My wife and I are going to see the Ender’s Game movie tonight. Ever since it was announced, I had friends who would ask me, sometimes rather challengingly, ‘are you planning to see it?’ I guess because I’m a well-known leftie, pinko commie, and Orson Scott Card has said some things that, uh, suggest he isn’t.
So there’s a boycott. And it’s the kind of boycott that someone like me seems likely to support. So do I support it? Am I going to see the movie? Let me end the suspence: my wife and I have purchased tickets already. We’re seeing the movie.
I read Ender’s Game many years ago. I liked it. I especially liked the triumph of a kid who was victim of bullies. I could relate to it. It wasn’t my favorite book ever or anything–I preferred Frank Herbert’s Dune–but I thought it was good.
In recent months, though, OSC seems to have begun, for whatever reason, positioning himself at the Jon McNaughton end of the political spectrum. His right as an American, of course, just as it’s my right to write long blog posts taking issue with his views. Whatever; he’s a fine novelist and a brother in the gospel. He also has weird ideas about President Obama, and ideas about gay rights I don’t agree with. Free country.
But boycott the movie? No, I don’t think so. No way. First, because I have no intention of depriving myself of the pleasure of seeing a movie I’ve wanted to see for years. I’ve read mixed reviews; I have to think, though, that it’s going to be better than the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Lo freaking l.
The larger question, though, is this: do we not see various works of art based on our personal disapproval of the lifestyle, ideas or personal obnoxiousness of the artist. Pablo Picasso was a pig; does that negate the extraordinary beauty of Guernica? Richard Wagner was a womanizer and seducer, who held utterly disgusting political views; does that prevent me from attending a performance of Tannhäuser?
When I was in grad school, working on my dissertation, I was allowed a dedicated desk in the library. It was soon piled high with Ibseniana. The desk next to mine was equally covered with books about Bertold Brecht; the desk of my friend Cynthia, who was working on BB for her dissertation. One day, we were both up there, and she was reading her stuff and taking notes, and I was reading mine, and she sighed, sat back, and said to me, “what’s it feel like studying someone who was, at least, a decent, moral human being?” Which Brecht was not.
Except, except. I’m an Ibsen scholar and an Ibsen translator; I think Henrik Johan was one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived, part of a holy trinity that includes Shakespeare and Sophocles. So you study him, and sure, he was obnoxious. Grumpy, irritable, egotistical. But anyone who studies Ibsen seriously runs, soon enough, into the Emilie Bardach problem. The Helene Raff problem. And the Hildur Andersen problem. Ibsen, in his sixties, liked young women. He certainly had an affair with Emilie Bardach–her journal and letters have been recently discovered. He spent huge amounts of time with Andersen and Raff–teenage girls. It’s quite possible, in fact, that Ibsen was, by our standard, a pedophile.
And he wrote about it. Only one character appears in two of his plays; Hilde Wangel. We meet her as a teenager in The Lady From the Sea, and she reappears as a twenty-year-old in The Master Builder. And The Master Builder is about an elderly artist, past his prime, who is inspired to greatness again by a relationship with a fascinating young woman.
Here’s the thing: it’s also a tremendous play. It’s terrific. It’s creepy and has weirdly pedophiliac overtones, but it’s also brilliant. A good play can do that, can show a mutually destructive and icky relationship between a really old guy and a really young woman, and turn it into art. Does it excuse pedophilia? Portrayal is not advocacy; the play ends tragically. So Ibsen as an elderly playwright, has an affair with a teenager, and writes, as a result, a play about an elderly architect who has an affair with a teenager. And it’s a really good play.
This is my point. I personally disapprove in the strongest possible terms of elderly married men having affairs with girls young enough to be their grand-daughters. I think that’s reprehensible behavior. My favorite playwright–a playwright I have spent most of my life studying and writing about and translating–not only did that, but rubbed our faces in it. Wrote one of his greatest plays about the very behavior I despise. How do we handle all that?
We recognize that art is about life–it’s a testimony about lived experience. And that life isn’t always pretty. And that we sin, we humans, we sin all the time. And writers write what they know. Including sins, including, in fact, the specific sins they created.
So Wagner was a womanizer, and wrote these magnificent, sensuous operas about, among other things, sexual longing, sexual attraction, passion and obsession. And Ibsen was inspired by young women–they fascinated him, and became subjects for his plays. And Picasso didn’t just live a life of moral relativism, he placed relativism–or at least relativity–as the central organizing theory of his paintings.
Art celebrates humanity, all of it, even the grubby bits. It transforms experience, even even nasty experiences. We can avert our eyes. Sometimes, maybe we should. But no, we don’t say ‘I won’t see that; the artist, I heard, was a bad person.’ It’s art. Honest, it is; it’s not a cesspool. How can we tell? Take a swim.