Malice and Co.

Malice and Co. (The Nobel and the Noble)

            When my wife and I were living back on the West Coast we knew a retired teacher who not only had the grace to read my first short fiction collection but also the generosity to extoll my ‘genius’ in an hours-long conversation afterward. During this too-pleasant evening he told us of an encounter with one of his youthful students. Then twelve, she had become attached to him in the classroom, and what do you know, the first day of summer had brought her newly minted teen self to his front door, unannounced but promptly revealing every intent to intimately engage with him. To his credit, he gently ran her off, never to return. But indeed, such a moment must force every man to ask of himself a challenging question, ‘what would I have done in his place?’. Writ small, this is the same question that history poses to each of us, man or woman or other, and the usual contents are ‘would I have worked in a death camp or been one of its victims or, in turn, done nothing at all?’. As an ethicist, in fact I cannot say what I would have done. Like an ominous version of the contextual jest, one would have ‘had to have been there’ to really get it.

            I doubt very much many of us could know, given the hypotheticals of alternate biographies and all that such might imply. Certainly, as a young professor, I had a conga line of young women at my door – brazenly so since all of them were of legal age or older – and while I was still single, I acted upon many such calls. But twelve or thirteen seems a different matter. So, when it was revealed that Alice Munro’s daughter had been molested by her second husband at all of nine years old, with him claiming it was merely a scene out of Lolita after all, I cringed. No, the character in Nabokov was twelve, not nine, and there is a world of difference at that age. Lolita also had already been placed in a criminal circumstance by Humbert, and the reader is left with both having to trust his account of things thenceforth as well as presume that the young woman was hoping to ease her predicament; ‘well, at least he won’t kill me if I have regular sex with him’. And while it is highly unlikely that any nine-year-old would be the initiator of such circumstance, at twelve or thirteen, it might be a different story. As indeed it should be, barring intimacy. I say this because by adolescence a child needs to have that sense that she is becoming her own person. In many families with whom I have consulted, there was an ‘Electraic’ tension between mother and daughter, beginning around that age: ‘She mocks me, hates me even, is jealous of my looks and freedom and thinks dad admires me and not her. Maybe he does. She attempts to control me, and yet she still gets to sleep with him. I know how to fuck her over big time, just watch me’, and so on. Of course, the father is still culpable if he enables such desires, but the desires themselves are perfectly understandable and, as an assertion of nascent selfhood, even laudable.

            But not at nine. This fellow, who served no jail time, was clearly a villain, but such proved as well to be the case for the Nobel novelist. It is this latter fact which is causing conniptions in so-called cultural circles, but once again, there is much evidence to vouchsafe the authenticity of Munro’s feelings. Upon divorce, the child who remains from this now moribund union is often subjected to resentment, even hatred. She is a reminder of a bond now sundered, the once gift of love become the spawn of bitterness. Munro’s daughter was abused twice over, first by her step-father and then by her mother, who wholly bought into the Lolita idea. This kind of thing is no odd slap in the face, also not to be countenanced of course, but rather constitutes an outright betrayal. But does any of this impinge upon Munro’s creative works, and if so, how so?

            Somewhat akin to the proverbial death camp question, such a relationship ambiguates established legacies. One thing I do know is that its not a problem for me. I always disdained Munro’s work; nostalgic navel-gazing from gloom and doom baby-boom. But intriguingly, and perhaps ironically, the discovery that the author herself was a villain with real feelings and conflict in her existence, which it appears she tried to suppress for decades, might well make her work the more interesting. It would have to be something big to do so, at least for myself as a fiction writer and a scholar in aesthetics. Yet culture history is replete with villains, many of such standing as to make Munro, Woody Allen and like company look themselves like nine-year-olds. The most important case must be that of Richard Wagner, whose towering genius is often seen as tainted by his vehement political anti-Semitism. It could be argued that Wagner himself had a role, however cameo, in the murder of twelve millions in the camps and sixty elsewhere around the globe. ‘Go big’ must have been his mantra, given the Ring cycle and many other grand artistic works. But even here, his personal sensibilities, presumably reflected or at least refracted in his creations, we are left with ambiguity. His call to his Jewish musicians to ‘lose their Jewishness’ since otherwise they were ‘the perfect human beings’ might be interpreted as simply a reminder that ethnicity of any sort is both window-dressing and crutch, and decoys the noble soul away from his authenticity as a superior human being. If that was the case, I would wholly agree.

            Other famous cases of the handwringing at history remain at our newly gnarled fingertips. Heidegger, also no fan of ‘The Jews’, nevertheless saved both his mentor and his lover, both Jewish, from the Nazi onslaught, suggesting that it was not ethnicity itself that he disdained but rather simple inferiority. Husserl, being one of the great modern philosophers and the founder of phenomenology as a serious discourse, as well as Hannah Arendt, who went on to become arguably the most important female thinker of the twentieth century, were certainly neither of them inferior in any way. Richard Strauss was pushed out of his job as the Reich’s Art Director because he defended working with Jewish writers and musicians. Uh, yeah, Wagner, Heidegger, Strauss. Who is Alice Munro again?

            But aside from the wider historical context and career of what has to be by now a cliché – ‘I found out my hero was a villain, woe is me!’ – we must, as with the problem of history in general, turn the critical lens upon ourselves. That there exist people who might well wish me dead simply tells me I have lived my own life, and without reserve. One owns one’s own iniquities, and I am fortunate, equally simply, that my list contains nothing overly villainous, such as molesting children or, for that matter, running a death camp. But facts and fancies are ill-matched, and just as Nietzsche slyly reminded us that pride ultimately triumphs over memory, the critic’s own desires might well be able to vanquish history itself. For instance, I have been referred to as a child pornographer, and by someone I grew up with no less. Given the commonplace and wholly fictional idea that an author must always be culling from his own personal experience, I had to blink at the implications of such an outrageous charge. Disgusted by Lolita and Romeo and Juliet alike, for my first published fictional work, I wrote something more inspiring and in fact, more real to life, if not actually my life. To my mind, this is what a good fiction author does. They don’t just look, as one of Munro’s peers has done, at Heinlein’s If this goes on…, or yet The Odyssey, and say, ‘well, how about telling the same story but from a female perspective?’. Uh, how about it? No, rather they take up a famous trope and completely redo it, from the inside out, making it once again our own, instead of the piece of comforting nostalgia it has over the centuries become. This, by the way, was the entire intent of Queen of Hearts. Both Camelot and Calvary are now once again authentically our own stories, and not those of our distant, and dreary, ancestors.

            For distant and dreary are, at last, perhaps the two things that link Munro’s personal villainy and her cultural works. In both sets of narratives there is much suppression, much decoy behavior. That she knew these very human errors personally, and not simply by way of a creative imagination, both makes her writings more real and at once less artistic. Since never the twain completely meet, each of us must then decide for herself whether we prefer art, or rather life.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of sixty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health, social theory and other areas, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.