Saturday, July 4, 2015

Breaking Away

In the 1979 coming-of-age film "Breaking Away," Dennis Christopher plays a high school graduate who has a fascination for bike racing, and a crush on the Italian racing team. There is a moment in the film in which he comes to know disillusionment, when the team behaves dishonorably.

The other day I had my own Cinzano moment. I met someone whose work I admired, and I experienced a similar disillusionment; he was boorish and rude, and to his audience, insulting. Now, this isn't the first time I've ever met a bully, or been belittled; I went to high school, after all, and I know exactly how to deal with them.  But here's the thing: right away, I felt like I didn't want to own his work anymore. I didn't want the books in my home.

That was an interesting response, I thought.  And the more I thought about it, the more interesting it seemed.  I'm no stranger to the cognitive dissonance required for loving various works of art.  Rilke left his infant daughter. Frost was cruel (according to the Thompson volumes, although this has been disputed). Dickens, too was no angel. It can be posited that Ted Hughes did not behave well. Picasso, Mailer, the list goes on; and anti-semites abound in my favorite literature and art of the twentieth century: Eliot, Pound, Wagner. And yet I love their work.

How do we come to love the work of writers, painters, artists, and others who are not really nice people? Is there a bar one must reach, a bar of excellence, that permits such behavior? It could be that distance permits dissonance; I wasn't in the room when Frost was cruel to his family. But that leaves me off the hook in a way I don't like. Maybe it's just this: if you are going to be a jerk, you better also have greatness within you. Although I'd really rather that you be nice, too.


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