Magazine arts show. David Baddiel investigates Thomas Carlyle's Great Man theory - a view that history is formed by the impact of certain charismatic men.
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This programme contains some strong language
In the 19th century,
the thinker Thomas Carlyle came up with the great man theory -
a view that the main dents in history would always be
formed by the impact of charismatic, intelligent and powerful men.
It was, in Carlyle's vision, of course, always men.
Now, in terms of actual history, that is,
in its disavowing of social and economic factors, balls.
But I would argue that, whether or not he exists, the idea of
the great man, the myth of the great man,
until very recently, still held a huge sway over our imagination.
Carlyle was talking mainly about politicians and statesmen
and military figures,
but in the latter half of the 20th century, I think, that balance
shifted towards great artistic, sporting and cultural figures.
And lots of these figures were worshipped as
Great Men in their own lifetimes.
Writers like Bellow, Mailer and Roth dominated literary
fiction for decades, and they based themselves here, in New York.
Their prolific output and towering egos defined
a golden age for the novel in the latter part of the 20th century.
About ten years ago, though,
I noticed that these men were kind of dying out.
So is it just that we did have a lot of great artistic male
talent in the immediate recent past or has something else happened
to who we worship and how we worship?
A few years ago, I wrote a novel called The Death Of Eli Gold.
Eli Gold is a great American novelist,
a mashup of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Norman Mailer -
all those guys who bestrode literary culture like colossi
at the end of the last century.
By the end of the novel, Eli Gold is in a coma here,
at Mount Sinai Hospital, and his son, Harvey, is saying goodbye.
"I'm glad you're dying, really, Dad, because you're a great man, Dad.
"Yeah, everyone says you are. I fucking know you are.
"But no-one is great any more, Dad.
"Greatness is gone, it's over.
"In the old days, if you got called great in the right quarters,
"that was that.
"Now there are too many people who can speak,
"who can have their say, who can say, 'No, he's not great,
"'he's shit, he's a fucking useless wanker.'
"And they say that stuff all the time because they all hate
"the idea that anyone is great because it means that they aren't."
Is Harvey right?
Has our present-day, technology-fuelled opinion Babel
left the great man dead in the water,
drowned under a billion thumbs downs on YouTube?
Or is he still out there somewhere?
Well, I'm going to go and see if I can find one.
Like the character in my book, the real Great Men wrote
and lived in a way that made them global superstars.
Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer
and the Nobel Prize, John Updike won two Pulitzers
for his subtle depictions of American suburban life,
and Norman Mailer was celebrated for just being Norman Mailer -
a combative egotist still regarded as one of the great literary
giants of his generation.
But not all of the Great Men have gone.
I've found someone who, like my fictional character, Harvey,
actually is the son of a classic literary great man but who
also might be themselves a bona fide living example of the thing itself.
Martin Amis, son of Kingsley Amis, has written 12 novels.
He's one of our greatest living writers and he has lived here,
in New York, for the last five years.
Literature used to be about gods.
Then a great falling off about demigods -
only one of your parents was divine.
Then kings and queens, then knights and barons and all the rest.
Then great figures of statesmen and generals, you know, fighters.
Social realism took its grip in the 19th century
and the novel became about you and me - ordinary people.
In the 20th century, which had been called the ironic age,
you started writing about people who were lower than you were.
The absence of Great Men is very much in that line,
in that progression.
The most powerful force in our society,
for the last couple of generations, has been democratisation -
so, you know, levelling.
So there's no longer a pool of adoration,
waiting to seize on this or that figure.
There are many more writers than there used to be,
many more critics, you know, everyone online is a critic now.
That's the world we live in now, where someone...
..taking offence at a page of literature
is asserting parity of ego with
the writer, and that is a completely new kind of thought.
And is that... That's a mixed blessing?
Well, it's delusional, on the part of the aggrieved reader,
who is objecting for socio-political reasons.
I wonder if the creeping sense that we might be talking about here,
that a need for writing not to offend,
a need for writing to conform, whatever, to pre-placed
ideas of socio-political ideas, might lead to...
That is real doom for the novel, where there's
so many constraints,
socio-political constraints bearing down on you,
that you hardly dare write the word "woman," you know,
or African-American or whatever it might be.
It's so drenched with revulsions
and sensitivities that you can't go near it.
But you have to go near it.
You have to press on as if those voices don't exist.
That's, I think, the issue.
That's where we get to the nub of it, which is, I think,
that untrammelled greatness,
which may have to involve all sorts of darkness,
is difficult to achieve for that reason -
that people are too worried about being criticised for being
ugly or dark and all the things that literature has to be,
and art in general.
Well, maybe that was the distinction of the so-called great man,
was that he didn't care what anyone thought of him - absolute freedom.
Do you think Kingsley was someone who particularly didn't
care about what people thought, in those terms?
-Yeah, he also didn't care about posterity.
Well, he used to say that, used to say...
-"That's no fucking use to me, is it, cos I'll be dead!"
But I think he did care.
But that's what keeps you honest, is that you're not going to find out
if you're good, if you're going to last, cos you'll be dead.
So that's when I feel very reassured,
when, in a signing queue, someone who's 25 years old comes up
and I think, well, they've got another 50 years to live,
-so I'll last that long, if they're real fans, you know.
-So posterity does matter to you?
-Oh, yeah, yeah.
Let me quickly read out just a few sentences from an essay
written by Kingsley in '56.
So he's talking about an earlier generation of Great Men
and a Great Woman he mentions here.
"The literary giants have passed from our midst.
"There is a case for arguing that it could represent a gain as well.
"The one unifying characteristic of our giants - the Jameses,
"the Woolfs, the Lawrences -
"was the immense seriousness with which they took themselves,
"indefatigable writers of prefaces to their own works,
"unflinchingly pretentious about themselves
"in their letters to friends,
"inflexibly determined to regard themselves as the highest possible
"artistic valuation throughout their huge egomaniacal journals.
"They grew to be giants partly
"because of their readiness to explain their qualifications."
That is very interesting,
that in 1956, there should be someone lamenting
the passing of the literary giants because, in my mind,
and possibly just because I'm a different generation,
it's just about to usher in, to some extent.
Time makes the only value judgements.
All the guff we read in reviews, saying it's too this or it's too
that or not enough this, etc - those are all just preference synonyms.
-It's all rhetoric and time makes the only value judgements.
We live in a speeded-up world,
so I wonder if now, we don't have the time for that.
You could always count on time to rescue the awkward talent who
wasn't appreciated in his day, and I've got my doubts about
whether there's enough time to do that any more.
Can I ask you, where do you think, if greatness does exist of a type
on a par with Bellow, with Picasso, with David Bowie,
where's it gone? Where does it go now?
It's still there, it's just quieter and less highly regarded.
But Don DeLillo said, maybe 20 years ago,
he said the poets and the writers will not determine
-the mood of the culture any more - terrorists will.
And we cannot doubt their power to affect our mood.
After Paris, November 13...
..one's mood was more violently affected
than by any writer you've ever read.
And that, again, is another symptom of levelling
and democratising in a malevolent way, in that these actors,
you know, an actor with a bomb, if you're very conceited,
you have a high opinion of yourself
and you want to make a mark on the world, you have to...
It's a lifetime job, that.
But if you're a terrorist, you can do it in an instant.
When I started out, in the '70s,
the superstructure of literary celebration wasn't in place.
Writing was a worthy hobby, and then,
-it all grew with the fattening of the media.
And that's catapulted the novelist
to the fringes of kind of showbusiness.
But if it should retreat, as it sometimes shows signs of doing, to a
minority interest sphere, if it came back to that, I would be undismayed.
-All it means is you have to get a day job.
-What would you get?
Academic, you know, more journalism. I wouldn't sort of go out...
-You wouldn't become a plumber?
-It's too late?
-No, too hard.
Being a great man wasn't just about being great.
It was also about being A Man.
So many of the men that I'm talking about, both their work
and their lives,
were characterised by what we might call unrestrained marital behaviour.
So was being a shite husband and father part of the contract
of being a great man and has it now been struck out?
New York writer Meg Wolitzer's breakthrough novel, The Wife,
has at its heart an archetypal great man author.
But the focus of the book is not on him but his wife and what
she's doing behind-the-scenes to keep his great man reputation alive.
I guess I see that the word great suggests that somebody
is off the page or offstage, calling someone great.
It's the question of being anointed, really.
So you need somebody to anoint you.
Some writers didn't have someone to anoint them, so who got anointed?
These guys anointed one another, I think, back then.
So greatness also suggests people who aren't great
because you can't have a lot of great people.
Then the concept of greatness doesn't mean anything.
I had seen these kind of big guys. I'd seen them growing up.
I'd seen them on the shelves of my parents' den, you know.
All the sort of very shiny titles, big, big letters were there.
And a publicist friend of mine said, when it's an all-typeface jacket,
-it says, this book is important, this book is an event.
So you would see, on the one hand,
books by men that had, like, these huge typefaces
and then, recently, even now,
books by women that had a kind of dreamy picture of,
you know, a girl in water or something on the cover,
which says something really, really different.
So I grew up kind of seeing that and thinking,
"Are men writers different from women writers?"
At that time male writers were a kind of celebrity..
-People like Norman Mailer, they were on talk shows.
God may now be calling upon some of the powers that were once Satanic.
You know, such as libidinousness.
You know, its healthier proprieties, whereas the devil's quite fond of
libidinousness in its more unhealthy varieties.
That's interesting. Which is the unhealthy variety of libidinousness?
-The devil's kind?
-Oh, you know, screwing on drugs, that sort of thing.
You know, the kind of sex that whips a dead horse...
That's part of what I'm talking about, is these great men,
they were sort of stars, they were icons, to use a much overused word.
Yeah, you had writers like Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer
and John Updike and they were all different writers from one another
but there was this feeling that that was at the centre of the culture.
One of the things about all these men that I'm kind of interested in,
that I was interested in in my novel, The Death of Eli Gold,
and I think you maybe interested in in The Wife,
is the private lives of these men,
the marital lives of these men seemed to be part of the package.
It seemed to be part of the package for Norman Mailer to have seven wives...
-..and stab one of them.
In Eli Gold, there's a suicide pact in which he kills his wife
but he doesn't die
and that came out of the fact that Arthur Koestler did in fact
kill his wife, they both die, but it's very clear to me
from reading their suicide note that Cynthia didn't really want to die...
-..but just felt that she should do what Arthur did.
-Well, you know, actually...
And that's how subjugated some of these women were.
One of the first readings I ever gave from The Wife in New York,
a woman waited patiently on line and came up to me and said,
-"I was married to Norman Mailer, I'm the one he stabbed."
There were so many of these men whose virility,
self-advertised through the way they behaved with women,
seems to be part and parcel of why they were supposed to be worshipped.
Yeah, and everybody sort of went along with it.
I feel like almost if you wanted to kind of write
something about that era you could call it, Because I Said So.
You know, "Why am I big?" "Because I said so."
That they sort of,
they wrested control of the culture in some ways,
and partly because of their books and, look,
-some of this writing is fantastic,
-A lot of it's fantastic.
It's energetic and muscular and important
and all kinds of things that matter.
But, getting into huge fights all the time is not,
and it's embarrassing and not good
-and doesn't make you more important, doesn't make it big or great.
I think that just, the sort of what they did, like when they got
into trouble, when they had fights with each other on talk shows,
like, the idea that that was an important thing.
The truth is I want to live in a world in which writers can
get into a fight on a talk show and that's news in a big way,
but I don't want it to be only those writers,
because the fact that they had the loudest voices meant that
other voices got shut out.
So they're writing and getting the most attention
and meanwhile there's a lot of other really interesting writers
who are not doing that, and quite a number of whom are women.
If you were going to anoint someone, who would it be?
Oh, you know, I don't even think that way.
I think that that excitement around writing
has moved into so many different areas
that have nothing to do with writing.
I mean, if you're looking at greatness as like how many hits you get,
-then Kim Kardashian would be our George Eliot.
-That sounds bad.
-What you've just said.
Since the Great Men ruled the literary roost
many modern critics have found their apparent prejudice and misogyny problematic.
But Katie Roiphe, whose new book explores in detail
the final hours of some of these writers,
feels that the backlash against them may have gone too far.
I don't think it would be unfair to say that I have a certain
kind of nostalgia for that generation of writers,
and I think it's important to bring up
something Norman Mailer wrote about, which is that
when people were attacking him for being sexist and misogynistic,
which he undoubtedly was, he brought up that
in his writing, often the writers who are attacked as misogynistic
are really not saying, oh, this sex scene is so great,
and sort of revelling in it, they're saying it's actually sad
that people can't connect,
and that there's a lot of, like, just despair wrapped up in some of
those scenes that have been seen as kind of violent
or, you know, this kind of un-throttled contempt for women,
but it's much more complicated than that.
And so I think that judgment of somebody as misogynistic
and the dismissal of their work is often really unsophisticated
and really crude, and doesn't actually allow the complexity
and the ambition -
and when I say that I mean of the passages themselves -
and doesn't give them their due.
What about the fact that so many of these men,
of the mythic great male narcissist,
sort of use their genius consciously or unconsciously
to live extremely unrestrained sort of lives privately,
and got away with it then, as if license gave these men,
you know, genius gave them license to behave incredibly badly.
-Is that true? Is that one reason why they've been downgraded?
I think that that idea of genius or greatness,
certainly if you look at somebody like Dylan Thomas, you know,
who, in his last days of life, takes his mistress to a party and then
goes upstairs to sleep with his host and comes back down to his mistress.
There were infinite numbers of women who were just throwing
themselves at him when he was so clearly a mess,
just somebody that you just, you know,
a sane person would run a mile away from, and yet,
there's some allure to that,
and I think there's some sort of self-sacrificing allure
that, especially at that time, was very powerful
and part of the mythology of the artist or the poet or the writer.
So I wonder if that was a thing in that time,
that that was a sign of their greatness, that they wouldn't be
bound down to one woman or one child or whatever it might be?
I think so, and I think the idea of the artist or the writer
as a rule breaker was much different then,
and I have to say, I think now we are much more materialistic.
So right now the artist is, wants to sell his novel to Hollywood.
You know? So now people are much more fixated on living
a bourgeois life like the banker next door,
rather than living according to no rules,
so, along with that loss of those kind of disgusting men,
we also have a kind of rise of a kind of extolling
of safe, healthy bourgeois culture.
So I think that's the other side of it,
is that everybody wants to be...
Those writers are too busy going to the gym
and shopping at Whole Foods and they want to have a nice townhouse
and they're not really willing to commit to the kind of bohemianism
that some of these people were willing to commit to.
Shagging is the word I was looking for, screwing is too crude a word.
Shagging is the word I wanted and I lost.
No-one knows this city or the great men who lived here
better than Adam Gopnik,
a writer at the New Yorker for 30 years.
I'll tell you a story about the first time
I had dinner with Norman Mailer,
-if you can, if you can bear it.
-Yes, please do.
We were invited to dinner with Norman Mailer.
I was, you know, a young pug writer
and I thought, "This'll be interesting,"
and I thought to myself it'll be interesting cos I'll get to meet
the real Mailer behind the mask -
because he had this big publicity mask - and I went to meet him
and it was exactly as though you went to have dinner with
Elmer Fudd and you thought, "Now I'm going to meet the real Elmer,"
and Elmer turned to you and said, "I'm gonna get that kwazy wabbit."
Because he turned to me and he said, "Have you been following..."
He talked Mailer-like and he said, "It's nice to meet you,
"have you been following my fights with the feminists?
"Have you been following my fights with the feminists?
And I said, "Yeah, yeah, I guess..."
He said, "Do you know what I call them? Know what I call them?
"I call them woo-woos because they're women who've had the man
"removed from them, that's why I call them woo-woos.
And I'm deeply embarrassed cos this is such puerile stuff
coming from this great writer.
And I had come prepped, as we do when we meet great writers,
you know, with, you know, "In The Deer Park, did you mean...?"
And he was obsessed, frankly in a very puerile way with
-the attacks on him...
-With the woo-woos.
-With the woo-woos!
He was obsessed with the woo-woos and he would not let it drop,
he would not let it drop.
And, as I say, he was like you want to say, "Elmer, Elmer,
"save that for the cartoons, right? Tell me...
"Enough with the kwazy wabbit,
tell me what it's like just being Elmer Fudd, and he couldn't.
There is always this sense of, like, to break out be the great man
you have to some extent leave women and children behind.
Yes, you know, that's certainly true.
In my generation among writers we are all good husbands
and good fathers and proud of it -
that was our obsession,
but it also wasn't in the sense that it was natural to our generation,
and that's how we defined ourselves.
And there are as many women fed up with guys like us,
who are unable to be Dionysian adventurers,
as there are women, like our wives, I hope,
-who are proud to be associated with us.
-I interviewed Katie...
-She despises guys like me.
-I don't think she despises you.
-Maybe not me personally.
Your name didn't come up in a despising way.
Generationally she despises those of us
who have our aprons on and our stir-fry cookbooks out
and are tweeting about our children and writing these tales,
and I understand that, I see...
Like every other gain in human existence, it comes with compensatory losses,
and I think that just as the great men you are talking about
had often to censor their own impulses towards
tenderness and quieter kinds of affection,
to domesticity, which certainly existed in their lives, but
they had a very hard time writing about in any persuasive way.
They had trouble living it, experiencing it in life,
and as anything we have trouble experiencing we have trouble
organising as a literary emotion.
It's not just gender identity that's shifted since these great men were kings,
the way in which we consume culture
and the speed at which we do so, have transformed irreversibly.
Where do you locate greatness on the computer screen?
The internet has changed our capacity to absorb art
that isn't immediately stimulating or isn't immediately shocking
or surprising or winning in some way, that's definitely true,
and I think that has changed poetry in some way.
Nick Laird is an award-winning poet,
and his latest book, Go Giants,
explores concepts of greatness in art and politics.
He now lives in New York and teaches at Columbia University.
You see, my students don't buy books any more,
they just read them online, and you go to the poetry sites
and the poems are categorised by things like
"pets" or "time" or...
-one of the categories is "indoor activities".
Yes. So the idea of, like, now, in the way that Napster or Spotify
destroyed the LP, the idea that a book of poems arrives
and you read it from cover to cover, from start to finish -
that's not how poems are being absorbed by certainly my students,
they're more like 45s now -
you get your single and it arrives and you like it, and you put it
on Twitter or whatever it is, then you move on to the next writer
who's written a poem that in some way is shocking or surprising.
That's about speed, isn't it? Again...
-It's our need to have technology disseminate information in some ways.
Is something lost?
I guess, something Martin Amis said which I thought was interesting,
was we were trying to sort of perceive what it was
about those men that might be specifically different
-and one thing he said was that they didn't care.
They didn't care about the fact that they were, you know, being...
Either about the way they behaved in their private lives or about the way
that they wrote or whatever, there was a sort of freedom to it.
Now, I'm not sure that's entirely true,
there were probably lots of ways in which they did care but,
of course, they weren't assaulted by a huge superstructure by which
-people could tell them what they should care about.
And so what difference has that made to people who write,
people who create art?
People are infected with doubt in a way that I don't think
Mailer, Bellow, Updike were.
They were pretty sure of their place in the world, geopolitically even,
like, America was the leader in lots of ways,
there was no sense that, you know, America wasn't the land of the free,
it wasn't the leader of the free world.
To be white and male in America at that time was to have won the lottery.
Certainly there was no way of undermining writers,
or attacking them, like there is now.
So, is there a great man left somewhere in our culture?
Well, the truth is that the veneration of the great man
was often undemocratic and sometimes misogynistic,
and that with a new type of thinking,
with micro-history on the rise
and art forms that celebrate smallness and transience -
a Vine is seven seconds long - we have to accept the idea
that the way forward artistically
must be away from the old idea of greatness,
and towards something else which hopefully will also be great,
but perhaps with a smaller G.
A great man, Bertolt Brecht,
once wrote a play about the life of another great man, Galileo,
at the end of which a character says to Galileo,
"Unhappy the land that has no heroes."
And Galileo replies,
"Happy the land that needs no heroes."
# Whatever happened to the heroes?
# Whatever happened to the heroes?
# No more heroes any more No more heroes any more
# No more heroes any more
# No more heroes any more... #
In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle came up with the Great Man theory - a view that history is formed by the impact of certain charismatic and powerful men. For Artsnight, David Baddiel travels to New York to see if there are any great men left, and whether the idea, embodied by huge priapic figures like Picasso, Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer, is untenable now.
David talks to writers Martin Amis, Nick Laird, Katie Roiphe and Meg Wolitzer, to ask whether anyone can be called great in a culture where so many voices and opinions exist that anyone with a claim on greatness is easily shot down. Even those who might be considered great, he argues, can't be that absurdly masculine anymore, so can only achieve greatness with an ironic nod and a wink. So what has been gained and lost by the death of the Great Man idea?