When a weakness of character comes from the same source that drives one’s art

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According to Sam Schulman

What does it matter that Larkin sneered in his letters and conversation (fearfully and fretfully, it seems to me) about foreigners and women, that Naipaul made selfish use of people from the beginning of his life, and no doubt continues to do so now? What does it matter that Dickens knew what it was like to be dependent and abandoned as a boy, but made sure that his wife would suffer the same fate? It is this. The weakness of character of Dickens, Larkin and Naipaul comes from the same source that drives their art (in contrast to Cheever’s alcoholism and priapism does not). What drove the three writers to punish – to hurt quite a few people who were close to Dickens and (if French and Naipaul are right) virtually everyone who came within reach of Naipaul – drove them to their desk every day. Without Naipaul’s ruthlessness about using others as means not ends, there would be no Naipaul. And Dickens? He gave an interview in 1862 to a young Russian journalist named Fyodor Dostoevsky which Slater guesses Dickens thought would never see the light of day:

He told me that all the good simple people in his novels [like Little Nell] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.

This self-knowledge does not excuse Dickens – or Naipaul – for how they seem to have treated others. But if we can’t be good – and it seems that we can’t – then it’s not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us

See also “The dark side of Dickens: Why Charles Dickens was among the best of writers and the worst of men“.

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