Leading Article: A different picture when artists behave badly

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The Independent Online
INTEREST in the relationship between T S Eliot's poetry and his character has been revived by news that a film is being made about the breakdown of his first marriage, to Vivien Haigh-Wood, and the latter's subsequent committal - indirectly, if not directly, by Eliot - to a mental home, where she died. Even to a nation sated with biographies, the story is particularly fascinating. Eliot, after all, was different from most poets. Far from being Bohemian in the mode of those days, he looked and behaved more like a neatly coiffed, respectable, besuited civil servant or banker (which he had been).

To the voyeur and moralist in us all, there is something very satisfying in seeing such an apparent paragon of rectitude revealed as ruthless enough to have had a difficult wife put away. Curiously, his behaviour echoed that of an archetypal Bohemian, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose gifted mistress and pupil, Camille Claudel, became a recluse after he dropped her, and was then committed to a home by her brother, the playwright Paul Claudel. A film was made of that, too.

Eliot himself liked to suggest that the private lives of writers and artists had no relevance to their work: 'The more perfect the artist,' he wrote, 'the more completely separate in him are the man who suffers and the mind which creates.' This is manifestly untrue, not least of himself: Michael Hastings, co-author of the film's screenplay, and Eliot's biographer, Peter Ackroyd, believe that the agony of Eliot's private life was the making of his poetry. The list of writers whose life and work are inextricably interwined is long. In Anglo- American literature it must include Dr Johnson, Byron, Dickens, Wilde, Scott Fitzgerald, Conrad and Hemingway. A French list would embrace Montaigne, Zola, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Proust.

A more interesting question is whether enjoyment of a poet, novelist, artist or composer can or should be affected by the knowledge that he has behaved with turpitude. The quick response of many people would be 'no' to both questions. Who cares, if they know, that Caravaggio murdered somebody, or that Renoir was a racist? But that is surely too glib a reaction. The anti-Semitic fascism of Richard Wagner may not trouble his committed admirers. But the knowledge of it may put off many who might otherwise have grown to love his operas, umbilically linked as they are to his preoccupation with those tiresome Teutonic myths.

Equally debatable is the implication of the Hastings/Ackroyd view of the wellsprings of Eliot's creativity: that no great work can be produced without the artist suffering. Shakespeare seems to have been a sunny enough character, likewise Goethe and Handel. George Eliot suffered no great hardships, and most of the Bloomsbury group had enviably ample private means. If all anguish tended to feed creativity, our cultural heritage would be indigestibly rich. Why it does so in a few cases, yet is not required in others, remains one of the eternal questions facing Britain's army of biographers.

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