Kill Your Idols Some More Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-03-07 15:00:00 No comments

A question I asked myself a while back, which I'm still working out:

Mansculinity Dept. (Genji Press)

... why is it that people who make the greatest pretenses towards the harnessing of the power of imagination are often themselves so unimaginative about human experience?

In other words, why is it that SF&F writers are far from being immune to bigotry, xenophobia, atavism, and the whole rest of that catalog of ills that you would think being a writer of such material would give you plenty of incentive not to have?

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The first false assumption is that being a creator of any kind protects you from being a jerk. By and large, it does not, and a glance at history will provide any number of examples to that end: Lovecraft's xenophobia, Kipling's racism, Hemingway's phallocentricism, Dostoevsky's antisemitism, the general insufferability of Beethoven and Wagner, the list goes on. Some of these things were normal for the age; some are unstomachable no matter what the year is.

The real issue is us. We look at what such people can do at their soaring best and wonder why such soaring doesn't lift them over the rest of the muck as well. That's our delusion, though -- rediscovered every time an athlete turns out to be a homophobe or an SF author proudly admits to his near-sociopathic militancy on some given issue. We look at them and project onto them an aura of perfection or transcendental grace that we assume to be there because of their excellence in some realm. In short, we set ourselves up for disappointment by seeking out a standard that cannot be met.

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Brad Warner comments a great deal on his blog about what I call the guru problem -- the idea that there is some higher, untouchable class of human beings out there to whom we should go for advice and who are in some sense spiritually perfect. We don't just do this for spiritual matters, either; we do it for anything that we, individually, invest a sense of importance in. Think about all the times you finally got to meet that one comic book artist or that one actor from your favorite TV show, only to discover the former was a snot and the latter was a jackass.

It affects your appreciation of what they do -- the word that comes to mind is tainted, and I can think of a few things on my end that have been tainted by knowing something about their creators. Orson Scott Card comes to mind: the more I found out about things that were not only attributed to him but which he went on record to defend, the less I wanted anything to do with him or his work. With Beethoven and Wagner, we have the luxury of the people in question being dead for decades; with the living jerks, not so much distance can be delineated.

We don't live in a world where a person's work and their personality can be cleanly divorced from each other. We always see George Lucas's shade hanging over Star Wars, for good or ill. We can't help but talk about Tolstoy as a person without thinking of both his work and his philosophy, especially given how deeply the two informed each other. It's easier with the dead, again, because the dead are abstractions to us (barring the dead whom we knew when they were among the living).

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That right there is the main problem: the fact that any creator is always going to be a person first and a producer of creations second. I remember reading an interview with Edgar Winter where he talked about how some of the best times of his life were when he was hospitalized, because the people there treated him like an actual person, albeit a sick one, and not an [expletive deleted] jukebox. The same goes for anyone else: as much as we love to blow into a horn, smear paint on a surface, or put words onto a page, we also drink tea and sleep.

One of the odd delusions of our age is how well we can claim to know total strangers. We hear these total strangers speak to us all the more directly, and immediately, than we ever have (hey, you're hearing one of them speak to you right now!), and from that we are tempted to draw conclusions about what kind of person they really are. It's the illusion of familiarity, made all the more difficult to transcend when you are surrounded with so many teeming examples of insincere intimacy.

We tell ourselves we can make sense of things, but too often that's simply our mind's capacity for creating patterns that defeat its own nascent skepticism. It allows you to believe all the more that you can really know a total stranger, to say "Oh, they really aren't like that," when the truth is most of us barely know ourselves. And so seeing a specimen of humanity in all of her seething contradiction, seeing her do something that to us seems like a betrayal of her promise, becomes all the more dismaying to us because we don't understand where the deception really lies: within us.

Some of us do recognize that authors are just people, and have no more of a window into the Absolute than any of the rest of us -- and even if they did, it wouldn't make them perfect either. There does seem to be a growing sensibility that you cannot look to others for the incarnation of an ideal, because a) you won't find it and b) that sort of thing is best manifested in your own life anyway, independently. I suspect most people reading this would nod and agree ... at least until the clay feet of one of their idols happens to be crumbling away.

Tags: Brad Warner Fyodor Dostoevsky George Lucas Leo Tolstoy Orson Scott Card creativity creators