The old saying about the fine line between genius and madness seems particularly apt when looking at writers. There must be something about the personality or temperament that is well-suited to long hours of isolated scribbling that leads to eccentricity and anti-sociability.
Recently, I’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals—a hatchet job on the writing profession if ever there was one. Now, Johnson is a curmudgeonly Conservative and has his own agenda in portraying the shortcomings of self-appointed (usually left-wing) intellectuals, but it’s hard to deny that at least the ones he selects are a sorry lot.
The most astonishing thing that comes out of these portraits is how poor at human relations some of the most humanist writers were. Johnson paints Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy, both known for their groundbreaking portrayals of women, as being hopelessly misogynistic in real life. Even more astonishing, given the psychological insights of much great literature, is how little empathy many of these writers have. How can someone understand people so well in the abstract and so little in the concrete?
A less polemical look at the writing profession is from Javier Marias, whose Written Lives is a true joy to read. Without any particular agenda, Marias relays anecdotes from the lives of some giants of literature: Nabokov, Mann, Mishima, Conrad, Faulkner. They’re mostly humorous and all the writers are portrayed as eccentric at the very least. Some (particularly Rimbaud or Mishima) are more accurately described as “crazy”.
There’s a lot of selection bias here. Johnson wanted to prove that intellectuals, particularly writers, are ineligible to tell the world how to live, based on their own (considerable) shortcomings. Marias wants to entertain. Either purpose will lead to a tendency to choose the most sensational stories. Obviously there are plenty of writers who are well-adjusted and even tempered—it’s just that a lot of the truly remarkable writers aren’t.
Are great writers any crazier or more deeply flawed than the rest of humanity, or do we simply forgive them more? Do we excuse their foibles on account of their “artistic temperament”? Do we say that their personality is unconnected to their art?
Even Johnson, who appears to be less willing to forgive faults than most, acknowledges that great art remains great irrespective of who created it. He takes more issue with the idea that great art should guide us, when the ideas and philosophies within served their creator so poorly.
As a lover of books and writing, I’m happy to cut the greats a little slack. And I’m more than happy to have a bit of a laugh at their oddities.