimes of humanity, the harmless vanities of a bureaucrat-poet are minor, almost inconsequential. Yet, it rankled within.
A rogue’s gallery?
For much of my adult reading life I have found myself admiring a book, only to later discover that in his personal lives the author was a moral skunk. There is, of course, a long history of this dichotomy — the yawning gap between luminous words and the wordsmith. Seneca was an obsequious slime ball in Nero’s court who wrote stirring essays about honour and courage. The great Shakespeare, some evidence points, may have been in support of the Inclosure Acts which threw out tenant-farmers from British feudal estates. The greatness of T.S. Eliot is scarred by his anti-semitism. Ezra Pound and Curzio Malaparte became fellow travellers of Mussolini’s fascism. Closer to our times, V.S. Naipaul declared that he became “a great prostitute man” as his wife lay dying. Lawrence Durrell’s daughter topped off the description of her father as an “aggressive and demonic drunkard” with insinuations of incest. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who spoke about human freedoms, enjoyed the friendship of Fidel Castro, who ran an authoritarian gulag state. Pablo Neruda, ever ready to make art out of the artlessness, confessed to raping his Sri Lankan manual scavenger, all the while admiring the “brimming cup of her breasts” during the attack. Despite knowing all this, it has never stopped me from reading, enjoying, and profiting from their works.
In our times, however, unlike any generation before, we are gifted with a sort of radical transparency about the private lives of our favourite authors. Be it either through social media, newspapers, or archival works — we know more of those who produce our culture than any time before. The result is that our knowledge of a work of art comes coloured with the results of extraneous information. What do they sound like, are they liberal or conservative, is she a vainglorious fool or is he merely a garden variety misogynist and so on. An outcome of this is an increasingly schizoid response about what is to be done: Should we suffer through mediocrities because they favour our political dispensation. Or, should those who transgress our norms about gender or religion or nationhood be accommodated despite our distaste on account of their abilities to unsettle and yet instruct. These are the questions that increasingly dominate not just our aesthetics but even our consumption patterns.
The logic of consumption in an age where artists and writers transform themselves into products also forces them to conform, to behave and speak in a certain manner, to ascribe to forms of progressive claims lest the consumer, and therefore the publisher, deem them unmarketable. The upside of this relentless pressure of the markets is evident — more voices now add to the collective noise. But the downside is that these voices are largely similar because they emerge out of the same production chain — born from similar creative writing programmes subject to similar editorial tastes and ultimately package their own authorial self as a conscientious, sensitive liberal, secular and so on. Both the writer and his work become receptacles for low-cost virtue signalling.
Not for everyone
In today’s environs, authors like Norman Mailer, prodigious in his talent but also one who stabbed his wife in a drunken fit, or Nirad Chaudhuri, who wrote euphonic prose that sought to please only Edward Gibbon and more expressly aimed to stir Indians out of their self-satisfied stupor — would be hard-pressed to find a place. This is not because we are more egalitarian today but because art and the artist have fused into a single marketable product. Anticipating this commingling, some like the great Thomas Pynchon or the pseudonymous ‘Elena Ferrante’ have simply chosen to vanish from the public eye. They are content to let only their words speak. The rest knowing very well that the sins of the creator will be foisted upon their creation muddle on, working to craft a public persona superior to their own artistic creations.