Friday, October 23, 2009

Ban Crumb?

Theophrastus, whose blog is called "What I Learned from Aristotle," asked me:
Do you propose we ban Aristophanes, the New Testament, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dumas, Twain, Pound, Eliot, Burroughs, and Rushdie on parallel grounds of religious prejudice, racism, sexism, and violence?
My answer?  No.  And I don't think we should ban Genesis on parallel grounds, or Aristotle either.  The question was whether I would ban Robert Crumb's illustrated Genesis.  I thought it was a funny question, but one logically like a question Aristotle himself might ask.  Aristotle favored censorship, especially to protect children from the profane, but also to protect citizens of Greek city states from poetry and rhetoric and sophistry and woman talk and parables (aka fables) and hyperbole and other such nonesense that might weaken the power of politics.  Aristotle did censor Aspasia, the non-Greek woman, a kept woman perhaps, whom Plato, Socrates, and Pericles admired.  Although several Greek teachers of Aristotle loved Aspasia and wrote of her, learning from her, Aristotle himself despised her (and her type explicitly) and hasn't ever mentioned her once in any extant text of his that we have.

(But Theophrastus might have known even feminists call for censorship.  Ironically, for example, feminist rhetoric scholar Carol Poster has written an essay, "(Re)positioning Pedagogy: A Feminist Historiography of Aristotle's Rhetorica" for the purpose of banning Aristotle's work on rhetoric from the canon of feminist rhetorics. Her move is very Aristotelean, very separatist, very binary, very phallogocentric.)

In contrast, and Theophrastus might have known this better, feminists like Maya Angelou and Anne Carson and Sara J. Newman and Prudence Allen and F. A. Wright (and me too) not only read Aristotle very very carefully and study him very very carefully but also advocate that anyone who can would read his works very very carefully, as sexist and as misogynistic and as gynophobic as many of his works are.

I don't think Aristotle would have liked Robert Crumb (the profane barbarian) very much.  But that's not to say they're not very much alike in some respects.  Here's a bit of what others have found the latter to be like:
Art critic Robert Hughes talks about "Crumb's mean, grubby vision of human beings trapped in their meshes of hysterical frustration and lust." Crumb's wife, Aline, says, "Well, he is a sexist, racist, anti-Semitic misogynist." (As for anti-Semitic, Crumb flirts with big-nosed Jewish stereotypes — the demanding female, the wily, voracious male.)
Since the '60s, Crumb has shown a world that fits his vision. There's the prankster-pederast guru, Mr. Natural, revealing the meaning of life (as I recall from long memory): "Don't mean diddy-wah-diddy." Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos are nightmare feminists avenging themselves on men. Angelfood McSpade is a thick-lipped black stereotype, uptight Whiteman can find sexual satisfaction only with a yeti. Little Mr. Snoid climbs up the backs of Crumb's amazons to work out his id-rage and perversities. Chuck the Duck is hip to the sweat of one's brow; he says, "Life is mostly hard work."
Crumb himself has written: "I am constantly disgusted by reality, horrified and afraid. I cling desperately to the few things that give me some solace, that make me feel good. For me to be human is, for the most part, to hate what I am. When I suddenly realize I am one of them, I want to scream in horror."
Please know that by posting a third post on Crumb I'm interested in your reading and studying his art, as you will.  When his own wife, his second Jewish wife, says such things about the artist, then it's fair, I think, not to be afraid to give his work a fair assessment.


Theophrastus said...

I believe you missed my point.

Unless I misunderstand you, your three Crumb posts do not address Crumb's Genesis, but instead focus on an ad hominem evaluation of Crumb himself.

My point was that we usually judge the work of, say, Augustine, separately from his historical personality. Thus, we can read De Civitate Dei as a masterwork on its own, without meditating on the fact that Augustine actively took part in the persecution of the Donatists. De Civitate Dei discusses the ineffectiveness and moral problems with torture -- the fact that Augustine himself was a torturer is irrelevant to our evaluation.

Now, I am not suggesting that Crumb is the intellectual equivalent of Augustine (although both definitely suffered from hallucinations and psychotic breaks -- in Crumb's case no doubt exacerbated by his massive consumption of LSD and other mind-altering drugs).

Nonetheless, I keep hoping to see you tackle Crumb's Genesis proper, rather than just tell us what a jerk he is.

(I have a copy of Crumb's book, but I have not yet read it -- because there are other books I am eager to finish first, namely Elliot Wolfson's Open Secret and Daniel Boyarin's Socarates and the Fat Rabbis -- both of which appeared in the last two weeks. I have not even had time to type out my response to Barnstone's Restored New Testament -- which is a work that demands a complex and nuanced review.)

J. K. Gayle said...

Yes, I certainly divided your point in a way you seem not to have wanted me to divide it. I was addressing your question to me (about whether I'd ban a work) without touching your point that an artist or author can be a person doing bad things ("clearly a world-class jerk"). Thank you for clarifying again.

I don't know if you misunderstand me, but I think it's neither a smart nor a fair thing to do to evaluate an author's or artist's work apart from that person's own story - who she or he is or is becoming. I don't know your own personal story, but generally I think it's a horrible idea to abstract an intention of a writer from his or her writing or an artist from the art without some sort of listening with intention to what that writer or artist has said and done, to what kind of person that person purports to be (especially in the shadows of his / her life).

"Ad hominem" is a rather loaded charge you've made of me, but perhaps that's fair. If you'll allow, I want not to ignore the person when looking at what he's produced. Fair enough, I haven't myself produced a thorough critique of Crumb's Genesis.

Nonetheless, I was starting by looking rather intently at Crumb's sexism and racism prior to his Genesis because no body else in the bibliosphere seemed to touch that (not even you when focusing on Alter's claims that do
"not ring completely true" to you). My second post, responding to Chris's questions about artist and author intent also (followed what you started as I myself) focused a bit on Alter's apparent dis-ingenuity in light of one of Crumb's images from his illustrated Genesis. And then, this third post on the question of banning Crumb's works (even his Genesis) was to make the point that the people closest to Crumb (both keen about his art and on to his person) notice his sexism and racism in his life and art.

(I chose not to be part of a publication on Augustine's Christian rhetoric precisely because of some of the issues I have with Augustine's person. It's not that I wouldn't say what my issues are publicly - I will. It's just that those who were leading the project see no wrong at all in Augustine and when I could convince them otherwise, they were opposed to clouding a publication on his good rhetoric with some of his bad intentions. I always think it's an elephant in the room when one only looks at the art or writing but not the elephant that created it. I see how we in the west have generally appropriated Aristotle as problematic in this way: we like to forget his sexism, his misogyny, his gynophobia, his racism, his classicism in order to assume his methodology and his works produced are less infected with his personal fears and intentions. Aristotle would appreciate such abstracting out and such separating. For that reason, I'm sorry to have done this with your point. But if I understand your point, I have to say I disagree with you: what Augustine did is part and parcel of the work he produced. Same with Crumb. And "ad hominem evaluation" must include both the person and the art evaluated. Yes, I may say more about Crumb's Genesis per se (but should we ever stop considering his fear of women and perhaps of Jews that seem to motivate what he's done?).

Theophrastus said...

feminists like ... me ... not only read Aristotle very very carefully and study him very very carefully but also advocate that anyone who can would read his works very very carefully, as sexist and as misogynistic and as gynophobic as many of his works are

Well, your critique of Aristotle (bias, etc.) is actually based on the content of writings, rather than his historical character (e.g., his tutoring and advising of a vicious military dictator).

But your ambivalent feelings about Aristotle (feel his work is important to read [apparently on the merits, rather than his subsequent influence] / feel he was an unpleasant fellow ) suggest that despite your protestations, you don't actually judge works by the author blurb.

I wonder if you aren't rather performing literary "double bookkeeping." It appears to me that you select works to study based on its merits. Only after you read and study the work, perhaps you enjoy the pleasure of the gossipy remark about its creator (and, virtue is so rare that we can gossip about most authors, no?)

J. K. Gayle said...

Well, your critique of Aristotle (bias, etc.) is actually based on the content of writings, rather than his historical character (e.g., his tutoring and advising of a vicious military dictator).

If I'm so dividing Aristotle's writings from Aristotle's person, then I must change what I'm doing. That's certainly not what I've intended to do. I'm fascinated that you see what I'm attempting as so different from what I'm wanting to try to do. (When you quote me saying "me," then know I'm talking about a bit of biographical and historiographical work I've done). There's much more historigraphy and biography to do on Aristotle, but more even to do on the influences of women around him. I'm not the first to suggest his work is phallogocentric, or that he himself was. Yes, the "author blurb" is not enough to judge works by. But it's more than "gossip" that's troubling, no? It's the construct and the method and the work so-created that mirrors its creator, no? (Thanks for the dialogue, the critique, the dialectic, if that's what you're intending).

Sue said...

I hope my two "Aristotle's" will be friends.

Even I read Aristotle, although by far the most illuminating for me was "Aristotle and the Indians" by Lewis Hanke. Have either of you read that? Perhaps a bit dated now - I read it 20 years ago.

Theophrastus said...

How do you determine Aristotle the person separately from Aristotle's writings? I agree that analyzing Aristotle's misogynistic statements in his writings is fair game (particularly since he made so many assertions that are easily demonstrated to be wrong.) But it seems to be a double penalty against a piece of writing both

(a) because it contains incorrect/contemptible opinions; and
(b) because the author held the incorrect/contemptible opinions he or she expressed in the writing.

The distinction between (a) and (b) is too subtle for me to make this into a double charge


There is an inherent contradiction between the following positions:

(a) We should judge X's work based in part on X the person.
(b) X the person was a world-class jerk.
(c) Thus, we should value X's work less.
(d) However, we should also devote time and effort to reading X carefully.

Now perhaps this could be resolved by appealing to X's influence on later thinkers (and, as we know, Aristotle is certainly a chart-topper on this score). One could argue that we need to read Aristotle to understand those later thinkers. But this does not seem to be your primary motivation for studying Aristotle. You appear to want to address Aristotle arguments directly, not to unwind the reception history of Aristotle.

So, if I agree were to agree with you that

(a) Aristotle the man is a lout
(b) Aristotle's work should not be judged independently from his person
(c) Therefore we should devalue Aristotle's work,

then why should I devote effort to reading him, when I could be reading the writings of those who lead virtuous lives instead?


"Wanting to meet the author because you admire the book is like wanting to meet the goose because you admire the foie gras."

J. K. Gayle said...

Sue, Thank you. Sometimes friendly listening and conversations make for friendships and friends. And I'm headed over to the library today to find Hanke's book, which I have not read yet! Again, thanks.

Theophrastus, If he could have stomached your use of barbarian Engl-ish language, Aristotle might have gotten a kick out of your syllog-istic statements. Except, it seems to me, he preferred much more system as part and parcel of Nature, and your statements appear, to me again, a bit too dialectic-like.

There's logical fallacy in your reasoned conclusion(s):
"(c) Thus, we should value X's work less.
(d) However, we should also devote time and effort to reading X carefully." Your (c) here doesn't follow from your presumptions about my premises. And (d) might well be prior both in order and in priority. But, not to worry, even Aristotle couldn't do logic the way he constructed it for his students to do. It's hypocrisy if he's really honest. (Now, I think there can be honest hypocrisy. Robert E. Quinn does, and looks to virtuous men like Jesus Christ, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. as virtuous because they are hypocritical - and can admit they are. I think Quinn's on to something. See his book "Change the World").

You make me laugh with your quote at the end about wanting to know the goose because of it's already cooked liver now filtering through one's own liver. Thank you for humor! That wasn't one of Aristotle's virtues either, was it?

But what have I learned from Aristotle? (even if he's a world class jerk, as you say, and if he won't admit it, as I claim). There are merits to logic as method! But then somebody like Michael Foucault sees logic in the prison system. And somebody like Audre Lorde, finding herself enslaved in a prison of aristotelian logic, asks whether one can use the Master's tools to Dismantle the House?

If Foucault and Lorde didn't know Aristotle and his works, then they might be stuck using them (or trying to hypocritically and never understanding what they were doing or why). But Lorde goes on to critique Mary Daly for her whiteness. And now there's a logical impasse, or so it seems. So Krista Ratcliffe does a better, closer reading of Aristotle (yes, who he is but also what he says and does Not say). Aristotle leaves out "listening" from the Greek canon of rhetorics. (And for Aristotle it's his Rhetoric anyway). So Racliffe goes back to the sophists to the earliest feminists to recover what she calls "rhetorical listening." She's listened to ARistotle. She's found value in him. And, like Cheryl Glenn, who listens to the rhetorics of silence, Ratcliffe's even listened to the silences in Aristotle. Why would he be silent about listening as rhetorical? (And I've asked why he's silent about Aspasia. There's some irony if you look at how he uses the word "aspasia" without referring even once ever to Her.)

These are the sorts of logical and rhetorical moves that knowing and getting to know Aristotle the author helps with. Ratcliffe shows (in listening in on Daly's and Lorde's argument) that there can be listening with the listener's intent, not just listening for the loudest speaker's intent. Nonetheless, the eavesdropping is important; no, it's imperative. And there's no separating a person from what she's saying, no separating Aristotle from what he's written (not to you or to me). He puts us in the position of eavesdropping, ironically. He won't say that, of course. But we're listening to him rhetorically, reclaiming from his logic something more, whether pragmatic or virtuous or however you find yourself classifying it.

"I've always wondered whether 'You can't have your cake and eat it too' might be understood better or at least differently as 'You can't eat your cake and still have it.' And so what if you have your cake while you're also eating your pie?"