By: Theodore Dalrymple
New English Review, July 2012
Haydn is an interesting figure, for he refutes in his own person the romantic notion that a creative person must either be tormented or a swine. (Haydn was tormented, but only by his wife who was a shrew, and that is not the kind of torment that the romantics mean. They mean inner torment.) Haydn is universally acknowledged to have been a delightful man with the most equable temperament; but the virtual inventor of the string quartet, and masterly composer for it, can hardly be denied the title of genius. Mozart deeply and sincerely revered him; there could hardly be a better testimonial than that.
Another undoubted genius of the most attractive character who comes to mind is Chekhov, probably the greatest writer of short-stories who ever lived. No doubt there has been a deal of hagiography in the way that he has been memorialised; but not even the late Christopher Hitchens could have debunked him in even a minimally convincing way. Few men have ever had such an inextinguishable if evasive charm; even Tolstoy, who was not easy to please, least of all by people who were not contented to be his uncritical acolytes and were his equals, loved him.
Personally, I have never been convinced of the supposed link between genius, or even great talent, and bad character. Perhaps I have been unusually fortunate, but the people of real distinction whom I have met, some of the greatest men or women in their fields, have mostly been delightful people into the bargain (though not quite all, but I will not reveal the exceptions). In my experience, it is the moderately talented, those with some talent but enough self-knowledge to wish it were more and worry themselves that it is not, who have a tendency to unpleasantness, for they are disappointed and often bitter that their reach exceeded their grasp.
A friend of mine once told me that a famous Russian writer – Pushkin, I think it was – once said that no real genius could be an evil man, that evil was incompatible with genius. I have thought about this question on and off ever since. To decide the question properly, according to the current canons of science, one should have an operational definition of both genius and evil, then select a number of geniuses at random and see whether any of them displayed evil. (The number of geniuses you would have to select for examination of their character would rather depend on the number of evil people you expected in a random sample of ordinary people. The smaller the proportion, the large the number of geniuses necessary. And even then there would remain the black swan problem: because 1000 geniuses had no evil characters among them would not mean that the 1001st genius would not be evil.)
What Pushkin – if indeed it was Pushkin – meant was that there was and is an intrinsic incompatibility between genius and evil. Of course, it is not very difficult to think of geniuses with profound flaws of character: Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was inclined to paranoia, could be cruel, and was not much fun. But no one would call him evil, and quite apart from his brilliance as a scientist he was as capable of great wisdom as of great foolishness.
The term ‘evil genius’ suggests that people do apply the term ‘genius’ to the doers of destructive or evil deeds when they reach a certain level of intensity, beyond the capacity of the vast majority of men to commit. The evil genius is not merely wicked, and does not confine his evil deeds to his personal sphere, say an exceptionally cruel murder or two; he is Mephistophelian in his cunning to procure evil on the largest possible scale. The first man that comes to mind of this type is, of course, Hitler, though the last century was exceptionally rich in such men: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Abimael Guzmán (the founder of Sendero Luminoso in Peru) and several, perhaps many, others. In his biography of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro presents his subject almost in such a light, a worshipper of power for its own sake and without scruple in achieving it.
In more exalted fields of human endeavour, it is difficult to think of geniuses who were truly evil: that is to say, to think of evil composers, painters, writers, scientists and so forth.
There is no doubt, however, that talented people often behave in unpleasant or immoral ways. Whether they do so more than the untalented is open to question; but they are sometimes granted absolution by others on account of their talent. The possession of this talent is seen as a kind of burden to be borne, for which the freedom to behave badly is a compensation or consolation, a hydraulic necessity to release the build-up of creative tension, and without which the talent would be unable to express itself fully. In order to benefit from the products of talent, therefore, the world just has to exonerate a certain amount of bad behaviour from the talented.
The first thing to note about this is that there is probably a dialectical relationship between the bad behaviour of the talented and the exoneration of it by admirers of talent. The talented, knowing that they are granted more leeway than others, take advantage of it and behave worse as a result than they might otherwise have done. This can be in large things as in small; and indeed they come to see their own talent as justification or exculpation in advance for their intended misconduct.
But does misconduct affect the way in which we react to the productions of the talented? I recently heard a story from an eye-witness about the behaviour of a late journalist, undoubtedly of very great talent, that lowered him in my estimate far more than any intellectual disagreements I might have had with him had ever done. He was, I learnt from this eye-witness, rude and condescending to, and dismissive of, his social inferiors, especially those who performed services for him. Of all human qualities, this seems to me to be one of the most disagreeable, and to reflect worst on a person’s character. As the eye-witness to this behaviour had no axe to grind, and might rather have been expected to evince admiration for this journalist, I believed what she told me.
But what difference did this knowledge of his character make to my judgement of his work? His wit was just as witty, his facts as accurate or inaccurate, his deductions from them just as valid or invalid, as they had been before. And yet it coloured everything for the man had been a theoretical egalitarian, outraged, at least in print, by the injustices, inequities and inequalities of the world.
Hazlitt has an essay on the difference between cant and hypocrisy. Cant, he says, is expressing a feeling more strongly than one truly feels; while hypocrisy is espousing principles in which one does not believe:
We often see that a person condemns in another the very thing he is guilty of himself. Is this hypocrisy? It may, or it may not. If he really feels none of the disgust and abhorrence he expresses, this is quackery and impudence. But if he really expresses what he feels (and he easily may, for it is an abstract idea he contemplates in the case of another, and the immediate temptation to which he yields in his own, so that he probablyis not even conscious of the identity or connexion between the two), then this is not hypocrisy, but want of strength and keeping in the moral sense.
In Hazlitt’s view ‘the greatest offence against virtue is to speak ill of it;’ and ‘to recommend certain things is worse than to practise them.’ On this view, then, an egalitarian who behaves badly towards subordinates is worse than a believer in inequality who treats subordinates as equals (if egalitarianism is considered a virtue in the first place).
I do not think this can be quite right, for it makes the expression of the right ideas the major part of virtue; in other words, virtue becomes a doctrine rather than a discipline, and we can simply write off the bad behaviour, no matter how great, of those who espouse virtuous views as mere weakness of will, of the kind from which all of us suffer. A man who said he believed in politeness but was never polite would be suspected of lying; only someone who said he believed in politeness and was sometimes impolite but often polite would be held to suffer from weakness of will.
If my journalist’s disdain for subordinates were habitual rather than occasional – as my eye-witness, who met him on several occasions, suggested that it was – then his professions of egalitarianism were insincere. But even this would not prove that egalitarianism were wrong, only that he did not truly believe in it. The work is distinct from the man.
It is this distinction that assists the talented in their career of bad behaviour (if they exhibit it). For it is likely that they believe that their work is of great importance for humanity, greater importance at any rate than that of many men; so that their reputation finally relies on their work rather than on their conduct. That being the case, they have more leeway than others to behave badly.
Moreover, the difference between the significance of the work and conduct is likely to increase with time, at least if the work survives the death of its author. If it were to be shown conclusively from impeccable sources that Shakespeare had been a villain all his life, it would hardly affect our estimation of his work at all. A man can be a sublime artist but an unattractive figure, and in the long run it is the former that counts.
I was faced with this problem once when I was writing about Arthur Koestler, a man whose work and intellectual capacity and vigour I greatly admire. He might not have been right about everything, but he was dull about nothing. Yet it was revealed, and widely accepted, that in his private life he had behaved reprehensibly, even criminally, towards woman. When I read him now, the word ‘Rapist’ echoes through my mind. What weight was I to put on his behaviour in the assessment of his work?
That is why the figure of Haydn comes as such a relief to me. A very great, if not perhaps a supreme, artist, he proves that it is possible to do brilliant work and yet be a good man. He would never have believed that his quartets excused, exonerated or mitigated misconduct towards others.