The Downside of Genius

Brilliance has its costs. The smartest person in the room may be as insufferable as she is inspiring, and angst-ridden artists may introduce us to brave new ways of thinking.

Polanski, Evil and Creativity: Does Talent Trump Bad Behavior?

What is the connection between creativity and evil?


In light of today's surprise release and refusal by Switzerland to extradite him to the United States, the case of Oscar-winning film director and international fugitive Roman Polanski raises some fundamental questions regarding the relationship between creativity and evil. Does talent ever redeem bad behavior? Can creativity excuse evil deeds?

Polanski, now seventy-six, was convicted three decades ago of raping a thirteen-year-old female model he was photographing at Jack Nicholson's Hollywood Hills home. On the night before his sentencing hearing, he fled on a plane to France, his home country, and has resided there ever since. Had he ever set foot in the United States again, Polanski would have been subject to immediate arrest. Hollywood lost one of its most promising, visionary and talented filmmakers when Polanski left town to avoid doing jail time for his lewd and lascivious sex crime. When he was arrested by Swiss police last year in Zurich on behalf of the United States and held in jail and then under house arrest for extradition, many in Hollywood expressed outrage that an artist of his stature would be held accountable for a mistake he committed more than thirty years ago. We all make mistakes. And our mistakes have consequences. In this case, Polanski apparently made two: choosing to have unlawful sex with a minor (statutory rape), and then skipping town to avoid being punished for what he did. He subsequently had to live the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, wondering when and where the authorities would finally catch up to him. They finally did. But now he is a free man once again, at liberty to leave Switzerland and return to his wife and children in France.

I do not presume to know precisely what happened during 1977 here in Los Angeles and whether it was an isolated incident or part of a long-standing pattern for Polanski. In the latter case, when a person repeatedly experiences, over a period of at least six months, sexually arousing fantasies, intense sexual urges or has engaged in behaviors involving sexual activity with minor children thirteen years or younger, he would typically warrant a diagnosis of Pedophilia. However, it seems Polanski was incarcerated for psychiatric evaluation for more than a month following his first arrest, and reportedly found not to be a pedophile. But, in his own mind, did he view himself as a child molester vindicated by his vocation, status and talent? There is some reason to believe that Polanski didn't feel, then or now, that he did anything wrong as a forty-something-year-old man having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl. He may feel himself to be the victim of a puritanical, erotically repressed, uptight, almost Victorian American morality with which he, as a European, avant-garde artist, disagrees, a rebellious, Promethean breaker of cultural sexual taboo. He and some of his colleagues may not consider what he did a serious crime or evil deed at all. Or, even if it was, feel that his creative contributions to society far outweigh and overshadow this perhaps isolated and relatively "minor" transgression. Can the presence of creativity preclude or transcend evil? Are artists above or beyond doing evil? Does their creativity vindicate or give license to their evil deeds? Or merit special considerations and treatment?

In 1981, acclaimed author Norman Mailer championed the publication of an extraordinary book: In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison by Jack Henry Abbott, written while an inmate at Utah State Penitentiary. The letters sent to Mailer from prison that eventually became the book were poetic, powerful, and seething with rage. Mailer described Abbott's untrained, neophyte writing as having "an eye for the continuation of his thought that was like the line a racing car driver takes around a turn. He wrote like a devil, which is to say (since none of us might recognize the truth if an angel told us) that he had a way of making you exclaim to yourself as you read, ‘Yes, he's right. My God, yes, it's true.' "

So infatuated was Mailer (who was himself once arrested for stabbing his second wife) with his new literary discovery that, in addition to arranging for the publication of Abbott's letters and contributing an introduction to the book, he somehow procured Abbott's early parole from prison--apparently forgiving, forgetting or glossing over the glaring facts of his extensive and violent criminal past: a childhood spent in foster homes and juvenile institutions, later serving time in federal penitentiaries for bouncing checks, bank robbery, and killing one fellow inmate and wounding another while in prison. Much like Charles Manson, by the time he turned thirty-seven, Jack Henry Abbott had become a classic "career criminal," a typical institutionalized sociopath or antisocial personality, having spent his entire adult life, with the exception of about nine months, incarcerated, mostly in solitary confinement. Within six weeks of being released to an adoring initiation into New York's elite literary society, Abbott was once again on the run from the law after fatally stabbing a young waiter outside a trendy Manhattan restaurant. He was eventually apprehended, convicted of manslaughter, and re-incarcerated. Stunned, novelist Jerzy Kosinski expressed his horror and sense of complicity this way: "I feel guilty, terribly guilty. . . . We had chosen to ignore that we had a violent man in our midst. Instead I think we preferred to see him as a man who is going to become an intellectual of violence. . . . Maybe I share with my intellectual friend Norman Mailer the feeling that talent redeems." Jack Henry Abbott spent the rest of his life behind bars, committing suicide in 2002 while still in prison.

What was it about Abbott's newly born literary talent that blinded members of the literati like Norman Mailer, Jerzy Kosinski and others to his chronic criminal proclivities? What is it about Roman Polanski's creative genius and persona that causes other prominent artists like David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Woody Allen to protest his arrest and punishment under the law? Do artists see themselves and their peers as being above the law? Does creativity trump evil? Part of the difficulty is reconciling the co-existence of both evil and creativity in the artist. From Beethoven to Picasso, Pollock or Bergman, there is always some amalgamation of both evil and creativity present in the personality. But because we simplistically tend to want to view life in black and white, we think of people as being either creative or evil, good or bad, rather than recognizing that even the most virtuous, gifted or creative individuals harbor the capacity for evil, while the most evil have the hidden capacity for creativity or good. One of the great ironies of this situation is that Polanski himself has always been fascinated by both evil and creativity, as evidenced in his impressive body of work.

It is a very difficult lesson. A true reality check. For some, a bitter pill to swallow. Creativity, talent or genius cannot be unequivocally equated only with good--though the one is commonly perceived to include the other. On the contrary, no quantity of creativity, no matter how colossal or prodigious, can ever preclude evil. Even the creative genius is responsible for his or her bad behavior. But what creativity can do is counterbalance evil, both in one's self and in the world. This is no small matter. While such culturally and intellectually enriching contributions can't be used to minimize the evil an artist like Phil Spector, Roman Polanski, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso--or anyone--might do, some of it inevitably comes with the extraordinary and often torturous emotional territory explored by true artistic genius.

On the one hand, such supportive public reactions, including from female artists like Debra Winger and Whoopi Goldberg, seem to demonstrate the high esteem, veneration, reverence and respect in which parts of our society-especially the creative community--hold the artist. Artists contribute something truly precious and essential to society. And it is vitally important that we recognize and honor the inherent value of this culturally enriching activity. But what if Polanski was not Polanski, but rather some unknown, starving filmmaker? Would Hollywood still react the same way? I don't think so. Part of what makes Polanski--whose pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally and senselessly slaughtered in the infamous Manson family murders seven years prior to his sex crime (a conceivably psychologically significant traumatic fact in this case)--worthy of special consideration for some has as much to do with his celebrity as his talent. We worship celebrity today--with or without talent. And, as has been repeatedly demonstrated during the high-profile criminal trials of celebrities like O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson or Robert Blake here in Los Angeles, celebrity, in the minds of many, does indeed trump almost any alleged evil deed.

 

This posting contains excerpts and material from Dr. Diamond's book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity (1996, SUNY Press).

The Downside of Genius