[Marxism] re Tolkien

Sandra K. Rankin srankin at uark.edu
Thu Nov 16 07:32:56 MST 2006


DCQ:

I'm trying to write an essay (for
a univ. grad course in Marxist 
Lit Theory) about China M.'s PERDIDO 
STREET STATION. I've got serious 
writer's block. I wonder what you found 
disappointing about PERDIDO. I've read 
everything of CM's--except his dissertation, 
which I'll soon read. I plan to write
my dissertation about CM's "weird
fiction." I'm yet to read Tolkien, but
I will. You've piqued my interest by 
emphasizing Tolkien's "utopian"-hopeful 
elements. (Ernst Bloch is one of 
my favorite writers.)

Sandy

----- Original Message -----
From: DCQ <deeseekyou at comcast.net>
Date: Thursday, November 16, 2006 1:03 am
Subject: Re: [Marxism] re Tolkien
To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition <marxism at lists.econ.utah.edu>

> Thanks for taking up my comments. I think you mischaracterized me a 
> bit  
> (see below). But please take this as comradely debate...
> 
> On Nov 14, 2006, at 6:53 AM, Scott Hamilton wrote:
> 
> > Interesting discussion on Tolkien. I've made some replies on my 
> blog  
> > at:
> > http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2006/11/close-your-eyes-and-
> think- 
> > of-middle.html
> > The China Mieville essay I quote seems on the money, until it 
> begins  
> > to discuss Peter Jackson's awful films.
> >>
> > My recent post on Tolkien has prompted some discussion on the  
> > international Marxmail e list, with several fans of the great man 
> 
> > rising to his defence.
> >  
> > Somebody with the austere name of 'DCQ' complains that Tolkien 
> has  
> > become a 'sort of punching bag of the left' since he reached the 
> big  
> > screen. DCQ points out that Tolkien became disillusioned with run 
> of  
> > the mill conservatism, and sometimes styled himself an  
> > 'anarcho-monarchist'. But it seems to me that it was precisely  
> > Tolkien's unhappiness with both the left and the mainstream 
> British  
> > right that drove him towards the impossibilist nostalgia for the  
> > Middle Ages that is reflected in Lord of the Rings.
> >  
> This is an improvement over your initial characterization of 
> Tolkien as  
> a hard-right reactionary and fascist. (And I wasn't complaining 
> about  
> Tolkien being a punching bag...I was point out a fact.)
>  
> > Tolkien was one of a generation of British intellectuals who 
> became  
> > disillusioned with the realities of twentieth century life - with 
> the  
> > slaughter of the First World War, the chaos and suffering 
> associated  
> > with the Great Depression, the ugliness of an industrial economy 
> which  
> > had by the 1930s lost any dynamism and glamour it had once 
> possessed -  
> > but who could find no viable social group and political movement 
> with  
> > which to identify.
> >  
> > Unwilling to throw their lot in with an idealised British working 
> 
> > class, in the manner of the young Auden and countless other 
> writers of  
> > the inter-war period, and disgusted with the philistinism of a 
> British  
> > ruling class that had lost its aristocratic liberal fringe,  
> > intellectuals like Tolkien, FR Leavis and Evelyn Waugh looked 
> back  
> > longingly to a pre-industrial era where the problems of the 
> twentieth  
> > century were absent.
> >  
> This might be true of Tolkien in general. But it's irrelevant. One  
> cannot draw those conclusions from his novels. His novels are rife 
> with  
> conflict on a mass scale: war, slavery, environmental destruction,  
> greed, and the resistance they spawn.
>  
> > DCQ talks of the philistinism of left-wingers who ply 
> reductionist  
> > political analyses of literary texts, but then goes on to argue 
> that  
> > Rings must be good, and have at least some progressive qualities, 
> 
> > because 'millions of people' read it. Is that not a pretty 
> philistine  
> > argument?
> >  
> This is a gross mischaracterization of my argument. What I argued 
> was  
> this:
>  
> …Especially if something becomes the cultural phenomenon that Lord 
> of  
> the Rings has become, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and  
> explain it to the extent that we can, and suggesting a course of  
> action. If Tolkien was nothing but a miserable reactionary who 
> couldn't  
> write, then we can do little else but draw pessimistic conclusions  
> about the level of consciousness (and aesthetic tastes) of millions 
> of  
> people. But if Tolkien is a more contradictory writer, then there 
> are  
> some pretty interesting things we can discuss with prospective  
> radicals, socialists, and revolutionaries.
>  
> This is an “if-then” argument relating to the possible real-world  
> conclusions we can draw about people’s political consciousness 
> based on  
> Tolkien’s popularity, not the asinine tautology you attribute to me.
>  
> > I think that the vastly increased audience Rings has won in 
> recent  
> > decades is in part a reflection of the contradictory course that  
> > history has taken in that time. Over the past thirty years 
> capitalism  
> > has struggled to regain the bouyancy it had in the decades 
> immediately  
> > after the Second World War, and even in the wealthy countries of 
> the  
> > West ordinary people have been made to pay for this failure. Yet  
> > despite economic stagnation and decades of falling real incomes, 
> the  
> > triumphs of the neo-liberal right in the '80s and the fall of the 
> 
> > Soviet Union in 1991 have helped ensure that an entire generation 
> has  
> > grown up without the prospect of a feasible alternative to 
> capitalism.>  
> > This curious combination of stagnation and the evaporation of a 
> real  
> > alternative to the status quo has meant that a sizeable number of 
> 
> > young people, in particular, have begun to hold the sort of 
> attitudes  
> > that gave birth to Rings over sixty years ago. Today's 
> disillusioned  
> > look about them and hate the world that they see, but can 
> conceive of  
> > no feasible alternative to maladies like globalisation, the War 
> of  
> > Terror, and environmental degradation. It is not surprising that 
> many  
> > of them turn to ideas and cultural movements based on a rejection 
> of  
> > modernity in toto. I have encountered many people active on the 
> rather  
> > otherwordly primitivist and eco-anarchist fringes of the  
> > anti-globalisation and anti-war movements movement who, contra 
> DCQ,  
> > regarded Rings as a sort of allegory for their political stance, 
> if  
> > not as a full-blooded manifesto.
> >  
> And you prove my point. Despite making noises about his popularity  
> being “a reflection of the contradictory course” of recent history, 
> you  
> mention only the negative aspects or recent history. And you draw  
> negative conclusions about the consciousness of Tolkien fans. 
> (Well, if  
> Tolkien is spawning a mass movement of eco-anarchists, wouldn’t 
> that be  
> an improvement over what we have now, which is not much of anything?)
>  
> > In another post to Marxmail, Bob Hopson complains about those who 
> 
> > 'want to bring Marxism into my entertainment choices' and 
> counterposes  
> > Tolkien to a joyless tradition of literary 'realism':
> >  
> > There was an interview with China Mieville (a Marxist scholar and 
> 
> > science fiction writer) where he confessed to finding realisitc  
> > literature almost unreadable. I sometimes wonder whether realism 
> isn't  
> > just a fad of the modern era. And if you can't enjoy fiction 
> without  
> > social commentary, there's always Leguin, Butler, etc.
> >  
> > Hopson seems to reduce the term 'realism' to a description of the 
> 
> > subject matter of a text. But many literary scholars would argue 
> that  
> > it should also relate to the way that a text treats its subject  
> > matter. Rings may have a fantastic setting, but its prose style 
> is  
> > ultra-traditional, drawing on Norse legend and Chaucer and 
> completely  
> > ignoring the innovations that modernist writers like Joyce, 
> Proust,  
> > Hemingway and so many others had given to the novel form in the 
> first  
> > decades of the twentieth century. To my mind, Rings is a very 
> dour  
> > piece of realism when set beside a novel like Joyce's Ulysses, 
> even  
> > though Joyce tells his story in twentieth century Dublin rather 
> than a  
> > fantastic land of elves and hobbits.
> >  
> Realism has many meanings. Definition #1: Realism as a literary  
> movement popular between the Romantic movement and the Modernist  
> movement, roughly starting with the failed revolutions of 1848 and  
> ending with World War I. Definition #2: Realism is writing about 
> the  
> real world in a straightforward fashion. Bob and China are using  
> definition #2, while you are using definition #1.
>  
> > It seems strange, too, that Bob Hopson invokes China Mieville in  
> > defence of Tolkien, given Mieville's oft-stated disdain for 
> Tolkien's  
> > scribblings. Here's a juicy quote from Mieville's excellent essay 
> 
> > against Tolkien, 'Middle Earth meets Middle England':
> >  
> > The hobbits' 'Shire' resembles a small town in the Home Counties, 
> full  
> > of forelock-tugging peasants and happy artisans. Though he 
> idealises  
> > the rural petty bourgeoisie, Tolkien treats them with enormous  
> > condescension...
> >  
> > Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was 'consolation'. In 
> 
> > other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature  
> > mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them  
> > leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that  
> > jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael  
> > Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love  
> > escapism. What they hate is escape.
> >  
> > Tolkien is naive to think he's escaping anything...The myth of an 
> 
> > idyllic past is not oppositional to capitalism, but consolation 
> for  
> > it. Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle 
> Earth.>  
> I have great respect for China’s writing (although I was 
> disappointed  
> by Perdido Street Station) and imagination and analytical skills. 
> But I  
> think he’s wrong on Tolkien. Not that he (and Moorcock) doesn’t 
> have  
> some valid insights. It’s simply that in order to develop his  
> full-blown head-on critique of Tolkien, he has to create a strawman 
> in  
> order to knock it down. Tolkien's essay is a complex argument 
> (given  
> after he had finished the Hobbit, but 16 years before the Lord of 
> the  
> Rings was published) about the role and value of fairy-stories. 
> When  
> Tolkien mentions "Consolation," he specifically discusses (among 
> other  
> things) the "Consolation of the Happy Ending" as an integral 
> feature of  
> fairy-stories. This is factually true of historical fairy-stories.  
> Tolkien's argument is difficult to follow because he mixes  
> academic/historical study, prescriptive advice for authors, his own 
> 
> idealistic religious philosophy, and a good dose of tongue-in-cheek 
> 
> humor (for instance, he wonders about the type of fantasy stories  
> fairies write about us). But in no place in the article does he 
> make  
> the argument that fantasy writers need "to mollycoddle the reader," 
> as  
> China claims. Tolkien claims many things in the article, some true, 
> 
> some false, some strange--among them that fantasy can waken a 
> reader's  
> mind to the possibility that things have been different, and may be 
> 
> different, that "grim reality" while real, is not eternal or 
> permanent.  
> And he compares this function of the fantasy writer to the 
> resistance  
> against the Nazis (and remember this is written in 1938).
> 
> Furthermore, as I mentioned, Tolkien's writing on the whole 
> contains an  
> element of tragedy that is absolutely astounding (China rightly  
> mentions this as a positive and interesting aspect of Tolkien's 
> work).  
> Despite the "happy ending" in LOTR, there is a profound sadness at 
> the  
> end. And this is more true of what Tolkien considered his major 
> work,  
> the Silmarillion. The Silmarillion is tragedy on a grand scale 
> (this  
> comes through even in the patchwork posthumous novel his son 
> cobbled  
> together as "The Silmarillion"; whereas Tolkien envisioned it as a 
> work  
> that would be longer than LOTR). The story of Turin (which will be  
> published as a stand-alone novel this spring) is one of the 
> greatest  
> tragedies I've ever read (complete with murder, madness, incest, 
> dragon  
> spells, a family curse, and suicide), Shakespeare and Sophocles  
> included. It's hard to square this great tragic epic, which Tolkien 
> 
> considered his "real" writing, with the claim that he thinks 
> fantasy  
> writers should "mollycoddle" the reader. Quite simply, Tolkien's  
> writing is able to capture a sense of loss and grief while 
> maintaining  
> a sense of endurance in hope--a hope that no matter how bad things 
> get,  
> no matter how many traitors and false friends we have to endure, no 
> 
> matter how many battles we lose, there will always be somebody 
> fighting  
> the good fight along with you. That's something, particularly in 
> these  
> times, that every progressive should be able to appreciate.
> 
> soli,
> DCQ________________________________________________
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