Harmful people with helpful ideas

I still read Luther, Calvin, and de Beauvoir. But John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse has made me rethink my mindset.

In a scene early in Todd Field’s 2022 film Tár, eminent composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is teaching a master class at Juilliard. After extolling the compositions of J. S. Bach, Tár provokes Max, a nervous student, to respond with their musical inspirations. “I’m not really into Bach,” Max answers. She prods Max with smug condescension, insisting that they must say something more to defend what she considers to be an absurd opinion. “I’d say Bach’s misogynistic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously,” Max replies. “Didn’t he sire like 20 kids?”

That someone would link Bach’s sexual life to his brilliant work offends Tár, who snaps back at Max in front of the class: “I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skills in the marital bed have to do with B minor.”

In her review of the film for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith highlights this back-and-forth between Tár and Max as representative of our current debates about the connections between a person’s life and work, between personal ethics and creative achievement. “Can an A-minor chord be misogynistic?” Smith asks. She lets her question linger unanswered. Probably because there are no answers—no schema for untangling the threads of influence in a work of art, no solvent to dissolve the contradictions that compose a person’s life.