ad hominem… or not


“Play the violin and shut up!” exclaimed our host, switching off the radio.

We had listened to a performance of a Mozart violin concerto that sent us laughing and halfway up to heaven, and now the young violinist was in conversation with a BBC interviewer, who was asking him whether he was ‘on a journey’ and stuff like that. The musician was replying awkwardly, in poor English, with an accent that made him sound shifty. After the music and the sweet air of Parnasssus, it was bathos: embarrassing, discourteous and an error of taste.

The ad hominem topos sometimes arises in discussion with students. It was a matter of revulsion to JRR Tolkien: ‘One of my strongest opinions is that investigation of the author’s biography (or such other glimpses of his ‘personality’ as can be gleaned by the curious) is an entirely vain approach to his works…’ (The Letters, No. 329)

Later in the same letter he comments similarly on the imperative to label a writer: ‘…a childish amusement of small minds: and very deadening, since at best it overemphasises what is common to a selected group of writers, and distracts attention from what is individual and not classifiable in each of them and is the element that gives them life…’

Homer, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Juvenal and Catullus are among those artists who have escaped this treatment, more than partly by their own devising; and blissfully we know nothing of the private life of Parrhasius, Ictinus, Praxiteles or any of their peers. There are a few libellous stories about them, by the ancient equivalent of internet trolls.

But in 1989, Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Eric Gill was published. Its revelations about his private life and misbehaviour caused a sensation: and there were even demands that his Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral* should be removed.

This mistake, however, had been dealt with by Bernard Levin in The Times the year before, when he reviewed the production of Parsifal at Covent Garden:

‘The contrast between Wagner’s prodigious genius and his horrible personal nature has been discussed endlessly and fruitlessly… Some great artists have been of the most beautiful and loving nature, and some have been anything from dishonest to the most frightful swine… but there is nothing to be done about it, and surely Parsifal is the greatest testimony in all art to the terrible truth that so enraged Shaffer’s Salieri: that any channel, even an unworthy one, will serve as an aqueduct through which the pure water of art can flow from Heaven to earth, and not be tainted by the corrupted vessel that serves it.’

This is in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans, who assumed that art was divinely inspired.

Next post: Hearth and home.

*See the Images menu for two of these.

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