The boundaries of forgiveness

Here is a post in which I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is write about the poetry of T.S Eliot and Machine Head in the same blog post, while also trying to make an important point. I’m also going to write stuff about another band called All That Remains, which, according to my iPod are “MeloDeath” or “Melodic Death Metal”, though my honest mental image at the phrase is of a very mellow Death, the Grim Reaper having discovered weed and consequently giving zero fucks for anything apart from crisps. On a side note, my iPod’s categorising system worries me at times. According to it, I spent forty five minutes listening to bands which belong to the genre “PooGrind.” I have no idea what “PooGrind” is, and I really don’t wish to speculate. If you ever need a quick argument against intelligent design, however, use PooGrind. How could an all knowing being have created intelligent life if it then went onto to create a musical genre called PooGrind? God is responsible for PooGrind, therefore I am an atheist.

But I’m going off topic. What I really want to talk about today, using both metal music and modernist poetry, is the limits of forgiveness. By this I mean: to what extent is is possible to forgive reactionary, bigoted views in artists, and yet still enjoy their art? Case in point: I love T.S. Eliot’s poetry. It’s magnificent stuff – a searing critque of modern life, a dizzying exploration of alienation, loneliness and his ability to weave together different narrative voices, ranging from the spirit of the Thames to Dante to bored city typists is truly masterful. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland, was originally called “He Do The Police In Different Voice” – a clunkier title, certainly, but reflective of his ability to trouble notion of the poetic voice and explore new ways of speaking in poetry. Lovely stuff. It’s a cliche, but as a young man, plagued by insecurities, Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock meant something to me. It helped me vocalise my own anxieties, my own loneliness, and told me that it was ok to feel uncertain, ok to feel awkward around women, ok to question everything and spent time pondering questions like “Do I dare/Disturb the Universe?” I short, I love T.S. Eliot’s work.

But I also acknowledge that T.S. Eliot held some deeply unpleasant personal views. Scholarly apologism aside, there’s a nasty vein of anti-Semitism in his work. His essay “The Idea of a Christian Society” contains some depressing passages about his views on Jews. In a 1933 lecture, Eliot remarked that “”What is still more important [than cultural homogeneity] is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” His poems show flashes of anti-Semitism as well –  notably “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”. In this poem, Eliot wrote, “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.” The imagery of Jews and Rats is particularly sickening when one considers that only a few years later, the Nazi regime in Germany used strikingly similar terms to justify violence and mass murder of Jewish people. Eliot, additionally, showed a certain amount of sexism. In The Wasteland, Eliot writes:

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back  215
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives  220
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,  225
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.  230
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,  235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;  240
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall  245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;  250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,  255
And puts a record on the gramophone.

My reading of this passage is that neither of the people involved in the sexual encounter come off particularly well – the young man “assaults” the woman, he is a “carbuncular” figure, a selfish, abusive character who is “patronizing” and seems driven by an unhinged sexuality – he “gropes” his way out of the room, his sexual charge evident even in his interaction with inanimate objects. It’s possible, I suppose, to read this sympathetically towards the woman – several critical have; she is a victim of an unwanted sexual encounter, unable to resist and clearly unwilling to reciprocate. But at the same time, I find Eliot’s description of her to be dehumanising – she is “hardly aware of her departed lover,” only capable of “half formed” thoughts. The encounter is seen as her “folly” – the man is reprehensible, but not so explicitly blamed. I can’t help but read this passage as Eliot viewing women as dehumanised, incapable of agency.

So, in other words, T.S Eliot held problematic views on race and gender. And yet I still love to read his work. If I had to explain why, I’d say that I can forgive Eliot his bigotry without forgetting it. Eliot was a man of his times, and did live in an age of casual sexism and anti-semitism. That’s not to in anyway try to justify his views, but to accept that I can divorce the art from the artist.

But where do you draw the boundaries of forgiveness? This brings me onto metal music. Recently, Phil Labonte, the vocalist of All That Remains, the aforementioned melodeath band, said in an interview in Revolver magazine:

Honestly, I think the only people that have a legit grievance when it comes to any racial slurs is the black community. I know the homosexual community has problems with it and I understand their hurt feelings.
But homosexuals were never property. They’ve had a rough time and I’m not trying to minimize that, but I think the black community has a whole lot more room to be upset about a word than the LGBT community. It’s one thing to say, “This guy said something and it hurt my feelings and it bummed me out and it sucks.” Okay, that’s a good perspective. But I don’t know that you need a whole social movement.
When it comes to the shit that black people have gone through I think it’s okay to be like, “Well you know, that was seriously fucked up.” We need to do something about this.

On the one hand, great that you acknowledge racism exists. You are a reasonable human being. On the other hand, what the fuck, man? I’m sure I don’t need to break down what is wrong with Labonte’s attitude here – his words speak for themselves. I did a little bit more digging, and came across this image from Labonte’s Facebook page from 2011: 
Now, I’m not a particular fan of Black Veil Brides, either, Phil, but seriously? Using “faggot” as a slur? How old are you? Also, “lulz”? You’re a fully grown man who leads a really rather good band, not a 14 year old boy from Rochdale. 
Shortly after Labonte made his comments to Revolver, Robb Flynn of Machine Head (a man I consider to be God in human form) wrote a blog post about racism in America, where he criticised Labonte, and rightly so, You can read it here. One of the things I found rather depressing was that a vocal group of metal fans defended Labonte and attacking Flynn for calling him out. I read, and took part in, several Facebook arguments with people like this, who argued that “metal isn’t political” (right, because homophobia isn’t a political statement) and, more absurdly, that Labonte had the right to say whatever he liked because he’s an ex-Army man, and had therefore served his country. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. 
Anyway, the point of all of this is that I now cannot enjoy All That Remain’s music. That’s not because I feel obliged to out of political correctness. I had previously been a fan of ATR – their 2006 The Fall of Ideals album is one of my all time favourites. But now I can’t really enjoy it. Maybe it’s because I take the view that in modern society, there are less excuses for ignorance around issues of gender discrimination. As a feminist, I often suggest people educate themselves when they put forward bigoted and ignorant views on women or LGBT people. Doing so is not hard – a swift google with give you access to huge numbers of e-books, academic articles and blogs about gender issues. Yet people like Labonte haven’t bothered to do this – they’ve just weighed in and exposed ignorance. I’ve been having a lot of debates with people, following on from the Germaine Greer controversy earlier this term, about the definition of a phobia. I would argue one can, say, be transphobic through ignorance, rather than necessarily through open malice. Greer’s problem is that she is totally malicious, as I’ve argued elsewhere. In the case of Labonte, I’d suggest his homophobia comes from ignorance, but is no less bad because he’s not stupid. He could read up on LGBT right and history; he could, you know, maybe talk to gay people about the kind of oppression they face every single day. 
For that reason, I find it hard to enjoy the music he produces. I suppose the issue (and how this relates back to Eliot) is one of historicity. By buying ATRs music, or going to see them live, I’d be contributing to upkeep of an idiot. With Eliot, I’m not. Economic reasoning does come into this. And perhaps it’s historicity and money that sets the boundaries of forgiveness. Thoughts welcome in the comments. Any trolls will be flirted with ruthlessly. 

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