Monster Geniuses

Amid the swirl of sexual harassment charges, Claire Dederer asks what we ought to do with the art of monstrous men. It’s not a side issue. Many of the geniuses in the history of art have been monstrous.

Dederer even ventures that monstrosity is inherent in artistic achievement. You need a lot to become a great writer, she says, but above all you need selfishness:

“A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.”

Still, she admits to feeling “a little urpy” when she watches Woody Allen dating the teenaged Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan. But she can’t bring herself to defend her urpiness.

She’s worried that her moral indignation is merely self-protective: “When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.”

Condemning the monsters is virtue posturing: Those who condemn monsters cannot themselves be monsters!

It’s a thoughtful, penetrating essay. But it’s fundamentally marred by the implicit moral theory lurking behind Dederer’s musings. She cannot think of morality in any terms but as “moral feeling.” She exemplifies MacIntyre’s “emotivism.”

And that leaves her in a quandary: If moral indignation if nothing but a feeling, then how can it be distinguished from self-congratulation? And how can she claim that her indignation is preferable to indifference? How can such a contest be resolved?

She descends into self-examination: Am I a monster? And then, Maybe I’d be a better writer if I were more monstrous.

A concept of moral truth doesn’t instantly resolve these ethical difficulties. But that concept at least gives hope that we can resolve moral difficulties. If there is such a thing as moral truth, then we have something to shoot for. And all of us – the indignant and the indifferent – are all bound to it.

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