I don’t want to know.
There are some things we have to know, like about hundreds of girls being kidnapped, the damage the production of palm oil causes, and of course, climate change.
But there are a whole load of other things I’d really rather not know. I don’t know if it’s because we as humans like to pick apart the talent and achievements of others in an attempt to knock them down to a level we’re more comfortable with, or if it’s just a mawkish attraction to grubby gossip, but don’t we just love those hidden skeletons.
My grandmother had a hobby of mentally collecting unpleasant information about everyone, to the point that if she saw you reading Dickens, would tell you he didn’t treat his wife very well. Ibsen was another that ditched his family. And Shakespeare, well, his kids can’t have seen much of him. Turn on the television ad she’d say ‘You see her? She was awful to her kids.’
A lot of her information wasn’t criminal in any way, and most importantly was just one side of the story. I don’t care as much about the living celebrities who find themselves exposed, as they know what tabloids are, and they are here to defend themselves, but it’s still sad to see someone you like tainted.
Philip Larkin is one of my favourite poets. After his death some of his personal letters were published that showed him to have been sexist and racist, and I really wish they hadn’t. The fact is we all have sides that aren’t suitable for public consumption, and while some dirty secrets are terrible and need to be exposed, especially if there are victims, such as the people we now know were abusers, but unpalatable opinions are not something we all need to know. A law wasn’t broken and there aren’t specific victims.
There is a quote from W.H Auden, which to me, especially relates to Larkin.
Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before.
I feel this when novels put concepts in my head, but most keenly when the concise wording of a poem. Larkin’s Aubade is one of my favourite poems about death. I love the part below, with the imagery of death casting a bright glare, as well as life being torn off unused, something that when I first read as a teenager, make me think of a roll of kitchen towels, and still does.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse—The good not done, the love not given, timeTorn off unused—nor wretchedly becauseAn only life can take so long to climbClear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;But at the total emptiness for ever,The sure extinction that we travel toAnd shall be lost in always. Not to be here,Not to be anywhere,And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
I have to get my head around separating people from their work, and remember the time and societies they grew up in, and also that none of us, barring Mother Teresa and a few others, have sides that would not hold up very well to scrutiny. And that definitely includes my grandmother. She once stole a load of plant cuttings from Kew Gardens. And knowingly donated out-of-date tinned fruit to the church food collections. Oh yeah. I remember.