I love the once admired and then reviled people. They reveal so much about the human condition and the burden of hope that we all place in them to eleI love the once admired and then reviled people. They reveal so much about the human condition and the burden of hope that we all place in them to elevate us out of the meanest locales of spirit that our humanity dwells. Phillip Larkin is one great example, a self depreciating to the point of self-loathing, English poet who was a towering giant in the years following the Second World War. Even years later following his death in 1979 he appeared high on the list of important post modern literary figures. Then something happened in 1992 that exposed all the unseemly warts that covered his body.
Publication of the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, revealed to the world a bigoted, racist, misogynist and fascist sympathizer of the ultra right and a reader of (Gasp) pornography, apparently he had two sizeable collections. There was one at his home and another secreted away in a cupboard at his office. Easy enough to understand, one never knows when you will be gripped by the urge to masturbate.
The literary glitterati descended on Larkin’s corpse tearing shreds of decomposing flesh off his body like mad little popinjays thinking themselves vultures. Larkin once quipped that “fat hung off him like a Roman toga.” There was plenty of meat to go around.
Overnight Phillip Larkin had fallen from the de facto position of Poet Laureate to that “little Englander porn fiend,’’ reports Giles Harvey in Harper’s (Harpers, Feb 2012). Oh how incensed the literate became. The University of London’s Lisa Jardine wrote that defending Larkin was indefensible. Given that her gender qualifies her in Larkin’s mind as a “stupid being” one can understand her ire.
Yet, was there not some clue to his inner nature that those who previously loved him so had ignored until it could no longer be ignored? One can generally overlook minor bigotries in another person until we catch them using the “N” word or some other cruel vulgarity. And don’t we all have to watch out for the demon of intolerance that lurks about within us? My grandfather recoiled at the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII as not just un-American, but anti-human. But, he would not shop at places he termed “Jew joints.” Contradictions exist within us all. They aren’t nearly as easily hidden as we pretend. Generally, we excuse or ignore until we no longer can.
My grandfather’s anti-Semitism has always bothered me. Yet, I still love and adore the man even decades after his death. He was a flawed being within whom currents of light and darkness swirled about, just as they do in me. His flaws don’t render his good qualities moot. In fact, the darkness makes the light more miraculous. It is never the good we do from our light that matters. It’s the good we do despite our darkness that really shines forth and counts.
That’s the problem with the culture of celebrity. When our heroes are revealed to be human, all too human, we feel betrayed. We feel like fools for loving and even championing such not very nice people. When the letters of Mother Teresa were published posthumously many felt outraged over her confessions of fear and doubt. Perhaps, the sycophants of Teresa never considered that even the saints were once human and that doubt is a key ingredient of faith. Perhaps, they were just shocked at having a mirror held up reflecting their own faces back at them. What hope can we cling to when our heroes are found to be wanting just as we are?
Does the ugly truth about Philip Larkin cancel out the goodness, beauty or truth of his art? Bryan Appleyard writing in the London Times thinks so. “Why is the provincial grotesque now so adored, so edited, so biographied and generally elevated to the highest ranks of English lit (Harpers, February 2012)?”
Giles Harvey points out both the problem and the hypocrisy of the outrage over Philip Larkin (Harper’s. Feb 2012). The indignation came fairly enough over the realization that the person who was thought to best exemplify English virtues and attitudes turned out to be an ugly toad. But, liberal values and aesthetics are two very different things. Ezra Pound was himself a fascist sympathizer. Yet, this fussy and peculiar man – a supporter of Mussolini - had poetic insight worthy of consideration.
If art is rendered void of beauty and merit because the artist is acknowledged, as Larkin was in a 2008 London Times list of important literary figures, “He was, it is now generally agreed, not a very nice man” (Harper’s, Feb 2012) then many in the world of art and literature will be immediately disqualified. Jackson Pollack was a raging drunk and a wife beater.
Alcoholism is a relatively minor offense when it comes to personality defects among the great artists and writers of history. So is bigotry even though it offends the sensibilities of today’s liberal and progressive establishments (as it does me). I find it interesting that in every art history class I took where Pollack’s work was discussed its aesthetic value was never thought to be diminished because he was violent towards women – a heinous crime in my opinion I might add. Nowhere in my limited reading of Phillip Larkin have I found him to be excused for any violence. But, I don’t know that to be fact.
Even a quarter of a century after the unpleasant truth of Larkin’s inner life was revealed, his work still suffers from the all or nothing thinking of many intellectuals, who themselves aren’t giants of virtues. Fortunately, time does grant the patient a little glimmer of perspective. And it is the tendency of our all or nothing thinking that trips us up here.
There is no justification for the racism and misogyny expressed by Philip Larkin. Yet, none of that made it into his poetry and fiction. His work is free to stand on its aesthetic values. It is this inner darkness of Larkin’s that perhaps provided the motivation for his art. It is often those weighted down and tortured by their own flaws that gift humanity with great works of beauty and truth. It is the ugliness within us that motivates us to create beauty. These flawed men and women often have the most to say to us about our human condition.
Out of the darkness shines a light that will lead us to the heights… I do want to be clear that the ability and even the necessity to separate aesthetics from the character of Phillip Larkin doesn’t exempt him from criticism. None of us are or ever should be. There is plenty to morally object to and Lisa Jardine and Bryan Appleyard have good cause to raise dissenting voices. I believe they should.
I too have raised an outraged voice over the likes of Roman Polanski. I boycott his films and will continue to do so. However, I recognize him to be a talented filmmaker. My boycott is due to what I believe is a legitimate response that the demands of justice have not been met. If such time should occur that he finally is convicted of his crimes and sits in a prison cell where he belongs I will have no problem watching any of his films. I respond this way because it is the only salve for my outrage. Justice has been blinded in this case by the French and international diplomacy. I feel powerless to do little else.
The tendency that we must fight is our proclivity toward ad hominem attack in the face of our outrage. To the best of my knowledge Phillip Larkin is not guilty of any crime. The tendency of both polemicist and apologist alike is to tie character so intimately to a person’s actions that it distorts the truth of the person’s character.
Yes, character plays a role in a person’s actions. But, the question that is often missed during ad hominem attacks is what motivates a person to think or behave in such ways. A deeper question to be asked is given what we know about Larkin how could such writing emerge? If Larkin’s personal thoughts and beliefs were more respectable by English standards would he have still produced the work he did?
Ode to Larkin From The Kenneth Williams Diaries
Monday, 2 December, 1985 Philip Larkin is dead. Surely the whole world must end now that this fine man has left it? I scribbled a quick poem in my notebook when I heard, although if anyone should ever read it I would squeal and die. Alright then, here it is. "Philip Larkin / I've thought about parking / My penis in your gob / Oh Mr. Larkin / The dog's are barking / Won't you suck my nob?" I call it O'd To Larkin. Of course, I would never have asked him when he was alive - he might have said yes, and the man was a rapist and a wife-beater. ...more