Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Too Old For This ...

Last week, I found something light to read during mealtimes – The Gospel according to Tolkien by Ralph C. Wood, an attempt to shed light on (Catholic) Christian themes in Tolkien’s work. It contains many glimpses of insight and interesting facts. On occasion it irritates. It is meant to be ‘not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation’, and few meditations (my own emphatically included) entirely escape the self-indulgence of the pulpit.

For instance, the overuse of adverbs to mask tautology:

Tolkien’s providentially ordered cosmos is immensely varied and complex. Its unity is not dully monolithic but interestingly differentiated.

Dramatic eulogies to placate Heideggerians:

By giving special qualities and powers to each of these beings, Tolkien reveals the wondrous particularity and divine givenness of many things that we take for granted.

Confident references to Scripture with dubious use of the superlative and comparative:

Yet it is the voices of Job and Isaiah whose cadences and sentiments resound most clearly in Tolkien’s tragic sense of our human mortality. [two quotes]
More pertinent still for understanding Tolkien’s sense of the world’s melancholy is the book of Ecclesiastes.

Equating ancient and modern worldviews under the heading of Latinate adjectives, possibly invented for the purpose:

Our Scandinavian and Teutonic forebears were thus mortalists: they believed that Ragnarok would mean the final destruction even of heaven and hell. So are most modern men and women mortalists also – except that the ancient Ragnarok has been replaced with the contemporary dread of terrorist attacks and nuclear strikes.

Conspiratorially restricting the intended audience:

Our Scandinavian and Teutonic forebears …

The strident denunciation, on one page, of two contemporary evils in apparent contradiction with each other:

The hobbits are unabashed lovers of food, enjoying six meals a day. Not for them our late-modern and quasi-gnostic obsession with slimness. …
The hobbits’ physique reveals this same paradox that greatness may be found in smallness. Tolkien makes them diminutive creatures in order to challenge our obsession with largeness.

Clumsy rationalizing explanations of characters’ natural actions:

Most often the hobbits sing for joy rather than consolation, for in their singing they break into a transcendent realm beyond their own small world.

Trying to clarify Tolkien’s views and making him sound like a nutcase in the process:

Tolkien believed that he had not devised his magnificent mythical world so much as he had found it – indeed, that it had been revealed to him by God.

You might think that this is a very negative review. So it is, but only because I have chosen to be mean and curmudgeonly. I could just as easily pick out a number of passages that taught me something new or helped me to make new connections. But I have had two thesis advisors (one agnostic, one Catholic) of a very analytical nature; they believed that if an argument was worth making, it was worth making soberly and with the caution that the subject required. Their love for literature did not suffer because of it; but their compassion was sharp as they bent over the enigma of the fever chart.

It was one particular passage in Wood’s work, at the very beginning, that got my particular attention. He tries to defend Tolkien against the charge of being a male chauvinist, on the grounds that there are hardly any women in his work and that these are depicted in an idealized way. Wood argues:

Tolkien’s women are not plaster figures. Galadriel the elven princess proves to be terrible in her beauty – not treacly sweet and falsely pure; in fact, she is an elf whose importance will diminish once the Ruling Ring is destroyed. So is Éowyn a woman of extraordinary courage and valor, a warrior who can hardly be called a shrinking violet or simpering coquette. Though we see but little of Arwen … there is nothing saccharine about her character.

This is a weak defence, because it assumes that there is only one way to idealize women, namely by making them weak-minded and naïve. But a woman ‘terrible in her beauty’ is just as much idealized. Have you ever met someone like that walking across the street or chatting with her friends? (Well, I have, but then again, I am an incorrigible idealist.)

Although Wood’s defence is unsatisfactory, I can let Tolkien get away with idealizing women because his men are also idealized. Middle-earth is an idyll, even if it is painted in chiaroscuro. It is a place where all vices are intellectual and spiritual; where great grief exists, but no awkwardness; where indignation is expressed without a stammer and desire without a hoarse voice. A woman in that rarefied atmosphere can be terrible in her beauty; in such a world it is possible that a man and a woman meet and find themselves unable to move a muscle for a long time, moved as they are by shared astonishment. And this clarifies something about our own world.

When idealization occurs in the real world, however, I find it rather chafes my patience. Another book I am reading is Reclaiming our Priestly Character by Fr. David Toups, who has merited the title of Doctor in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.). He argues that priests will lead more stable and happy lives if they are convinced that the priesthood, once received, can never be lost. So far, so good. But a passage like this, about the road leading there, makes me uneasy:

Through a searching discernment, the candidate has sifted out the misleading tugs of self-interest and the always corrosive distortions with which the spirit of evil infects the human heart. So purified, the seminarian places before the Trinity his heart’s desire clarified in the light of the Spirit, so that God may confirm the decision at hand.

This is a beautiful and highly stylized description of a decision-making process that tells me exactly nothing about what actually happens. At moments like these I think: I’m getting too old for this …