Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, Floyd Mayweather, though if we start listing athletes we’ll never stop. And what about the women? The list immediately becomes much more difficult and tentative: Anne Sexton? Joan Crawford? Sylvia Plath? Does self-harm count? Okay, well, it’s back to the men I guess: Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Lead Belly, Miles Davis, Phil Spector.
They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.
We’ve all been thinking about monsters in the Trump era. For me, it began a few years ago. I was researching Roman Polanski for a book I was writing and found myself awed by his monstrousness. It was monumental, like the Grand Canyon. And yet. When I watched his movies, their beauty was another kind of monument, impervious to my knowledge of his iniquities. I had exhaustively read about his rape of thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey; I feel sure no detail on record remained unfamiliar to me. Despite this knowledge, I was still able to consume his work. Eager to. The more I researched Polanski, the more I became drawn to his films, and I watched them again and again—especially the major ones: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown. Like all works of genius, they invited repetition. I ate them. They became part of me, the way something loved does.
I wasn’t supposed to love this work, or this man. He’s the object of boycotts and lawsuits and outrage. In the public’s mind, man and work seem to be the same thing. But are they? Ought we try to separate the art from the artist, the maker from the made? Do we undergo a willful forgetting when we want to listen to, say, Wagner’s Ring cycle? (Forgetting is easier for some than others; Wagner’s work has rarely been performed in Israel.) Or do we believe genius gets special dispensation, a behavioral hall pass?
And how does our answer change from situation to situation? Certain pieces of art seem to have been rendered inconsumable by their maker’s transgressions—how can one watch The Cosby Show after the rape allegations against Bill Cosby? I mean, obviously it’s technically doable, but are we even watching the show? Or are we taking in the spectacle of our own lost innocence?
And is it simply a matter of pragmatics? Do we withhold our support if the person is alive and therefore might benefit financially from our consumption of their work? Do we vote with our wallets? If so, is it okay to stream, say, a Roman Polanski movie for free? Can we, um, watch it at a friend’s house?
But hold up for a minute: Who is this “we” that’s always turning up in critical writing anyway? We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority. It’s the voice of the middle-brow male critic, the one who truly believes he knows how everyone else should think. We is corrupt. We is make-believe. The real question is this: can I love the art but hate the artist? Can you? When I say we, I mean I. I mean you.
I know Polanski is worse, whatever that means, and Cosby is more current. But for me the ur-monster is Woody Allen.
The men want to know why Woody Allen makes us so mad. Woody Allen slept with Soon-Yi Previn, the child of his life partner Mia Farrow. Soon-Yi was a very young adult the first time they slept together, and he the most famous film director in the world.
I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally. When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience. The identification was exacerbated by the seeming powerlessness of his usual on-screen persona: skinny as a kid, short as a kid, confused by an uncaring, incomprehensible world. (Like Chaplin before him.) I felt closer to him than seems reasonable for a little girl to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker. In some mad way, I felt he belonged to me. I had always seen him as one of us, the powerless. Post-Soon-Yi, I saw him as a predator.
My response wasn’t logical; it was emotional.
One rainy afternoon, in the spring of 2017, I flopped down on the living-room couch and committed an act of transgression. No, not that one. What I did was, I on-demanded Annie Hall. It was easy. I just clicked the OK button on my massive universal remote and then rummaged around in a bag of cookies while the opening credits rolled. As acts of transgression go, it was pretty undramatic.
I had watched the movie at least a dozen times before, but even so, it charmed me all over again. Annie Hall is a jeu d’esprit, an Astaire soft shoe, a helium balloon straining at its ribbon. It’s a love story for people who don’t believe in love: Annie and Alvy come together, pull apart, come together, and then break up for good. Their relationship was pointless all along, and entirely worthwhile. Annie’s refrain of “la di da” is the governing spirit of the enterprise, the collection of nonsense syllables that give joyous expression to Allen’s dime-store existentialism. “La di da” means, Nothing matters. It means, Let’s have fun while we crash and burn. It means, Our hearts are going to break, isn’t it a lark?
Annie Hall is the greatest comic film of the twentieth century—better than Bringing Up Baby, better even than Caddyshack—because it acknowledges the irrepressible nihilism that lurks at the center of all comedy. Also, it’s really funny. To watch Annie Hall is to feel, for just a moment, that one belongs to humanity. Watching, you feel almost mugged by that sense of belonging. That fabricated connection can be more beautiful than love itself. And that’s what we call great art. In case you were wondering.
Look, I don’t get to go around feeling connected to humanity all the time. It’s a rare pleasure. And I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved? It hardly seems fair.
When I mentioned in passing I was writing about Allen, my friend Sara reported that she’d seen a Little Free Library in her neighborhood absolutely crammed to its tiny rafters with books by and about Allen. It made us both laugh—the mental image of some furious, probably female, fan who just couldn’t bear the sight of those books any longer and stuffed them all in the cute little house.
Then Sara grew wistful: “I don’t know where to put all my feelings about Woody Allen,” she said. Well, exactly.
I told another smart friend that I was writing about Woody Allen. “I have very many thoughts about Woody Allen!” she said, all excited to share. We were drinking wine on her porch and she settled in, the late afternoon light illuminating her face. “I’m so mad at him! I was already pissed at him over the Soon-Yi thing, and then came the—what’s the kid’s name—Dylan? Then came the Dylan allegations, and the horrible dismissive statements he made about that. And I hate the way he talks about Soon-Yi, always going on about how he’s enriched her life.”
This, I think, is what happens to so many of us when we consider the work of the monster geniuses—we tell ourselves we’re having ethical thoughts when really what we’re having is moral feelings. We put words around these feelings and call them opinions: “What Woody Allen did was very wrong.” And feelings come from someplace more elemental than thought. The fact was this: I felt upset by the story of Woody and Soon-Yi. I wasn’t thinking; I was feeling. I was affronted, personally somehow.
Here’s how to have some complicated emotions: watch Manhattan.
Like many—many what? many women? many mothers? many former girls? many moral feelers?—I have been unable to watch Manhattan for years. A few months back, when I started thinking about Woody Allen qua monster, I watched nearly every other movie he’s ever made before I faced the fact that I would, at some point, have to watch Manhattan.
And finally the day came. As I settled in on my nice couch in my comfortable living room, the Cosby trial was taking place. It was June of 2017. My husband, who has a Nordic flair for quiet drama, suggested I toggle between watching the Cosby trials and Manhattan so as to construct a kind of meta-narrative of monstrousness. But my husband’s austere Northern European sense of showmanship came to naught, for the Cosby trial wasn’t in fact televised.
Even so, it was out there happening.
The mood that summer was one of extreme discomfort. Just a general feeling of not-quite-rightness. People, and by people I mean women, were unsettled and unhappy. They met on the streets and looked at one another and shook their heads and walked away wordlessly. The women had had it. The women went on a giant fed-up march. The women were Facebooking and Tweeting, going for long furious walks, giving money to the ACLU, wondering why their partners and children didn’t do the dishes more. The women were realizing the invidiousness of the dishwashing paradigm. The women were becoming radicalized, even though the women really didn’t have the time to be radicalized. Arlie Russell Hochschild first published The Second Shift in 1989, and in 2017 the women were discovering that shit was truer than ever. In a couple of months would come the Harvey Weinstein accusations, and then the free-fall pig-pile of the #MeToo campaign.
As I wrote in my diary when I was a teen, “I don’t feel great about men right now.” I still didn’t feel great about men in the summer of 2017, and a lot of other women didn’t feel great about men either. A lot of men didn’t feel great about men. Even the patriarchs were sick of patriarchy.
Despite this bolus of opinion, of feeling, of rage, I was determined to at least try to come to Manhattan with an open mind. After all, lots of people think of it as Allen’s masterpiece, and I was ready to be swept away. And I was swept away during the opening credits—black and white, with jump-cuts timed perfectly, almost comically, to the triumphal strains of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Moments later, we cut to Isaac (Allen’s character), out to dinner with his friends Yale (are you fucking kidding me—Yale?) and Yale’s wife, Emily. With them is Allen’s date, seventeen-year-old high-school student Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway.
The really astonishing thing about watching this scene is its nonchalance. NBD, I’m fucking a high schooler. Sure, he knows the relationship can’t last, but he seems only casually troubled by its moral implications. Woody Allen’s character Isaac is fucking that high schooler with what my mother would call a hey-nonny-nonny. Allen is fascinated with moral shading, except when it comes to this particular issue—the issue of middle-aged men fucking teenage girls. In the face of this particular issue, one of our greatest observers of contemporary ethics—someone whose mid-career work can approach the Flaubertian—suddenly becomes a dummy (I always hear this word in Fred Sanford’s voice: “dummeh!”)
“In high school, even the ugly girls are beautiful.” A (male) high-school teacher once said this to me.
Tracy’s face, Mariel’s face, is made of open flat planes that recall pioneers and plains of wheat and sunshine (it’s an Idaho face, after all). Allen sees Tracy as good and pure in a way that the grown women in the film never can be. Tracy is wise, the way Allen has written her, but unlike the adults in the film she’s entirely, miraculously untroubled by neurosis.
Heidegger has this notion of dasein and vorhandensein. Dasein means conscious presence, an entity aware of its own mortality—e.g., almost every character in every Woody Allen movie ever except Tracy. Vorhandensein, on the other hand, is a being that exists in itself; it just is—like an object, or an animal. Or Tracy. She’s glorious simply by being: inert, object-like, vorhandensein. Like the great movie stars of old, she’s a face, as Isaac so famously states in his litany of reasons to go on living: “Groucho Marx and Willie Mays; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; uh, Tracy’s face.” (Watching the film for the first time in decades, I was struck by how much Isaac’s list sounded like a Facebook gratitude post.)
Allen/Isaac can get closer to that ideal world, a world that has forgotten its knowledge of death, by fucking Tracy. Because he’s Woody Allen—a great filmmaker—Tracy is allowed her say; she’s not a nitwit. “Your concerns are my concerns,” she says. “We have great sex.” This works out well for Isaac: he gets to hoover up her beautiful embodied simplicity and he’s absolved of guilt. The women in the film don’t have that advantage.
The grown women in Manhattan are brittle and all too aware of death; they’re aware of every goddamn thing. A thinking woman is stuck—distanced from the body, from beauty, from life itself.
For me, the most telling moment in the film is a throwaway line delivered in a high whine by a chic woman at a cocktail party: “I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind.” Isaac’s (very funny) response: “You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”
Every woman watching the movie knows that it’s the doctor who’s an asshole, not the woman. But that’s not how Woody/Isaac sees it.
If a woman can think, she can’t come; if she can come, she can’t think.
Just as Manhattan never authentically or fully examines the complexities of an old dude nailing a high schooler, Allen himself—an extremely well-spoken guy—becomes weirdly inarticulate when discussing Soon-Yi. In a 1992 interview with Walter Isaacson of Time, Allen delivered the line that became famous for its fatuous dismissal of his moral shortcomings:
“The heart wants what it wants.”
It was one of those phrases that never leaves your head once you’ve heard it: we all immediately memorized it whether we wanted to our not. Its monstrous disregard for anything but the self. Its proud irrationality. Woody goes on: “There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that.”
I moved on her like a bitch.
Things being what they were that summer, I had a difficult time getting through Manhattan—it took me a couple of sittings. I mentioned this difficulty on social media, this problem of watching Manhattan in the Trump moment. (I fervently hoped it was a moment). “Manhattan is a work of genius! I am done with you, Claire!” responded a writer guy I didn’t know personally. This was a guy who had withstood many of my more outrageous social media pronouncements, some of which involved my desire to execute and chop up the male half of the species, Valerie-Solanas-like. But the minute I confessed to having a funny feeling when I watched Manhattan—I believe I said the film was making me “a little urpy”—this man stormed off my page, declaring himself done with me forevermore.
I had failed in what he saw as my task: the ability to overcome my own moralizing and pettifoggery—my own emotions—and do the work of appreciating genius. But who was in fact the more emotional person in this situation? He was the one storming from the virtual room.
I would have a repeat of this conversation with many men, smart and dumb, young and old, over the next months: “You must judge Manhattan on its aesthetics!” they said.
Another male writer and I discussed it over dinner one night. It was like a little play:
Female writer: “Um, it doesn’t really hold up.”
Male writer, sharply: “What do you mean?”
“Well, it all seems a tad blasé. I mean, Isaac doesn’t really seem too worried she’s in high school.”
“No no no, he feels terrible about it.”
“He cracks jokes about it, but he certainly does not feel terrible.”
“You’re just thinking about Soon-Yi—you’re letting that color the movie. I thought you were better than that.”
“I think it’s creepy on its own merits, even without knowing about Soon-Yi.”
“Get over it. You really need to judge it strictly on aesthetics.”
“So what makes it objectively aesthetically good?”
Male writer says something smart-sounding about “balance and elegance.”
I wish the female writer had delivered a coup de grâce here, but she did not. She doubted herself.
Which of us is seeing more clearly? The one who had the ability—some might say the privilege—to remain untroubled by the filmmaker’s attitudes toward females and history with girls? Who had the ability to watch the art without committing the biographical fallacy? Or the one who couldn’t help but notice the antipathies and urges that seemed to animate the project?
I’m really asking.
And were these proudly objective viewers really being as objective as they thought? Woody Allen’s usual genius is one of self-indictment, and here is his one film where that self-indictment falters, and also he fucks a teenager, and that’s the film that gets called a masterpiece?
What exactly are these guys defending? Is it the film? Or something else?
I think Manhattan and its pro-girl anti-woman story would be upsetting even if Hurricane Soon-Yi had never made landfall, but we can’t know, and there lies the very heart of the matter. Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy—a tale of a father struggling to prevent his teenage daughter from hooking up with an older man—will meet a similar fate. It will be impossible to view outside the knowledge of Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct—if it even gets seen. For now, distribution has been dropped and the film is not going to be released.
A great work of art brings us a feeling. And yet when I say Manhattan makes me feel urpy, a man says, No, not that feeling. You’re having the wrong feeling. He speaks with authority: Manhattan is a work of genius. But who gets to say? Authority says the work shall remain untouched by the life. Authority says biography is fallacy. Authority believes the work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure). Authority ignores the natural feeling that arises from biographical knowledge of a subject. Authority gets snippy about stuff like that. Authority claims it is able to appreciate the work free of biography, of history. Authority sides with the (male) maker, against the audience.
Me, I’m not ahistorical or immune to biography. That’s for the winners of history (men) (so far).
The thing is, I’m not saying I’m right or wrong. But I’m the audience. And I’m just acknowledging the realities of the situation: the film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon-Yi; but it’s also kinda gross in its own right; and it’s also got a lot of things about it that are pretty great. All these things can be true at once. Simply being told by men that Allen’s history shouldn’t matter doesn’t achieve the objective of making it not matter.
What do I do about the monster? Do I have a responsibility either way? To turn away, or to overcome my biographical distaste and watch, or read, or listen?
And why does the monster make us—make me—so mad in the first place?
The audience wants something to watch or read or hear. That’s what makes it an audience. At the same time, at this particular historical moment, when we’re awash in bitter revelation, the audience is outraged freshly by new monsters, over and over and over. The audience thrills to the drama of denouncing the monster. The audience turns on its heel and refuses to see another Kevin Spacey film ever again.
It could be that what the audience feels in its heart is pure and righteous and true. But there might be something else going on here.
When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.
Reminder: not “you,” not “we,” but “I.” Stop side-stepping ownership. I am the audience. And I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.
The psychic theater of the public condemnation of monsters can be seen as a kind of elaborate misdirection: nothing to see here. I’m no monster. Meanwhile, hey, you might want to take a closer look at that guy over there.
Am I a monster? I’ve never killed anyone. Am I a monster? I’ve never promulgated fascism. Am I monster? I didn’t molest a child. Am I a monster? I haven’t been accused by dozens of women of drugging and raping them. Am I a monster? I don’t beat my children. (YET.) Am I a monster? I’m not noted for my anti-Semitism. Am I a monster? I’ve never presided over a sex cult where I trapped young women in a gilded Atlanta mansion and forced them to do my bidding. Am I a monster? I didn’t anally rape a thirteen-year-old.
Look at all the awful things I haven’t done. Maybe I’m not a monster.
But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.
The critic Walter Benjamin said: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” My own work could hardly be called major, but I do wonder: at the base of every minor work of art, is there a, you know, smaller pile of barbarism? A lump of barbarism? A skosh?
There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?
Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question. I mean, none of them says it out loud. But I can hear them thinking it; it’s almost deafening. Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.
Jenny Offill gets at this idea in a passage from her novel Dept. of Speculation—a passage much shared among the female writers and artists of my acquaintance: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.”
I mean, I hate licking stamps. An art monster, I thought when I read this. Yes, I’d like to be one of those. My friends felt the same way. Victoria, an artist, went around chanting “art monster” for a few days.
The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.
What if I’m not monster enough?
In a way, I’d been asking this question privately, for years, of a couple male writer friends I believe to be actually great. I write them both charming emails, but really I am always trying to find out: how selfish are you? Or to put it another way: how selfish do I need to be, to become as great as you?
Plenty selfish, I learned as I observed these men from afar. Lock-the-door-against-your-kid-while-you’re-working selfish. Work-every-day-including-Thanksgiving-and-Christmas selfish. Go-on-book-tour-for-weeks-at-a-time selfish. Sleep-with-other-women-at-conferences selfish. Whatever-it-takes selfish.
One recent evening, I was sitting in the chaotic, book-strewn living room of a younger writer and her husband, also a writer. Their kids were tucked into bed upstairs; the occasional yawp floated down from above.
My friend was in the throes of it: Her three kids were in grade school and her husband had a full-time job while she tried to carve out her career freelancing and writing books. A cloud of intense literary ambition hung over the house like a stormy little micro-climate. It was a work night; we all should’ve been in bed. Instead we were drinking wine and talking about work. The husband was charming to me, by which I mean he laughed at all my jokes. He was tightly wound and overly alert, perhaps because he was not having success with his writing. The wife on the other hand was having success—a lot of success—with her writing.
She mentioned a short story she’d just written and published.
“Oh, you mean the most recent occasion for your abandoning me and the kids?” asked the very smart, very charming husband.
The wife had been a monster, monster enough to finish the work. The husband had not.
This is what female monstrousness looks like: abandoning the kids. Always. The female monster is Doris Lessing leaving her children behind to go live the writer’s life in London. The female monster is Sylvia Plath, whose self-crime was bad enough, but worse still: the children whose nursery she taped off beforehand. Never mind the bread and milk she set out for them, a kind of terrible poem unto itself. She dreamed of eating men like air, but what was truly monstrous was simply leaving her children motherless.
Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children. But you abandon something, some nurturing part of yourself. When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. Also other, more important forgettings and failures: children’s homework left unchecked, parents left untelephoned, spousal sex unhad. Those things have to get broken for the book to get written.
Sure, I possess the ordinary monstrousness of a real-life person, the unknowable depths, the suppressed Hyde. But I also have a more visible, quantifiable kind of monstrousness—that of the artist who completes her work. Finishers are always monsters. Woody Allen doesn’t just try to make a film a year; he tries to put out a film a year.
For me the particular monstrousness of completing my work has always closely resembled loneliness: Leaving behind the family, posting up in a borrowed cabin or a cheaply bought motel room. If I can’t detach myself entirely, then I’m hiding in my chilly office, wrapped in scarves and fingerless gloves, a fur hat plopped upon my head, going hell-for-leather, just trying to finish.
Because the finishing is the part that makes the artist. The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.
My friend and I had done nothing more monstrous than expecting someone to mind our children while we finished our work. That’s not as bad as rape or even, say, forcing someone to watch while you jerk off into a potted plant. It might sound as though I’m conflating two things—male predators and female finishers—in a troubling way. And I am. Because when women do what needs to be done in order to write or make art, we sometimes feel monstrous. And others are quick to describe us that way.
Hemingway’s girlfriend, the writer Martha Gellhorn, didn’t think the artist needed to be a monster; she thought the monster needed to make himself into an artist. “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” (Well, I guess she would know.) She’s saying if you’re a really awful person, you are driven to greatness in order to compensate the world for all the awful shit you are going to do to it. In a way, this is a feminist revision of all of art history; a history she turns with a single acid, brilliant line into a morality tale of compensation.
Either way, the questions remain:
What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]
*An earlier version of this article stated that Soon-Yi was a teenager under Woody Allen’s care