You know, I’d say that this entire Derek Walcott thing has left a bad taste in my mouth

…But then, some pervert might interpret it as a come-on. 

*haw haw*

As evil_fizz recently pointed out – most people are aware of Walcott’s reputation as, well, someone who doesn’t respect certain boundaries with women. As most of the recent defenses of Walcott attest, it isn’t that anyone is denying that improprities have occurred – instead, people are saying that we should have a different standard for Walcott than we do for other people. 

I am sympathetic to Ruth Padel, Walcott’s rival for the Professor of Poetry post at Oxford, who had to resign after it was alleged that she engaged in a “smear-campaign” that forced Walcott to withdraw his nomination for the post. I think she was being careless when she talked to the media, but what does it say about our priorities when Walcott only recently saw his inappropriate conduct affect his career, whereas women like Padel are automatically reduced to the status of evil trolls when they discuss information that’s already in the public domain? 

As a young female journalist and aspiring novelist, I am routinely warned to never, EVER criticize men like Walcott. If I want to have a writing career, I am told, I need to shut up and smile and allow the Great Men of Letters to bask in their Greatness. Perhaps then they’ll let me sit in their laps, or something. 

More importantly, we are taught to believe that certain men who Live the Life of the Mind can and should get away with demeaning women. Tom Wolfe can call young college women “sluts,” Derek Walcott can be the sort of man whom female undergraduates are explicitly warned against and not be the worse for wear, and so on. Not harassing or demeaning women is already seen as a tough business for your average man, but a man whose “brain is the size of a planet” cannot be held responsible as they are too distracted by their own brilliance to act as responsible residents of this sinful firmament – hell, poor guy was only thinking deep thoughts on Daniel Defoe when he accidentally stumbled into your pants, lady. 

Odd how these excuses are only extended to men wherein their conduct with women is concerned. If Walcott was prone to picking fellow academics’ pockets or abusing his cat, would we be even having this discussion? 

You know, at Duke, I was lucky enough to find myself in the company of several people I would consider geniuses, both male and female. Amazingly, all of these people, including yet another male Noble Prize winner, had a fairly easy time not harrassing me or any of the other women around. I wonder how they achieved this. 

I am not for a sterile collegiate environment where nobody should be allowed to mention sex without another person in the room keeling over in shock. But I think there is a clear difference between an honest discussion, even a bit of flirtatiousness, and outright harassment. Everyone knows that one professor than young women (or young men, or both) are warned about:

These are the individuals for whom even something as a few seconds worth of eye-contact is deemed as an explicit invitation. These are the ones that will hungrily stare at an exposed bra-strap on a summer day, as if you’re naked and spread before them. They’ll gallantly offer to pay for your food when they see you shaking out the last few dimes from your wallet at the coffee shop – “Why not? I consider you a friend. You’re one of my favourite students. Pay me back later.” – and then decide that you owe them a blow-job. 

You know, I believe Derek Walcott is an amazing poet. His work gives me shivers – even as I type this in the Jordanian spring sun. 

I’m not going to deny that many people pile on against men like Walcott not because they actually give a damn about their actions, but because they are secretly jealous of their talent or because they relish an opportunity to put a Caribbean author in his so-called place.

However, I don’t believe Nicole Kelby when she writes that “Writers, by nature, have reckless hearts” – in her defense of Walcott (Kelby actually sued Boston University after Walcott harassed her).

With all due respect to Kelby, who can’t be having an easy time with her case being re-visited by the media, I think this defense works about as much as “Plumbers, by nature, have reckless hearts.” There’s nothing inherently reckless about being good, even great, at stringing words together to produce a work of art. I hate it when writers pat themselves on the back for it, to be honest. Some hearts are reckless, and others are not. Some people act like d-bags, and others tend to do alright. 

Walcott should be held responsible for his own behaviour, but I blame this actual scandal on the petty claustrophobia of rarefied academic circles, on the curious politics of privlege, on the insistence of treating human beings as if they were gods. This isn’t ancient Greece, and nobody is raptorously squeezing out grapes onto their togas. And even then, humans that blurred the line between the mortal and divine were usually left in pieces, whether metaphorically or otherwise.

…and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

***

There are no windows here to let in night.
But we, our backstage company of stacked
and Victorian glass eyes: we know that this is night.

You can’t fool us, the seen-it-all,
the past-all-care, inured to managed air
turned cold to keep the straw in us pest-free,

the DNA of hide and bone intact…

14 thoughts on “You know, I’d say that this entire Derek Walcott thing has left a bad taste in my mouth

  1. All true. But more than anything, this thing has lifted the curtain on the backroom politics of all academic institutions and also in the literary community. Both are venal pits of politesse hiding under naked ambition. Both are ruthless. Poets, despite their outward demeanor, might be the worst of all. Perhaps because academia is really their only path to renumeration as poets. I don’t know. I’m surprised we don’t hear these stories more often.

  2. I think you make an excellent point in regards to renumeration. It’s not fair, because these people are creating timeless works of art and beauty. I read a piece about how the 1,000-page novel is out-of-date in the modern day, and it made me wonder if, perhaps, people will begin to read poetry more as they gravitate toward brevity. But I doubt it.

  3. natalia – you start this essay out with a dirty joke then continue to discuss dignity for women. i think you’r trying to have your cake and eat it.

  4. Eh? I want you to try this approach with Phillip Roth sometime, Cranky. Walk over to the man, call him, say, “a huge veiny cock on the body of Western litetature,” or something. After he decks you, tell him – “but hey! What about all that sex stuff in your books, Phil?! You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too!”

    See, it doesn’t quite work with Roth, because he’s a man and deserving of at least a modicum of respect. But when it comes to women, we don’t distinguish between a bawdy joke and, say, trying to coerce someone you have power over into sleeping with you, amirite?

    Also, I’m talking about everyone’s dignity – not just women’s.

  5. This is very very well argued. You’ve helped me think about this case in a new, more nuanced way. I do think Walcott’s been hounded because of his race and his success, and I find that intolerable, but I also see now that, in a just world, there would be a lot less of the nasty and (from what we are told) vindictive brand of sexual predation Walcott engaged in. Sigh. He’s *such* a good poet, but I now see that the greater tragedy is the women he’s been aggressive towards.

  6. Perhaps because academia is really their only path to renumeration as poets.

    Quite possibly, although £6901 (the annual stipend for the Oxford position) is hardly something to write home about.

    I actually found the defenses of Walcott far more irksome than the fact that he’d actually behaved inappropriately. There are incredible scholars (like Hermione Lee) whom seem to think that because Walcott is getting old, we shouldn’t forgo any opportunities to genuflect at the altar of his greatness.

    In every debate about the art vs. the artist (see also: Roman Polanski), there seems to be a sense that if we are acknowledging art, we cannot simultaneously acknowledge the artist’s flaws without debasing the art, which is nonsense. There are numerous historical figures who have accomplished great things and still been less than stellar human beings in other areas. (To take one example: Thomas Jefferson. Phenomenal politician, writer, and scholar. Also, misogynistic ass who owned slaves.) I think that Walcott is brilliant, even if nauseatingly egotistical and lecherous. Surely, admitting both of these things can be simultaneously true does not mean that we let Walcott be a paragon of aiding and abetting rape culture.

  7. Excellent post. But it is sad to read that you’ve been told that if you want to have a literary career you should never criticise great male writers. No one ever told me that, and I seem to have got away with it so far, but Padel’s case seems to indicate that it is true.

    Love your comment about plumbers and reckless hearts. It’s part of this weird fetishization of the writer (how do you write? explain your inspiration!where do you write? tell me all about your garden shed so I will understand your literary greatness and maybe even get some of it myself) which everyone seems to buy into these days, not just to excuse bad behaviour but to – actually I don’t know why. To put a value on something that has little or no market value?

  8. that’s because I AM a master… just slumming down here under an alias, finding out what the weaker and the great unwashed say about us, y’know, before retiring back to my ivory tower..

  9. there was a programme on yesterday about the scientist Carleton Gajdusek, who spent years living in papua new guinea researching a degenerative brain disease among the native people and as a result discovered the cause of mad cow disease, for which he won the Nobel. He also adoped about 50 boys from there, brought them to America, and it turned out, abused some of them. It was a fascinating and sad programme and reminded me a little of Walcott. So many eminent scientists were interviewed falling over thmeselves to defend Gajdusek, talking about how brilliance is always unconventional etc etc – or simply refusing to engage with the human consequences of his behaviour, as if scientific acheivements of genius exist in a seperate world.. also a lot of speculation about what is aceptable in one culture and not in another.
    It was on BBC 4 – Storyville: the genius and the boys. Don’t know if you can watch it on i-player

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