The Author's Character
How much does the character of the author affect the work?
Death and a Dictionary
I recently read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The subtitle captivated my attention when I saw it on the clearance shelf and captures the essence of the book. It takes something that sounds quite boring and tedious (making a dictionary), combines it with crime thriller terms (you immediately think, “Why the heck does anyone get murdered in the making of a dictionary?!”), and then you reflect back on the fact that maybe making a dictionary from scratch in the first place is kind of interesting because it poses such an overwhelming challenge (figuring out what every word is!).
In the end, the Oxford English Dictionary took over seventy years to make, and the protagonists of this nonfiction were both dead eight years before the book’s release. However, one of these protagonists, William C. Minor, the “madman” of the title, is really the focus of the book, and it puts the author in an odd spot. On the one hand, Minor was an interesting scholarly figure who sent in thousands and thousands of words with quotations for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, and he was able to do this while battling schizophrenia every night. On the other hand, Minor murdered an innocent man in the street, leaving behind a widow and seven children. The text often reflects the author’s struggle to want to paint Minor as a hero. It vacillates because clearly Winchester feels like he can’t overlook the murder of an innocent man. It’s an odd case due to the fact that Minor is a completely sane person during the day. He apologized to the widow and sent her money often, and she forgave him, and even came to visit him at the asylum, bringing him books. However, at night the surgeon completely loses his grip on reality and hallucinates that he’s under attack.
So, we have someone who, because he was locked in an asylum surrounded by books and unable to leave, contributed huge efforts to the Oxford English Dictionary, a great achievement for all English-speaking people of the world and anyone who appreciates language. But he never would have been in the position to help achieve this if he hadn’t murdered someone. The ambivalence Simon Winchester clearly feels about this has had me thinking about how much a person’s character and deeds affect their works and contributions to society.
Nazism and Philosophy
“The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre read Heidegger (in six straight days at a table in Lex Deux Magots, according to Sartre’s waiter)...” - Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
This concept of a murderer-scholar was in my head when I came across an article about Martin Heidegger. Evidently his Schwarzen Hefte (Black Notebooks) are going to be published for the first time, but the article where I read this news was titled “Martin Heidegger's Black Notebooks Reignite Charges of Anti-Semitism.” Heidegger is famous as a philosopher turned Nazi, and some scholars debate the significance of this on his thought. Does his philosophy necessarily lead to Nazism? Can we read Being and Time without concern for his later conversion to the Nazi party? Many people think so, and I would say the enduring significance of his magnum opus reflects that point of view; however, it’s fascinating to read the impassioned debates of people on the opposing sides of this controversy.
In the New York Times’ coverage of Emmanuel Faye’s “Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy,” Adam Kirsch writes:
“Most readers would agree that Heidegger was a Nazi, and that this matters to his philosophy; it has remained for Faye to argue that Heidegger was a Nazi philosopher, which is to say that he was no philosopher at all, and that his books are positively dangerous to read. In fact, he comes very close, on the book’s last page, to saying that Heidegger’s collected works should be banned from libraries.”
Clearly, it’s beyond the parameters of this blog post to settle this specific debate - especially because most of my knowledge of Heidegger comes from PhilosophyBro’s summary of Being and Time:
“The truth is, the single word 'being' just wasn't meant to bear as heavy a load as this project puts on it. So think of 'Being', the essential thing we're trying to get at, like a Party, and think of 'to be', the verb, as 'to rage'… who do we know who rages the hardest? That's right, fucking Bros, that's who. They're the Dasein at this party.”
I have to assume that’s an accurate analogy…
However, the main question still remains. Even if we agree that it’s a great work of philosophy, doesn’t it seem odd to want to internalize the philosophies of a Nazi? There’s a certain part of us that can’t help but connect the person with the work that person wrote. How important is the character of the author when we read a work?
Emulating the Virtuous
One of the first things they’ll teach you as an English major is not to equate the author’s biography with your analysis of the work. It’s also a rule that will be immediately broken by your classmates, and then broken by your professor shortly afterward. On some visceral level, it’s difficult for readers to entirely divorce the person who wrote the work from the work itself. While I generally try to avoid this form of analysis, I can’t help but want to read more about an author I love - biographies, interviews - anything that lets me learn more about the person who’s crafted such magnificent compositions.
Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations , a great book written by a journalist who interviews people who have lived their lives according to certain philosophies, introduced me to Plutarch’s Lives of Grecian and Roman Noblemen (ParallelLives). Plutarch’s idea is that young people need to read about virtuous people who they can model their lives on, which will inspire them to be morally good people. Jules Evans’Philosophy for Life... is framed around the concept of using ancient wisdom as a therapeutic toolkit for good mental health (he believes philosophy helped him through a mental breakdown), and the angle here is that emulating virtuous people can make you virtuous.
Who are your heroes?
This had me wondering if I ever read books written by or about “virtuous” people. I’ve never been one to look up to “heroes,” but just thinking about the people who wrote the books I tend to read, or the authors I’ve read biographies of, the quick answer seemed to be that there weren’t excessive amounts of virtue to be found. I’d never before considered the idea that the authors I’m reading should also be role models for me, only that the writing captivate me. Should I be thinking of what effect they might have on me as my unwitting role models? In that case, creative types don’t have the best reputation in terms of having healthy relationships and finding satisfaction and contentment with life. The two authors I’m probably most familiar with biographically are Jack Kerouac and Franz Kafka. Kerouac could be extremely selfish, and this led to some appalling behavior in relation to his ex-wives and daughter. His life as a whole is a sad, downward spiral from a hopeful kid excited to go see the world and discover the mystical “it,” to a hopeless alcoholic, depressed, pessimistic, and cursed by the success of his writing, which brought him fame that only exacerbated the problems he was struggling with. Not exactly an ideal role model.
When reading Kerouac, I feel like I’m not supposed to think about his character flaws and instead pay attention to the writing, and accept the tragedy as presented in The Legend of Duluoz, rather than compare it against my background knowledge about his life. But when you’re dealing with a writer like Kerouac who drew so heavily from his own life, how do you just disregard the biographical? All the choices he made that you know put him in the situations he’s describing?
Or take Franz Kafka. While his stories don’t appear to be particularly autobiographical, scores of Kafka scholars immediately disregarded that first English major rule and analyzed the works according to his life. They write that the totalitarian bureaucracies like the courts or the Castle are representative of his father, who ruled the Kafka household unquestioned and according to his arbitrary whims. Milan Kundera claims this whole industry of “Kafkologists” removes Kafka from his proper context within the Modern literature of the world and pigeonholes him into these little autobiographical readings. Looking at Kafka’s works, the world can be a cruel place, even if you just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and looking at Kafka’s life, he struggled in all of his relationships and had excruciating engagements with women that were eventually broken off. Some have described his five-year epistolary engagement with Felice Bauer as a form of psychological abuse, and by all accounts, Kafka felt a certain sense of relief when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis because it freed him to take sick leave from his job at the insurance company and live out in a cottage where he could write - pretty grim stuff.
Must we only read the virtuous?
Now these considerations don’t make me think I should stop reading authors like Kafka and Kerouac by any means, but I’ve concluded that maybe I should make sure to pepper in some positive role models for myself every now and again. Literature and philosophy may be fascinating, but there are other things to consider in life as well, such as your relationships with others and your contributions to society.
So let me know what you think. Do you consider the deeds and characters of the authors you read? Or do you think that the works themselves are all that really matters? Is the virtue of the writer worth considering?