“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Earlier this summer, I read a review of a book I thought might be interesting to review here on Choral Ethics. Not specifically about classical music, it tells the story of MANY different artists, musicians, writers, film makers and other types of creatives who do not always behave morally, ethically, or appropriately.
“Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” (by Claire Dederer, Alfred A. Kropf, New York, 2023) was fascinating to me on many levels. I had expected there would be stories of the usual troubled artists, from Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Richard Wagner and others, and there were. The vast majority of the Monsters in this book are male but the author also questions what it means to be a “Female Monster” artist and what that sort of “selfishness” might mean.
The author, Claire Dederer, asks Big Questions: how do we still appreciate and revere geniuses who are troubled and who inflict their “trouble” on others who are innocent, simply because they are geniuses? Do we give them a “free pass” for their (literal) crimes, and not hold them to any accountability because of their special gifts and talents? Is it acceptable to enjoy their body of work, despite their moral flaws? Is this merely a “cancel culture” mindset or possibly virtue signaling? She also asks questions of herself, as a writer, a woman, and a mother, about the possibility of her own “monstering” while pursuing her work.
Male Monsters are described as those who often do despicable things to others and themselves, traits, and behaviors we all can agree on. They are hedonists, using too much alcohol or too many drugs, and engage in acts unmentionable here. They abuse people, whether physically or emotionally, and express beliefs that are indefensible. Womanizing, using a “casting couch,” and other morally repugnant behavior was tolerated in the long ago past, as well as the not-too-distant past, as the price of Genius. All the while they feel entitled, because they believe their talent and art and their creativity absolve them from any repercussions of their troubling behavior. They are true to their art, and by being true ONLY TO THEMSELVES, they feel no guilt for the pain inflict on others. In the past, troubled artists’ stories were not always known by their contemporaries but were learned about after the fact. And explained away as “being the price of talent and genius”. It was a “given” and even expected that true artists would not be held accountable to the same standards as us “regular” people.
Female Monsters are a separate case, since their sins are often related to motherhood (or NOT wanting to be a mother), described by possibly my MOST favorite phrase in the whole book: “the pram in the hallway.” The brilliant, troubled poet, Sylvia Plath, killed herself, but some still consider her a “monster” and selfish by leaving her two young children when her pain became too much to bear. Her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, was not held accountable or criticized for his adultery which contributed to her pain, because “boys will be boys,” a double standard for certain.
With the advent of social media and the rapidity of the news cycle, horrid behavior which was tolerated before is no longer tolerated. The infraction-ers are “outed” by witnesses or “those who know.” Now, at least once a week, some celebrity, major or minor, is discovered to have made some moral transgression and the “court of public opinion” has a go at them. We shake our heads, disappointed when one of Our Heroes is discovered to have feet of clay. These folks lose gigs, respect of their peers, and there is talk of “canceling” them. Most have the good sense to “keep their heads down” for a while, until the hubbub dies down. Some do not, and they are vilified.
Author Claire Dederer has written a thought-provoking book and has me looking at the Choral Ethics Project I began eight years ago in new ways. It’s always good to evolve and to read another person’s views on something I am passionate about. “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” is helping me to do so.
Comments are always welcome, and I hope you will share your views here!