The allegations that comedian Louis C.K. sexually harasses women have been floating in the air for enough time that, when the New York Times published its damning account on Thursday, the only surprise was that it had taken so long. The story was still painful, though, especially for anyone who cares about insightful storytelling about sexual misconduct and support for smart female comedians. C.K. has been beloved both for the sharp, queasy insights his work offered into sex, power and grotesquerie, and for his mentorship of women such as Tig Notaro (who called early and prominent attention to the allegations) and Pamela Adlon. C.K. acknowledged as much in the statement he released: “These stories are true,” he wrote. “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”
In cases like this, there’s a tendency to reevaluate an artist’s career in light of revelations about his conduct, and a number of terrific critics have already weighed in to do just that. I’d suggest, though, that the news about C.K. puts us in touch with a sickening truth: In a sad way, his work makes even more sense to me now than it did when I first saw it.
Many people assume that, when a male artist makes thoughtful work about misogyny, his insights are shaped by sympathy for and solidarity with women. C.K. declares in his “Oh My God” special that “there is no greater threat to women than men. We’re the No. 1 threat to women. Globally and historically, we’re the No. 1 cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. … Try to imagine that you could only date a half-bear, half-lion. ‘I hope this one’s nice. I hope he doesn’t do what he’s going to do.'” And we hope that he’s saying that because he gets it, because he’s listened to women and thought about his own responsibilities toward them.
In the same way, when episodes of C.K’s show “Louie” dealt with sexual assault, it was easy to assume they were informed by empathy. In one scene, the C.K.’s “Louie” character is sexually assaulted by a date played by Melissa Leo. Louie is the physically larger person, but he is still stunned by her sudden outburst of violence and the vehemence of her sexual demands. Watching him shrink after his head gets cracked against a car window, seeing him give in (as distinct from consenting) to extricate himself from the situation, made women’s experiences viscerally legible. Anyone who personally lacked the imagination to think through how they might respond in a similar scenario suddenly had a window.
In another set of episodes, Louie presses a clumsy assault on his friend Pamela (Adlon, who is close to C.K. in real life, and co-created a show, “Better Things,” with him). The story doesn’t shy away from the pathetic nature of Louie’s behavior or the depth of Pamela’s disgust — though it does end in an uneasy way, with the pair in a relationship. The normal laws of self-preservation probably led me to think that no one who had behaved like this in real life would ever depict himself this way. Today, I see this arc as a kind of canny, self-deprecating insurance against discovery.
The truth is, empathy isn’t the only route to knowledge that makes for great art. You can learn about these things by paying attention when women talk about their experiences, or because you’ve had the same experiences. Or you can understand the abuse of power and intimate violence because you perpetrate those acts yourself and you know how they work. You know what it takes to make a woman feel not only horrified but also as if she can’t just walk out the door, as if she has to submit to the grotesque spectacle you’re forcing upon her because if she doesn’t you can ruin her without ever touching her again.
Inviting a woman up to your hotel room, taking your clothes off in front of her and starting to masturbate even when she tells you not to likely gives you a lot of information about how a situation like that might unfold and how all the participants in it might react. C.K. said that for a time, “I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my [genitals] without asking first…But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your [genitals] isn’t a question. It’s a predicament.”
I don’t have a precise mathematical formula that will allow us to weigh the values of the insights in Louis C.K.’s work against the damage he is alleged to have done to other people. We all hope that the people whose work we admire are decent and kind, and it’s a lot more convenient for us when that’s true. But sometimes, that hope fails. The next step is to believe that a person’s illuminating public work and their disgusting private conflict represent some sort of schizophrenic schism that allows us to detach the art from the artist. The darker reality is that often the best things in a person’s art are informed and even fueled by their worst impulses or acts.