Pantheon for a Flawed Species

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , culture , Voice

The television coverage of Michael Jackson's death was initially focused not on his best known and best selling videos, but on somber descriptions and analysis of his being a “flawed person.” The modish defense “We don't know what we don't know” has never prompted anyone professionally facing a camera to remain silent. The amateur psychologizing of TV personalities was occasionally buttressed by professionals, but they brought no new insights to bear, agreeing only that the entertainer was “flawed.”

“Flawed person” is a tautological construction at best, for there is no other kind, flaws being part of the human condition. What made Jackson's flaws remarkable was not only their strangeness, but the selective transparency with which they were made public. The bizarreness seemed to have developed before our very eyes. This got me musing about people in public life who, being human, must have flaws like the rest of us, which by dint of circumstances not entirely in their control are so obscured by their creative excellence as to go unnoticed.

Remember the advertising slogan, “Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee?” It wasn't true of mothers concerned about their children's nutrition, but it had an effective and lasting ring to it. Well, as far as I can tell nobody doesn't like Yo-Yo Ma. Or Sidney Poitier. And who would challenge the universal admiration in which Meryl Streep is held? I know a jazz musician described by a mutual friend as “exuding goodness,” a characterization I find accurate, as does the musician's wife, and mine too for that matter. It strikes me that the same thing might be said about the playwright Horton Foote. And when Dolly Parton talks, as she often has, about her childhood aspiration to be “trash,” it elevates trashhood to the status of law and medicine, minus the corruption.

Audrey Hepburn is another in my personal pantheon, as is Bruce Lee. So is Paul Newman, who, celebrated for good acting, good works, and his reputed proficiency as a racing car driver, once volunteered a previously unobserved shortcoming. The interviewer Barbara Walters asked him why he raced cars:

“Because,” he said, “I can't dance.”

Asked to elaborate, Newman said, “I can't dance, I can't box, I can't ski. Racing cars is something I turn out to be good at.”

The most stellar recent addition to my list of the seemingly unsullied is Chesley Sullenburger, the US Airways pilot who with equal courage and competence set his airbus down in the Hudson River, saving the lives of 155 passengers. Like the world at large I admire him for his spectacular performance (perhaps all the more because I happened to look up just as the plane glided astonishingly past my Riverside Drive window), but also for the intelligence and dignity with which he acknowledged the feat. He was able to field the inane questions television journalists are required by network tradition to ask their prey of the week—e.g., “How did it feel to learn that your child was buried underground?” When Katie Couric asked Captain Sullenburger to reveal the first thing he thought of when he realized that both engines had failed, he said candidly, “I thought, this can't be happening to me. I had always assumed that I'd end my career without ever crashing.”

Of course what all of the stars above have in common is talent—for acting, playing the cello, singing, flying planes, twirling nunchaku. Does that explain anything?

W. H. Auden thought so, at least if the talent was for creating literature. One of his own finest poems, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, declares of the Irish poet, “You were silly like us: your gift survived it all,” explaining:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel
Pardons him for writing well.

I've always found Auden's argument convincing, but now it strikes me as needlessly narrow. Since making things with words was his own most revered gift, it is natural that he saw Time as excusing the flaws of anyone achieving greatness in the language arts. But doesn't Time's propensity to forgive apply as well to everyone who makes great things in any medium? When it comes to the granting of pardons, I doubt that poets go free any more often than composers, choreographers or designers. I think Time is as likely to forgive, say, Wagner or Frank Lloyd Wright as Kipling, and probably already has.

(Photo: Michael Jackson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame byFlickr user Fabio Ikezaki) 

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.