The splinter of ice in the heart of every artist

'The most compassionate of writers dispatch,murder and torment their heroines with utter glee'

After looking at two or three hundred of the photographs of Weegee, as displayed in the Museum of Modern Art at Oxford, the appalled onlooker is liable to be struck by an alarming thought. Who the hell is the man who took these photographs? It came to me very forcefully with his photograph Drowning Victim. A dead youth is lying on the sand, face down. Breathing apparatus is being applied, fruitlessly, to his mouth by a group of medics. A friend tries to pump out water, and behind the sad scene, three men and a crowd are all staring, amazed and furious, at the camera.

They are all, clearly, thinking exactly the same thing. What sort of man, on seeing such a dreadful sight, whips out his camera to record the scene, and starts worrying about composition and lighting? And, looking at Weegee's perfectly-composed scene, 60 years later, the observer can't help wondering the same thing.

Weegee is an extreme example of a general tendency among artists. Not one ounce of compassion or compunction is evident in his photographs. One of the photographs is entitled I Cried When I Took This Photograph; just as well that Weegee tells you this, since you'd never be able to guess it from the result. Weegee's subjects are not human beings for him, with their particular woes and triumphs. Rather, they represent moments when the human race volunteers an example of a general situation.

This is what a member of the human race looks like when its house has been burnt down; when it has just been told that its brother has been murdered; when it is shot in the head. We can hardly be expected to care, since Weegee so evidently does not.

Weegee is an extreme case, but it seems to me that he is not unusual among artists; it's just that he sees less reason to hide his heartlessness than most. Someone once called it the "splinter of ice in the heart"; that element of the artistic personality which doesn't care about suffering, which is merely interested in it.

The artist is fascinated by emotion, by love and hurt, and most artists have been through the emotional gamut. But at the moment he sets them down, it would be hard to say that the artist, or novelist, cares much about the feeling; it is a question of cold observation.

The man who wrote the last scenes of Tristan must have had a head as cool and calculating as an accountant. No frenzy would have created a musical frenzy on that scale. No man overwhelmed by love ever wrote a really truthful and accurate account of what it is like to be in love; and where a man beyond all feeling wrote Anna Karenina, someone profoundly in love can hardly get beyond "pussykins loves bunnykins" in the personal columns on 14 February.

Cold assessment of emotion is more or less what one would expect, but what Weegee draws attention to is the essential cruelty of the artistic spirit. Look at those who initially seem the most profoundly compassionate of writers - Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy - and think for a moment of the utter glee with which they dispatch, murder, and torment their hapless heroines. The ingenuity with which the creator of The Old Curiosity Shop sticks pins into Little Nell hardly bears thinking about, and to claim, afterwards, the reward of deep human concern seems somewhat unfair. How sad and moving the fate of Tess in Hardy, we say, thinking only of Hardy's tender solicitude on her behalf, and forgetting that, in fact, it's him who is doing all these terrible things to her.

Orwell, I think, was on to something when he said that if Shakespeare came back to life tomorrow, and it turned out that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not encourage him on the grounds that it would enable him to write another King Lear. It was an odd thing to say, and I wonder whether Orwell saw something of the truth that the cruelty of King Lear, visiting one pointless, excessive horror after another on the most helpless of its characters, shares something with the spirit of the psychopath.

Like Weegee, the greatest writers delight in cruelty and horror; unlike him, however, they were not satisfied to record what they found, but set out to create it. And that, weirdly, is the only way in which a writer can lay claim to that vital artistic quality, compassion.

With that, it seems to me time to set off to explore my own splinter of ice in the heart; a long break in the company of 19th-century Afghanistan. I've enjoyed writing this column for the last couple of years - and, subsequently, reading your approving, argumentative, or even outraged letters - but even high-security prisoners are let out from time to time to blink, disbelieving, at the sunlight. I will be returning later this summer.

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