June 27, 2019

When Literary Heroes Are Anti-Semites

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot

In the middle of Hannah Gadsby’s provocative new Netflix stand-up comedy special, she launches into a diatribe against Pablo Picasso. To be clear: She really hates him. Not for his early figurative work, his temporary overreliance on the color blue or even his unapologetic appropriation of African art. No, she despises him because he treated women badly. Which he did. No argument there. But what Gadsby, who has a background in art history, argues is that her target’s considerable and universally acknowledged artistic accomplishments are entirely — not partially, mind you, but entirely — vitiated by what she takes to be his misogyny. The implication being that we should immediately rip down our Picassos and deposit them in the trash. 

This got me thinking about a problem I’ve had since I was 18 and read “The Great Gatsby” for the first time. I was luxuriating in Fitzgerald’s prose, in thrall to his storytelling ability, understanding as if for the first time what bracing heights the English language was capable of scaling, when the character of Meyer Wolfsheim slithered on to the page and a queasy feeling overcame me.

Wolfsheim was grotesque and Jewish. This was not good. Would a more appealing Jew soon appear to take some of the stink off Wolfsheim and let me get back to enjoying the novel? Perhaps the Buchanans would have a tennis date with the Feldmans from nearby Great Neck, Long Island. But the Feldmans never showed up. Wolfsheim remained the only Jew in the book and this made me apprehend Fitzgerald in a different, more complex way.

The issue soon arose again in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” when I encountered the character of Robert Cohn. Although not an oily gangster like Wolfsheim, the Princeton graduate Cohn is whiny, annoying and presented in pointed contrast to the gentile hero.

Soon after, upon discovering poet T.S. Eliot, my head began to hurt. “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,” anyone? 

The rats are underneath the piles.

The jew is underneath the lot.

Wolfsheim, Cohn & Bleistein: The names scan like a law firm of literary anti-Semitism, created by writers whom the callow version of me hoped to emulate. And it got worse. Whereas the anti-Semitism of Hemingway and Fitzgerald was of the country club variety, and Eliot’s ontological (therefore more dangerous), I soon discovered that French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun of Norway not only were virulently anti-Semitic but embraced Nazism. In other words, there was a continuum, a spectrum of aesthetic jew-hating. What to make of the work generated by these flawed authors when the quality is unimpeachable but the creator’s morals of the gutter? 

Would that the problem be confined to literature. Consider painters. Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, 19th-century French masters I was taught in undergraduate art history classes to venerate, turned out to be anti-Dreyfusards. In their era, where a person stood on the Dreyfus case was an indication of their attitude about Jews in general. Emile Zola was a champion. The aforementioned Impressionists were not. Who would have thought that Renoir, painter of rosy-cheeked, Parisian bourgeois life, avatar of sunlight, leisure and beauty harbored hatred for his Jewish countrymen? How can I ever look at another one of his candy-colored canvases? But I do. That I don’t admire him the way I used to has to do with the development of my own taste, not his views of my co-religionists.

Wolfsheim, Cohn & Bleistein: The names scan like a law firm of literary anti-Semitism, created by writers whom the callow version of me hoped to emulate.

Which brings me to Mel Gibson. 

Gibson is appalling. I feel about him the way Gadsby feels about Picasso. This was not always so. I admired “Gallipoli,” “The Road Warrior” and “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Thought “Braveheart” deserved all the love it received. But after Gibson had a few drinks and revealed what he really felt about Jews (To refresh your memory: “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”)  — that was it for Mel and me.

Then there’s Leni Riefenstahl, an actual Nazi. I can watch her films and appreciate their artistry, but that is probably because while watching her films, I’m not looking at her smug Aryan face. Also, she’s dead. How can I watch the films of Hitler’s pal, but not those of Mel Gibson? The “Breathing the Same Air Theory” posits that once someone is no longer living, the moral opprobrium we heap upon them is allowed to lapse if we so choose. 

My friend Tom recently asked me why is it that we insist our artists be good neighbors. Indeed, the cultural conversation has been reframed in a way that forces us to examine our assumptions about artists we admire. And the verdicts are in: Roman Polanski, done. Kevin Spacey, don’t ask. Louis C.K.? Although the comedian has pockets of support, his attempted comeback has been greeted in mostly withering fashion. Some who have banished these men from their personal queues feel virtuous for taking a stand against the violation of agreed-upon mores; others just feel lingering revulsion. But at what cost? 

When we engage with a work of art, what is it we’re seeking? Insight, transcendence of our day-to-day lives, certainly, but perhaps, most of all, we’re seeking connection to the mind, the heart, the soul of another. This is why we who value artistic achievement revere those who create work that strongly affects us. Engaging with a work of art is to discard the protective carapace and open one’s being to that of the creator (lower-case c) so when we discover something reprehensible — misogyny, violence, anti-Semitism — it not only knocks the artist off the pedestal on which we’ve placed them but causes a sense of betrayal similar to that which can be felt at the hands of a lover. Then we re-assess.

What Polanski did, and what C.K. and Spacey are accused of doing, was reprehensible. But I’ll watch “Chinatown” again, watch C.K.’s comeback with interest, and continue to admire Spacey’s work in “L.A. Confidential” and the first season of “House of Cards.” But what of the anti-Semites? I’m still a fan of “The Sun Also Rises,” although if I had known Hemingway when he lived in Paris, I probably would have wanted to punch him in the nose. Fitzgerald? I re-read “Gatsby” every few years and only esteem it more. My admiration for “Four Quartets” even enables me to rise above Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which verges on the demented, although that didn’t stop him from participating in a fruitful correspondence with Groucho Marx, of whom he was a big fan. 

See, it’s personal. That’s how we relate to a painting, a poem, a movie, a pop song, a novel or an opera — I have to mention opera because it’s impossible to conclude a rumination like this without invoking Nazi avatar Richard Wagner, whose work has been performed by the Israel Philharmonic. Imagine the conversation those musicians had! If we conjure a socio-political prism through which every work of art must be viewed, rather than curators of our experience, we become the commissars of that experience and run the risk of a considerably blander world. 

That said, I can live without seeing “Lethal Weapon” again.

Seth Greenland is the author of five novels, including his most recent, “The Hazards of Good Fortune,” (Europa Editions, 2018). Greenland is also a playwright and screenwriter and has worked as a writer-producer for the Emmy-nominated HBO drama “Big Love.” Born in New York City, he currently lives in Los Angeles. sethgreenland.com