Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Die Meistersinger

Long ago I was given the sage advice "Never meet your heroes."

I did meet a few of my heroes and it went well. Ray Bradbury was one of the nicest and most wonderful people I've ever met in my life. But, I also knew that the few I'd met I had met on good days in controlled environments, and that just because I liked what a person was known for did not mean that I would like the person or that the person would like me (The converse also holds - just because I didn't like what a person was famous for didn't mean I might not get along splendidly with the person.) Some monsters make great art; and some saints create mediocre art. So I stopped seeking them out and I still think that that's wise. With eBay and a little bit of wisdom, I can have autographed copies of books without leaving this chair.

Once again, I had a news story for my Thursday News In Review which I thought I could write a whole blog entry on. But then it morphed inside my brain and turned into something I've wanted to write on for a while now. The story in question is the arrest of Roman Polanski who, as I'm sure you all know by now, drugged and raped a 13 year old girl about 30 years ago. He was convicted and fled the country before sentencing because he claims he was afraid the judge was going to make an example of him. He fled to Europe and spent the bulk of my lifetime living like a prince.

Look, Rosemary's Baby, and Chinatown are classics. There's no question in my mind that he has produced some fine films. The Pianist deserved its Oscars. I even kind of liked The Ninth Gate, although the book was astronomically better and a completely different galaxy of a story than the weird thing Polanski directed. But it's not about any of that. It's about raping a 13 year old girl and fleeing the country to avoid whatever the US Justice system deems an appropriate punishment. I'm sure there are other pedophiles in prison now who are capable of making great art. Some of these hypothetical pedophiles may even have had loved ones brutally murdered in their lives. None of that changes the pedophilia that they committed (which was the eventual actual charge by the way. The rape charge was dropped and he pled guilty to sex with a minor) which we as a people correctly agree is wrong. We also correctly agree as a society that fleeing justice is wrong. It doesn't matter if the now-grown girl forgives him. Doesn't matter if the mother tarted up her daughter and pushed her on him (in fact, doesn't that make it worse?)
I can't take anyone who defends Polanski seriously.

Although admittedly my artistic regard for Polanski is limited to a moderate appreciation of a handful of films which I'd gone years without thinking about even once. That's really all I have to say about him and all it's done has reignited something I've been thinking about for some time now. What this whole story has me thinking of is a book that if I turn my head slightly to the left right now I can see on my shelf taunting me. The book is titled My Life, and it is the autobiography of Richard Wagner. I've not read it yet, but I will, and probably will very soon; but I'm a little afraid to. I hold Wagner in very high artistic esteem, and it's rare that a day goes by that I don't at the very least think about The Ring Cycle, or mention Hans Sachs or Tristan or The Flying Dutchman (or, at the very least, leitmotifs) in conversation. And Parsifal I can only speak of in the hushest of tones and, were I one who wore hats, I would have to remove it whenever the opera is mentioned. I think he was one of the greatest artists in the history of Western Civilization. It would be a high watermark in my life if I ever am able to make a pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival. In spite of everything I just said, I probably wouldn't call myself a Wagnerite as I am also definitely and outspokenly a devotee of Johannes Brahms. I have no problem with loving both.

But personally, as I understand Wagner's life, he was a horrible man. He was strongly and outspokenly anti-semitic. He played with sort of proto-themes of the uber-mensch and was strongly nationalistic. Although he had some very close Jewish friends, he published many anti-semitic pamphlets and highly nationalistic pamphlets on what it means to be German. On one level it's fortunate that he kept this aspect of his worldview from being explicit in any of his operas. However, in case you didn't know, and as you can well guess from the direction of the rhetoric of his pamphlets, there is much heated debate over the responsibility of Wagner for the Nazis. I could point out that Parsifal was one of the operas banned by the Nazis. I could also point out that Wagner was not by any means anywhere near the only artist that the Nazis cannibalized. But, when it comes down to it, yes, I have to agree that the question arises as to artists' responsibility over what they incite.

To a large extent, you cannot blame the artist for the actions of the fans any more than you can blame the fans for the actions of the artist. We all have personal responsibility for our actions. Wagner was not a Nazi and it's hard to imagine if he had by some remarkable circumstance survived (he would have been 120 at Hitler's rise to power) if he ever would have been a Nazi. Still, there is no excuse for some of the atrocious things he said in his pamphlets. I tend to think of him as a heinous man who happened to produce some of the most beautiful works in the history of western civilization (a bit like how Salieri saw Mozart in Peter Schaffer's masterpiece Amadeus.)

But, then, on the other hand, the work of art lives outside of the artist in history. We should be able to fully enjoy the work without knowing a single thing about the artist (and, in some cases, we might be happier if that were the case.) If I were to despise every work of art by an artist who I found some flaw in their character, the only art I would enjoy would be by Anonymous (although art does exist which advocates horrible, foul and evil behavior, we're not talking about that right now.)

However, the individual is accountable and responsible for his behavior. If one does something evil, doing something wonderful does not nullify the evil action. One is still accountable for the evil action while the something wonderful floats away from the artist into the world to have a life of its own. All of which I suppose is a very long winded way of saying that I have no problem saying the following two statements with equal enthusiasm:

1) If you've never seen it, do go rent Chinatown. It is one of the greatest films in the history of film. It is a wonderful work of art and a masterpiece in the medium.
2) It would be entirely appropriate and just if Roman Polanski spends the rest of his life in prison.

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