Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Monday, April 16, 2007

Out and About

"Are we better off without religion?"Roger Scruton discusses the question:

All those facts about the human condition dispose us to look for the places where we can stand, as it were, at the window of our empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental – the places from which light from that other sphere floods over us. There is nothing irrational in looking for these places, or in the thought that we find them by locating what is sacred – sacred words, sacred texts, sacred rituals. And by looking for the sacred we are also constructing a community, so that the meanings and values that we find are shared with others. A religious community is not a scientific community. It contains idiocy, prejudice, ignorance and stupidity in all the proportions that these are displayed by mankind as a whole. But that is its great virtue: it can draw people, whatever their talents and intellectual powers, into a shared apprehension of their condition. It can teach humility and justice, and remind the one with power, knowledge, wealth or artistic talent, that he is the equal of the one beside him in the moment of worship, however ignorant, weak or sinful that person might be.

Michael Drout ironically proposes Dyson's Law: "It's impossible for good writing to include an Elf." Please read his terrific post about the depth of Tolkien's prose, and the shallow critical hubris that dismisses it.

Here's a sample:

It is not, then, that Tolken's prose lacks depth, but that the depths which it references are not the depths that the critic knows. But why is Tolkien to blame here ? Isn't, per Toynbee, the great writer supposed to rush ahead and the critic to make the effort to follow? Who has legislated that the set of references and texts must be those with which the critic is comfortable? Eliot seems to be mocking the lack of erudition of many critics when he published his own footnotes to "The Waste Land," and critics who don't follow Tolkien's references also lack erudition (of a different kind, "northern" rather than Classical, for example), but rather than making the effort to acquire it, they assume the references are obscure, "tweedy," "donish," "dotty."

Appleyard's comparison to T.H. White's The Once and Future King is telling. White's work is infused with irony, that all-purpose condiment of modernist writers, critics and journalists. Tolkien has really very little interest in that kind of irony (which often is, to my mind, superficial, though not in White's case). But irony is easy for the critic, and it allows him or her to present a pose of superiority, which is essential if you are going to tell people what they should or should not like (rather than, say, explain how an aesthetic artifact produces its effects on different readers). It is an additional layer of irony: not only does the reader know things that the character do not, the critic is assumed to know things, important things, that the author does not.
. . .

There is also much "depth" in The Children of Húrin, but the depth is, as Gergely Nagy has shown in the single best article written on Tolkien the past decade, related to Tolkien's own body of texts. Unlike other imitative fantasy, Tolkien's work produces the "feel" of reading myth. His layers of poems, stories, anecdotes, annals and sketches works to produce the kind of textuality otherwise possessed only by works that have been handled by many writers and readers over many centuries. No one else has managed this feat, before or since: not Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Morrison, Rushdie or even Eco (Borges perhaps comes close).

I like that final little dig at the critic's darlings.


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