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Save your wrath: men may be monsters, but not their masterworks

Published 9 July 2021 in Magazine • 4 min read

900-page life of Philip Roth has been withdrawn because of his biographer’s alleged sexual crimes, but banning art and books in the name of ‘correct thinking’ is a crime against liberty, writes Josef Joffe.

Long ago, when the humanities taught students to look at art from many angles and debate vigorously, we still had an iron rule drummed into our young minds: writer and work are apples and pears. Just as you cannot judge a book by its cover, you should not measure its worth by the yardstick of an author’s character, be it exemplary or execrable. 

Tempi passati. In our time, hardly a day goes by without publishers and Amazon banning books because of the author’s sexual crimes, proven or merely alleged. It’s death by exorcism – censorship imposed not by a Ministry of Truth, as in George Orwell’s 1984. We do it to ourselves in the name of goodness and correct thinking. 

The most recent case is Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, all 900 pages of it. W W Norton, one of the last independents on the market, canceled the work because two women had come forward with accusations of sexual assault committed decades ago. No due process needed; the charge was proof enough. So off to the shredder with the tome. 

Last year, Hachette nixed Woody Allen’s autobiography Apropos of Nothing. His crime, allegedly committed 30 years ago, was sexual abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan, then aged seven. Endless investigations by prosecutors and clinical experts yielded nothing, and so the case was dropped. Yet for Hachette, victimology beat criminology. Out with the “monster,” as the New York Times once referred to Woody Allen. 

Which leads to the wider philosophical issue of art versus artist. Should we ban Allen’s oeuvre retroactively?  Fifty-one films, six books, his legendary columns in the New Yorker. Add three Oscars for Annie HallHannah and Her Sisters and Midnight in Paris. We would if character rather than creativity were the criterion. If so, the alleged criminal would be identical with his work, and so both must be ostracized. But how can books be culpable? Only people are. 

Let’s raise an apparently simpler issue. Unlike Bailey and Allen, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was not smeared, but duly tried and convicted in a court of law. He was guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and he got 23 years in prison. What is to be done to his legacy? Should such iconic movies as The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love be imprisoned as well? Should his many Academy Awards be melted down? The appropriate answer is this: men are guilty, not their masterpieces.  

Nor is this just a matter of MeToo and Woke. It’s an age-old conundrum, which, as the next cases show, was resolved in favor of the artist, evil as he may have been. Take the fabled sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, a towering figure of the Italian Renaissance. He was indeed a monster.  

He had bragged of three murders; he was charged with counterfeiting and child abuse. Yet Goethe was so enamored of Cellini that he published his autobiography in Germany, which is still on the shelves. We continue to admire his works in Florence and Madrid. Don’t killers deserve death? Not this one, thundered Pope Paul III. “Be it be known that men like Benvenuto are singular, not subject to the law!” 

Michelangelo had committed high treason when helping to fortify Florence against the army of Clement VII. Two henchmen were executed. But the Pope ordered to “threat him courteously” for he “adored his art more than anybody else”. Bernini, a giant of the Baroque, had hired thugs to maim a rival. Pope Urban VIII exculpates this “rare human being,” and a man of “sublime talent as if created by God”. We should thank Him for allowing us to gaze at Bernini’s masterworks in Rome’s Galleria Borghese many centuries later.  

Sculptures, poems and films are not culpable, nor are chisels and pens murder weapons
Josef Joffe

Let’s move on to Ezra Pound, a Mussolini fan and anti-Semite. Yet he influenced T S Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, and his Cantos are enshrined in the literary canon. Richard Wagner was a confirmed Jew hater who wrote anti-Semitic tracts. But they perform his Ring even in Israel. The point is: sculptures, poems, operas and films are not culpable, only flesh-and-blood humans are. Nor are chisels and pens murder weapons. 

Now to Gustave Flaubert. In 1857, he was indicted for the crime of writing a book. Madame Bovary is part of the world’s cultural patrimony. It is a story of Emma, an adulterous woman who out of sheer boredom sets out to betray her slow-witted husband. Flaubert was charged with advocating debauchery. He was let off the hook. The judges reasoned that he had penned nothing more than a novel dissecting French society and the persona of a wayward wife. Whatever the effects on the readers, the book as such could not be punished for moral corruption.  

Words are words, they do not pave the road to hell, no matter how much they anger us. Freedom of expression, in the arts as well as in politics, is sacred in a liberal democracy. Words are only culpable when they are designed to defame, instigate mayhem or overthrow a legitimate government. So let the critics have a field day with Bailey’s tome on Philip Roth, who, for all his brilliance, was not an exemplary character, either. But grant Bailey due process, an inviolable right of liberal democracy. 

If Bailey did the crime, he must do the time, as an American saying goes. But what Norton and Hachette did, and Amazon continues to do, is the opposite of justice. Though bearers of a proud tradition, Norton and Hachette incarcerated books that have no moral agency. Only men and women do. 


Josef Joffe Portait

Josef Joffe

Josef Joffe, a member of the I by IMD editorial board, serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit. He teaches international politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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