Sunday, April 29, 2012

Men of letters and moral degeneracy

Hilaire Belloc once wrote: 'When I am dead, I hope it may be said / His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'  I don't think Belloc's books are widely read now, but his "sins" were far from scarlet.  His only fault, if at all, was his anti-Semitism.  But there are several writers whose books are widely read and whose sins are outrageous.

Francis Bacon, the father of the essay in English, had all the unworthy qualities of a Renaissance politician except debauchery.  As Lord Chancellor, he committed a number of shameful acts in order to please King James and the Duke of Buckingham.  He was finally found guilty of corruption and removed from the high position. Christopher Marlowe's case was worse: he was stabbed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab.  Alexander Pope, who criticised Bacon as "the meanest of mankind", did something which Bacon would have called underhand treachery: he took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire and then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow.

The profession of letters has always had a plentiful stock of libertines and lechers.  Oliver Goldsmith earned about 400 pounds a year.  But he needed three times as much for paying court to venal beauties and for gambling.  That this "genuine vagabond", as his biographers so affectionately describe him, was the most unskilful of all gamblers is beside the point.  The playwright Oscar Wilde, who is noted for his brilliant epigrams, was a sodomite.  Guy de Maupassant, the supreme exponent of the short story and one of my favourite writers, had only one foot in high society; the other foot was always in the gutter.  He kept a parrot which was trained to shriek rude greetings at women visitors!  And he died of syphilis. 

Andre Gide, author of the famous book, If It Die, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, was a homosexual.  His book, Corydon, is an apologia for homosexuality.  Graham Greene was a pathological liar and a callous womanizer, if his biographers are to be believed.  His biography, Graham Greene: The Enemy Within, by Michael Sheldon, not only does justice to his lecherous escapades but gives the lie to the popular belief that he is a Catholic novelist.  Byron's case was worse: he was accused of incest.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge tops the list of illustrious drug addicts.  Edgar Allen Poe was a high-ranking alcoholic.  Dylan Thomas, who wrote some of the memorable lines in English poetry (e.g. 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age.') never parted company with Comdrade Bottle.  It was, in fact, his heavy drinking that brought about his untimely death at the age of 39.  DBC Pierre, whose novel, Vernon God Little, won the Man Booker Prize in 2003, was addicted not only to alcohol but to several other things.  He was known to his friends as "Dirty Pierre".  The list is endless.

Is moral degeneracy endemic to the profession of letters? I don't think so. I should like to believe that for every degenerate among creative writers, there are many who can be called paragons of honesty and uprightness.

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