Behind the Heroic Image
Is there any virtue in uncovering the vice of great men? Certainly not to gloat. But perhaps to warn. I know in my head the tables will be turned someday—the last will be first. “What is exalted among men is an abomination to God.” It will all be clear in the end. Anything to make it more clear now would help.
Well, let’s descend and take some examples. Robert Lowell won Pulitzer Prizes for collections of his poetry in 1946 and 1973. A recent biography recalls that Lowell was repeatedly hospitalized during fits of rage and depression from his early adulthood on. Derek Walcott said in the New York Review of Books that Lowell could tyrannize friend and foe alike with behavior that was cruel and unpredictable. He was unfaithful to his wives and the lovers who occasionally replaced them.
John Berryman, a poet and critic on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, battled alcohol and despair throughout his middle years, and eventually jumped off a bridge in the winter of ’72.
Delmore Schwartz (1913-66), another American poet, suffered from paranoia and was convinced that Nelson Rockefeller had spirited away his second wife. He died in a hallway of the Hotel Dixie in New York City where his body lay unclaimed for two days.
The Columbia Encyclopedia says W. H. Auden “ranks among the major literary figures of the 20th century.” In his final years he spent much of his energy in rounds of excessive drinking and homosexual profligacy. When he found out that Chester Kallman, his lifelong homosexual partner, had taken another lover, he came within a hair of murder, he later told Kallman.
The reason I have referred to poets is simply because I read an article recently by Roger Lundin that focused on poets. But they have no corner on vice. The famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth had a sustained affair with his secretary. And Paul Tillich’s wife Hannah tells how, shortly after the famous theologian’s death, she discovered his collection of pornography and mementos of his amorous conquests. “I unlocked the drawers. All the girls’ photos fell out, letters and poems, passionate appeals and disgust.”
Three lessons: 1) Choose your heroes with extraordinary care. 2) Greatness in the eyes of God is something very different than greatness in the eyes of men. 3) “Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
Taking heed with you,