Thoughts on the Meaning of 'Monsters'
Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma
Claire Dederer, 2023
I was initially disinclined to read Claire Dederer's recently published book, Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma due to its title and subject matter, i.e., liking the artistic work of writers, artists and musicians widely regarded as ethically despicable. In my view, describing writers and artists such as Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Myles Davis and many others as "monsters" is hyperbolic overreach that does not lead to sound moral judgment or useful self reflection re one's artistic tastes. Consider the list above and compare it to the following list of evil-doers: Pol Pot, Curtis Lemay, Vladimir Putin, Dick Cheney, Ted Bundy, Rodrigo Duterte, Stalin and a whole pantheon of Nazi leaders. If Woody Allen, Hemingway and Picasso are described as monsters, how should the perpetrators of genocide be described? "Super monsters?" In terms of evil doing, Woody Allen is to Stalin as an ant is to a killer whale! It is also not helpful to obfuscate the distinction between ethically bad behavior, e.g., using one's organizational position at the top of a hierarchy or literary fame to "hit" on underlings or aspiring writers (usually women but not always) as occurs in The Morning Show, or as alleged re Sherman Alexie, with the criminal behavior of a Harvey Weinstein. These types of distinctions are rudimentary in law and in common moral discourse, but are not much evident in Dederer's book.
I agree with Dederer that Roman Polanski made some great movies, and I admire some Woody Allen movies, including Manhattan, but not others, but this does not make me uncomfortable (as it does Dederer) because I'm reacting to a movie, not making a moral judgment regarding the movie director's life. Dederer is as capable of making the distinction between an artist's or writer's life and their work as
most readers and critics are; but to do so bothers her emotionally in a way she cannot easily dismiss. Her book is a thoughtful and lively reflection on her feelings and attitudes regarding artists, writers, movie directors and musicians whose moral conduct appalls her, but whose work she loves (at least in some instances). She is uncomfortable because she states "Liberalism wants you to turn your gaze away from the system ( i.e., late stage capitalism ) and focus instead on the importance of your choices." To state this point more plainly, the liberal impulse as described by Dederer is to consign the perpetrators of bad behavior, including objectionable speech, to the netherworld of social oblivion. However, this impulse applies only to some types of bad behavior; it's ok to be fascinated with the personal misuse of fabulous wealth, or accept narcissistic involvement with social media, or tolerate unethical behavior in the service of career advancement. These behaviors invite the limelight rather than the withdrawal of attention.
What Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma is not is a careful and rigorous argument for a particular perspective. Dederer does not feel a need to be consistent, so she can love Polanski's movie, Knife in the Water while graphically describing Polanski's alleged anal rape of a 14 year old, and while disliking Picasso's cruelty toward his lovers so intensely she can hardly look at his pictures in a gallery without wanting to destroy them. Her book might be more accurately titled, "Monsters: My Emotional Struggles with Loving the Work of Artists whose Moral Behavior I Despise." Dederer is not a philosopher who attempts to transcend her limited perspective - nor does she pretend to be - but she does have intensely personal and insightful reactions to art of all types and strong feelings regarding the lives of the creators of art. At one point she has recourse to the formulation "We are all monsters," akin to the Christian belief that "we are all sinners," which is true but unhelpful in making moral distinctions between and among bad deeds and bad actors. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading her book, which stirred my own thinking in a related but slightly different direction: the relationship between art and morality.
Some of the best parts of Dederer's book are her discussions of Manhattan, which some critics believe is Woody Allen's best movie and Nabokov's novel, Lolita, which Steven Marche in Writers and Failure opines is the best short novel of the 20th century. In these discussions and in her brief discussion of Willa Cather's, My Antonia , Dederer zeroes in powerfully on the values embodied in the writer's work, not the writer's life. Nevertheless, Woody Allen's behavior, i.e., "Sleeping with your partner's child - that requires a special type of creep." has clearly influenced her opinion of "Manhattan" in which a middle aged man has an affair with an older teenager. Per Dederer: "I took the fucking of Soon-Yi ( Mia Farrow's daughter) as a terrible betrayal of me personally." She then proceeds to dissect a dinner scene in Manhattan as follows:
"The really astonishing thing about this scene ( the dinner) is its nonchalance. NBD, I'm fucking a high schooler. Sure, ... Isaac knows the relationship can't last, but he seems only casually troubled by its moral implications. Isaac is fucking that high schooler with what my mother would call a hey-nonny-nonny. Allen is fascinated with moral shading, except when it comes to this particular issue -- the issue of middle aged men having sex with teenage girls. ... Isaac makes a few noises about his ambivalence about the relationship: She's seventeen. I'm forty two .. I'm older than her father, can you believe that?" Dederer comments: "One senses Allen performing a type of artistic grooming of the audience, or maybe of himself."
Would Dederer have this morally outraged response to Manhattan if she was not repulsed by Woody Allen's sexual relationship with Mia Farrow's daughter? I doubt it, though she may have disliked the movie because, in her view, it caricatures women. She writes: "In Manhattan, women are allowed to be beautiful objects ... or they're frustrated, impotent, ridiculous - in short caricatures." This is debatable, but it's criticism of a movie, whereas the comments above concern the morality of sexual relationships between a 17 year old and a middle aged man. These comments are not about the movie.
To add an interesting postscript to this story which Dederer fails to mention: Woody Allen, age 62, married Soon- Yi, age 27, in 1997. They have two adopted children and are still together. Does this marriage make Woody Allen's behavior with an adolescent Soon-Yi ok? No, of course not, but it demonstrates the foolish assurance of Dederer's assertion above that a romantic and sexual relationship between a 17 year old and a middle aged man must certainly come to a quick end. Dederer's self righteous anger has clouded her aesthetic judgement in Woody Allen's case.
In contrast, Dederer's superb chapter on Lolita is cool and astute with great insight. She comments:
"We shouldn't punish artists for their subject matter. But we do .. Now more than ever. Could Lolita be published today? I doubt it. The story of a serial predator who grooms a young girl, abducts her, takes her on a cross country trip, rapes he every night and in the mornings too, and prevents her escape at every turn. and we get only his point of view?"
In Dederer's account, Humbert Humbert, the pedophile whose musings Lolita follows, gradually comes to realize that he has destroyed Lolita, in part because he cannot fathom her inner life or fully grasp that she is a person with feelings and a soul. Nabokov has provided an extraordinary portrait of a monster who cannot grasp the personhood of the youth he is raping daily. This is an insight into the monstrosity of all forms of torture, not just child sexual abuse, perpetrated by whomever for whatever reason on whomever.
One of Dederer's best chapters is about the inherent conflict between being a serious writer and raising children. Writers need lots of alone time without worrying about their children, but how is this possible without ignoring the needs of one's children a great deal of the time? The subtitle of this chapter might be, "Can a commitment to being an important writer make one into a monster?" The answer appears to be "yes," which is a bitter pill for Dederer to swallow. Dederer has trouble accepting that male writers with children do not usually have to face this dilemma in the way every woman writer who is a mother must face.
Despite the many virtues of Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma, the book barely scratches the surface of the question which interests me the most: "How does dramatic art improve, impede, or actually harm moral development?" This issue was a concern of Plato in The Republic, and remains an important question today, though it is rarely discussed. All dramatic art embodies values and attitudes and has an implicit perspective which may be more impactful the less it (e.g. bias) is explicit in the story. A few years ago I was rereading John O'Hara's novel, Appointment in Samarra when I came across a description of children in small town Pennsylvania during the early 20th century playing 'Ku Klux Klan', which is presented as fun and charming! Anti-Semitic and/or racist references are present in the works of many great writers, including Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, and in some of Dostoevsky's, Edith's Wharton's and Willa Cather's work, to name a few. These references stain the writer's work, but they do not invalidate everything the writer has done. I have read bad Faulkner novels (there are several) that present The Lost Cause (the Confederacy) as a noble but doomed undertaking. This is sad and pathetic, but it has no effect on the greatness of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.
Perhaps more to the point at the current time, popular art in the US frequently glorifies violence, both violence perpetrated by villains and good guys. I have watched gangster movies my entire life, which would not be true if I was so horrified by violence I couldn't watch it. Popular art which glorifies violence has a tremendous effect on the moral development of children and adults and on prevailing ideas regarding the characteristics of a good society.
The appreciative awareness which makes art possible and important can give attention to just about anything, regardless of how terrible or morally offensive, including the Holocaust, war, mass murder, torture, serial killers and almost any type of offensive moral behavior, within very wide parameters. The artistic treatment of horrible actions surely affects social attitudes toward them. I abhor cruelty in any form I recognize it, yet one of my favorite TV comedies is Veep, which deals in cruelty and humiliation among the US political class in every scene. I have stopped watching Veep occasionally due to its cruel humor, but I frequently come back to it because it's funny. My enjoyment of Veep makes me uneasy in the way Dederer's love of Knife in the Water leaves her uncomfortable. Can love a particular piece of dramatic art (including comedy) make one a worse person? I believe it can.
Stand up comedians live on the tightrope of humor that is edgy and humor that steps over the line, and many comedians fall off the tightrope into social condemnation. Stand up comedians should receive hazard pay for their dangerous work in exploring and cementing social attitudes that makes some groups and subjects acceptable targets of humor, while placing other groups and subjects in a forbidden zone. This is not work for the faint hearted.
It's also true, as Dederer points out, that art can improve us morally by strengthening empathy, respect for diversity and curiosity re the inner life of others, and appreciation of moral complexity. Yet it does all this by temporarily immobilizing the tendency to make moral judgments and to act to change something an audience is witnessing. Appreciative awareness is enhanced when there is no moral duty to act; this is the trade off between art and moral awareness. The appreciative awareness of art affects social attitudes and moral beliefs; there is no avoiding this reality, so the content of what one chooses to watch or listen to is important. However, what precise effect specific movies, TV shows or novels have on oneself or social attitudes is next to impossible to determine, with rare exceptions.
Uncle Tom's Cabin had a widely recognized effect on attitudes toward slavery in mid-19th century America, but for the most part dramatic art reflects and strengthens emerging social values rather than creating or opposing them and is soon forgotten.
-- Dee Wilson