I’m talking to my class about the relationship between the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and a carving in a 12th-century church in Beverly, England, when a student stands up and starts yelling, “Lewis Carroll was a child molester!” There goes my college lecture about animal iconography, and now we’re talking about rape. I would have put this mess in context by speaking about verifying sources, photography of children in Victorian England, Carroll’s letters (which I’ve read), or asking whether any actual molestation ever happened. But I can’t, because she won’t stop yelling.
Badness and confusion: That’s why Monsters, A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer’s recent book about good art made by bad people, is so hot. The book is as good as it can be, considering its rash gestures and unsuccessful efforts to understand itself — problems that actual monsters seem to have. Dederer is a good film critic, but she’s not as adept when writing as an other-kind-of-critic, as an art one, a literary one, or a music one. And once she gets galloping through all the genres that concern her, she begins to resemble a stunt rider at a Wild West show shooting at water balloons and missing about half of them. Still, Monsters creates a role for critics as moral companions to confused art lovers, and that’s worth at least a few party invitations. Read this book for its research and its labored perception, but not for its conclusions.
I hear this all the time: Artists are 1) the most sensitive people on earth, and 2) impervious to shock. It used to be easy to gross out your artist friends by liking the wrong paintings or music (or even food), especially if it was corny. But we should not be held responsible for helping people in their quest for good citizenship. We — who is this “we”? We’ll get to that — live in a factoid world, and factoids are farmed globally, experienced individually, and usually about 50% true. Dederer’s research is uncommonly good, so when she’s writing about Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or Picasso or David Bowie, there’s no need for tedious debunking, which keeps the stories rolling. Dederer even examines her own supposedly failed job of being a mother, as if she were a monster, too.
So here it is: Picasso burned Françoise Gilot’s face with a cigarette. Woody Allen married Soon-Yi Previn, who was pretty much his stepdaughter (Mia Farrow had adopted Soon-Yi with her husband, Andre Previn, before she got together with Woody). Samantha Gaily was 13 when Roman Polanski drugged and then raped her. Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, best known for arranging fire bricks on Paula Cooper’s gallery floor, is suspected of throwing his wife (performance and video artist/sculptor/painter Ana Mendieta) out the window. David Bowie bent a 15-year-old virgin over a table and deflowered her.
How can anybody enjoy what these selfish tyrants have produced? It depends, Dederer is saying, because some of these rat bastards deserve to be utterly trashed while at the same time it’s still OK to listen to Bowie, because he belongs to his fans in ways that other artists don’t. Teenagers need Bowie, Dederer says. She herself (barely) managed to get through 10th grade by playing Hunky Dory every single day. In contrast, Tommy Lee, of Mötley Crüe (and, though Dederer doesn’t mention them, Jimmy Page and Jerry Lee Lewis and all the rough and nasty guys) don’t enjoy the same heartbreaker status while swiving underage girls: They did it with “exhausting, utterly boring sameness,” according to Dederer, like she would know. “I remember him looking like God…. Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” said the tabletop nymphet of her first lover. Me, for starters. Dederer writes that, when Bowie died, “I didn’t know how to express my feelings about his death or the magnitude of my love for him.” I’ve never been that in love with someone I didn’t know, and besides, “Let’s Dance” is just about the least danceable song I’ve ever heard.
Dederer continually refers to her intended audience as “we,” while admitting that it’s a cheap dodge, because what she really means is herself. A reader has every right to be perverse when an author is lumping them in with people they don’t resemble — or with anyone. I for one am trying not to reason my way into a comfortable relationship with any of these occasionally rotten characters. I also had no idea that the contemporary English actor/comedian/writer Stephen Fry had made a documentary about going back in time to give Richard Wagner, the German composer of Lohengrin and The Ring Cycle, a talking-to. Fry wanted to catch Wagner, his musical hero, before he could write “Judaism in Music,” his anti-Semitic essay first published anonymously in 1850 — before he could poison what would otherwise be his splendid musical legacy. And I didn’t know about Picasso and the cigarette incident. Dederer typically tries to discuss the art in the context of the crime; she writes that Les Demoiselles D’Avignon is both repellent and fascinating, if not exactly beautiful. Maybe it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t get how a painting is a piece of accumulated knowledge that contains everything that artist had ever done up until that point, but you still have to read the surface first.
Dederer’s misstep leads to a more disconnected idea: In the Modern Lovers’ song “Pablo Picasso,” when Jonathan Richman sings that nobody called Pablo Picasso an asshole, it’s because it was common knowledge how cruel he was. The song, says Dederer, “is dependent on the idea that everyone but everyone already has an image of Picasso in their heads” as a womanizer and a powerhouse: “Well some people try to pick up girls / And get called assholes / This never happened to Pablo Picasso / He could walk down your street / And girls could not resist his stare.” Dederer claims, “And of course ‘was never called an asshole’ implies that he was one …. Otherwise, the song would make no sense.” That song wasn’t supposed to make sense. “Picasso” and “asshole” is a sort of Yeatsian rhyme that Richman tossed into a bucket, just like avocado/El Dorado in the song’s second verse, or “3 AM, 3 AM / (Dancin’ dancin’ late at night) / Well, where are my friends? Where are them?” in “Dancin’ Late At Night.” During his time on earth so far, Richman has seemed to be OK with not being nominated the most rational being on earth.
Dederer’s defense of Polanski is her best piece of writing, growing out of an unforgettable scene — a single car looming in the open maw of a ferry — from The Ghost Writer, directed and co-written by Polanski. She ranges further into his work through Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and makes a solid case for watching his films, because they’re good. Visions can carry you away, she’s saying, and in movie after movie she shows exactly how that works. Her skewering of Woody Allen is appropriately incomplete: Woody was Soon-Yi’s parent in every way that matters, and Annie Hall is a transcendent comedy about a woman, not just a character. Dederer’s writing on film is both intelligent and deeply felt. But maybe her disillusionment with Polanski tweaked her brain, because she enlists him to pin the monster tag on Nabokov for writing Lolita. Dederer must know she was on shaky ground when she claimed that only a monster could have written Lolita. “Why did Nabokov spend all this time with Humbert?” she asks, and then makes no effort (or none that I can see) to understand why this plotting, precise character would be a heady experience to meet in the pages of a book. To her question, she only answers, “the biographical answer to such questions is a brick wall, where Nabokov is concerned.” In other words, Nabokov apparently displayed none of these nasty proclivities himself. “Maybe the answer can be found in the words of another asshole, Roman Polanski,” Dederer writes. Aha! One asshole explaining another, because of course they go together. But the truth is, they only sound the same when they’re speaking a language you don’t understand.
Polanski was clear enough. Dederer decides that “his desire to have sex with young girls is the most ordinary thing in the world.” She quotes a 1979 interview with Martin Amis in which Polanski said, “I realise, if I have killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls — everyone wants to fuck young girls!”
And now you get to stand back and watch as Dederer’s train of thought goes sailing right off the tracks. Polanski “has given us a piece of wisdom here,” she writes. “The desire to rape children is not so unusual. Why should Nabokov tell the story of Humbert? Because, as Polanski tells us, it’s an ordinary human story.” And, by extension, Humbert is a very ordinary guy. “What does Humbert’s ordinariness mean to Nabokov? It means Lolita’s victimization is a tragedy because it is not unique. Lolita is isolated, but not alone. Everyone wants to fuck young girls.” This turns into an incantation. Polanski said it, so it must apply to Nabokov somehow. Dederer concludes that Nabokov “had the great artist’s impulse to step toward what was most awful in himself, rather than away from it,” and, luckily, that’s as far as she goes. Lucky, because Dederer’s reductive sense of the meaning of art keeps leading back to a moral position that seems more and more defensive as the book goes on. I began to wonder whether she was trying to express to a bunch of teenage girls, or perhaps to children of her own, that she would defend them from any bad persons who came along, even if they’re fictional. The climate in classrooms now, after all, fairly demands that young people’s concerns, their feelings of being dishonored or debased or misunderstood, must be honored, even if they can’t be clearly expressed.
It does no damage to anyone to observe that, contrary to Dederer’s convictions, Humbert is anything but ordinary. He’s an elaborate construction made of materials way too pretty to have any practical function. He’s a silk-embroidered tapestry of those old sexist tranquilizer ads. He’s a chugging little steam engine with way too many parts. He does things, he plots endlessly, but he isn’t useful. Nobody in Lolita is, not even Lolita herself. Remember that Lolita was published in 1955, the era in which the depletion and grief of the evolving postwar era in America was becoming solipsistic, and the assertions of national cheer seemed to point toward the possibility of amnesia. What could be more perverse than that?
Nabokov was writing as an American, and that’s where the seeds of significance can be found. I still can’t believe Dederer forgot that, unlike the award-winning film director, Humbert Humbert isn’t real, or that Lolita, the book, is itself a grotesquerie, and an entertaining one. Everyone wants to fuck young girls is not what Lolita is about. One of the first reviews of the book, by David Malcolm in the New Yorker, in 1958, noted the possibility that the book is about intellectual Europe falling in love with immature America and dismissing it. Humbert looks at Lolita’s interest in her world and says it’s all trash. What the book could mean now is that the erasure of culture is fatal. “Her brown rose tasted of blood” is one of the most chilling sentences in fiction, not just because something is bleeding but because that thing, while represented as hers, is actually his. What she believes is of no interest to him.
Dederer goes on to extrapolate that Humbert raping Lolita every night ruins the girl’s life, because it would destroy any girl — again, because this is actually happening. If being molested wrecks you forever, it casts the victim into a hole she can never climb out of, and whether everyone wants to fuck young girls is even true (it isn’t), it doesn’t belong here, because Lolita is not a real person, and a man’s penis is not the ultimate delimiter of a woman’s life. This reminded me of Carlin Romano’s scandalous takedown of Catharine MacKinnon, the feminist lawyer who claimed, in her 1993 book, Only Words, that pornography repeats the act of rape in real time: “To say it is to do it, and to do it is to say it.” MacKinnon was a troublemaker, and much of what she advocated got lost in the extreme expression of her goals. (She teaches at Harvard Law now.) In Only Words, she claims that if you read a porn book in which a woman is raped, she’s getting raped again, physically. In her telling, rape would have to be so horribly transformative that it eliminates the difference between actual physical experience and the idea of it. In a review of the book for the Nation, Romano wrote, “Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book.” He got in a lot of trouble for that, but the point was made.
There are at least three endings that Monsters could have had, but they all get left on the roadside as the book lumbers on. The Bowie ending might’ve wound up with something like “If the artist represents you at your most vulnerable, you might fuse with them. And then you’ll forgive anything, because they are you.” A second possibility is one that appears about four-fifths of the way through, in which Dederer asks whether she herself could be a monster, since she had been within a stone’s throw of being a bad mother when her children were young (though not, she says, as bad as Doris Lessing, who left her two children in Rhodesia in 1943 and fled to London to write). This would bring the story squarely back into the arena of worry and guilt, which maybe is where it belongs: The author tries to take on too much responsibility but saves the reader none of the anxiety, unless she tunes out. Mothers always worry — isn’t that their job? (The bad mother/art axis has been explained much better by Julie Phillips, in The Baby on the Fire Escape, an elegant, erotic, and sometimes very funny examination of the same subject.) As for a third possible ending, Dederer could’ve gone back to Picasso and the idea that genius “informs who gets to do what.” The logical follow-up could be a thoroughgoing effort to dismantle the whole idea of genius and its clichés. Genius is as genius does, and it’s possible to be a powerful artist, one of the true angels, without it. But I doubt we’re going to see that angle from a critic who’s so in love with a pop singer that when he dies, she doesn’t know what to say.
Dederer runs out of critical muscle long before Monsters is through. I wondered how a writer researching the story of Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre could have failed to absorb the lessons of Robert Katz’s book Naked By the Window, a searching and perceptive account of the couple, their work, and the world they lived in. Whether Mendieta was indeed thrown out a window by Andre (whose inert floor sculptures Dederer seems to admire) was never proven in court, but the downtown scene in Katz’s book reveals a lot about how people close to the couple came to their own unforgiving conclusions.
I think everybody knows who these people are already. What a lot of guilty readers can’t seem to figure out is whether they can sleep at night when things go on and on and on. Or whether they can handle the little possum teeth gnawing at their consciousness when they’re just trying to have some sophisticated fun. Maybe it’s the act of reading itself that neutralizes the question: Dederer’s giving you a chance to add up the things that beat on your consciousness, and that’s an opportunity you might want to take. Examine your inconsistencies, take the multiplicity of them, then add your own analysis. Recognize the intrusions as inevitable, because it’s never going to stop. And then decide what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to release.
There’s a criticism of late-stage capitalism and consumerist thought toward the end of Monsters — what you choose to read is a reflection of your character, and you can shop for character the same way you shop for books. This might have added some perspective, but all it does is make the situation more hopeless. Dederer concludes that the ability to accept beauty while rejecting the rot that it sometimes grows from has something to do with love. I disagree; I think it’s pain.
And that’s the story: We can’t muffle the constant drumbeat of the unfaithful forces in this life. Screw hero worship; heroes don’t need it. Screw passion; it’s just an excuse for asshole behavior. Screw genius, too. It’s fire ants without fire hoses. The big wheel rolls on and on. Keep some secrets, reveal others. Keep your hands and feet to yourselves. ❖
Sally Eckhoff is a painter, writer, and animator who lives in upstate New York. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, the Wall Street Journal, and Salon.com. She is also the author of F*ck Art (Let’s Dance), a memoir of 10 years of painting on the Lower East Side.