All of which amounts to an exceptionally fascinating life, but it tells us little or nothing about what finally matters: the fiction. In every account of his life, every time he sits down at his desk, whether in Munich, Küsnacht, Princeton, or Los Angeles, Mann disappears from view. We can reconstruct his punctilious routine, we can describe the texture of his desk, we can even name the various brands of cigar that he liked to smoke — but we cannot be present for the moment when the author of Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, and The Magic Mountain put pen to paper and chose this word over that word and refined this idea or that idea and generally brought his fictional world to life. Writing is not an activity that can be meaningfully described from the outside. “Surely the writing of a literary life,” said Leon Edel, Henry James’ celebrated biographer, “would be nothing but a kind of indecent curiosity, and an invasion of privacy, were it not that it seeks always to illuminate the mysterious and magical process of creation.” But can this really be done? What is the bridge from the external to the internal?
Still, if the process of creation is precisely what traditional biography cannot illuminate, then what purpose does the genre serve? Is it just a form of higher gossip? Or a way of prolonging our intimacy with an author, as John Updike charitably put it?
— Morten Høi Jensen, The Fiction That Dare Not Speak Its Name - Liberties
How do you teach Wallace Stevens? Or Picasso? Both undeniably important in their fields but those same fields were sown with the blood and suffering of others. Can a racist have nuance? Does an abuser have a soul, an inner light, a path to Understanding?
Take Picasso: “Ma Jolie”, “…d’Avignon”, “Guernica” It was a new way of painting - a new way of seeing and presenting the subject. I prefer “The Old Guitarist” for its ambiguity - is he poor or presenting poor? Is he aware of the viewer? None of these are true questions because the guitar player is a presentation by Picasso. Picasso, who degraded and beat women who loved him. I can wonder about the guitar player, the unnatural cant of his shoulder (is he uncomfortable?), the blue tones of the painting which match the bluegreenpurple of the bruises Pablo left on flesh. What did the painting mean to later painters: to Duchamp and the other abstract artists of the modernists? What did it mean to the woman called whore and spat on?
We have to acknowledge the abuse and not sweep it aside under the guise of “greatness” and “importance”. If Maslow is right then the greatness of art and understanding rest on a foundation of food, water, air, and safety, which Picasso denied to some. If we try to pass by the problematic ones, the we water down the lessons of history, we exalt nostalgia in our silence, we participate and are complicit in a crime.
In 2022, men try to police women (this is not new, nor news): their appearance and behavior. But women also police women, coerce and control and maintain a status quo, even as it hurts them. Often, they are more effective than the men. Or another metaphor: imagine the plantation in the US South during slavery. There is the enslaver, the owner, and the enforcers, at times an enslaved person exalted to a position of limited power contingent on controlling everyone else. Who administered the beatings, tied the nooses, dragged families apart to auction off? The ones at the top rarely got their hands dirty with the mundane, daily tasks of keeping people as chattel labor. There is another player in this drama though (many others) - those in the North who bought the cotton clothes, cheap in monetary cost and expensive in so many other ways, and looked away. Those who avoided talking about the practice of slavery and for propriety never spoke ill of their neighbors, after all “what goes on under their roof in their business.”
The online biography of Wallace Stevens at the Poetry Foundation mentions the “racist title” of one of his poems but avoids his overt and constant racism. Can we know his inner life, his writing life from that biography? No, we can paint the edges, one perspective, and then we look to Picasso and change our point-of-view. We read his poems and paint those edges on the same canvas - here is another view of the man. We change our position and put the paint that describes how he made others feel. The time he saw a photo of previous National Book Award judges and asked about Gwendolyn Brooks, “Who’s the coon?”1. We absolutely should conflate the artist and the work, their letters and others’ memories. The human is unknowable except as assemblage, the abstract expressionistic brushstrokes that they leave on everything around them.
How do you teach Wallace Stevens? You frame him as important, here he came from and who he inspired, and part of that frame is his racism. Despite his hatred of people for their melanin he wrote some words in a new way, chose the words, their position and made meaning. And you read a few poems and move on. Similarly Picasso: go see “The Old Guitarist” at the Art Institute of Chicago or “Guernica”. Interrogate them about war and suffering and life while asking them about open hands and closed fists and shouted invectives. Then move on.
This is the reason for the trigger warning, in my opinion. To warn, not to stay away, but to be aware. “This book contains descriptions of rape.” “ Trigger warning: child death.” “TW: verbal abuse” We as a group cannot progress if we sanitize everything. There is a theory that a rise in allergies corresponds with a rise in sanitary living. Less exposure means less immunity. It’s not a bad trade-off as a runny nose or mild hives are a large step up from dysentery and cholera. Socially the metaphor works as well - if we forget or sanitize the past then we become more likely to repeat it for we are creatures of instinct and habit. Some people will abuse the trigger warning and use it only as an excuse to not read a difficult book or watch a difficult film. Thinking about suffering hurts and it should, empathy is not a peaceful internal process.
I am unsure why the questions Morten Høi Jensen asked about literary biographies connected to learning about Stevens in a Modernist Poetry class. The professor introduced him and his work and made sure that we knew of his racism. We read a few pieces, discussed them, and then we read more poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. Comparing the man and his art with the woman and her art.