My two-month-old is a virtuoso spitter-upper, and after feedings I have to hold him upright for half an hour. Including at 3 AM. So at that bleary hour, with my baby asleep and dribbling, I want to read something entertaining and totally non-taxing. I’ve been flying through Agatha Christies.
I was briefly taken aback in Lord Edgeware Dies when Hercule Poirot, in his infinite wisdom, deduced that a certain character must be driven by love of money because she is a “Jewess.” She was not entirely an unsympathetic character, but she was indeed acquisitive. A couple of other comments here and there appear in other books about “Semitic” and “Hebraic” people, which were not overt but discomfiting. And this was my personal favorite, from Death in the Clouds, about a couple’s first date (NB: at least one of them is a sympathetic character):
It was one of those enchanting evenings when every word and confidence exchanged seemed to reveal a bond of sympathy and shared tastes.
They liked dogs and disliked cats. They both hated oysters and loved smoked salmon. They liked Greta Garbo and disliked Katharine Hepburn. They didn’t like fat women and admired really jet-black hair. They disliked very red nails. They disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes. They preferred buses to tubes.
It seemed almost miraculous that two people should have so many points of agreement.
A truly enchanted evening, no? One gets the sense Christie is making a bit of fun of the silliness of falling in love, but one does not get the sense that she is particularly critical because they dislike black people and fat women.
David Hume discussed how these sorts of sentences can pop out at you, especially in books from the past:
Whatever speculative errors may be found in the polite writings of any age or country, they detract but little from the value of those compositions. There needs but a certain turn of thought or imagination to make us enter into all the opinions, which then prevail, and relish the sentiments or conclusions derived from them. But a very violent effort is requisite to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind, from long custom, has been familiarized. And where a man is confident of the rectitude of that moral standard, by which he judges, he is justly jealous of it, and will not pervert the sentiments of his heart for a moment, in complaisance to any writer whatsoever.
So should you throw a racist book across the room? Well, it might well be worthwhile to read such a book in virtue of its being a cultural artifact. But what about the book read as a work of art or entertainment? I think there are at least a few criteria that might determine to throw or not to throw.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a moving post that quotes Hilzoy, argues that one should still read such books. That writers-as-teachers are flawed, and yet we can learn from them. Coates and Hilzoy are assuming that the work is aesthetically (or psychologically) valuable. And I agree, the aesthetic value of a book does seem to be a criterion. Without ignoring the racism/sexism/anti-Semitism/homophobia of such works, and even considering such elements as aesthetic defects, we still value what they have to offer. But a book that has less aesthetic value, maybe not so much. Agatha Christie, after all, is not really one of our great teachers nor artists. She is reasonably high on the pure entertainment scale.
Another criterion is, of course, the author’s perceived endorsement. Is the author depicting a racist character of whom she disapproves, or is she communicating her own racist views? I get the sense that Christie at the very least does not disapprove of her racist and anti-Semitic characters. Evidence from her life might confirm this, as Christopher Hitchens said of dinner with her, “the anti-Jewish flavor of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked.”
Another criterion might be the culture from which the author came. Taming of the Shrew in Shakespeare’s time represented widespread beliefs about women, long pre-dating Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. It’s discomposing to read it, but what if it were written now, in 2012? The same play, written now, would not represent widespread beliefs. This is arguable, but I think it therefore would constitute an implicit argument for re-subjugating women. It’s making a social point instead reflecting social reality. It would not be just discomposing, but totally repulsive. Christie on this criterion comes out a little better. The books that had these sentiments were written in the 1930s. I didn’t notice anything untoward in her books later than that.
And finally, another criterion is how much of the book is devoted to such statements. If a significant portion of the book is devoted to the degradation of one group or another, then it becomes harder to read. A sentence or two might be skippable. On this criterion, Christie is in the clear. Her bilge is not a substantial portion of the book.
So, weighing it all, I ended up not throwing it against the wall. And not only because I was reading on an iPad.