Feet of clay

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by Richard Nilsen
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Sometimes, it seems we are entering a new period of Victorianism — an era of increasing censoriousness and a demand for superhuman rectitude. We have not yet got to the point of calling furniture legs “limbs,” but there is an increasing silliness to language proscription.
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I don’t want to call it “political correctness,” because much of our new-found sensitivity to language is certainly a good thing. Not calling people by ethnic slurs cannot be considered thought control. It is merely civility.
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But, on the other hand, some forms of this hand-fanning of our outraged cheeks is, like Victorian prudery, simply a denial of the facts of human existence.
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Can we expect our heroes to be spotless virgins? Our artists to be paragons of morality? If we check the record, we will discover that if we make such demands, we will soon have to empty our museums, shut down our theaters and movie houses, clear our bookshelves, and pretty well have to impeach all of Congress — to say nothing of most of the 45 white men who have taken up temporary residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
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We would be in danger of emulating the Taliban vandals who blew up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001, or the ISIS bulldozing of Syrian Palmyra in 2015. The certainty of self-righteousness is perhaps the most dangerous thing in the world.
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Just consider the Iconoclasts of the Beeldenstorm in 16th Century Netherlands, when Calvinists tore through Catholic churches and busted statues and destroyed paintings; or the great Gothic cathedral statues with their heads knocked off by French revolutionaries in the late 18th century; or the book burnings of Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497; or the destruction of the library in Baghdad in 1258; or that by the Qin Dynasty (including book burning and the burying of Confucian scholars) in the Third Century BCE; or the Nazi book burnings of 1933; or the destruction of Aztec and Mayan codices in the 1560s.
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Of the burning of books there is no end.
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In Chile in 1973; in Sri Lanka in 1981; in Croatia in the 1990s; in Egypt in 2001; in Florida in 2011. Thousands of rare Islamic texts were destroyed by al-Qaeda in Timbuktu in 2013. This short list is just the tip of the iceberg.
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Moral outrage mixed with absolute certainty has done more harm than all the supposed damage contained in the books burned or the art smashed.
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There is a great deal of beauty and wisdom created or written by those whose lives were never exemplary. It is a rare human being with no skeletons in the closet. Let’s consider some of those artists and historical figures who have been praised, read, and listened to over the centuries.
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My personal favorite is George Gordon, Lord Byron, who sodomized his wife, slept with his sister, got a serving girl pregnant, and then impregnated and abandoned his underage mistress, Claire Clairmont, separating her from her daughter, Allegra, who died under Byron’s care. By the way, he also liked to diddle young boys.
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So, should we stop reading Childe Harold or Don Juan? Or “She sleeps in beauty, like the night”?
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Roman Polanski is a reprehensible human being, but a very good filmmaker. Should we stop showing his Macbeth to high school students because of his crimes? Not if we want to convince those teens that Shakespeare is actually an exciting playwright.
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Separating the artist from his work is essential. Otherwise, we will need to get rid of our copies of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, after all, enjoyed taking photographs of naked little girls.
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And if we are religious, we will have to stop singing that Ave Maria, because Franz Schubert liked sex with underage boys.
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Artists are as venal, evil, self-centered, confused and destructive as the rest of us. The history of art is a landfill of disturbing biography.
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Robert Frost sounds wise and paternal in his poems, but he was such an S.O.B. off the page that he drove his son to suicide.
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William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have been hell on wives.
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Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic apologist for Fascism. Herbert von Karajan was a card-carrying Nazi. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hector Berlioz were drug fiends.
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And we cannot begin to count the number of drunken novelists.
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Percy Shelley married a 16-year-old girl and then told her that he was in love with another teen-ager and that maybe all three could live together.
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Or that Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde while enjoying a love affair with a woman he borrowed from her husband, who was housing and feeding the freeloading composer at the time. Wagner’s wife wasn’t happy about the arrangement, either.
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This rogue’s gallery of adulterers, criminals, perverts and wackos made some of the greatest art of all time.
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Our heroes just can’t seem to keep their noses clean.
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One after the other they self-destruct, turning from demigods into blackguards before our very eyes.
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Pick one, let his luster shine for a few moments and then notice the worm.
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And I mean some of the most accomplished and meaningful personalities of the American century: Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer. Elvis was a drug addict.
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The list is long and luxurious, and the heroes in question come from politics, sports and the arts. We admire their accomplishments, even aspire to be like them, and then come to find out, as with O.J. Simpson, that they beat their wives and worse.
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It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.
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For every Woody Allen there is a Charlie Chaplin; for every Roman Polanski there is a Fatty Arbuckle. And let’s not forget Ingrid Bergman.
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Let us not forget the charm of Ty Cobb, the graciousness of Babe Ruth and the temperance of Pete Rose.
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Madonna raised eyebrows with her reputed NBA exploits, but what of  Clara Bow, who had a thing for the 1927 University of Southern California football team. Yes, the whole team.
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Just think of some of their stories, moving backward in time. Errol Flynn, the patriotic hero on screen, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a hotel room with an underage girl.
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Horatio Alger, before he became the author of those inspirational rags-to-riches stories that Republicans like to recommend to those on welfare, was a minister who lost his job because he liked to seduce young boys.
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It seems as if no one can escape: Who was the most saintly man of this century? Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls, and he regularly weighed his excrement in the morning, keeping track of ingoing and outgoing, both.
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So beside that, a governor with his pants down in a motel room may seem kind of tame. Even if he later became president.
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I do not mean to debunk all our heroes, but to better understand what they are and what role they play in public life.
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But when we hold our heroes up to higher standards than humans can sustain, we are like little children who cannot tell the actor from the part.
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An adult doesn’t condemn Hamlet because Richard Burton was a lush.
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Our heroes are capable of doing all the things ordinary people can do, including lying, cheating and stealing. Murder and rape are not beyond them, nor is mere vanity or meanness.
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Like humans, our heroes are bundles of contradictions; they are large and contain multitudes.
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For their crimes, we prosecute them as we do anyone else. For their simpler sins, we develop short memories. For their art, we need to be grateful.
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What we forget is that an artist is an artist for what he makes, not for who he is.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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