Friday, February 12, 2010


Biographies of V.S. Naipaul and Arthur Koestler, by Patrick French and Michael Scammell, respectively, have recently been released. Both produce portraits of great thinkers and writers who were sadistic and predatory in their relationships with women. The myth that a poetic sensibility is somehow related to sensitivity has never been much more than a myth. The great author of Childe Harold may have attracted enough women that his name became an adjective to describe a hearty appetite for promiscuous sexuality, but Byron’s romanticism was never related to his ability to apprehend human character. However, prose itself can be deceptive.  It is hard to imagine the author of the The Enigma of Arrival, the wonderful recollection of Naipaul’s development as writer, being the same person who beat his devoted mistress so severely that she suffered disfigurement. It is also difficult to imagine the author of Darkness at Noon, a novel about tyranny and oppression (at least in their ideational form), being as manipulative and cruel with his wives and lovers as Scammell’s portrait of Koestler describes.  Koestler was in fact accused of rape by Jill Craigie, the wife of the English politician Michael Foot, though the accusation didn’t come from his purported victim until she was 82, and the facts of the incident have since come under question. It would appear that there is a kind of iron curtain between agent and object.  A writer can be wonderfully analytical about others, while remaining blind to himself. The perfect metaphor for artistic blindness is of course F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver, a psychoanalyst who is a thinly veiled portrait of the author. As someone who treats others, Diver knows a great deal; about himself he can do nothing to allay the catastrophic turn of events that his name symbolically evokes. The N word (narcissism) comes into play, in the form of narcissistic grandiosity. Intellect can be deceptive. Add social approbation and you have created a lethal cocktail, in which brilliance becomes a license for destruction. 


  1. Interesting analysis, Francis. It's certainly true that geniuses often are not very nice people, if not downright stunted; and because of their genius, they are granted a pass: "The price of being a genius, you know..." This seems to grant them a license for almost unlimited bad behavior, up to and including felonious assault (witness Jack Henry Abbott -- granted a pass somewhat belatedly, at Norman Mailer's behest -- Norman Mailer himself, and Roman Polanski, not to mention a legion of others....).

  2. I neglected to add Patricia Highsmith to the list. Her biography recently came out and revealed similarly sadistic behavior, in addition to a particularly voracious appetite. The appetite itself is a rather interesting question. Where does this come from? It doesn't seem to fit into the category of libido exactly. SP


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