(The Bacchai at the National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton via The Guardian)
The back page ‘N.B.’ column in last week’s Times Literary Supplement (2 August 2019) discussed, not without irony, the question of what is ‘ok’ to read in these days of widespread outrage, citing the recent report that a Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London had refused to teach in the lecture theatre named after Francis Galton, whose name is ‘linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies’. Galton was indeed a pioneer in eugenics and psychometrics. He also developed a method of classifying fingerprints, initiated scientific meteorology, devised the first weather map and invented a means of testing differential hearing ability. He died in 1911. The First International Eugenics Congress, held in London the following year, was dedicated to Galton. Attendees included the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Chief Justice, the ambassadors of France, Greece and Norway, and Winston Churchill who, two years earlier, had written to the Prime Minister: ‘I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race.’
Is it ok, J. C. goes on to ask, to read Vladimir Nabokov (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape has said that he wouldn’t publish Lolita now)? Or T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, William Faulkner? Burroughs, Chester Himes, Mailer, Miller? Mention is made of a recent (very good) TLS piece by Claire Lowdon, which concluded that yes, it is okay to read Updike and, ‘in the course of the article, also cast forgiving glances in the direction of Bellow, Roth and other big male beasts.’ Then how about Maupassant, Flaubert, Kipling, Camus? Céline could certainly have been added, probably Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis too. ‘Perhaps it’s safer not to read at all’, J. C. concludes, ‘which is what lots of people are doing anyway.’
I know there are some complex questions about commemoration, statuary, flags, the names of buildings, the placement of pictures and poems. Our local example is the Colston Hall, named (but not for much longer) after the philanthropist and member of parliament – who was also a slave trader. But pulling down statues, changing names, I’ve always been uneasy with, preferring less ignorance to more. If it’s really news that human beings do both good and bad things and that people in earlier historical periods seem, from our perspective, to have done more bad things than good, then add plaques and placards, pile on the contextual information, enlighten, educate.
When it comes to policing reading – then no, I have a more definite line and it’s not a complex question. I’ve had my share of people rolling their eyes at my reading Ezra Pound. ‘How can you–?’ Well, I’d think, with a good deal of effort and concentration, reference works and, frankly, cribs of various kinds. But that may not be what they meant.
It’s okay for me to read absolutely anything and anyone I want to since, being an adult, I can make up my own mind about such matters. I don’t read modern literature for political pointers or an ethical framework or tips on manners. And, alas, perhaps a hangover from younger days, any suggestion that it might not be ‘ok’ to read certain authors sends me straight back to them, most recently Philip Roth, whom I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition. Whenever I don’t read Roth for a while, I forget how funny he is. Today, I enjoyed again The Anatomy Lesson’s Dr Kotler, formerly of Newark, now living in retirement in New York, detailing his current activities to Nathan Zuckerman in the bank queue, beginning with his study of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, ‘a foot at a time’:
(Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: Mauritshuis, The Hague)
‘Also studying Holy Scriptures. Delving into all the translations. Amazing what’s in there. Yet the writing I don’t like. The Jews in the Bible were always involved in highly dramatic moments, but they never learned to write good drama. Not like the Greeks, in my estimation. The Greeks heard a sneeze and they took off. The sneezer becomes the hero, the one who reported the sneeze becomes the messenger, the ones who overheard the sneeze, they became the chorus. Lots of pity, lots of terror, lots of cliff-hanging and suspense. You don’t get that with the Jews in the Bible. There it’s all round-the-clock negotiation with God.’
The ones who overheard the sneeze becoming the chorus. Yes, a pretty neat summary of Greek drama, I thought.
Perhaps one more: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’
In a world of perplexed and infuriated people, imaginative writing may not be the only culprit, of course.