You don’t choose your literary heroes: they choose you.
A version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in November 2008.
I’ve just revisited this article on the Guardian Books Blog, in which Stuart Evers talks about his seemingly rather misguided admiration for the protagonist of George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock. He notes that Comstock is really not a nice guy… and the fact that he truly admired this man when he first read the novel makes him feel rather uneasy. Evers admits that upon finishing the novel for the first time, he actually started to emulate Comstock - he started smoking the same cigarettes, spending his money on the same things, and getting interested in the same politics. He ends bitterly, sending out a “thank you so bloody much” to Orwell and Comstock, as though realising with hindsight that, by getting so “involved” with this not-actually-real person, he has somehow done something wrong.
Has he done something wrong? Are we only supposed to like, admire and emulate the “good guys” in literature? Sure, there are a lot of admirable goodies out there - I’d be the first to stand up and say that I truly love and admire Atticus Finch, for example. But surely, as normal human beings, it’s OK for us to be drawn to the “bad guys” - the flawed characters, the dishonest characters, the downright nasty characters… right? Hamlet, for example - arrogant, selfish, murderous and slightly insane, and yet he’s a big favourite. I personally rather like Milton’s Satan, and perhaps even worse, Alex DeLarge. I know for a fact that the normally sugary-sweet Gala Darling has a dark side - she’s forever in love with Patrick Bateman. It’s not necessarily logical - you don’t choose your literary heroes: they choose you. They reach out to something within your personal being and speak to you. Just because they happen to be a “baddie,” that doesn’t necessarily make you one too!
At the end of Evers’ article, I felt like standing up and cheering, because the other day I experienced exactly the same discomfort that Evers feels, talking with some friends about Beat-Generation-era literature.
As many of you will know, I am a huge Allen Ginsberg fan. I first encountered Ginsberg about halfway through my four-year Masters degree, when I had to read “Howl” for class. My first reaction was “what is this absolute rubbish?”, and when I read some background information about Ginsberg, I was even less impressed. Loud, arrogant, misogynistic… he did not seem like a nice guy at all. Who does he think he is, I thought, this man who wrote this epic, spiralling, meaningless poem that everyone seems to love? It’s garbage!
But then I had an epiphany - I heard a recording of dear old Allen reading “America.” I loved the poem, and his reading - with all its humour and seriousness and liveliness and weariness all at once - and decided to give him another chance. I read about Ginsberg’s life, I read his annotations on “Howl” and discovered what every cryptic line really meant (and every line really does have some correlation to his life, things he experienced, or things that were going on at the time), and probably most importantly, I read “Kaddish.” I bought an album of readings which included all these poems, and more, and listened to it from beginning to end, which exhausted but thrilled me. By now, the poems had turned on me, and they’d convinced me that this man - who I’ll freely admit was still loud, arrogant and misogynistic - was one of the greatest American writers of all time. He was not always nice, he was not always fair, and he wasn’t even always all that good. But he was brilliant, and in spite of myself, I will love him forever and ever.
So imagine my horror when, at a party a few years ago, a friend of mine came out with this:
“I don’t get it with Ginsberg. I’ve read ‘Howl,’ which was… ridiculous, and then everything else just looks like a poor imitation of ‘Howl.’”
I won’t lie to you - I felt like I’d been slapped. I couldn’t believe the enormous feeling that welled up in me. This was my friend, and I found myself wanting to grab him and shake him and scream, “why don’t you read ‘Howl’ properly and then you’ll see it’s not ridiculous, like I did?! How can you say everything else is a poor imitation of ‘Howl’?! Have you even read anything else?! Have you read ‘Kaddish’?! And how can you say that anyway?! The man wrote for 50+ years in a million different style on a million different subjects! Saying you don’t like Ginsberg because of ‘Howl’ is like saying you don’t like the Beatles because of ‘Hey Jude.’ Aaaargh!”
Obviously, I did not do this. I tried to express myself in a quieter way, and just said that actually, Ginsberg was my all-time favourite writer and I loved him very much. All I got was (quote), “well, good for you,” which didn’t make me feel much better.
My desire to shake my friend and scream in his face rather troubled me. After all, I knew all this stuff, and I’d thought it and said it myself once upon a time. But it also brought home to me the fact that you really can’t choose your idols - and when they choose you, they can really cling on, dig in. I’m sure the friend in question has literary heroes he’d gladly defend by shaking and screaming at me, if I were to criticise them. I know one guy who deeply loves Iago, and gets the same strange rage when people try to tell him “but Iago’s a really bad guy.” I know someone else who is a big fan of William Carlos Williams, and nearly had to walk out of a seminar recently when one woman in the group said “but it’s all just rubbish really, isn’t it? The Red Wheelbarrow - my children could write poetry like that!”
The fact is, Stuart Evers seems to be worried about admiring Gordon Comstock. Why? Because he’s worried that he’s going to be judged, probably. But I’d be interested to know what his reaction would be if anyone were to actually turn around and say “Comstock’s the worst character I ever came across,” or “that book’s crap, Orwell couldn’t write to save his life”. Personally, I am not worried about admiring Ginsberg for fear of judgement. It’s the defensive rage that’s the truly worrying thing…
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