December 6, 2018
This is the first instalment of Loving Our Monsters, a series that will analyze figures or works of art that are revered but also ethically complicated, morally ambiguous, or even downright evil. The series will look at real people and fictional characters, and may draw from fiction or real life at any given time.
Knut Hamsun is one of my favorite authors. His 1890 debut novel, Hunger, about a destitute, mad writer that subsists on pennies and nearly starves to death, shaped my appreciation of modernist literature. The novel was somewhat autobiographical, as Hamsun himself did endure several bouts of desperate poverty in his 20s, which made it all the more sensational when Hunger's success catapulted him from a poor unknown to a literary star in his native Norway. He enjoyed an illustrious career and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920.
Though Hamsun was successful and influential, his politics weren't great. He was, you could say, somewhat of a racist. By that I mean that he was very clearly racist in his early days, writing about the dangers of miscegination and diversity in America, and evolved to become a totally batshit Nazi fanboy by the time he was an old man. During WW2 he showed ardent support for Germany and for the Nazi goal of a dominant Aryan race. He donated his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels as a gift in 1943. After Hitler's death, he wrote a eulogy in which he described Hitler as "A warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Though Hamsun was charged for treason for his Nazi sympathies, those charges were dropped when it was determined that he was mentally ill, a diagnosis that he denied until his death.
I often find myself unsure of how to reflect on Hamsun as a personal influence. I will never not love Hunger, but I'm not sure if I will or should be able to separate Hamsun the author from Hamsun the Nazi cheerleader. Which brings us to the larger question of what on earth we're expected to do when the artists we love turn out to be monsters.
Someone that's been the subject of a heated and similar discussion since his death is Jahseh Onfroy, known more commonly as XXXTentacion. Onfroy, who was murdered earlier this year, shot in his car during a robbery, was a groundbreaking and hugely talented rapper, and was also notorious for his various violent crimes. At the time of his death, he was awaiting trial for the aggravated assault of his pregnant girlfriend. My comparison of Onfroy to Hamsun might seem silly, as their art, crimes, and roles in society are entirely different, but both represent the same thing in the context of this discussion - beloved artists with horrible conduct.
XXXTentacion isn't unique simply because he's an artist that's done and said bad things. Of those we have plenty - Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Orson Scott Card, H.P. Lovecraft, Terrence Howard, Lucien Freud - the list could go on and on. But one particularly troubling element about XXXTentacion is that his art seems inextricably linked to his transgressions. His lyrics and tone are stunningly melancholic. Many of his tracks are about depression, some more obviously than others. His music is also rife with misogyny and violence, but this is not necessarily unique to him or to hip-hop or music in general. His albums 17 and ? open with spoken word intros, both of which are chillingly honest messages about Onfroy's self-reflection and his expectations of his listeners. These intros make explicit his insistence that these records are meant to be consumed as pure exercises in reading a suffering human's soul, and that in exchange for what he's offering he expects not money or fame, but loyalty. Take that for what you will.
These confessionals are difficult to parse in the larger context of Onfroy's life, because they demand sympathy in such a way that suggests that he is himself entirely a victim. Onfroy certainly had a difficult early life; a staple of the narrative of his upbringing is his mostly absent mother, something he has attributed to his lifelong struggles with depression. But any physical or emotional distresses he endured as a youth become blended into his very outward expression of these struggles, not just through music, but through real violence. As a teen he was regularly in trouble, and served two sentences in juvenile detention centers. He gave a brutal beating to a cellmate for being gay, the details of which are hard to stomach. The charges against him for his assault on his pregnant girlfriend Geneva Ayala detail a horrific incident of violence and also reveal a pattern of systemic physical and emotional abuse that had been ongoing for some time.
I find myself unsettled by the notion that his music and his violence are inextricably linked, as it suggests such an unacceptable standard for authenticity, as if his depression, and his violence and misogyny, were necessary elements to his success. Many of his fans have supported him despite his crimes, and many have accused Ayala of lying about the abuses against her, and have characterized him as an unfairly targeted victim of the media. When he was killed there was an outpouring of support from musicians such as Diplo, J.Cole, T-Pain, Travis Barker, and Kanye West, all of whom declared publicly their condolences and their praise of his work and talent. One of the common celebrated aspects of his music is the intimacy it builds with the audience, as if he made these bleak hip-hop diary entries just for you, as an outlet for your own personal struggles, and this sense of intimacy is reflected in the loyalty of his fan base. I may not like the argument about the connection between his art and his crimes, but it feels as though that connection is real and even celebrated among fans.
In 1967, Roland Barthes wrote The Death Of The Author, the seminal work of poststructuralism that asserted that texts must be consumed without consideration of the author's biography or narrative intent, and purely for the sake of the text itself. When we apply this condition of necessary separation to artists whose biographical details might mar our approach to their work, we are afforded the space for ambivalence. I can be a huge fan of Knut Hamsun's fiction while being critical of the things he did and said later in life, taking an overall ambivalent stance toward him as an artist. With XXXTentacion, such ambivalence becomes impossible, because the work is inseparable from the man. There is only polarization. Either he is despicable or beloved.
Perhaps most striking aspect of the conversation about XXXTentacion is the narrative of redemption that surrounded his death and the months leading up to it. Many of his most famous supporters would draw attention to the charitable work he had been doing, and the suggestion that despite his violence, he was on a path to redemption and that he would inevitably make amends for what he had done. Whether this was a believable suggestion or not became more or less irrelevant when he died, but the redemption conversation is complicated by a narrative that ran parallel to it - that Onfroy's death was always imminent. This configuration makes his violence seem irreconcilable because he was always destined to die before he had a chance, but it also suggests an almost metaphysical component to his mythology - to live and make art with much ferocity and negativity would invite death to stalk him more hungrily than it does the rest of us. Whether Onfroy could have ever properly made amends if he hadn't died young is not a very useful question. But it is important to consider that regardless of the impact of his art, which is the impact that will be remembered, there are also impacts on his victims, the effects of which, no matter what mythological space XXXTentacion occupies in death, will be felt for a long time.
artwork by King Jediah