We Are Incompletely Seen: On Speaking Ill of the Dead
James Levine has died.
Levine was conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera for decades, until forced out in disgrace in 2017 after allegations that he had abused young boys. No criminal case was ever brought, and Levine won a wrongful termination settlement from the Met, but the feeling that he had done these bad things was almost universal.
Anthony Tommassini of the New York Times attempted to balance the good and the bad of Levine’s long career last night. For this effort at even-handedness, Tommassini and the Times were pilloried on Twitter. He was a child abuser, end of story. He doesn’t deserve any other obit – that was the theme of countless reply tweets. When Deutsche Grammophon, the world’s most respected classical musical label, paid tribute to Levine, the outrage on Twitter forced them to issue a subsequent clarification, fulminously condemning the conductor’s misdeeds.
One of the ways that cancel culture operates is quite literal. If you have done good things and bad things in your life, the modern mind believes that the bad automatically cancels out the good. The NYT tried to see both aspects of Levine’s life fairly, and the Twitter mob pushed back. If there’s one constant theme of the modern censorious left, it is that “both-sidesism” is fundamentally bad. To the assiduously Woke, people are either virtuous or they are monsters, and they should be remembered as one or the other, because it is impossible to be both.
To be fair, cancel culture is a response to a very long tradition of ignoring the bad things altogether, particularly about the recently departed. When the legendary Chassidic folk singer Shlomo Carlebach died in 1994, the obituaries were warm and generous – and made no mention of the already-widely-known allegations of sexual misconduct against him. The women whom Carlebach hurt would wait a decade to be able to tell their stories. A long reappraisal of his work followed. Some synagogues stopped singing Carlebach’s songs altogether, but most chose to focus on holding the beauty of his music and the truth of his failings in open tension. In the Jewish community, there was widespread agreement that his transgressions should have been part of his obituary, and it was wrong that they weren’t.
It is not complicity with evil to insist that human beings are complex. It is not a flattening of distinctions, or an abdication of moral responsibility, to say that people are not good OR bad, but rather full of good AND bad. The folks who are mistrustful of this both/and approach like to ask if this insistence on balance applies to everyone. They want to know if we should write headlines like “Ted Bundy, serial killer who was generous and devoted to the friends he didn’t murder, put to death in Florida.” (There’s a part of me that’s tempted to say that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but most of my readers won’t buy that.) In reality, very few of us are serial killers, or irredeemable sociopaths, and it does no one any good to pretend that every last man who committed sexual misconduct over the course of his life is no better than a Ted Bundy, a Jeffrey Dahmer, or an Adolf Hitler. We can and must draw distinctions.
To praise the good someone does is not to erase the bad they did. It is not to pretend that his victims didn’t endure real suffering. It is not to offer a final appraisal, or a moral sorting hat. It is not a weighing of two things against each other. Just as you cannot compare apples to oranges, you cannot compare sexual abuse to great art. They are both immensely important, and both part of Levine’s legacy. His talents did not expiate his guilt over his private misdeeds, and his private misdeeds do not irrevocably tarnish his artistic legacy.
Everyone is entitled to make their own moral calculations. If you’re an opera fan, and the tales of James Levine’s depredations make his music unlistenable to you, it would be wrong of me to attempt to convince you otherwise. Most of us are inconsistent about this. We might choose to still listen to Michael Jackson, but find Bill Cosby’s comedy permanently ruined for us. We might still watch a Woody Allen film, but not a Roman Polanski movie. Our own aesthetics inform our morals. That’s part of what it means to be human. The key is accepting our own inconsistencies, and being humble as a result. That means not lecturing other people who do still choose to watch Woody Allen, or listen to the recordings of James Levine.
I was never much of a public figure. To the extent I was one, I think it likely I will not be remembered kindly when the obituaries come: “Hugo Schwyzer, once-celebrated male feminist who resigned in scandal, dead at 64.” (To be fair, I may not even merit a public obit at all, but allow me to think this through.) If you look at what comes up when you Google my name, my entire life is defined by my mental illness and my poor choices. To the extent that I am known beyond my friends and family and former students, I am a joke and a cautionary tale. Most of the things I am accused of online are true, but they are not the sum of me. I am also a loving father, and I have been a good friend, and I have written a few things that helped a few people once or twice.
I am everything my detractors claim – and I am everything my children believe I am. I am not misunderstood, I am incompletely seen. That is true of every last one of us.
Though all of us fall short of our best, it is true that not all of us molest children. There are degrees of falling short, just as there are degrees of artistic and athletic excellence. The fact that some have done crueler things than others, however, doesn’t change the overall calculus of our lives: we are still all complicated, still a mix of sun and shadow, differing only by slight degrees – and by what is made known to the world.
The great plague of our modern era is certainty. We may often be in error, but we never seem to be in doubt, particularly when assessing the famous. We lie to ourselves, claiming with pride that our fiery convictions are rooted in a fierce moral clarity that our forebears lacked. Where they saw through a glass darkly, we flatter ourselves that we see reality as it is, the world divided neatly between the innocent and the predatory, the good and the wicked, the saved and the damned, the Woke and the sleeping.
James Levine was a great man who did bad things. Both his greatness and his badness are equal parts of his legacy, inextricably linked like the ventricle to the auricle, the sinew to the bone, the conductor’s baton to the opening note.
And all of this is true of each us as well.