Culture: Essay

The Fall of Man

Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist
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When our favourite artists are cast as predators, what do we do with their art? Shreevatsa Nevatia on the dilemma

Guernica, for me, has always been an impossible jigsaw.

Impenetrable as it sometimes seems, Picasso also makes me look at it differently each time. The bull, the skulls and the light bulb all carry secrets that I yet don’t know the import of. I like how Guernica makes my eye shift. In Nanette, an hour-long stand-up routine, Hannah Gadsby asks a question that left many stumped: “Any of [Picasso’s] perspectives a woman’s?” The Australian comedian hates Pablo Picasso, and she has good reason to.

While in his forties, a much-married Picasso had an affair with a 17-year-old girl named Marie-Thérèse Walter, and sex with a minor, as Gadsby rightly points out, can deserve no pardon. She shreds Picasso’s defence: “It was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” After being called a “female faggot”, Gadsby was brutally beaten when she was 17. No teenage girl, she says persuasively, is ever in her “prime”. Picasso had once said, “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them.” In Gadsby’s rousing routine, Picasso runs out of nails whilst drilling his own coffin.

Having watched Nanette, a viral Netflix special, I tried looking at Picasso’s work again. I was suddenly repulsed by his nudes. Even when I looked at his portraits of women more clothed, I returned to a line he once dropped: “Women are machines for suffering.” Gadsby was right. Picasso did suffer a mental illness— misogyny. I was plagued by that one problem, however. Guernica. The painting had helped me make sense of art, and of violence. I was hoping that for maybe this one, single exception, I could have Gadsby’s forgiveness. As it turned out, I wouldn’t be that lucky.

According to Gadsby, it is impossible to separate art from the artist. “Remove Picasso’s name and see how much his doodles fetch you,” she says. Gadsby is on point when she says that we need to give up our obsession with artistic reputation, but there is one question that still needs asking: Does the loss of an artist’s reputation invalidate his art? Is it possible to still enjoy Guernica?

Without ever saying aloud the words ‘#MeToo’, Gadsby has hashtagged herself. Her routine relies on her specificity for its impact. For far too many years, feminism suffered the generalities of a ‘we’ and an ‘us’. The #MeToo movement changed all that. Rather than speak on behalf of her ‘people’, Gadsby speaks out as a singular, enraged ‘I’. Nanette is not just a catalysing moment for #MeToo, it also brings a chainsaw to the world of comedy itself. In her act, Bill Cosby is not just representative of an abstract misogyny. He’s relevant because he was once her favourite comedian. I find writing in the first person oppressive, and I’d sworn never to employ the ‘I’ again. Yet, here I am, embracing my vanity afresh. I blame Hannah Gadsby. She’s made personal voice an imperative again.

In October last year, on social media, many friends and acquaintances confessed to being harassed, molested and abused. I tried to distance myself from the sudden sanctimony of some of these #MeToo posts. Cynically, I thought, the women who were naming despicable men would later be shamed. The likes of Harvey Weinstein, I said, had too much clout. More than seven months later, seeing the Hollywood producer being led out of an NYPD precinct in handcuffs, I felt contrite. I had gotten this wrong. When voiced publicly, the trauma of women can have definite, tangible repercussions for men.

Nanette made me want to roll back my scepticism. I had failed to see the #MeToo movement had substantially altered the world while I was satisfying myself with objections that were both academic and pernickety. I was, it would seem, yet another heterosexual man inventing a defence that might help me safeguard the abundance of my privilege. Gadsby, though, made me feel proud that by detailing the pain of my childhood abuse in a memoir, I had, like her, enjoyed the benefits of a therapeutic confession. My empathy, however, did come with its limits. I would never know what it was like to be a lesbian woman growing up in Tasmania at a time when 70 per cent of its population felt homosexuality should be criminalised. I badly wanted to be like Gadsby, and I knew I couldn’t. We have our pain in common, yes, but we look at art and artists differently. She has more of a public conscience.

“Any of Picasso's perspectives a woman's? Remove his name and see how much his doodles fetch you” - Hannah Gadsby in Nanette

Nanette is, in the end, a routine that Gadsby performs for live audiences the world over. She understands the power of repetition. I was struck by a line she returns to a couple of times. “Hindsight is a gift,” she says, “so, stop wasting my time!” Clutching the microphone with one hand, her eyes ablaze, Gadsby’s anger can overwhelm. She is livid when she utters the names of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Her belligerence, I found, is infectious. It swept me right up. These men had done wrong. They deserved all their ignominy. Only later did I mourn the fact that I had disavowed men who were once my heroes.

I discovered Woody Allen’s literature before I did his films. A 1991 edition of his Complete Prose left me in stitches. I didn’t need context to drop some of his lines— “No, thanks. I already own a penguin”— at birthday parties. They were always a success. I loved Annie Hall when I saw it at 16. I too wanted to find myself having self-deprecatory conversations with women on rooftops. But of all his films I had seen in the 1990s, my absolute favourite was Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Divided into seven vignettes, the film sees Dr Ross (Gene Wilder) fall in love with a sheep. A rabbi indulges in bondage sex while his wife eats pork. In the last sketch, Allen plays a sperm, dressed in a white jumpsuit, ready to be ejaculated like a reluctant paratrooper.

Even though the bawdiness of this humour is hideously out of date, I still suffer a nostalgia for it. Knowing all that I do about Allen now, I realise he was doing a little more than normalising atypical sexual behaviour. He was perhaps defending his own treacherous perversions. Gadsby is wrong. Hindsight is not a gift. It’s a curse. I do not find comfort in saying, “I wish I knew this at another time.”

When I heard Allen’s wife, Soon-Yi Pervin, was once his adopted daughter, my teenage mind was more excited than appalled. Adulthood, I felt, afforded choices that adolescence couldn’t imagine. Allen’s defence, I felt, was watertight: “The heart wants what the heart wants.” In 2014, however, I was an adult, and I had just been blown away by Allen’s Blue Jasmine. A New Yorker review called it ‘the strongest, most resonant movie Woody Allen has made in years’. I agreed. Allen had peaked. Published around that time, though, a New York Times article addled my admiration.

Dylan Farrow, another girl adopted by Allen and Mia Farrow, had written an opinion piece for the Times: ‘What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house […] Then he sexually assaulted me.’ In the run-up to the Oscars, the article threw almost everyone in a tizzy. Blanchett called the controversy a “family matter”, while Scarlett Johansson said of Allen, “It’s not like this is somebody that’s been prosecuted and found guilty of something.” Nobody was coming out of this looking good.

Blanchett, Johansson and I all seem to have had the same problems. How do we wrap our heads around the idea that a man who creates great art can also be capable of monstrous deeds? And once we know he has a capacity to abuse, what then do we do with his great art? Even after Dylan’s allegations, Woody Allen has released a film every year. Actors like Kristen Stewart and Kate Winslet continued to act in these movies. My own boycott was also half-hearted. I still publicly confess that after watching Midnight in Paris, I took a greater joy in walking with my hands in my pockets. Match Point made me want to take up tennis, and almost all of Allen’s early oeuvre has made me wish I lived in New York. I have to ask if my appreciation makes me a bit of a misogynist too.

These men had done wrong. They deserved the ignominy. Only later did I mourn that I had disavowed men who were once my heroes

Since April 2017, 219 male celebrities, politicians, CEOs and others have been accused of sexual misconduct in the US alone. Of these, more than a third come from the world of the arts and entertainment. Their public visibility only makes their alleged transgressions more conspicuous. In the last year, the #MeToo list has come to include Ben Affleck, Lars von Trier, Kevin Spacey, Aziz Ansari and Morgan Freeman. I find it relatively easy to abjure these men, but not their filmographies. I like The Usual Suspects for its novel script, not just for Spacey. Tim Robbins taught me the art of stoicism in The Shawshank Redemption, not so much Morgan Freeman. Cinema has always been participative, and no individual misdeed should overshadow the triumphs of a collective. If we give up on Blue Jasmine, we also discount Blanchett’s feminist portrayal.

MULTIPLE AUTHORS AND perspectives make films easy to save, but art and literature are not so easy to rescue. Much like their effort and their accolades, shame is also something artists and writers must process individually. Having won the Pulitzer for his 2007 book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz knows that weight of gravity doubles itself when you’re a celebrated man falling from grace. The writer has been accused of kissing a woman without her permission, while another alleged he “went off for me” after she quizzed him about Yunior, the philandering protagonist of his short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her.

In June 2013, my bipolarity had taken a turn for the worse. I had to be institutionalised. When my parents asked me if there’s something I needed, my answer was familiar and practised: “Books!” A few days later, I found Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her in the half-dozen titles I was sent. Desperate to commit them to memory, I read both books twice. They weren’t just a distraction. They brought me relief. Of the two books, I remember Díaz’s collection of stories more. I’d lost a girlfriend.

Díaz was funny, I felt. Though bawdy, the book, as I remember it, was tender. When I read the words, ‘None of us wanted to be nigger. Not for nothing,’ I didn’t think Díaz was racist. I thought he was being deft and authentic.

Many of Díaz’s characters are obsessed with time and their memories of a Dominican Republic they have left behind. In April, it became clear the author too has a complex relationship with his past. In a confessional piece for The New Yorker, Díaz wrote, ‘I was raped when I was eight years old. By a grownup that I truly trusted. After he raped me, he told me I had to return the next day or I would be ‘in trouble’. And because I was terrified, and confused, I went back the next day and was raped again.’

Reading Díaz in 2013, there were several instances when I wanted to shout, “Me too”, but this time around, I felt compelled to add a hashtag. I suddenly wanted to join the same movement one of my favourite writers had just endorsed. Like Díaz, I too was abused when I was eight, and like Díaz, I read everything I could lay my hands on in order to cope. The writer spoke of how his oppression had left him with an ability to hurt others. When in the throes of mania, my aggression has also bruised people. Though I have invented some hierarchies to verbally assault the women I love, patriarchy and sexism have, at other times, offered themselves up to me too easily. I cannot hide behind my diagnosis. My behaviour, craven and irrational, has the same capacity as Junot Díaz’s. I am no worse. I am no better.

My identification with the author and his work makes my commitment to justice falter. I am, for instance, comforted by the fact that both of Díaz’s employers (MIT and Boston Review) have allowed him to continue working. The editors of Boston Review put out a statement that said the accusations levelled against Díaz did not have ‘the kind of severity that animated the #MeToo movement’. Alisa Rivera, yet another woman who Diaz is said to have left in tears, makes a compelling point: ‘With #MeToo, the standard seems to be, “Well, it’s not as bad as Harvey Weinstein, so therefore it’s not something we should do anything about.” I think we should have a bigger conversation about abuse of power.’ Rivera is right, but by putting predators and inveterate jerks on the same list, are we not doing #MeToo a disservice?

Despite the fact that both books detail the exploits of sex-obsessed men, I’d never imagined that reading This Is How You Lose Her would one day come to feel like reading Lolita. I’d never thought that Junot Díaz’s life would seem as chequered as Humbert Humbert’s once did. Amnesia is not amnesty, and it is indeed hard to forget the discreditable biography of a writer when responding to his art. But to then reject his art amounts to forging a censorship that his audiences do not wholly deserve.

In a recent interview, Mario Vargas Llosa said, “If you respect literature, you must accept not only the very idealist, altruist vision of human beings but also the infernal vision of them.” He adds that in every human, there are angels and devils who co-exist. Looking at a Picasso, watching a Woody Allen film, or reading Junot Díaz, one is struck by how well they renew the world in which we live. Hannah Gadsby is spot on when she says “men don’t have a monopoly on the human condition”, but it would be a stretch to add they don’t have a right to it. Art does not absolve the artist. It is too wilful to do all that. As for the entitled men who create it, we must perhaps accept a version of Oscar Wilde’s maxim: Even if in the gutter, we can look at the stars.