The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

de monstra demonstranda

Engraving of Medea getting up to trouble
Medea, bad mommy extraordinaire, engaging in a bit of light witchcraft, illustration by Johann Wilhelm Baur to Ovid (ca. 1640s)

The school of Criticism has made known in print its superiority to human feelings and the world, above which it sits enthroned in sublime solitude, with nothing but an occasional roar of sarcastic laughter from its Olympian lips.

—Marx (‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, trans. Gregor Benton, in Early Writings, p. 381)

In the morning, we’ve been reading aloud Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis, mostly for the notes, but occasionally for the language, which draws attention to the dissonances in the narratives in ways that the King James version, for example, doesn’t quite manage.

The other morning we were reading Chapter 22, in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son – his only son, his beloved son, Isaac (that God of his is prepared to be quite specific sometimes). The telling is compressed, terse, and the notes tease out a pathos in what is not said, as Abraham chops the wood, takes the fire, takes the knife, and takes his son out to the wilderness. There’s no messenger can make a mother laugh at that.

* * *

Il y a de méchantes qualités qui font de grands talents.
(Great talents are sometimes born of mischievous propensities.)

—La Rochefoucauld (Maxims, trans. F.G. Stevens, No. 468)

It is troubling when people one would like to admire or love (or at a minimum feel uncomplicated in one’s positive emotions toward) do things that do not align with one’s own (or society’s) moral standards. It is not something I like to think about, personally,1 but books and people do come with this sort of baggage, so it nudges at the edge of my thinking – often when I least expect it.

That is what drew me to Claire Dederer’s book Monsters, which is in part an attempt to expand on her essay ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’.2 The book is advertised as being – and will I think be treated by most readers (or non-readers) as though it were in fact – about how one copes, as an audience member, when good art is made by bad people. It certainly raises this question, but it is not a book of criticism or philosophy or a monograph in reception studies. One finds on reading it that it is a memoir – the latest entry in a homeopathic treatment for undiagnosed Hegelianism, involving yoga, sex, and (now) criticism – so it is perhaps to be expected that it does not do more than jostle the periphery of the question, brushing at it as though it were a fresh stain on a new white shirt.3

* * *

My book editor once explained the appeal of memoir thus: ‘It’s cozy and voyeuristic.’ In other words, we want to know how other people live […] That’s part of the memoirist’s job, it’s true, but in order to defeat narcissism, a memoirist also has to reveal the more brutal realities of, well, there’s no nice way to say this, the heart. This is the real moral function of the memoir: to say the uncomfortable, even the unsavory truth of one’s inmost being, so the reader might recognize herself and feel less alone.

—Claire Dederer (Review of Running Home)4

Do readers of memoir want to feel less alone? Is that why people read? Is everyone looking for a ‘satisfying little jolt of recognition’? While most memoirs tend to suffer from solipsism, in this inverse solipsism (as mentioned, there is a very bad case of Hegelianism here, reaching near clinical levels), the author does not exist until reflected in the other. The book, to twist a witticism, is Miranda’s rage at not seeing Caliban’s face in the glass, an envious glance at ‘mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible’.

In Monsters, Dederer flirts with the eroticism of glamour and power, which I find generally distasteful (i.e., her fascination does not make this reader, at least, feel less alone), but which Dederer seems to enjoy and has examined (‘at a very high word count’) in her earlier memoirs and personal essays. One does not need a cigar and a therapist’s couch to link the interest in Woody Allen, say, to the shelves of books on the film-maker in her late father’s houseboat (Poser, ch. 12), or her fascinated gaze on Roman Polanski with her own anxieties about parenthood and her tangled emotions about her mother: ‘if I wrote only about assault and predators, I didn’t have to face myself’ (Love & Trouble, ch. 21).5 She does not seem to come closer to facing herself in Monsters, either, and it is precisely this human element – a real look in the mirror, at the frustration of not being brilliant, of the inevitability of losing things or people one cares about, about having to face one’s own misjudgments – that might have provided the glimmer of greater meaning.6

In aspiring to draw near the flame of genius, Dederer strikes a lot matches: there are sparks of insight, but no lasting illumination. By which I mean that the sections of the book do not fundamentally change one’s perception of the works discussed, which is what genius, what good criticism can, perhaps should, do.7 After reading Anahid Nersessian’s explorations of Keats’s odes, for example, I won’t be able to read those poems the same way I could before; even if I don’t necessarily agree with her interpretations, they have still been changed. My views on Doris Lessing or Lolita are not altered Dederer’s views, nor has the basic level of (dis)interest I feel in these works been shifted.

* * *

We allow the genius to give in to his impulses; he is said to have demons.

—Claire Dederer (Monsters, p. 103)

θεὸς δὲ ἀνθρώπῳ οὐ μείγνυται, ἀλλὰ διὰ τούτου πᾶσά ἐστιν ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος θεοῖς πρὸς ἀνθρώπους, καὶ ἐγρηγορόσι καὶ καθεύδουσι: καὶ ὁ μὲν περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα σοφὸς δαιμόνιος ἀνήρ, ὁ δὲ ἄλλο τι σοφὸς ὢν ἢ περὶ τέχνας ἢ χειρουργίας τινὰς βάναυσος.

God with man does not mingle: but it is through the daimonion that all society and converse of men with gods and gods with men occur, both waking and asleep. Whosoever is wise in these affairs is a spiritual man; to be wise in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical.8

—Plato (Symposium, 202e, trans. H.N. Fowler, modified; cf. Republic, 496c)

It’s a matter of interpretation, isn’t it, whether the artist is a Promethean hero, bringing a divine light to humanity, or just some person wise in their craft. The idea of heroes makes me twitchy – they tend to be uncomfortable company (Antigone would not make a fun member for your book club, for example – all that family drama – and Achilles would aways spend knit night complaining about his boss). I’m on the side of the mechanicals.

* * *

What can you do, then, if you are haunted by a daimon(ion) or some other imp of the perverse? If it calls you to make or think or do (or not do) things that those not so troubled, not so called, not so inspired cannot or will not understand or approve or accept? Only one course of action seems true, seems possible. What can you do?

You chop the wood, you gather your notes, you take up fire and pen. You climb the mountain. You sit at your desk. And, as the moment demands, you prepare to murder your darlings.9

  1. Ethics as a whole can be a troublingly squishy subject. []
  2. This is not a new question for Dederer. In her first memoir, Poser, it appears in her analysis of the guru in Mapp and Lucia, who ‘is revealed as a charlatan, and yet what he has to teach is valuable’ (ch. 10). It comes up again in her second memoir, Love & Trouble, with its ‘letters’ to Roman Polanski (ch. 7: ‘does a genius get let off the hook?’; ch. 22: ‘You, Roman Polanski, became my very own monster of sexuality, and I loathed you, at a very high word count’). []
  3. One senses a failure of editorial courage here, which is particularly melancholy in light of Dederer’s reported conversation with her therapist about her desire to write an ‘ambitious’ book (p. 169); this book had ambitions, but it is not ambitious. Incidentally, I am amazed at the courage with which Dederer presents her conversations with her therapist and her agent and her editor, as she seems to take a willful joy in mis- or over-interpreting. The bullying vulnerability is exhausting to behold. []
  4. Merely as an aside: If your book editor is explaining your genre to you, it might not be your genre – or maybe they shouldn’t be your editor. []
  5. The quote ends ‘…as a sexual person’, but the spirit is much the same. []
  6. This is the frustration of reading memoir: one wants blood. []
  7. Dederer discusses this strikingly – what she terms the ‘bossiness’ of genius – in the first of ‘letters’ to Polanski in Love & Trouble []
  8. Jowett translates the last bit as: ‘The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar’, which is doubtless prettier English, but is a bit further away from the original meaning. []
  9. The writing of this post has been strong influenced by PF’s summaries of Hegel and Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the Abraham/Isaac story, as well as the discussions from the 2024 Delve seminar on Dederer’s Monsters. It is written in the spirit of one of the assistants to the assistant page to the knight of really quite finite resignation. []


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