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Tolkien versus the lit crits

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  • Steve Schaper
    ... Wendell, I was meaning the modernist belief that religion is superstition, and the post-modernist rejection of objective truth as a concept. It seemed to
    Message 1 of 3 , Jun 10, 2001
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      > If you said that this said that this desire to appear ironic about everything
      > is a symptom of post-modernism, I suppose that might be true, depending how
      > you define the term. I don't think these people learned their post-modernism
      > from reading Derrida and Foucault though.
      >
      > Wendell Wagner

      Wendell, I was meaning the modernist belief that religion is
      superstition, and the post-modernist rejection of objective truth as a
      concept. It seemed to me from what I read, that lit crit types dissed
      Tolkien because he was not writing according to their beliefs and
      sensibilities but writing according to his own Catholic beliefs and
      sensibilities, and that therefore made him something other than a "20th
      century writer" Is that somewhat more clear than mud now? I mean,
      Tolkien has real good, real evil, real heroes and real villains. That
      seems to offend many English profs of this present time.


      =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
      "It is true that if you tell me what you read, I can tell
      you who you are. But I will know you better if you tell
      me what you re-read." -- Francois Mauriac

      http://www.users.qwest.net/~sschaper/
      sschaper@...
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    • WendellWag@aol.com
      In a message dated 6/10/01 12:33:53 PM Eastern Daylight Time, ... The recent articles on Tolkien that have been referenced in this newsgroup don t seem to me
      Message 2 of 3 , Jun 11, 2001
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        In a message dated 6/10/01 12:33:53 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
        sschaper@... writes:


        > Wendell, I was meaning the modernist belief that religion is
        > superstition, and the post-modernist rejection of objective truth as a
        > concept. It seemed to me from what I read, that lit crit types dissed
        > Tolkien because he was not writing according to their beliefs and
        > sensibilities but writing according to his own Catholic beliefs and
        > sensibilities, and that therefore made him something other than a "20th
        > century writer" Is that somewhat more clear than mud now? I mean,
        > Tolkien has real good, real evil, real heroes and real villains. That
        > seems to offend many English profs of this present time.
        >
        >
        >

        The recent articles on Tolkien that have been referenced in this newsgroup
        don't seem to me to be criticizing Tolkien on that basis though. They aren't
        written by academics but by journalists, and for that reason I don't think
        they are likely to espouse post-modernism, at least in the sense that it's
        used in the academic world (for people like Derrida and Foucault). As I
        said, I suppose that it's possible to call this "you should treat everything
        with irony" a sort of vulgar version of post-modernism. In this vulgar
        post-modernism, someone might attack Tolkien fans because he can't believe
        that anyone is passionate about anything. I doubt though that very many
        journalists take post-modernism in the academic sense very seriously. Even
        those who were English majors in college (and thus most likely to be writing
        articles on Tolkien in magazines and newspapers) mostly, I suspect, consider
        post-modernism to be a weird affectation of some of their English professors
        which they did their best to ignore. I don't think I've seen any articles
        outside of academic journals in the past couple of years which defended
        post-modernism, and I have seen quite a few attacks on post-modernism both
        from journalists and from academics.

        Besides, I don't think a post-modernist would be likely to attack Tolkien in
        the way that he's being attacked in the articles we're talking about. One of
        the common assertions of post-modernists is that there are no standards by
        which one can call one genre better than another. A post-modernist is happy
        writing articles in which he compares Shakespeare with the latest graphic
        novels without trying to make any distinctions of quality. This isn't
        consistent with the attacks that I've seen, which seem to be saying that
        Tolkien writes fantasy, which can't by definition include any significant
        works, and besides he's read mostly by science fiction fans and similar
        geeks, and anything associated with those ooky sorts of people is obviously
        beneath contempt. People who say this are literary snobs, not
        post-modernists.

        My contention has always been that _The Lord of the Rings_ is a great work of
        literature by any consistent standard of literary quality, and I'll be happy
        to defend it to any adherent of any literary theory who can explain their
        theory to me in a comprehensible fashion. The only problem I have making
        such an argument to a post-modernist literary critic is that I'm not sure if
        there's enough of a consistent theory there to be worth arguing about. I
        don't find post-modernism to be quite as worthless (or quite as common in
        academia) as you seem to think that it is. Like a lot of muddled theories,
        it contains some interesting observations buried beneath a lot of useless
        over-generalizations of these observations and some of the most confusing
        jargon in academic history. I have to agree with post-modernists that, yes,
        some of the things we thought we knew were indeed "socially constructed"
        facts, so that it's worthwhile to look carefully at the assumptions in our
        theories to see if they hold up universally or fall apart outside of our
        culture. But, of course, you can only push this so far. If every fact were
        socially constructed, you would eventually end up saying that there is no
        reality out there and no such thing as truth.

        But, for what it's worth, a lot of post-modernists don't go that far anyway.
        Most of them, if pushed, would say that of course there's a reality out
        there, but they don't think we can say very much about it. And the average
        intelligent practitioner of post-modernism probably doesn't push the theory
        much further than it can go. Throughout history, there have been lots of
        adherents of bad theories who recognized that they couldn't make the theory
        they advocated work very well. They generally fell back onto using the
        theory only in the narrow areas where it worked reasonably well and tried to
        stay away from the places where it fell down completely. I suspect that the
        average English professor who uses post-modernist literary theory in his
        criticism knows at some level that the theory falls apart if pushed too hard.
        He's willing to show that certain facts are socially constructed when you
        can actually make a good case for that and he just ignores the implications
        of his theories and has nothing to say in the areas where they don't fit.

        As for modernism, it's long dead as a literary movement, and it's arguable
        that the most important modernist thinkers are now largely considered passe.
        I would take the modernist writers to be the ones listed in _100 Key Books of
        the Modern Movement from England, France, and American 1880-1950_ by Cyril
        Connolly. These are writers like D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, Marcel Proust,
        Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, T. S.
        Eliot, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, Jean-Paul Sartre, and
        Albert Camus. These people had finished their significant writings by 1950,
        and they're all dead now. Individual writers among this group are still
        championed by individual literary critics, but the period when these people
        were considered leaders in a literary movement is now long past. It made
        sense for C. S. Lewis to make fun of these writers and their hangers-on in
        one passage in _The Pilgrim's Regress_, because he knew what the literary
        scene was like in the '20's and '30's when it was considered fashionable to
        think you were a rebel because you read people like this. That's just not
        true anymore, even in the literary sets who think that they're avant garde
        these days. (As Lewis pointed out in some essay, in any case it's pretty
        ridiculous to think of oneself as a courageous rebel for one's literary
        tastes anyway. It's absurd to think that announcing to a hostile public that
        you have unpopular literary tastes is an act of bravery as much as walking
        into enemy gunfire, when actually it's about as brave as entering a cold
        shower.)

        As to the modernist thinkers, well, I suppose two of the most important
        modernist thinkers were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. It's clear to me that
        their theories are now considered dead as a doornail. Both began to decline
        in the eyes of the theorists of these movements in the 1950's. Already in
        the '50's, psychiatrists began to see that Freudian analysis didn't seem to
        be producing any significant improvement in their patients, while drug
        therapy at least occasionally did work. By the '80's, there were a number of
        books published showing that the scientific foundations of Freudian theory
        was so weak as to be essentially nonexistent. Except for a small cranky set
        of die-hard Freudians, the consensus even among the sort of liberal
        intellectuals who were once the biggest fans of Freudianism is that Freud's
        theories make no consistent sense. Back in the early and mid-'90's, there
        were a number of articles in _The New York Review of Books_ (as close as I
        know to being the house organ of American mainstream liberal intelligentsia)
        debunking the claims of Freudianism. In the past couple years, there hasn't
        been much about the subject, mostly I suspect because no one thinks Freud
        even worth defending. As for Marx, the bulk of his supporters outside the
        communist nations began to fall away in the '50's as they saw how badly
        communism worked in the Soviet Union. Even in the communist countries, there
        haven't really been any theorists of Marxism trying to defend and extend
        Marx's theories since about 1950. There were just a lot of political
        theorists trying to run countries using a theoretical basis that they
        suspected didn't really make sense but which they knew they had to make work
        in practice, however badly. Since 1990, there's been no one espousing
        Marxism except a few cranky, die-hard left-overs.

        If you define modernism broadly enough, I suppose, you could say that there
        are still people in academia who believe in it, but I don't think that's a
        useful classification of theories. Even post-modernism isn't as popular as
        you seem to think it is. Besides all the academic fields where it doesn't
        make any sense to talk about what post-modernism would even mean (what would
        a post-modern biochemist be?), post-modernism isn't that universal in fields
        where it has some influence (literature, history, and sociology, mostly).
        I'm not even convinced that the majority of English professors are
        post-modernists, though they may be in the majority in certain departments
        and on the editorial boards of certain journals.

        Wendell Wagner


        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
      • David S. Bratman
        Wendell - You speak much wisdom here. No need to comment on most of it (though I d happily natter if there were more time), though there is one point I m in
        Message 3 of 3 , Jun 11, 2001
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          Wendell -

          You speak much wisdom here. No need to comment on most of it (though I'd
          happily natter if there were more time), though there is one point I'm in
          disagreement on. You write, "My contention has always been that _The Lord
          of the Rings_ is a great work of literature by any consistent standard of
          literary quality, and I'll be happy to defend it to any adherent of any
          literary theory who can explain their theory to me in a comprehensible
          fashion."

          How would you apply that to Burton Raffel's article in _Tolkien and the
          Critics_? His argument is that LOTR may be good, but that by the accepted
          literary standards it is not literature. Brian Attebery in _Strategies of
          Fantasy_ (a brilliant critical work I'd recommend to all) says, "Raffel is
          convincing. We must either redefine literature or exclude Tolkien - and
          with him much of modern fantasy. ... Spinning wonderful stories is the
          rarest and most difficult of literature skills ... we need a new definition
          of narrative literature, and such a theory must be able to account for the
          felicities as well as the obvious failings of a work like LOTR." And he
          proceeds to erect such a theory. Elsewhere in the book he creates the most
          effective and convincing definition of fantasy I've ever seen (actually,
          definitions, because noting that "fantasy" means different things in
          different contexts is part of his insight).

          This ties in to the allusions I've been making to the reasons that the
          anti-Tolkienists seem to resent him so. They are wedded to the definition
          that Raffel uses, and object to the kind of redefinitions that would
          include Tolkien. This is not pure stick-in-the-mud-ism but a genuine
          difference as to what literature is and is for.

          A couple further notes on my last post addressed to Michael Martinez -

          An important part of the point about that Hovhaness anecdote, which I
          didn't spell out but should have, is that nobody would talk like that about
          Dmitri Shostakovich, despite the fact that Shostakovich is, and has been
          for ten years, the subject of the most vehement and personal arguments in
          all of classical musicology. That kind of argument is completely different
          from the situation with Hovhaness (or Tolkien). Nobody's denying
          Shostakovich's (or Faulkner's, or Joyce's) importance, though in the heat
          of argument one side may accuse the other of a covert agenda to do so. But
          with Hovhaness (or Tolkien), the disparagers just ignore him when possible,
          or make dismissive noises when they have to say something. I remember the
          comment about Sergei Rachmaninoff in Grove 5: "As a pianist Rachmaninoff
          was the finest of his time; as a composer he was hardly of his time at
          all." [quote from memory] What a stunning remark! He was of his time by
          definition; it is the critics' definition of that time which is too
          narrow. And so it is with Tolkien: definitions of 20th century literature
          which restrict it to, say, psychological realism and similar genres - these
          definitions willfully ignore the deep significance of fantasy to the 20th
          century. And that significance bothers some people.

          I'm using music as an example because I actually know more about modern
          classical musicology than about modern non-fantasy literary study, and
          because I'd just read the quote about Hovhaness and it was such a perfect
          illustration. I could have dug up similar remarks about Tolkien, but it
          didn't seem necessary. Shippey discusses the Germaine Greers and Philip
          Toynbees pretty thoroughly in his new book, and Harold Bloom (quoted by
          Mooney) speaks for himself. (LOTR like The Book of Mormon, indeed! I bet
          he's never really read either: I've read both.) Besides Shippey, I have in
          mind (but have not secured permission to quote, and am not going to bother
          doing so) the personal testimony of one tenured English professor, and one
          other Ph.D. in English, both from respectable but not prestigious
          universities, that the dismissive attitude towards Tolkien is real,
          different from other kinds of academic disputes, largely prevalent
          especially in more prestigious institutions (though obviously not
          universal), and that a liking for and interest in writing about Tolkien can
          actually hurt your career. You can't say that about Shakespeare.

          David Bratman
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