Are personal views relevant to an audience or does it taint the work?
The foundation of the late Roald Dahl recently released a statement apologising for the author’s antisemitic remarks.
The official statement of The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company reads:
“[we] deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.
We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
Dahl gave an infamous interview in 1983 in which he made remarks about Jews that sparked significant criticism. He made comments such as: “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews” and “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
He is also reported as saying: “it’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”
Such comments play strongly to the archetypal stereotyping of Jews, and there appears to be no doubt that the beloved author, was, by all means, an anti-Semite.
Dahl confirmed this himself in another interview “I’m certainly anti-Israeli and I’ve become anti-Semitic.”
So, how can readers of all ages continue to love and cherish an author with such views?
Dahl wrote a plethora of adored children’s books including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, George’s Marvellous Medicine and The Witches, as well as adult literature. Many of his novels and stories has been transferred to the screen, and film adaptations of his work continue to be made with a film of The Witches released last month, and Netflix series version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the making.
But many argue that these stories are now clouded by the views of their author.
However, others argue that the personal life of an artist should not affect the way we value or appreciate their work.
Numerous artists throughout history have had dubious personal lives or questionable views that would be counted as unacceptable in today’s culture: both Enid Blyton and Walt Disney were purportedly racist; Richard Wagner was antisemitic; Martin Amis purportedly Islamophobic and Orson Scott Card, homophobic.
Should the political or personal views of these artists leak into their works?
The answer to this question hinges on whether we see art as the product of the artist or as a separate entity. Those who feel that art is inextricably related to its context will most likely ‘cancel’ or devalue the art if they disagree with the artists.
But many feel that we should appreciate art independently from the creator, and that we are not proponents of bigotry just because we continue to enjoy their work.
This is why people continue to watch films made by Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, why people listen to Wagner, and why people will most likely continue to read Roald Dahl.
And yet, we cannot completely extricate Dahl’s views form his stories.
Flickers of anti-Semitism and Jewish tropes can be seen in several of his works. In one story, named Madame Rosette, the protagonist is called a “filthy old Syrian Jewess”.
The script of the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, written by Dahl, features an original character called the Child Catcher, who clearly embodies several stereotypes.
By mathilda heller: culture Columnist
And this is even more serious when we realise that this character was developed only a few decades after 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
The idea that Dahl’s anti-Semitism was resigned to his private life seems less likely now. The line between art and artist becomes blurred.
When we read books to our children, we are hoping to pass on the beauty of fantasy and imagination and creation. We want our children to escape into other worlds, but we also hope that they will learn important skills along the way.
Children’s stories are famously allegorical – so many of the tales we read them are fables, teaching them the importance of kindness, friendship, acceptance and being open-minded.
If we want children to learn these things, we have to set a good example. But can we support an artist who is the antithesis of these values?
Either way, for some the statement is arguably too little, too late. It took approximately five minutes to source it on the Roald Dahl website, and whilst it appears to show regret and remorse for the comments made by the author, the foundation fails to give any promise of how they might make up for these mistakes.
A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “it is a shame that the estate has seen fit merely to apologise for Dahl’s anti-Semitism rather than to use its substantial means to do anything about it.”
Despite an apology, we may wonder whether there should be offers to donate proceeds to charity, to review the works for antisemitic content or the upcoming adaptations of his works, and whether it is appropriate to reappraise such views in today’s politically correct climate.
Maybe we should see the art as separate from the artist. Maybe we should agree with The Telegraph and hope that “his children’s books will always be allowed to inspire delight in young readers”.
But it is impossible to ignore the darker implications of this. How should those of Jewish decent feel now when reading Dahl’s stories, especially to their children?
Two Jewish children in the US once wrote to Roald Dahl saying: “we love your books but you don’t like us because we are Jews. That offends us! Can you please change your mind about what you said about Jews.”
It is a scary world where even a children’s story can make a child feel shunned and disliked. His stories may inspire and include some readers, but they will exclude many others.
Like the article in The Telegraph says, we should “think carefully about the ways in which we choose to honour him”, but we should also apply this to the wider world of art. Yes, art can have value beyond its context, but when this art is being used to teach, educate and inspire children, we should be wary of the message it conveys.
In this example, to continue to promote Dahl as the epitome of children’s literature is to condone his beliefs, and therefore to teach children that racism and prejudice is acceptable so long as you produce valuable work.
Art sets an example, so let’s try our best to make it a good one.
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