How many times must I stab the radio this summer?
In today’s ABC ‘Documentary Piece’ about Roald Dahl, we hear of a young woman’s literary love affair with the author who shaped her childhood. Dahl, she tells us, with excruciatingly ponderous pace, made her into the writer she is today.
But wait, there’s a twist! There is a Dark Side to Roald Dahl, a side so horrible that one can barely bring oneself to look into it, lest their childhood be tapped open like a festering egg!
Tell me more!
Well, apparently Roald Dahl was an adulterer. And, he once called his daughter a bitch for confronting him on it. There’s more. Dahl once remarked that he’d rather be dead than fat (he’s as evil as Kate Moss! Shuffle over, Hitler and stop hogging the blanket!). It gets worse, folks. Dahl was a racist. His oompah loompahs were originally cast as African pygmies, and he ruminated on the character flaws of the Jewish people. Why, he wondered, had they attracted such perverse persecution? Sure, Hitler was a prize bumpfswiggle but in Dahl’s view the Jews had partly brought their fate upon themselves.
The radio narrator/writer weeps and wails over their gravity and depth of these failings…. Oh my God, how could I have loved this guy? How could I have read his books? WHAT A MONSTER! I can’t believe I was somehow complicit in his vile world!
After about thirty hours of this self-righteous, hyperbolic panto routine I turned it off.
When I was 8 my Dad showed me some film footage of Jews being pushed into pits. It is still the most distressing thing I’ve seen in my life and remains securely fastened in a repertoire of lively nightmares. I’ve since questioned my father’s judgement, but I’ll never forget his words;
If you had grown up in a family of Nazis, you would believe this was right too.
Dad wanted me to think about judgement, about the relativism of right and wrong. He wanted me to think hard about the social conventions that I was growing up in. (I’m making him sound like a morally righteous demi-God – he isn’t, he’s just a person like everyone else. A person who should have looked into a bit more Disney).
And so when I hear blind judgement, without consideration of context, background, politics, family, gender or class I get nervous. Because this is truly frightening. This is the blueprint of unblinking dogmatism. And unblinking dogmatism gets you front row seats at the pit.
Simply stating ‘Dahl was a monster’ demonstrates a troubling fixity of thought, something far darker than his supposed ‘dark side’. What is really, truly frightening, is cultivating the lack of insight that allows us to come to grips with what people are thinking and feeling, to think critically about the cultural patterns, tropes and values that are in ascendence at any one time. The Holocaust can’t be understood with the idea that there were just a few more shittier human beans in the can. Dahl’s story tells us that intelligent, well-connected people, loving fathers and mothers can come to hold dreadfully dangerous ideas. We are all ‘monsters’. We need to think hard about how that happens.
Dahl was a product of multiple moments in time, of the family he grew up in, the British class-constrained school he attended, the war he fought, the Africa he experienced and the women he disgraced himself with.
Dahl was a human bean. Like the rest of us.