Monsters: What About Them?

Back in June, I wrote about the controversy around names, singling out the American naturalist/artist John James Audubon and eventually coming down on the side of removing his name from conservation organizations, which many former Audubon “chapters” have begun to do, but which the national organization refuses to.

I was also pondering the larger question of how to handle other tainted legacies, of people both living and dead – Wagner, the conductor James Levine, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, and a rogues’ gallery of others – not coincidentally, all of them white males. (As was Audubon. A knowledgeable reader corrected me on that score: all available evidence points to Audubon’s parents being white.)

It turns out the writer Claire Dederer was having the same thoughts I was. Her fascinating book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, was published in April 2023. Her in-depth exploration covers many of the same figures named above, and others such as Picasso, Raymond Carver, Michael Jackson, Ernest Hemingway, a few women (Joni Mitchell and Sylvia Plath among them), and Roman Polanski.

Especially Roman Polanski. Dederer cannot tear her eyes away from Polanski’s films, which she considers great art. Neither can I – I count Chinatown one of the three greatest films of all time, alongside The Godfather and Casablanca. The questions Dederer asks are, “How should I feel about it? Should I feel guilty? Should I stop watching? Or simply accept the contradiction?”

(Aside: How fitting and challenging it is that the entertainment media just announced Allen and Polanski will both be showing new films at the Venice Film Festival!)

I deeply appreciate that Dederer does not settle for easy answers. There are no easy answers. One of the points she astutely makes is that our choices as audience members – consumers, essentially – don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. Worse, they trap us in a kind of false security that feeds directly into the capitalist project. (Another aside: I cheered mightily at this. I have long believed the same about our eco-consumerist choices. Plastic or paper? No more aerosols with CFCs? We need systemic changes, not these token acts.)

A central metaphor Dederer uses is a stain. The bad things perpetrated by monsters have the quality of a stain. They are indelible. They seep through in every direction – past, present, future. We may be moved by an evening of Wagner’s Siegfried, but we cannot un-see the stain of his proto-Nazism and anti-Semitism. In discussing the latter, Dederer makes a point similar to one I posited about Audubon: Wagner (and Audubon) had choices. They were not merely vessels blown by the prevailing winds of their times. Wagner was well aware of anti-anti-Semitism writings, Dederer shows, just as Audubon must have been aware of abolition.

Monsters is, without doubt, a feminist work, an indictment of the privilege of patriarchy, which has given and continues to give men a free pass to behave as badly as they please – for the sake of “art,” or “genius,” or whatever. “Genius” as an adjective is rarely paired with anyone but white men. When she gets to women, it is to show that the dilemma for women is endemic and intractable: career versus motherhood. The abandonment of children almost invariably defines women “monsters.” There is no hall pass for what Dederer calls “the pram in the hall.”

What makes “Monsters” truly engrossing, ultimately, is how it gradually morphs into the author’s inner journey. She processes not only the “monsterhood” of famous people but also her own. She wrestles with her sometime choice of writing (her art) over motherhood. She wrestles with fandom, with the ineluctable beauty of art and creativity that brings love into the world, and forces us not to look away. She ends up close to redemption: with the knowledge that no one in this world is perfect, and if we love enough, we may love the monsters, too – even and especially the ones in our own lives.

Did reading Monsters give me an answer to the question of the name “Audubon”? Well, it did not change my stance that removing his name from Audubon Societies is a rather simple and painless step for removing the stain – and that it’s important because that stain is deeply hurtful to anyone who wants to be included; people like the self-described “Black birder” and MacArthur Fellow J. Drew Lanham, who wrote a blistering essay following National Audubon’s decision to dig in its heels.

What it did give me was a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the difficult choices we must make every day, in our own lives as well as in how we react to the works and lives of others. And maybe something else not explicitly stated by the author: that we must keep up the fight against racism, sexism, toxic masculinity and all the other systemic ills we face.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.