1. I am unabashedly stealing the structure of this post from Daniel Nester, who is currently posting “99 Days of Notes” on his site. All last week, I was especially moved by the several Notes on Grief. You can find links to each post in the series and read all about the project right here.
2. I’m hoping that this format will help me say something at least semi-cogent regarding Margo Rabb’s essay, “Fallen Idols,” which appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
2a. Rabb’s essay evoked many thoughts, only some of which I’ll attempt to articulate here.
2b. I’ve never met or corresponded with Margo Rabb, but I admire and have often recommended her short story “How to Tell a Story.”
3. “Fallen Idols” essentially presents us with exemplary instances of disillusionment resulting from discoveries that esteemed authors have flaws.
3a. The essay begins with Rabb’s own admiration for Rainer Maria Rilke; having Googled him, Rabb discovers enough to make her wonder, “How could the kind prophet whose lengthy passages I’d copied into my teenage diary be a selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat?”
3b. Similar examples–especially insofar as the womanizing theme may be concerned–dot the anecdotes from other writers, who in many cases report on actual, face-to-face (rather than face-to-Google) encounters with living people.
4. Some interesting points complicate the essay.
4a. It turns out, for example, that “some writers enjoy discovering the darker sides of their favorite authors.” The discovery can be reassuring. As Mary Karr is quoted as saying: “Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.”
4b. Further, not every discovery of or interaction with an author’s human self is destined to reveal darkness. We’re provided with at least one example in which “some writers exceed expectations.”
5. Rabb’s essay would like us to consider, I think, not merely whether certain writers are “good” or “bad” people, but also what it means for readers to have evidence of writers’ selves off the page.
6. Like Rabb, I’ve been disillusioned to discover certain facts about writers I began admiring when I was a teenager. Take T.S. Eliot.
6a. I often wonder if there’s a difference in my reactions in these cases depending on whether the author is living or dead.
6b. For example, Eliot is dead. He isn’t signing petitions or advocating boycotts these days. He isn’t Tweeting. He isn’t showing up at venerable reading venues and using them as the most noxious of bully pulpits.
6c. So Eliot’s anti-Semitism doesn’t make my blood pressure rise as, say, Alice Walker‘s anti-Israel activities and statements do. I still read and marvel over “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” even more than I did in high school But I haven’t been able to bring myself to re-watch “The Color Purple” (which I also first encountered during high school) or reread the novel on which it is based for quite awhile.
6d. I know the argument–“anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitism.” No, not always. But, in the words of one recent commentator, “the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is getting thinner all the time. These two worldviews are, if obviously not the exact same thing, then at least very close cousins.”
7. I’m quite aware that by writing this post, and by (again) making clear that despite its flaws (as with people, even the “best” of countries have them), I stand with Israel, I may alienate some of my own readers, just as those writers who consistently distort (or ignore) history and fact as they demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state alienate me. That, in my own small way, I may become a “fallen idol” myself.
8. All of this has been on my mind lately in the aftermath of Helen Thomas’s passing.
8a. Helen Thomas is an example of a fallen idol.
8b. There were years when I watched her pitch questions to presidents and admired her stamina and outspokenness. And her obituaries have widely praised her path-breaking role as a woman journalist.
8c. But oh, the things that Thomas said about Israel and “the Jews”!
8d. Don’t take my word for it. Read Jeffrey Goldberg’s commentary (be sure to click through and read the interview he references) or Adam Chandler’s (which is subtitled, incidentally, “The personal overshadowed the professional”).
9. Which brings us back to the question of Fallen Idols.
10. Aren’t there instances in every field in which the personal overshadows the professional?
10a. Or is there something unique about our fallen authorial idols, in particular?
10b. Moreover, are readers-who-are-writers more likely to experience (and think about) this issue more than readers-who-aren’t-writers do?
10c. The examples in Rabb’s essay typically depict not the “general” reader encountering a literary idol, but rather a writer–a writing student or an author–encountering another writer as a teacher or colleague. That’s important to recognize.
10d. Isn’t it?