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Neo-Donatists in Eden

Ed Simon on what to think of immoral artists

Edmund Spenser knew how to turn a phrase. His vision, exemplified by his epic The Faerie Queene, remains in some way unsurpassed. Though it is a dense, maximalist, incomplete poem of seven books and thousands upon thousands of lines, a complex religious allegory with a massive cast of characters, Spenser could deftly craft quivering lines of exquisite, whispered beauty, for “Calm was the day, and through the trembling air/Sweet-breathing Zephyrus did softly play –/A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay/Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair,” as he wrote in 1596’s “Prothalamion.” One might assume that Spenser’s observation in The Faerie Queene that the “noblest mind the best contentment has,” is true of its author, for as he celebrates his own genius in “Prothalamion,” his is a verse where commands: “Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.”

Spenser’s poetry is influential and important, and as is always more crucial, Spenser’s poetry is sublime and sweet. He is able to march feet into iambic rhythm like a poetic general, able to allude to the honey-scented winds of Zephyr blowing from the west or the cool, clear waters of Parnassus, but for all of the immaculate lines he strung together there is also his 1596 pamphlet, A View of the Present State of Ireland. In that piece, he argued that that colonized nation was a “diseased portion of the State, it must first be cured and reformed,” which he recommended through the scorched-earth eradication of Irish culture and people, the elimination of Gaelic, and the forced conversion of the natives. To argue that such a proposal is anything other than a form of ethnic cleansing would be revisionism, an attempt to ameliorate Spenser’s guilt. Spenser’s relationship to genocidal policy was more than just theoretical. He was present at Smerwick in 1580, where a surrendering garrison of Irish, Italian, and Spanish soldiers were massacred, and for his role, Spenser was “gifted” plantations at both Munster and Kilcolman. Spenser, engaged authoritarian logic, deployed from Wounded Knee to Wannsee in the language of Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum. He conceived of an Ireland where “in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast.”  How do we approach a man like Spenser, a poem like The Faerie Queene? How as scholars, as teachers, as students, and most importantly as readers, can we reconcile the reality of the poet to the reality of the poem?

He’s not the only writer with a darkened biography, especially in his own era. Consider Spenser’s fellow veteran in the Irish campaigns of the Nine Years War, the ever romanticized Sir Walter Raleigh. The celebrated explorer, in addition to being a privateer, was also a poet of tremendous talent, whom the undersung modern critic Yvor Winters rightly championed as an exemplar of the anti-Petrarchan plain-style, a versifier who wrote:

If all the world and love were young, And truth in every shepherd’s tongue, These pretty pleasures might me move To live with thee and be thy Love.

A poet of pastoral bounty no doubt, but also one who was at that very same siege in Smerwick that Spenser took part in, and was in fact the officer who oversaw the beheading of those 600 soldiers turning that green Irish field a burgundy red. He was a man who could poignantly write in his own epitaph before execution in the Tower of London in 1618, that “Our youth, our joys, are all we have,” and yet who was also responsible for the very beginnings of the English’s genocidal policy towards the Indians, whose advocacy was directly responsible for the institution of the Atlantic Triangle Trade in slaves, and who in importing tobacco to Europe was a potent trader in a deadly narcotic. Raleigh was a gorgeous poet, but today he’d be seen as a combination of Pablo Escobar and Lt. William Calley Jr.; in our time his biography would certainly sully the picturesque scenes of his lovely poems.

For those who (often rightly) see something problematic in literature produced by those who range from disagreeable to outright monstrous, Renaissance literature presents a special problem. For who among that canon is remotely laudable? Even Shakespeare, that soul of his age, that master of what it means to be human, has a whole host of disreputable anecdotes about him which would unequivocally be understood as assault today, and as a rather wealthy shareholder in the King’s Men, Shakespeare was also an investor in the colonial efforts of the Virginia Company. So the author of the anti-colonial The Tempest directly profited off of the Calibans oppressed by men like Raleigh. What emerges is a network of complicity, whereby those visionary lights of an era, the creative poets and playwrights and scholars, men like Spenser and Raleigh and Shakespeare, were to varying degree deeply involved with the authoritarianism of the state and were frequently reprehensible themselves even while sometimes producing works of exquisite beauty, meaning, and power. Which is to say that it was a period absolutely like any other. If we remember only the virtues and forget the vices of those distant poets, it’s only because their remove from our own age has blurred their edges and blunted injustice. For those who fret that perseverating on the cruelties of geniuses does them a disservice there is a certain understandable logic.

But there is something common, and thus dangerously commonplace, in  denying the crimes committed by those who have moved us.  We must grapple with the beautiful fruit of art grown from malignant trees. The crux of the issue is a very human dilemma. We must not reduce a profound discussion into simple binaries, nor must we abdicate responsibility in a necessary conversation engaging complex, unsettling, and important questions at the nexus of ethics and aesthetics.

Pundits have long critiqued Humanities departments, in particular English departments, for an obsession with questions of “political correctness,” with reducing literature to partisan issues of race, class, and gender. It barely warrants repeating the tired particulars, save to note that it’s the sort of argument that sometimes bubbles up to the surface, and it seems we’re at such a moment right now, albeit with popular culture. No doubt you’re familiar with the terms of the debate, that English professors in their obsession with political correctness have enlisted the baroque jargon of “Theory” to hammer into the heads of their impressionable students that Shakespeare was a sexist (well, he was), that Tolstoy was a racist (also true), and that T.S. Eliot was an antisemite (goes without saying). In this narrative, Theory-inflected scholars have torn down the edifice of Beauty and Truth, which previously bolstered the canon, in favor of hairsplitting over context. But these quibbles are not the real questions. The truly interesting question is how do we hold the tension between the realities that ugly minds could also produce works of truth and beauty? Mine is a simple observation: some horrible people have produced some truly and utterly sublime work. Now, the question is – what possibly do we do with this information?

In attempting to answer the question, critics tend to ignore our dubious inheritance as post-Romantics. We valorize the idea of the individual, of the solitary creative genius whose art is a product and reflection of her soul. In this model the Human is at the center of the Humanities, and all prose and poetry is confessional. Thus, if there is evidence that a brilliant work was created by an immoral or even terrible human being it can mean only one of two outcomes – that the work wasn’t that brilliant to begin with or that the things that the person did weren’t that bad. And so we confront that elemental question: how can bad people produce powerful, beautiful, even sacred art? And what does it mean when that art moves us?

Recently there has been a rich discussion on this topic in the popular press. As a result of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up campaign, there has been a reckoning with the uncomfortable question of what it means to be moved by a monster. The sheer magnitude of revelations has ensured that this reckoning can’t be ignored. We have to contend with the fact that in many instances we’ve been moved to tears and laughter by those who’ve been cruel, tyrannical, callous, sadistic, and without empathy. The dilemma isn’t about either censorship or exoneration, but rather the far more uncomfortable problem of what it means to see goodness and truth in the work of “Nabokov, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Roth, Updike, Bellow, Mailer, and Picasso” (as listed by scholar Laura Kipnis). Rather than being a symptom historical revisionism, this is a grappling with the sheer weight of moral history for what feels like the first time. It’s not to argue for turning away from that art – for what good would that do? But it does call for some kind of moral inventory of how it is possible that a perfect sonnet can be penned by a rapist, an immaculate novel written by a murderer, and a profound play crafted by a war criminal?

Among several of the articles emerging in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Claire Dederer provided one of the most nuanced and humane of reflections in “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” at The Paris Review Daily, which appeared last December. Dederer’s account of her own engagement with the films of Woody Allen, which had previously moved her, is wide-ranging in the profundity of her questions and devastating in some of its implied conclusions. Asking “What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters?,” Dederer moves beyond simply asking about “Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, [and] Floyd Mayweather” to a more all-encompassing reflection on Walter Benjamin’s astute observation that “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” Hers is a method of ethical and aesthetic critique which is shattering because her authorial voice is so humble. She asks, “Which of us is seeing more clearly? The one who had the ability—some might say the privilege—to remain untroubled by the filmmaker’s attitudes toward females and history with girls? … Or the one who couldn’t help but notice the antipathies and urges that seemed to animate the project?” She adds, “I’m really asking?” Dederer’s analysis probes our own moral culpability while acknowledging that artistic genius is real. She neither ameliorates the monstrousness of her subjects nor the brilliance of their works. Allen isn’t a brilliant director who has been maligned with grotesque slander, nor is he a child molester who happens to be a mediocre filmmaker. Rather, she claims, he is a rapist who is also a genius director. Now, Dederer asks, what do we do with that information?

If we’re fumbling awkwardly it’s because we’re ignoring a sense of the sacred, and I say that whether or not you believe in God, for “God” has little to do with it. We’re undergoing such an important sea-change in our consciousness, but our language is predictably lagging, which is why our conversations are stalled. When it comes to the dilemma of how we should approach beauty produced by the wicked, we falter. We fall into the same binaries that too often define this conversation. Theology need not supplant the terms, which inadequately define our necessary yet uncomfortable conversations, but it can supplement them. Not just privilege, but original sin; reparations, but also reconciliation; there is need for redistribution, but also justice. Our secular ethics are sham-faced about issues of salvation, redemption, and grace, and thus we have no vocabulary to answer necessary questions. As the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy writes, the “powerlessness of contemporary rationalism … is identical with the denial that lies at its very heart: the refusal to accept that the ways of thinking it authorizes are rooted in our experience of the sacred.” I believe that theological language can aid in clarification, albeit by perhaps borrowing a rather obscure term: Donatism.

Drawing their name from a fourth-century Berber bishop, the Donatists emerged during the brutal suppression of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, when some believers impugned the faith to avoid punishment. These “traditores” included a number of priests, and upon the end of persecution, many of them returned to their former functions within the Church. The Donatists, composed largely of working-class North Africans who’d never abandoned Christianity, were appalled that collaborators were now reinstated, and furthermore the Donatists regarded any sacraments administered by these turn-coat clergy as illegitimate. This position, it should be said, makes a certain amount of sense, especially in its fairness. Why should somebody who abjured the Church be allowed to administer its sacraments? How could one say that a priest who’d spit on the crucifix, who’d let the gospels be burned, can now present the Eucharist? How could any sacred transformation take place in the hands of such a sinner?

Perhaps you see the nature of my analogy. Today the traditional conduit between the sacred and the profane embodied by the sacraments has dissipated as part of that process of disenchantment initiated by the Reformation. For the secular, these mysteries of Church ritual are now empty, and if there is to be any “outward sign of an inward grace” it’s in being moved by poetry, art, film, or music. Of course a poem isn’t the Eucharist, a play isn’t Baptism, and a novel isn’t contrition. But in a godless world they have taken on a sacramental import. People find grace in David Bowie’s Heroes, the poetry of Kaveh Akbar, or in any album by Nina Simone.

As God dies, art will becomes our new religion. Continuing vagaries of religious extremism belie that prediction, but it is incontrovertible that art has become Western culture’s new sacrament. Perhaps the Dionysian enthusiasms of those counter-cultural Romantics, and Transcendentalists, and Beats who thought that our new liturgy would be poetry were overstated, but to me it seems undeniable that we are awash with cultural production in a manner unthinkable decades ago. Our new sacraments are offered not by faith but by art. Our churches are filled with laptops and iPhones, our fellowship is the sharing of links, and our scripture the pop culture that sustains us. Providing a more subtle interpretation than that old Romantic wish, scholar Regina Schwartz has analyzed how the debates over the sacraments (the Eucharist in particular) during the Reformation resulted in a sublimation of sacred enthusiasm into profane expression, writing that “instead of God leaving the world without a trace, the very sacramental character of religion lent itself to developing the so-called secular forms of culture and that these are often thinly disguised sacramental cultural expressions.” Humans abhor a vacuum of meaning, and no person is truly an atheist, so that in the disenchanted West scholar James Simpson can observe the “museum ceaselessly replicates the sacred space,” where galleries are our cathedrals, song lyrics our scripture, and our ecstatic visions occur on phone screens.

Such a sacramental model explains why it is that we feel so personally betrayed by heinous creators of beautiful creations. Like the Donatists of old, we too are anxious of partaking in the sacrament of poetry birthed by malignant minds. But our fears are generated by taking art somehow both too seriously and not seriously enough: too seriously, because this distress is the product of that post-Romantic idolatrizing of the individual, of the confessional nature of the poem as artifact of inner life where anything produced by a sinner is tainted by that sin. It seems impossible to see pre-moderns sharing that anxiety, that Caravaggio’s fingers were stained both with oil and the blood of men he’d murdered was of no account in recognizing his paintings’ beauty. Earlier people cared not a whit about what the anonymous hands which sculpted the Victory of Samothrace or the Notre Dame gargoyles were doing when they weren’t at work. Such anxiety only develops with the elevation of art to sacrament. But that’s where our current moment doesn’t take art seriously enough, for we’ve primitively made the same error that the Donatists did, assuming that sacraments are only legitimate if delivered by immaculate priests. We rightly elevated poetry, but stupidly assumed the poet’s apotheosis. And thus when we discover that poets, and filmmakers, and novelists are sinners, here in our fallen world, we despair that their art must be fallen as well. We are all Neo-Donatists stumbling about in a land that we pray is Eden, but seems to be somewhere very far to the West.

What I suggest is that we reevaluate the relationship between creator and the created through the perspective of those who criticized Donatist moral absolutism. For the architects of orthodox Catholicism, flawed and fallen though the mediating priest may be, a sacrament always finds its origin in God. To argue otherwise is to denigrate the sacrament itself. According to the formula advanced by the fourth-century Numidian Bishop St. Optatus – the greatest critic of the Donatists until St. Augustine – Sacramenta per se esse sancta, non per homines: sacraments are sanctified, but not because of the humans who perform them. And so it is with great art – a sacrament is sacred regardless of who has performed it, so beautiful, moving art is holy regardless of who brought it into existence.

I’m not requiring us to see poetry as an ideal state, save for when an ideal state is a form of holiness. When I claim that the truly transcendent offered by some art is as if a type of sacramental poetics, this is not metaphor or simile. This is my contention. And although biography must be noted, as it would be for a priest who had once abjured the faith, I also believe that a sacrament truly performed is like the very voice of God. What I suggest is embracing an older model of inspiration and creative origins, which identifies Cædmon’s song not with the singer but with the dream. A literary pantheism, which sees the beauties of great art as dispersed and spread among all of us, which celebrates the poetry even, and maybe especially, at the expense of the poet. Often Roland Barthes’ 1967 observation that the “birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author” is characterized as the worst type of French theoretical sophistry, as simple post-modern affectation. I don’t believe that; I believe that what Barthes speaks of is a type of ancient and sacred wisdom. For in speaking of the “death of the Author” we can preserve the sanctity of poetry despite the poet’s cruelty; we can delight in the holiness of prose despite the author’s sadism. Barthes’ vision is, dare I say it, a profoundly theological one, for whether you declare the Death of the Author or of God you’ve effectively democratized the sacred. Let’s abandon that which heightens the poet at the expense of the poetry, and let’s gladly grab a few lilacs as we step off the grave of the Author. The Faerie Queene is too inspiring, too beautiful, too sacred, and too holy to be left only to the man who merely transcribed it onto parchment. True, Spenser was a fundamentally evil man. If there is perdition, then he better be in it. But his poem – his poem is sublime.


Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.


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