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Re: [mythsoc] Digest Number 990

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  • Nagy Gergely
    ... Dear Michael, as a critic (well, sort of), I feel called on to respond. A theorist would probably say right away that he/she has pretty much nothing to do
    Message 1 of 6 , Sep 2, 2002
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      > Letter 125 speaks of "the whole saga of the Three Jewels and the
      > Rings of Power", but I'm not sure of what you're getting after.
      > Critics can pretty much make up their own definitions and string
      > lengthy arguments around them without really worrying about what
      > Tolkien intended. They are often more concerned with the effect
      > achieved than with the goal pursued by a writer, if that makes any
      > sense.

      Dear Michael,
      as a critic (well, sort of), I feel called on to respond. A theorist would
      probably say right away that he/she has pretty much nothing to do with 'what
      Tolkien intended'-- and I'm inclined to say the same, since I do not see any
      way to get at that 'intention'. I'm much more concerned with the texts
      themselves, which I consider 'the goals pursued by the writer'. I don't
      really see what else we can have that we can put that label on; certainly not
      what Tolkien 'was trying to say'. (Even if we could somehow retrieve what he
      was 'trying to say', what's the guarantee that he succeeded to say it? would
      retrieving mean that we will finally not have to deal with the texts, since
      we have the 'saying'?) I'm sure you heard all these theoretical argument over
      and over countless times, but I feel your comment institutes an illusory gap
      between 'critics' (who are only concerned with their 'lengthy arguments' and
      are not interested in Tolkien's 'intentions') and other readers (who
      genuinely go after 'what Tolkien meant'). That is, I think, a mistaken
      stance, because it suggests that what critics do to texts is really not
      relevant and is more a showing off of themselves than interpreting Tolkien.
      Critical approaches more or less all have their more or less different
      conceptions about what consitutes the 'meaning' of a literary text; I'm
      afraid none of the current critical schools thinks in terms of 'what the
      author intended' any more. Even if they did, the only way to get to that
      intention is through the text; so I think critics are entirely justified in
      looking at the texts and their effects, structures, etc. to construct
      meaning. And I think that would be the point: the author's intention, very
      generally speaking, is to produce a text which will work to produce meaning
      in the reader's consciousness. For a certain extent, yes, the author through
      the text (its themes, structure, language) delimits the sphere and suggests a
      direction in which interpreters may construe meanings; but current
      interpretation of medieval texts show that texts hold considerably wider
      potentials of meaning than those ever conceivable by their authors (if it
      were not so, texts from different ages and different cultures would simply be
      meaningless). So in conclusion, I think critics are entirely justified in
      doing what you say they do.

      Yours,
      Gergely Nagy
      Univ of Szeged, Hungary
    • Carl F. Hostetter
      ... There are many ways to get at authorial intention. First and foremost would be to study the author s commentary on his own works. Another would be to
      Message 2 of 6 , Sep 2, 2002
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        On Monday, September 2, 2002, at 07:55 AM, Nagy Gergely wrote:

        > I do not see any way to get at that 'intention'.

        There are many ways to get at authorial intention. First and foremost
        would be to study the author's commentary on his own works. Another
        would be to consider the context(s) within which the author was writing
        and in which the work was published, and consider how the author's work
        is positioned with respect to that context. Yet another is to study the
        drafts of the work in question, and consider the author's choices and
        changes in achieving the published text.

        We Tolkien critics are exceedingly fortunate to have all of these types
        of materials, some in huge quantities.

        > the only way to get to that intention is through the text;

        This is simply not true.

        > current interpretation of medieval texts show that texts hold
        > considerably wider
        > potentials of meaning than those ever conceivable by their authors

        How do we know what meanings were conceivable by medieval authors, and
        what weren't? And if it can be proven that some meaning was
        _impossible_ for the author to have conceived, and thus impossible for
        him to have intended, then that also proves that that particular
        meaning is a critical fabrication, a mere idiosyncratic curiosity, and
        utterly worthless to an understanding of the text.

        The problem with "theory" (itself a misnomer, since rather than arising
        as an explanation for pre-existing evidence, the evidence is shaped and
        filtered to fit the pre-existing "theory") is that it discounts
        entirely everything the author says about his work (well, except for
        those statements that can be made to fit the "theory") and imposes its
        own favorite psycho-socio-politico-historical context and slant on
        everything it encounters. As they say, when the only tool you have is a
        hammer, everything looks like a nail. Modern critical "theory" is
        simply a box of hammers.

        (Another illustration of the bankruptcy, of the intellectual
        dishonesty, of "theory" is the fact that this same system is that which
        sustains "modern art", in which, for example, a gray rectangle on a
        white canvas is considered great art because the author intends it as a
        rebellion against previous artistic contexts and conventions. But how
        can any such thing be considered to have _any_ meaning at all, _if the
        intent of the artist is dismissed as unknowable_? Indeed such a work of
        "art" is _nothing but_ intention and context. It just happens that the
        intention and context are such that the "critics" themselves admire,
        and import. And so it is with all artistic productions that the modern
        "theory" critic regards as great, not because the artist is possessed
        of any talent, but because the artist conforms with and furthers the
        psycho-socio-political views of the "theory" critics, who thus in fact
        dismiss as unknowable _only what they don't want to know, or to be
        known_, because it does not accord with their prejudices and agendas.)


        --
        =============================================
        Carl F. Hostetter Aelfwine@... http://www.elvish.org

        ho bios brachys, he de techne makre.
        Ars longa, vita brevis.
        The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.
        "I wish life was not so short," he thought. "Languages take such
        a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about."
      • SusanPal@aol.com
        In a message dated 9/2/2002 8:38:22 AM Pacific Daylight Time, ... This sounds to me like unfair stereotyping of literary theory. Mind you, I m an academic
        Message 3 of 6 , Sep 2, 2002
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          In a message dated 9/2/2002 8:38:22 AM Pacific Daylight Time,
          Aelfwine@... writes:


          > The problem with "theory" (itself a misnomer, since rather than arising
          > as an explanation for pre-existing evidence, the evidence is shaped and
          > filtered to fit the pre-existing "theory") is that it discounts
          > entirely everything the author says about his work (well, except for
          > those statements that can be made to fit the "theory") and imposes its
          > own favorite psycho-socio-politico-historical context and slant on
          > everything it encounters. As they say, when the only tool you have is a
          > hammer, everything looks like a nail. Modern critical "theory" is
          > simply a box of hammers.
          >

          This sounds to me like unfair stereotyping of literary theory. Mind you, I'm
          an academic who's in a creative-writing rather than a scholarly job precisely
          because I'm skeptical about a lot of what passes for "theory." Nonetheless,
          there are a lot of different theoretical schools and approaches (including
          things like reader-response theory that look at the interaction between
          reader and text), and *good* theorists can use a number of these sensitively,
          as a way of unpacking the richness of the text rather than as a way of
          flattening it. The type of one-dimensional ideological approach you describe
          above is the province of *bad* theorists, but the problem lies not with
          theory itself, but with how well or badly it's used. It's kinda like
          fantasy: some of it's good and some of it's bad. You can't say that a
          book's good or bad simply because it has "fantasy" on the spine and you
          happen to be sympathetic, or hostile, to fantasy as a category: you need to
          open the book and *read* it.

          > (Another illustration of the bankruptcy, of the intellectual
          > dishonesty, of "theory" is the fact that this same system is that which
          > sustains "modern art", in which, for example, a gray rectangle on a
          > white canvas is considered great art because the author intends it as a
          > rebellion against previous artistic contexts and conventions. But how
          > can any such thing be considered to have _any_ meaning at all, _if the
          > intent of the artist is dismissed as unknowable_? Indeed such a work of
          > "art" is _nothing but_ intention and context. It just happens that the
          > intention and context are such that the "critics" themselves admire,
          > and import. And so it is with all artistic productions that the modern
          > "theory" critic regards as great, not because the artist is possessed
          > of any talent, but because the artist conforms with and furthers the
          > psycho-socio-political views of the "theory" critics, who thus in fact
          > dismiss as unknowable _only what they don't want to know, or to be
          > known_, because it does not accord with their prejudices and agendas.)
          >
          Well, ALL of us have prejudices and agendas, don't we? Fantasy-bashing is
          one; theory-bashing is another. Both are a form of flattening. It seems to
          me that in the above paragraph, you're performing exactly the same move you
          dislike when theorists do it: ignoring diversity and variety for the sake of
          your own intellectual agenda. We're all prone to do this, to some extent,
          which is why we need to remain very conscious of it, and to try to deflect it
          both in ourselves and in other people when we see it!

          Susan


          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • Carl F. Hostetter
          ... I most certainly am not. Those critics that exhibit the sort of diversity and variety you must mean -- i.e., such that they fall outside the bankrupt
          Message 4 of 6 , Sep 2, 2002
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            On Monday, September 2, 2002, at 12:54 PM, SusanPal@... wrote:

            > It seems to me that in the above paragraph, you're performing exactly
            > the same move you dislike when theorists do it: ignoring diversity
            > and variety for the sake of your own intellectual agenda.

            I most certainly am not. Those critics that exhibit the sort of
            diversity and variety you must mean -- i.e., such that they fall
            outside the bankrupt practices I am describing -- are obviously not
            included in my criticism. But those critics that do practice the
            bankruptcies I'm describing are _legion_.

            I'd also like to know what you mean by "theory", and how it differs
            from the box-of-hammers variety that I'm talking about, and that is so
            clearly prevalent. If by "theory" you mean an explanation of observable
            patterns in available data, arising from a study of that data, then I
            both accept that definition and submit that that is manifestly _not_
            the sort of "theory" I am criticizing. If, on the other hand, you mean
            things like gender/class/Marxist/yada/yada "theory", I again submit
            that it is nothing of the sort, and stand by my portrait.
          • Carl F. Hostetter
            To elaborate a bit: Modern theories , and adherent critics, in simplest form, hold that All art is about X , where X is their favorite
            Message 5 of 6 , Sep 2, 2002
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              To elaborate a bit:

              Modern "theories", and adherent critics, in simplest form, hold that
              "All art is 'about' X", where X is their favorite
              psycho-socio-political bugaboo.*

              I hold that any critic who would say or believe such a thing is
              intellectually bankrupt.

              Now, it might be objected that I am making just the same sort, and just
              as invalid, a generic statement as the critics. But this is not true.
              My statement is generic only over the sorts of critics that accept the
              generic statement of modern "theory". And they are legion. Obviously,
              any critic that does _not_ accept the generic statement of modern
              "theory" is not under my indictment.

              * And as an aside, to bring this back on topic, I would submit that it
              is this attitude that largely accounts for Tolkien's dismissal by most
              modern literary critics -- most of whom are "theory" critics" -- since
              his works are manifestly _not_ "about" any of their pet bugaboos, and
              cannot be made to conform to "theory" other than through intellectual
              dishonesty.
            • michael_martinez2
              ... There is the story itself, and then there is what we make of the story. The two are separate and distinct things. To be more precise than I have been
              Message 6 of 6 , Sep 7, 2002
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                --- In mythsoc@y..., Nagy Gergely <lamorak@m...> wrote:
                > ...I'm sure you heard all these theoretical argument over
                > and over countless times, but I feel your comment institutes an
                > illusory gap between 'critics' (who are only concerned with
                > their 'lengthy arguments' and are not interested in
                > Tolkien's 'intentions') and other readers (who genuinely go
                > after 'what Tolkien meant'). That is, I think, a mistaken
                > stance, because it suggests that what critics do to texts is
                > really not relevant and is more a showing off of themselves than
                > interpreting Tolkien.

                There is the story itself, and then there is what we make of the
                story. The two are separate and distinct things.

                To be more precise than I have been would require an immense amount
                of discussion for which I have no time. My absences from this list
                and other discussion fora are due to an increasingly complex project
                at work.

                And for those of you holding your breaths, I have been in touch with
                Douglas Anderson. One of his emails got through. It looks like,
                when we moved Xenite.Org to a new server earlier this year, we were
                assigned an IP address which had been abused by spammers. Most ISPs
                are honoring our connection, but not all.
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