Poetry and morals
This latest controversy about Derek Walcott* reminds me of a discussion at my blog that happened almost a year ago: “Immoral” writers and motive. The issue was whether the moral faults of a writer coloured our perception of his/her writing. The example I used was of TS Eliot, who was known, among other things, to be very racist. Jon Stone offered a very interesting response; he said:
Yeah, it does colour my perception. I tend to think of poetry as a kind of cultural discourse (or so I keep saying) and so whether or not I think a poet has something to say is a factor in how I receive their poetry. ‘Immoral’ sickos might have some interesting ideas but I’m less likely to feel much strong affection for their work if it’s tainted by stupidity. I’m even less kindly disposed, however, towards fairly normal poets who might be ‘good’ people in a broad sense but don’t really have any stake in anything outside of themselves. The poet has got to put something on the line, I feel, and in that respect bad’uns can easily outdo the charming-but-tactful.
My (badly written) response is as follows:
I wonder if the cultural discourse you are talking about is more significant (or is treated more significantly) in the contemporary scene than if you are talking about a poet who wrote a few decades (or more) ago. The distance of time itself seems to generate a kind of awe about past writers (the ones that survive, anyway) that prevents, to an extent, critique of their personal politics and lifestyle.
It’s a related post, but not quite. What I noticed about the first few reactions to Walcott’s withdrawal were “We’re talking about poetry here, not morals. Walcott is a great poet and that’s all we should care about.” But the issue wasn’t “Is Walcott a better poet than Ruth Padel?” (Sadly, Mehrotra is not considered important enough to be part of the discussion.) It was “Is Walcott a better poetry professor than Ruth Padel?” I recommend Mary Fitzgerald’s article at The Guardian, where she writes:
The fact is that one of Walcott’s students complained she was given a C-grade because she spurned his advances, and was awarded a better grade on appeal. This points to his unsuitability as a professor, not an artist. The Byron analogy doesn’t stand up at all: many parents would encourage their teenage daughters to read Byron’s poetry, but would be less kindly disposed to him teaching their daughters about the mysteries of verse in person, particularly if he had defended himself in the farcical terms that Walcott did, claiming that his teaching style is “deliberately personal and intense.”
Padel versus Walcott, in my opinion
I’ll be honest and say that I was rooting for Padel from the start. I don’t know why exactly, because I am as familiar with her work as I am with Walcott’s, which is not much at all. Walcott is admittedly “greater”; he has a Nobel prize. But something about Padel’s campaign, which seemed to focus more on what kinds of lectures she would be giving if she won than on how great she was, made me want her to win. I had also read some of her poems from her latest collection (on her ancestor, Charles Darwin) that I really liked.
When the earliest news about the anonymous letters surfaced, I wasn’t sure what to think. After reading a number of news articles and blogs, I’ve begun to think Padel really was the better choice.
But more than having to personally choose which candidate I prefer, what bothered me was the absurdity of various arguments. Let me go over this carefully.
There were two things about the letters that were bothersome. The first was that they were anonymous, which made a lot of people think or suggest that Padel or Padel’s supporters had something to do with it. Prof Hermione Lee, one of Walcott’s biggest supporters, asked that Padel “publicy disassociate” from the campaign. But why? There was no indication that she had done anything, and given the way her campaign had been run so far, it’s highly unlikely that she would stoop so low.
One can only speculate about who was responsible for the letters. My guess is that it was a group of women (or just one) who had been victim to Walcott’s advances and couldn’t stand the idea of him being elected to such a prestigious post. For whatever reason, the anonymity of these letters does not bother me, though I can see why they bother other people. Many have said that the nature of the letter campaign was no better than sexual harrassment. We like to hold people publicly accountable for their actions, especially celebrities. But if someone accuses Walcott, then the accusor, it appears, should also hold himself/herself publicy accountable for making that accusation — this seems to be the general feeling. There are two points to note here. One, it’s much easier to reveal that some A-list actor cheated on his wife (especially as this ends up being the job of the paparazzi, who have few qualms) than to put down a literary god. Two, if these were women who had been harrassed by Walcott, I can understand why they wouldn’t their names revealed. There is a lot of shame in admitting harrassment.
The other bothersome issue was that the allegations were only allegations. There was no proof that he really harrassed any students, and moreover, all of this happened in 1982. Note that The Guardian called it a “smear” campaign, suggesting that all of these were made up. Of course, if they were really made up, I doubt Walcott would’ve withdrawn. I’d also like to point to Seth Abramson‘s blog posts on Walcott. He indicates that Walcott has pretty much accepted these charges. In one case, there was a legal settlement. In another, Harvard reprimanded Walcott for giving a student a low grade after she refused his advances (which famously involved Walcott saying to the student, “Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?”). Again, people are going to say, “That’s not enough.” I think it’s more than enough. Moreover, there is an anonymous comment on Abramson’s blog that is very telling:
… as his student at Boston University, in recent years, I repeatedly found Walcott personally unmanageable and often cruel. Our class at Boston University– seven graduate women, two men–were all familiar with Walcott’s unsavory approaches to women, and as a class of many women, we navigated them with some combination of shame, disgust and disdain. We took them as a matter of course, making excuses for him, but they often made for a hostile environment and precluded for me, finally, any excellence he might have had as a teacher.
Any number of women who went through the Boston University program speak about this as a matter of course. His behavior was not isolated, it was chronic and habitual. My own experience was this: Walcott asked me to dinner one night, and when I refused he was angry at me; I went from being a pet pupil to being ignored in class. When I wrote a dialog that contained two women characters he called them “prating bitches,” and cut off the scene before it was done. Later he asked me to take him driving one day (he does not drive) and then told me to “touch his tumescence.” (He then asked if I even knew what the word meant.) I refused. I asked him, as my professor, for a letter of recommendation. He dictated one: “__________ is a fine poet and would be a good addition to any literature department.” That was the extent of the recommendation he would write for me [...] I’d just like to add that I was Derek’s student in the 2000s. It goes on and on and on.
I don’t need much more to know for sure that Walcott was a sexual predator. Would it have affected the way he lectured at Oxford if he had won the professorship? Perhaps not. Perhaps he would have had great things to say. But how would he have been received, especially once he had established contact with students and it became known that he was a predator.
As I mentioned earlier, the absurdity of the pro-Walcott arguments have astounded me.
First, you have the “Why are we being such prudes?” argument. I liked this comment at James Marcus‘s blog: “We’re not talking about sex here. We’re talking about harassment. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, it he’s harassing students he’s harassing students. He’s failing to support, mentor, develop half (or more) of his students.” The issue is hardly prudery. If anonymous letters were sent about Walcott having orgies in his house (with non-students) every Saturday afternoon, that would be grounds for accusing people of prudery. Sadly, anyone who goes anti-Walcott is accused of witch-hunting. Abramson, for example, was accused of McCarthyism by a commentor on his blog.
Second, you have the “This is Oxford’s fault” argument (I lost the link, unfortunately). What should Oxford have done? Refused to admit that letters were received and read? Stopped the postal service? Not accepted Walcott’s withdrawal? After all, they didn’t force him out of the race.
Thirdly, you have this crazy demand by AC Grayling that Padel and Mehrotra withdraw from the elections. Sure, the race is tainted. I feel bad that when Padel wins it won’t be because she had a strong campaign but because she’s the default candidate to vote for. But that’s hardly reason to stand down, especially when there’s so much to lose. It’s funny how, on the one had, you have people arguing that Walcott’s morals shouldn’t have been called into question, and on the other, you have people asking that Padel and Mehrotra make a moral protest against just this kind of policing (if one can call it that).
Overall, this isn’t about morality, really. It’s about ethics. “Is it OK for a teacher to ask for sexual favours?” and related questions. It’s also about crime. I had a thought about Walcott’s withdrawal that I kept to myself because I know that just because someone withdraws from something doesn’t mean it’s an admission of guilt. Something about the psychology of it, however, made me think he was guilty, though, and Abramson seems to think the same way:
I will admit I am partially swayed by having represented thousands of individuals charged with misconduct, and seeing in Walcott’s responses to these allegations, and to the whispers spread by those who do have some basis to know him, all the hallmarks of a serial offender who has never been called to task for his behavior–largely because he operates in a community without the will to do so.
I also don’t think this controversy will taint people’s opinions of Walcott’s writing (at least, not in a big way). Instead, much of the debate has reinforced his stature as one of the most important living poets today. The controversy may, however lead to a shift in the way we read his work, a shift explained partly by Jon’s comment on poetry as cultural discourse and by something the anonymous ex-student of Walcott said:
Derek is brilliant, but flawed. I would point out also the treatment (or lack thereof) of women in Walcott’s work; the work’s continual desire to belong to a grand tradition which it (the work) discursively recreates through the exclusion of women; and to suggest Walcott’s chronic insistence on a model of greatness both in work and life that excludes real participation by women. This limitation diminishes his work in my eyes. The work, however grand its formal gestures, loses its lustre when seen through this light. It provides a limited and limiting model of how art can be made. It is this myth which seems to most inform Walcott’s approaches to art, is perhaps a congruent flaw to Walcott’s personal dimensions. Frankly, it feels like a rather dated model of greatness. I think that Oxford might consider that as well, as they make their decisions about his professorship.
On a side note, I was very sorry to see Ruth Padel indirectly implicated in the letter campaign. The Guardian has, however, put up a nice article on her today, which spends a good deal of time talking about her work and achievements and what she plans to do if she wins.
Though the fall-out from the campaign may, she admits, “taint things for a while, if I am elected, once you’re there … well, poetry rises above it. I intend to do the best I possibly can.”
*For those completely unfamiliar with it, this is the controversy: the elections for Oxford Poetry Professor (a very prestigious, although not necessarily lucrative position) take place today. There were three candidates: Ruth Padel, Derek Walcott and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (in order of when they announced their candidacy), the former two being the frontrunners. Some days ago, anonymous letters were sent to Oxford academics detailing allegations of sexual harrassment made against Walcott. This led to Walcott withdrawing his candidacy (even though Oxford didn’t want him to) and his supporters getting very publicly angry. Some felt that the elections should be postponed so that a new candidate could surface, making the contest “fair” (currently it looks like Padel will win). Others felt that both Padel and Mehrotra, but especially Padel, should also withdraw because of the elections were now tainted. As it stands, the elections haven’t been postponed and neither candidate has backed out.
This is not entirely relevant to the controversy, but this teacher-student-harrassment thing bothers me. A lot. I’ve just graduated from college and am now officially a teacher. As much as I may downplay the teaching job, I’m pretty serious about it. I’m aware that in my field, I’ll have to do a lot of teaching if I get to where I want to be. I’d like to do it right, as right as I can.
I have never, ever, EVER been harrassed by a teacher — sexually or otherwise. It comes as a great surprise to me that it’s very common in American universities (see Abramson’s posts). The idea of sleeping with someone to get a good grade is alien to me.
Any harrassment that I’ve received (and I’ve gotten my share, thanks) has happened while I was on a bus, or trying to catch a bus, or walking alone somewhere. Some of it was fairly aggressive too, and I’ve learnt to deal with it, but a teacher propositioning you is something else altogether.
I think part of the reason is that education-wise, I’ve led a protected life. My father was in the army, so we moved a lot and obviously I changed a lot of schools. All of my early were co-ed. Boys became slightly problematic (in a good way, obviously) around fourth grade, but the teachers were all fine. In India, there seem to be very few male schoolteachers. Even all boy schools have more female teachers than male, I’ve noticed. As a girl, I’ve never felt threatened by adults in a school.
Shortly before my father took premature retirement from the army, I was admitted to a really good (if snotty) all girl school in Bangalore. Here, most of the really good schools are either all boy or all girl shcools. I suppose a lot of parents feel their daughters will be safer away from boys. (These parents are mistaken. I remembermeeting a LOT of boys in school.) The boy-girl thing wasn’t such an issue for my parents. We have a family history with the school I joined, so it just seemed right. I can only remember three or four male teachers: one music, one physics (whom everyone said was gay), the rest sports. Nothing inappropriate ever happened with them, as far as I know.
I went to an all girl junior college (same as 11th and 12th grade) as well. I was too lazy to go anywhere else. I mean, literally, having to travel to another part of the city. Again, we had very few male teachers.
At roughly the same time, I started studying French at the Alliance Française, where the classes are mixed. I had a classmate who was an old retired bank employee, several middle-aged classmates, some parents. Most were in their twenties and working, and there were a few college students. I was always the youngest. There were always more women than men, but there were men, and male teachers too. Again, nothing inappropriate happened.
Finally, my degree. I was determined to get out of this all girl business. But then, it was an all girl college that had the best reputation for the course I wanted, so yeah, I applied, I got in, and have had, for the most part, a very feminist education. I did have some male professors, but very few. There was one creepy man whose classes I did not attend for long, but the most he got was flirtatious (and not with me, thankfully.) There were two other English lit professors, and both were very tame. The male professor my class interacted with most was gay. (By the way, we all adored him, and still do. He lectured on media studies, mainly.)
I don’t know what to say! I’ve never had to feel uncomfortable sexually about any of my teachers. I’ve never been harrassed by them. Sure, I’ve argued. I’ve argued a lot with several teachers. I went through my third year of college almost blamelessly, until one class toward the end of the sixth semester, where I dared to suggest to a lecturer that poems aren’t merely “more complex” biographies of poets. I was accused of being an “individual” of all things. Hilarious. It took a while for the tension to dissipate, but at least it wasn’t sexual tension. I don’t think I’d be able handle that. I’m bad enough when it comes to disagreeing on course material.
Anyone want to tell me any interesting/helpful/scary stories? My email ID is aditimachado(at)yahoo(dot)co(in) if you’re not comfortable posting in public.