Fifty Shades Of Racism?

Reviewing James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love, Alexander Adams praises the biographer for pushing back against Larkin’s more vociferous critics, especially those who dwell on his private sexism and racism. About the latter charge:

Any biographer has to take into account the criticism Larkin has faced for racist comments made in private letters. Those who are quick to apply the label ‘racist’ are usually unwilling (and NPG x12937; Philip Larkin by Fay Godwinunable) to distinguish causes and types of racism.

Racism is a spectrum of views, ranging from the pseudoscientific conviction that certain groups are genetically superior/inferior to a dislike of certain cultural manifestations. The causes of racist sentiment can be anything from displaced dissatisfaction, cultural prejudice, political partisanship, religious conditioning and nationalist sentiment in time of war right up to paranoid delusion. Dyspeptic misanthropes often express disgust in racist form when their frustration is of a general unfocused kind.

There is no suggestion that Larkin ever uttered a racial insult to a person’s face or engaged in any discriminatory behaviour (indeed, Booth presents examples of where Larkin supported the careers of non-white authors). Booth points out that Larkin only voiced racist opinions to receptive individuals (Amis, Monica, etc) in private and often undercutting epithets with irony or self-mockery.

While true, this does not make Larkin’s racist expressions false.

It would be surprising if a culturally conservative white Englishman with mild nationalist sentiments did not resent some of the cultural changes of Britain from the 1950s onwards, just as it is equally unsurprising that he felt somewhat ashamed of his prejudices and unwilling to hurt anyone directly. Booth has no need to excuse Larkin’s prejudices, just as we should have no reason to require excuses. HP Lovecraft’s racist view on life is an essential part of his writing; Larkin’s racist comments about West Indian cricketers and Indian doctors are peripheral and irrelevant to understanding his poetry.

There is also a very English Amis-Larkin cultural sub-text here: the ironic private use of racist and sexist language as a kind of mock meta-protest at the forces of progress. Jonathan Raban, in a review for The New Republic, discussed this question – without flinching from the actual words – this way:

In 1978 [Larkin] wrote to Robert Conquest: “We don’t go to Test matches now, too many fucking niggers about.”

The letters to male friends like Conquest and Kingsley Amis are salted with terms like “wop”, “coon” and “wog”, just as they are salted with nursery ruderies like “bum”, “piss” and “shit”; and in context the childishness of the words counts for a good deal more than their tiresome spray-gun racism. Larkin’s alternative conservative manifesto (“Prison for strikers, Bring back the cat, Kick out the niggers—How about that?”) and his ditty addressed to *H.M.* the Queen (“After Healey’s trading figures, After Wilson’s squalid crew, And the rising tide of niggers—What a treat to look at you”) have all the political heft of a pre-schooler showing off his hoard of dirty words to épater the aunties and get in with the big kids. No word was dirtier than “nigger”, and Larkin used it extensively to his boys-room cronies, for the usual boys-room reasons.

You see this increasingly on the American right: essentially trolling liberals by semi-humorously advancing outrageously racist or sexist  ideas and images as some kind of cultural identity. Merely a glance at much conservative media sees this Breitbartian tendency in full bloom. See: Drudge and depictions of African-Americans. See: Rush passim. But the difference, of course, is that the latter is fully public; while Larkin’s foul racist language was absolutely and extremely private.

Does that distinction matter? For the poetry, it seem pretty clear to me that it doesn’t. For the human being? Of course it does. To my mind, this kind of statement is dispositive:

I find the “state of the nation” quite terrifying. In 10 years’ time we shall all be cowering under our beds as hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.

That quote comes via a review by John G Rodwan Jr of a book exonerating Larkin. And yet, as Rodwan notes, the same person who wrote that in private could also write the following in public:

The American Negro is trying to take a step forward that can be compared only to the ending of slavery in the nineteenth century. And despite the dogs, the hosepipes and the burnings, advances have already been made towards giving the Negro his civil rights that would have been inconceivable when Louis Armstrong was a young man. These advances will doubtless continue. They will end only when the Negro is as well-housed, educated and medically cared for as the white man.

It’s also true that few racists would have devoted their critical lives to reviewing jazz, as Larkin did. It was his one true passion apart from poetry, and it is an indelibly African-American art form. Rodwan deals with that question really insightfully.

I would simply add that human beings are extremely complex. No one is immune to the primate, private aversion to “the other”, whatever it is. No one is immune from resistance to cultural change. What we are responsible for is whether we allow those impulses to control our thoughts and actions, in private and public. My rather conventional view is that we should all strive as hard as we can to obliterate those impulses in both the private and public spheres. But in actuality, given human nature, they will tend to manifest themselves in all sorts of ways that can be misread or misunderstood if the only two categories are racist or non-racist. And what I worry about – especially with the almost constant stream of easy online pieces and posts decrying the racism or homophobia or sexism of one person or another – is that we simplify things that, in most human lives, resist simplification. By defending the dignity of some, we can reduce the complex humanity of others.

It is possible for a human being to be racist and non-racist in the same day, and indeed exhibit a mountain of contradictions across a lifetime. It is possible for someone to be publicly homophobic but privately tolerant and embracing, just as it is possible for someone to publicly be a model of human virtue while harboring private impulses and acts that are truly foul at times.

What I’m saying is that Larkin was clearly both things – in many mutations and manifestations through his life. What I’m also saying is that we are all both those things to some degree or other. And the spectrum of these varying thoughts, feelings and acts is broad and wide. We are not either/or. We are both/and. We are human.

Update from a reader:

It sounds as if Larkin was fine with AMERICAN culture being multi-racial, with AMERICAN Negroes getting their civil rights, with AMERICAN jazz reflecting the indelible print of African-American tonality and rhythm … but the idea that ENGLAND was going to experience the same diversity and cultural change was very scary to him.

(Photo of Larkin by Fay Godwin, via Wiki)