Worse than women

MoonSixpence

His faults are accepted as the necessary complements to his merits….  To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults. [p.1]

In The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham the narrator gives his account of knowing – haphazardly – a painter who would go on to become recognised as a genius.  The man is called Charles Strickland, but many of the plot points come from the life of Gauguin.

I am very wary of the word genius.  To me it means tremendous talent that creates a sustained output of work that is brilliant and either genre transforming or transcendent.  I don’t think there are any requirements around character.  I don’t think you need to be a certain kind of person to be a genius.  I also think that a certain kind of genius might actually be a person of talent who has become a fanatic.

***

Let’s go back a little bit.  To the start of January 2019 when I decided, as I usually decide every six months, that society feels far too wedded to its now.  I say “feels” because daily life is really just daily life and is wedded to nothing except the sun and the moon, hunger, and emotion, like it always has been.  On the other hand, if you engage with society through media – old media, new media, social media – then you are entering a stream of now-ness.  Now-ness is ok.  It’s exciting for a time.  And addictive.  Checking your phone, pushing the update button.  It has its drawbacks though.  I think the main one is that it leads to understanding nothing.  A series of images, short statements, clips, and sound bites is only ever the symptom, and living in a world of symptoms – depending on how you curate your streams – is either empty (the symptoms of vanity and greed), depressing (the symptoms of oppression – of people and the earth), or only vicariously empowering.  You never engage with the complex causes of vanity, greed, oppression, and the sources of the desire for empowerment that might lead you to change.

So I decided to read books from 100 years ago instead.  Novels from 1919.  Not just them though, but the reviews of them that appeared in the newspapers in Aotearoa at the time, and then to follow any interesting leads that doing this presented to me.  It is deliberately disassociative.  It allows you to make your own society strange to you again, and that allows you to notice things you do not notice when you are in the now.

At this point I have read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, and I am reading Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.

***

To me, The Moon and Sixpence, is a book about the consequences of fanaticism.  It might be tempting to soften this and say that the central character – Strickland – is an artist in search of “truth” but aren’t all fanatics pursuing their truth?  Whether your truth is valid or not is decided by society, and societies disagree with each other.  They also move on and change.  The idea of an artist pursuing an ultimate truth suggests a number of things: (a) that there is an ultimate truth, and (b) it is immutable.  The last 30 years have been diverse, fragmented and mutable.  It doesn’t necessarily diminish the artist’s work to refute the idea of an ultimate truth, but it helps to keep it in proportion, and can allow people the freedom to say: “this painting doesn’t personally do much for me”.  It helps to deflate the pompous inflated verbiage and lockstep of canonical thinking.

This is probably just another way to say that the book has dated a little bit.  The vaulting genius who is excused everything is not so popular now as an idea, and even less so when Me Too consistently reveals awful corners of the male artist’s belief about what genius entitles him to.  Of course the vaulting genius idea still exists.  It will rise again in popularity, but at the moment it is not ascendant.  The moon is in the house of cynicism.

Also: misogyny.

I’m not sure that there is any other way to say this: Strickland is a total arsehole.  Especially to women.  Even female characters that are not outright abused by Strickland (which aren’t many) are not given a roundedness.  The three women Strickland has relationships with are condemned by the protagonist, only fleetingly defended by the narrator, and ultimately dismissed.  Strickland’s brutal assessments of these women is, in other words, validated.  His views on women, which includes beating them, and not caring when they kill themselves because their lives are worthless, are utterly vile and, as I said, the narrator ultimately allows them to stand in the name of Strickland’s genius.

Sadly I am one of those people who need the art and the artist to be morally palatable.  I don’t have a high bar.  People are people.  Full of flaws.  They do bad things.  That’s ok.  I get that.  Some things though are very, very bad and in the way that I wouldn’t buy something from a shop if the owner beat his wife, I won’t listen to music – for example – that denigrates women even if it is very good music.

Fanatically pursuing truth at all costs has a long history in human life and it always has bad outcomes.  There may be benefits too.  Buddha, for example, was a fanatic.  If you consider what he did in order to reach truth, or who he deserted to make that quest possible: these are not the actions of a reasonable person.  The benefit though was profound insight into the human condition that he then shared.  Buddha’s fanaticism had benefits then, but bad outcomes for his family.  In general though, the fanatic’s path is the opposite: few benefits and a mountain of terrible consequences.  Strickland falls into this category.

It is very hard not to read Maugham’s background and feel that the heterosexual pressures on a mostly homosexual man who married unhappily and divorced are not in play here.

The book is also, of course, racist.  With a few “nigger” minstrels, and the indolent Pacific natives, it gives you that simple worldview that makes white stories central even in a country – Tahiti – where they are a minority.  Even Strickland’s Tahitian wife is a passive prop who will be passed on to another white man at the end.

***

The most striking thing now about the reviewers of The Moon and Sixpence in Aotearoa in 1919 is that they say nothing about any of this.  They all agree that Strickland is an arsehole (they don’t say arsehole), but don’t really say why.  The reviewer in The Evening Post says that it is because Strickland leaves “his agreeable wife and two delightful, normal children.”[1]  Which is fine, except that ultimately Strickland’s wife is not presented in a flattering light, and his children are shown to be slightly boring pillars of society.  In other words: thank goodness Strickland got out!

But I suppose it would be unlikely that the male reviewers would notice much.  At the same time as they are reviewing The Moon and Sixpence they are panning two other books.  “As for the men… they are worse than women, self-indulgent and egoists, shirkers of duty.” [2]  Worse than women!  Is that even possible?  Speaking of distaste for the shirker of duty

“During the war [the author] was some kind of conscientious objector… but no brand of c.o. is entitled to the make the brainiest man in a professedly brainy book say anything as stupid as this: ‘The war began for no particular reason, and it will stop for no particular reason.'” [3]

Which is quite an accurate description of the start and the end of that war.  Certainly the start.

Of the many, many things that are hard to understand about the Great War, one is how, after it all, after all the unspeakable, senseless slaughter, trauma and evil, the official narrative was still of duty, and shirkers, and purpose.  But just ask women now how hard it is to shift the narrative of men about “boys will be boys” and “not all men” 100 years after “worse than women”, or how – in the age of Woody Allen, Polanski and R. Kelly – there are still people who will say:

To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.

___

[1] The Bookman, The Evening Post, 12 July 1919

[2] Liber’s Note, The Dominion, 13 September 1919

[3] Among the Books, Sun, 13 September 1919

Singapore

Cathy and I had a few days in Singapore in 1999 on the way home from Japan for our  Christmas break in New Zealand.  A lot of people told me, both before and after this trip, that they didn’t like Singapore, but we liked it.  It’s a cool place to pass through if you’re a tourist.  Living there must be a totally different experience, but passing through was interesting.

In Singapore they have a prize for literature that is handed out every two years to four books.  There is a prize for the best book in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.  I decided that I would read the winner in English rather than one of the others in translation, but then discovered a problem: Singapore is not a country that artists in other countries pay any attention to.  I had to go back to 2004 to find an award winner that the Wellington Library had, Aro Street Video has one rental DVD from Singapore, and the major music awards in Singapore are open to all Asian countries and artists from Singapore don’t really feature that much (Korea is so hot right now).

The 2004 best book in English in Singapore was Mammon Inc. by Hwee Hwee Tan.  I don’t know how you say Hwee Hwee but it’s a pretty cool name in English.  In English it sounds exactly like the sound you might make as you get to the very top of the arc of a roller coaster track, and start to plummet down the other side.  Turns out the Hwee Hwee grew up in Singapore and the Netherlands, and went to universities to do numerous creative writing courses in England and New York.

It was a very uneven book, and it doesn’t surprise me that Hwee Hwee spent a lot of time doing creative writing courses.  The whole book has that flavour of writerly cleverness that these courses seem to produce.  There are passages of snapshot images seeking to create an impression of a place, there are postmodern discussions about Star Wars and the X-Files (remember when it was cool to do this?), and there is a very, very strange premise underlying it all.  The main character gets recruited by Mammon Inc. (some kind of huge corporate entity that owns most of the entertainment and media industries) to be an Adapter; a person who helps very rich people blend into a new culture.

Which seems like a job that will never exist, but makes a good excuse for a book-long explanation of what it is to be English, and what it is to be from Singapore, and what it is to be trying to be both (it sucks, apparently).

I found it all strangely enjoyable.  I say strangely because this isn’t a very glowing review, but if I am honest I found it a page turner, with enough interesting parts and one great character (the protagonist’s Singapore sister) to read straight through, and Hwee Hwee really is good when writing about Chinese-Singaporeans, and Singapore itself.

Cathy and I enjoyed all the cultural jostling in Singapore.  It makes nice eye candy, because Singapore is like some kind of fabulous living room in the home of the rich and famous which has been styled in the fashion of East(s) meet West(s).  Someone in Singapore has told the city officials that old imperial things look good if they are painted white.  So you get a large Anglican church sparkly white against the lush tropical foliage, and Raffles (sparkly white against the lush tropical foliage), and a statue of Raffles (sparkly white, etc, etc).  Also contrasting sizes makes a nice juxtaposition, so you get quite a bit of small, dinky rows of ethnic buildings tucked in rows amongst towering, sleek skyscrapers which may have been designed by Pei but just look like towering, sleek skyscrapers.

For the tourist Singapore is great food and shopping with a sexy backdrop.  For the local I think Singapore must be quite a different beast.  It is certainly very aspirational, but that aspiration seems to lead a lot of people into jobs in a massive, and very boring civil service.  But let’s not go there, because I really know nothing about Singapore, and pretending I do based on one short stay and one book is a bit crass.

Anyway, here is my favourite story about Singapore.

Cathy and I went to Raffles for a meal.  There are a few restaurants in this building and we went to a fancy Chinese-Asian-Fusion one.  The meal was fantastic.  Near the end of our degustation (such a terrible sounding word in English) I went to respond to a call from nature.  When I came back to the table (I spent some time in the bathroom because it was awesome), Cathy was looking both surprised and pleased with herself.  She said that when I left a waiter instantly appeared and said, “do I know you?”.  This seems like a pretty absurd question when you are passing though a city you have never been to half a world away from your own country, but I imagine Cathy did what I would have done and looked closely at the waiter and thought, “do I know you?”  She didn’t.  He was a dude in Singapore after all.  She said no.  This didn’t seem to bother the waiter.  “Would I know you from somewhere?”  Cathy thought this was unlikely, unless his hobby was collecting Mana College Yearbooks from the 1980s.  Again, the waiter seemed unconcerned.  He indicated the row of other waiters across the room all watching Cathy and the outcome of the conversation expectantly.  The waiter’s next question was odder, “Are you a musician?”.  Cathy has a music degree and plays a mean flute so her hesitation here probably encouraged the waiter to believe that Cathy was simply being coy, and that they were playing some elaborate game of mutual bluffing.  The waiter smiled, and went in for the kill: “are you Alanis Morrisette?”.

Now let’s be honest, the temptations at this point are enormous.  If I were in a foreign country and someone said “are you Brad Pitt?” (I get this a lot) there would be quite a large part of me that would want to say yes.  Cathy is far more sensible than me (and quick thinking – she realised she was at that very moment holding her credit card in order to pay and that her card did not say A. Morrisette), so she said no.

Still, pretty cool.