People keep telling me I ought to write a book. But, am I nasty enough? And, will I need a morality clause? Just in case my work offends someone?
Many of the great and not necessarily good, in all fields of creative, scientific or mathematical endeavour seem not to have been ‘nice people’ in the usual sense. Unassuming, amiable types, attuned to the frequencies of their fellow-man, seem not to be so very numerous amongst those who excel. Perhaps to be able to create anything extraordinary makes one just a little bit of an outlier, a tad abnormal, and it is thus hardly surprising if creative types were not rather odd in other ways, too. Why would one expect an Einstein, a Bach, Pushkin or Dostoyevsky to be just like the man next door who dutifully mows his lawn and is pleasant to the postman and to those walking their dogs? Work which tends to get remembered, quoted and widely read is often the product of peculiar ways of thinking, so we might expect such people to be unusual in other ways, too.
Leo Tolstoy was the son of a rich landowner, losing both his parents when he was still a young boy. He was brought up by his aunts and was privately taught at home until he was sixteen when, as a wild and undisciplined youth, he entered Kazan University to study languages and law. His teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn”… He wrote about his youth in a small book, published in 1882. “ I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that people praised my conduct and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man. So I lived for ten years. Fortunately, he was self-aware enough to turn his life around and after a profound spiritual awakening became a paragon of social kindness and virtue in his later years. After the phenomenal success of Anna Karenina, he gave most of the profits away to local beggars, to the absolute consternation of his wife.
Isaac Newton, whose cosy little anecdotes about apples that remind us all about gravity was an irascible, mean-spirited and vindictive man, not the rosy-cheeked, bewigged individual our teachers portrayed him to be. Cold, calculating, cunning and quick-tempered, he argued bitterly with contemporaries Leibniz and Hooke until their deaths. He was described thus in a biography of 1995: “Newton did not marry. He did not, with a single brief exception, form any warm friendships. Though generous enough with his time and money when he had both to spare, he did not give with tenderness – either to relatives or acquaintances. He lived the extraordinarily narrow life of a dedicated autodidact, hardly ever travelling outside London, Cambridge, or his father’s rectory at Woolsthorpe. He was not given to lightness of manner, nor did he show any capacity for self-irony. When angered, he became unbalanced and, it must be said, vindictive and petty.”
In his defence, he may have been on the autistic spectrum or a sufferer of bipolar disorder. Though his personality didn’t endear him to almost anyone at all, it served his career remarkably well; ruthlessness is a surprising bedfellow to success. In his later years he became Master of the Royal Mint and hanged people for counterfeiting, deaf to all entreaties for clemency. As a good Christian, he prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and one poor soul was not only hanged but disembowelled under his orders.
Roald Dahl, the much beloved children’s author, had a strange, stiff, Nordic childhood, beset with loss. He was beaten at Repton, perhaps by the man who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning Queen Elizabeth in 1953. In adulthood he was appallingly promiscuous, by modern standards a racist, sexist, a bully and a liar. He was also one of the world’s most successful children’s writers. It’s not hard to imagine Dahl breaching his morality clause, especially with a Twitter account.
Being a good person, or even a tortured individual, isn’t the same thing as being a good writer.
The seraphically beautiful Virginia Woolf was once described as a genius whose mind, according to one of her biographers ‘acted in a way in which ordinary people, who are not geniuses, never let their minds run.’ She suffered a mental breakdown – perhaps an early bipolar episode – in the same year as her mother died, at thirteen years old. When she was fifteen, her surrogate mother also died. We might charitably suppose that this so scarred a sensitive adolescent that her subsequent behaviour was at least understandable. She was, it seemed, capable of extreme nastiness, snobbery and antisemitism. Her rival, Katherine Mansfield, was dismissed as “a civet cat that had taken to street-walking”. She objected to her mother-in-law’s “Jewish voice” and observed that her husband, Leonard, came from a family of “nine Jews, all of whom, with the single exception of Leonard, might well have been drowned, without the world wagging one ounce the worst”. She drowned herself in 1941.
The list goes on and in no particular order of depravity: Patricia Highsmith, whose mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, was an alcoholic and an antisemite, Philip Roth was sexist, or at the very least, anti-feminist, William Burroughs was an occultist, a junkie who accidentally shot his wife in the head; she died shortly after. His subsequent wrestling with guilt and self-loathing was apparently the fuel for his creativity. The poet Philip Larkin is now widely viewed not just as racist, misogynist, porn-addled, two timing, alcoholic, foul-mouthed and viciously right-wing, but also, for good measure, just dreary. A morality clause would have deprived us of The Talented Mr Ripley, American Pastoral, Naked Lunch and The Whitsun Weddings. Unfortunately, nasty people make great art.
But good, and great, writing (or any art or science) isn’t the special preserve of the cads, the mountebanks and the rotters; not every author is Harry Flashman in disguise. Having a “beautiful soul” doesn’t shut down all talent, even genius. Chekhov and Keats were good, brave and noble men, along with many others.
There seems to be a thin blue thread of childhood dysfunctionality running seamlessly into adulthood that so many highly talented people suffered from, also, no doubt, so very many others whose accomplishments were more mediocre. Those who know me well will catch a faint resonance here. Adults often spend the rest of their lives trying to patch the gashes in their souls, the great gaping gunshot wounds suffered in early years. Shall I write a book? Perhaps. Not sure I’m bad enough. Yet.