More on Marion Zimmer Bradley and the ethics of artists
June 12, 2014 | 10:25 am
This is a follow-up to my earlier piece on Marion Zimmer Bradley and her serial sexual abuse of her own daughter and other child victims of both sexes. I’m writing this to correct some misunderstandings evident in the comments on that article, and to explain exactly why I wrote it how I did. So here are a series of points about my stance on the issue. These aren’t exhaustive or prescriptive – this is an endless debate and everyone will have their own take on it.
First, I’m not arguing for any public ban or restriction on Bradley’s work. If anyone chooses not to read it because of what she did, that’s their personal business. I won’t, but that won’t change my view on her contribution to modern science fiction or fantasy writing.
Second, what we know about an artist or creative figure does color our aesthetic evaluation of their work. That’s not just an opinion: It’s a proven fact. Influential English literary critic I.A. Richards did a series of experiments in the 1920s that demonstrated this and led to the foundation of the school of Practical Criticism: “He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments.” Richards demonstrated that readers’ judgments of texts in front of them were wildly out of line when they had no information or context to place them in. That’s just one of the countless examples that show how much our response to art is conditioned by what we know about the artist and the artistic tradition.
Third, no matter how far we can separate a writer’s work from their real-life actions, we have far more trouble distancing their work from the moral or other positions that they put forward or embody in that work. You can make all kinds of evaluations of the ethical arguments in Leo Tolstoy‘s works, for example, that underlie both much of his art and the social movements he supported, on the basis of how he lived and treated other people. You can join a Tolstoyan commune – or conclude that the man was both deeply conflicted and profoundly egotistical. And artistic talent makes Tolstoy (or any other writer) no more of a moral thinker than it makes Ezra Pound or G.K. Chesterton a trained economist, or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres a Paganini-level violin virtuoso. In every case, the creative figure deserves to be judged by the standards of the discipline they’ve presumed to branch out into. And if some writers use literature as a virtual sandbox for testing out ways of living Second Life-style, then they deserve to be judged by how those templates work out of the box.
So I would be very careful about any ethical evaluations or positions that Bradley puts forward in her work. This is not a sideswipe at her feminism, but it might be very pertinent to anything she says about the limits of individual freedom and the pursuit of personal fulfillment.
Fourth, I completely reject the post-Romantic argument that writers and artists are somehow uniquely privileged people for whom the usual rules don’t apply. From the egotistical sublime through the cult of the Byronic hero via Lisztomania and Wagnerism to Kandinsky and Knut Hamsun, modern culture has been regrafting impulses it no longer feels comfortable about in the religious context onto artists, turning them into prophets, iconoclasts, and millenarian preachers. Tolstoy the pseudo-saint is just one example. Whereas anyone who’s spent time with artists and creatives (including yours truly) knows that they are pretty mundane, often quite stupid, and frequently damaged people, who traditionally churned out work every bit as good for their times as modern products by the square yard, or quire, for cash.
In Bradley and Walter Breen’s case, based on what I know about their lives and on Moira Greyland’s account, I have a nasty suspicion that they drank this particular Kool-Aid and thought they were entitled to do as they wanted because they wrote, without regard for other people, even children. A respondent to one of Deirdre Saoirse Moen’s original blog posts quotes William Faulkner saying “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.” I suspect that Bradley and Breen shared that view.
Fifth, I have a huge problem with the view that some kind of emotional injury – with commensurate collateral damage to others – is inseparable from great art. That’s a variant on the artist-as-prophet delusion – the artist as wounded hero, as scarred shaman. As said, artists and writers throughout history seem to have got by without this, so there’s no apparent necessity for it. But it plays nicely into the modern cult of the creative. Some great creative figures have been driven by their inner demons, but a huge number clearly have not – and even those who were often didn’t let the demons out to claw and scar children.
Sixth, I am very concerned that anyone who knew about acts like those perpetrated by Bradley or Eric Gill should have covered for them because of any of the preceding beliefs. In the case of Eric Gill, there are worrying suspicions that one or two his sympathizers not only wrote apologies for him, but hushed up his actions. Bradley’s own track record around Breen is anything but spotless: I’d be massively concerned if anyone else had covered for her – just because she was a writer.
So that’s where I come down on this. If Bradley’s crimes had come to light during her lifetime, I think she should have gone to jail, where she should have been provided with ample writing and reading materials, and left to continue writing, with full access to agents and publishers. I’m sure that’s what would have happened. What publishers and readers now choose to do with her work is up to them.