Dealing with dichotomy

Where does one draw the line when making a decision about the character of an individual in the public eye? In the so-called ‘information age’ where one can find out anything about anyone, how does the public decide what to take into account when evaluating someone for a political position, or when determining their merit as a brilliant actor or performer?

Does the fact a politician has a record of infidelity have any bearing on his ability to competently do his job? Does an actor’s substance abuse problem make him any less brilliant an actor?

Some would argue a person’s private life should remain just that, private. However, in my opinion, if a man can lie to his wife it’s not hard to believe he could–and would–deceive the voting public.

Personally, I’m divided on the issue. I’m quick to condemn some based on the mess that is their private life, such as Bill Clinton, but equally eager to defend others, such as the late Sylvia Plath.

For those of you who haven’t had to dissect “Daddy” in a poetry class or simply aren’t poetically inclined, Plath was an American poet who wrote mainly in the mid-1950’s. Known not only for her incredibly intricate and dark poems, her tumultuous private life has always been a topic of conversation and is now the subject of a movie, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

If anyone led a life made for a dramatic Hollywood film it was Plath, however I find the idea of a movie based on her life story intrusive, and to be honest a bit of a cop out.

Sitting mute in a theatre watching the succession of events being fed to you, bolstered with Hollywood exaggeration and supplemented with a fair amount of conjecture seems a cheap replacement for the feelings Plath penned so openly throughout her life. The cold lens and cheap dialogue are no replacement for the life story Plath herself narrated through her huge array of poetry.

Avid poetry readers and fans of her work are able to get a deep, intimate grasp of her emotional state, the panicky way in which she swings between loving and hating life, her alternating feelings towards her children–one moment immersed in their joy, the next comparing them to snakes sucking the life from her. It seems redundant to put images to words which have been much more imaginatively scripted by Sylvia herself.

I suppose reading takes time and deciphering her unique language takes even longer. It’s just so much easier to sit in a theater knowing nothing about the poet or her work, but being engaged by the drama and the vividness of her ultimate demise.

But why do we care? Does the fact she probably suffered from a myriad of mental illnesses make her any less of a poet?

In all likelihood it is the strange way she skewed the world that was the source of her brilliance. After all, the line between genius and insanity is a fine one.

However, the difference between knowing about her private life and knowing about that of a politician, the difference which allows me to defend one and condemn the other, is relevance.

In one case, the problems hiding behind the name enhance the work being done. In the other they detract from the authority and legitimacy of the position. Those in the arts (actors, musicians, writers), aren’t publicly accountable to anyone. If they have a bad day and are perhaps a wee bit insane, they fuel it into a heartbreaking song or award-winning performance. Those in positions of power might choose an alternate route.

For example, in order to deal with her daddy issues Sylvia Plath used her position as a writer to compose a poem. However, if a powerful politician carried his daddy issues into the office, and used his position to deal with them, well, I’m sure you can all imagine the chaos which might ensue.

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