Friday, 10 May 2013

Art You Like, from People You May Not

Last night, a student of mine (hello, Chris!) was writing on a short story, "War," by Luigi Pirandello. It tells of people sharing a compartment in a train. It is a time of war, so people are naturally concerned about the fates of their sons who are entering battle. One man, whose son had already died, tells them, in effect, that it is sweet and proper to die in war. He is asked, "Did your son really die?" Then he bursts into tears.

I invite you to read the story. It is powerful. It shows how war destroys lives far from the battlefields, even in peaceful train compartments.

I then looked up information about Pirandello. I discovered, first, that he'd written "Six Characters in Search of an Author," of which I've heard, and had received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Then I discovered that he was an early supporter of the Fascist Party. According to a very good article I read but can't find again, Pirandello was attracted to Fascism precisely by its antidemocratic, authoritarian, and imperial nature. In fact, he handed over his Nobel Prize to be melted down so that the gold could go to support Italy's conquest of Ethiopia.

Does this change what the story is saying? If we look at only the words on paper, the theme seems clearly to say that calling death in war "sweet and proper" is, as Wilfred Owen puts it, "The Old Lie." However, Fascists thought of war as good and necessary. That included Pirandello, judging by his support of the Ethiopian campaign. So, then, does that mean it is sweet and proper to lose your children? The author's known beliefs lead to that conclusion, but the words in the story do not.

This is an old conundrum that is raised again and again: Can bad people create good art? If we condemn or avoid Pirandello's writings because of his fascism, do we do the same with Ezra Pound's poetry for the same reason? If I do, then the only one to suffer will be me.

The conundrum is more pressing when the artist is alive, which brings me to Orson Scott Card. In 1985 he published a superb book called Ender's Game. It presents a brilliantly science-fictional twist on the truism that old men send young men to die: What if the young people we drafted, used, and used up were literally children? The book is great art, and its first two sequels--Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide--are as good. (The next installment in Ender's story, Children of the Mind, failed to match them, in my opinion, or even come close).

By the way, I just discovered that Ender's Game is coming out as a film.

What I didn't know about the author, and the books gave no clue to it, is that he is prejudiced against gays, to the point that he once called for revolution rather than let them marry. In that same article he said that recognition of gay marriage by the courts would be the "end of democracy." Nor does he confine extreme opinions to paper: he feistily foists them in interviews, causing no small distress in the process. They also leak noticeably into some of his art to its detriment.

The question of how to react to a good artist who supports bad policies must be answered in some way. DC Comics chose one way when it hired Card to be one of the writers for Superman comics. The illustrator for those comics chose another when he resigned in protest. I cannot bring myself to boycott Card's best writing to protest his worst. I do not follow his work avidly, but I will pick up his new works from time to time, and I will not scruple to re-read Ender's Game.

Perhaps, in the end, certain books are wiser than their authors.

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