Only subscribers may read this in its entirety. What follows is a free preview, truncated midway through.For some time, the subject of ruthlessness and art-making has lingered in the back of my mind. Like so many nascent ideas, this one has felt warm to the touch but without explicit features. What do I mean by “ruthlessness”? Do great artists possess more than their share of what we might describe as the overt or tacit willingness to disregard, or walk over, or hurt others either to create a masterwork or in pursuit of success? Do you have to possess some to make art well?
Years ago, a colleague had clipped a three-page short story from a magazine, and he and I had used it in a summer course for adolescents. In the story, a man decides against killing a pig because his son loves the creature and finds the notion of slaughtering it unbearable. I had found it moving and shared it with my father, Bernard Malamud. My father felt the writing was mediocre. To make his point, he showed me a parallel moment in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a writer whom he greatly admired. That scene displays Jude’s difficulty killing an animal and foreshadows the protagonist’s failure to live his life well.
Jude and his wife Arabella cannot afford to hire a butcher, so they must slaughter their pig themselves. Arabella knows they will earn more money if the meat has been “well bled”—and insists that the pig must die slowly to bleed clean. Jude cannot stand to make the animal suffer, and he finds the task of killing it dreadful. “Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!” said Jude. “A creature I have fed with my own hands.”