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When Creation Is Perverse

AS THE BRITISH PRISONS continue to fill up with veteran showbiz luminaries who have been busted for some sexual perversion with which they created emotional havoc in the days of their physical strength, I give thanks that my own compulsions were legal. An artist’s work is harder to like when it turns out that his sexual proclivities were criminal. Nevertheless, on the principle that fine art is usually the work of flawed people, one strives to maintain one’s appreciation. Eric Gill’s work I don’t much care about, so there is no problem in wishing it all to the devil along with him. But Adolf Loos designed perfect coffeehouses, and Peter Altenberg wrote perfect paragraphs: I find it hard to imagine the texture of a Vienna without their work. Balthus remains a real problem, because so many of his pictures haunt the memory, although it should have been obvious at the moment the memories got started that the pictures were perverse. For a long while I thought Basil Bunting was no problem at all: his taste for barely pubescent girls showed up in his poetry, but his poetry had nothing else in it. Lately, however, I have been reading his Collected Poems of 1970 (an Oxfam discovery), and I find that I was wrong all along. Whole stretches of his strangely crowded, clotted, and jagged verse are quite marvelous. Some of his notorious echoes of Ezra Pound are better than the originals. (If Bunting’s phrase “stork’s stilts cleaving sun-disk” had appeared in Pound’s Cantos, academics would have written articles about it.) Yet this inventive and dedicated man was every father’s nightmare. The best one can say for him is that he will live on, if he does, in the same category as Balthus: producers of images that you are glad to have in your head, even though their own heads were nests of vipers. The provenance of art can never be as morally elementary as we wish it. Art grows from the world, and the world, as Louis MacNeice said, is incorrigibly plural. This cruel but consoling fact really shows up when you start the slide to nowhere. The air is lit by a shimmering tangle of all the reasons you are sad to go and all the reasons you are glad to leave. It’s the glow of life: apparently simple, yet complex beyond analysis. Nevertheless, morality continues to send its strong interior signal that it is either absolute or it is nothing. Bill Cosby’s jokes used to make me laugh so much that years later I would laugh again when I remembered them. Today the laughter comes less easily. If he turns out to be guilty, how will we take back our appreciation? Ours is a minor problem, however, when compared with his.