Briefly Reviewed: November 1983
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
By Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Author: Arthur Livingston
Without doubt J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most anomalous figures in modern letters; he tends either to delight one thoroughly or bore one to distraction.
To whichever camp you may belong, take heart — Tolkien is a top-drawer letter writer, and as long as one has sympathy for at least some aspects of his work, this collection — culled by his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, from letters spanning a 60-year period — offers the kind of literary exuberance found only sporadically in the correspondence of creative artists.
If Tolkien had besetting sins (other than an all-too-forgivable idleness), his son has dutifully and thankfully excised them (unlike the editor of C.S. Lewis’s private notes who uncovered blacked-out portions of letters given him and paraded Lewis’s deepest temptations before the public eye, thereby betraying a trust).
There is no scandal-mongering here, just good writing. The biggest surprise is that Tolkien had all the earmarks of a first-rate Christian apologist. He wrote a series of letters to his son Michael beginning shortly after the start of the 1939 war while the young man underwent training as an antiaircraft gunner, and then continued the series when his son joined the front. Evidently Michael, who later joined the Jesuit order, was the type of young man who desired buttressing in the faith by direct instruction. Here is a sample of what the elder Tolkien has to say to his son about faithfulness in marriage:
No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that — even those brought up in the Church. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to be found. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along.
This argument leads into a powerful defense of the doctrine of indissoluble marriage. This is apologetics worthy of a Lewis or Chesterton, and it is a wonder that Tolkien never wrote anything like this for public consumption. Carpenter in his definitive biography hints that Tolkien believed that he had little to say in this area, which is clearly preposterous. Could it be that Tolkien, for all his acclaimed grouchiness and hobbit-like eccentricity, was really an extraordinarily humble man who believed he had little to offer but the obvious, except within a narrow field?
The letters referring to other members of the Inklings confirm what Lewis and the others always intimated, that Tolkien was the most individualistic, and least clubby of the group. A close scrutiny of the letters tells us why. Despite having contributed what unquestionably will become an enduring masterpiece (viewing The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as one vast tetralogy), and despite having revealed himself as a master of the familiar letter — despite all this, Tolkien was not essentially a man of literature at all. His roots were in philology, and his forays into literary art he clearly viewed as little more than reconnoitering for his language studies. Unlike the others, he was not extremely well read in post-15th-century writing, and had cranky tastes in what he did like — e.g., strong words of praise for David Lyndsay’s awkwardly written Voyage to Arcturus, but strong condemnation for Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles! Aesthetic judgment didn’t seem to be his strong suit.
Fans of the popular Tolkien will not be disappointed either. Page after page offers lore from Middle Earth in fresh form. In one striking passage, he tells the legend of the making of the dwarfs (dwarves, as he prefers) far more movingly than the version that appeared in The Silmarillion. On another front, he relates his adventures with the attempt of a Hollywood studio to purchase the film rights to Lord of the Rings, including the hilarious encounter of this Victorian don born slightly out of period with a movie script huckster whose ideas for improving the story succeeded only in adversely affecting the author’s digestion.
These letters are somewhat reminiscent of those of Lewis Carroll in that they may not become as well known as they should, but are probably, after the works best loved of each author, the next most excellent production of each man.
America’s Quest for the Ideal Self: Dissent and Fulfillment in the 60s and 70s
By Peter Clecak
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: J.M. Cameron
Peter Clecak is an intelligent professor with an eye for detail. He also has some interesting ideas. But his book is a sign of something wrong with much academic work in the social sciences. It is no worse than many other books in this field and better than some. But the question is: would this kind of book be written or published if the university community had any critical awareness and any serious concern with standards?
Consider the following: “Cultural dissidence of various sorts quickly began to acquire a rough political edge, and vice versa.” What can this mean?
“The mood of pessimism represented more than the sum of desperate disappointments. It was synergized by the absence of a clear ideological and political winner in the seventies.” Synergized by something’s not being there? Like other terms of art in the social sciences, with “catalyst” the most abused, “synergize” is, I suspect, chosen because it sounds scientific and intimidating.
“Reawakening memories of earlier experiences, the new Left provided a metaphor for the Manichaean undersurface of the neoconservatives’ social criticism.” This is a fair example of Clecak’s prose. He is much taken with the word “metaphor,” but here, as elsewhere, the reader scratches round for a metaphor without finding one. “Manichaean undersurface” is indeed a metaphor and a very complex one; but this is what the New Left is said to be providing a metaphor for.
I have given a short selection from the many examples of bad writing I have noticed in Clecak’s book. He has been captured and captivated by a vicious rhetoric. He is a prisoner of his own style, cliché ridden and confused.
The argument of the book, so far as I can perceive it, is as follows: All the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s — he includes among these movements many religious movements — have been motivated by the desire for some kind of personal fulfillment or self-realization; and their common “thrust,” as Clecak would put it, is toward “the democratization of personhood.” Clecak gives different lists of the protest movements, but they commonly include groups speaking for the physically handicapped (including those who are by current standards overweight or undersized), blacks, women, homosexual men and women, Jews, the young, American Indians, Hispanics and Asians, “ethnics,” prisoners, consumers, and victims of environmental pollution. He takes it as plausible that all the protesting groups really do speak on behalf of those they claim to represent. This sometimes has odd consequences — I mean in public life, not in Clecak’s book — as when groups speaking for women present a campaign for abortion on demand and are outraged when other groups also claiming to speak for women dissent from this. Strangely, Clecak thinks the demands of such movements are all made on behalf of the self-fulfillment of individual persons (even where they speak on behalf of the general interest, as those do who protest against the possession of nuclear weapons or against the poisoning of Lake Michigan).
Clecak has noted, and in part accepts, what Christopher Lasch and others have written about narcissism in our culture, but Clecak doesn’t find narcissism contemptible.
The above-mentioned movements have changed the tone and content of our thought and have modified our practice. For this they are commended by Clecak, as tending to bring about “the democratization of personhood.” The “quest” for this — Clecak uses “quest” a lot, with its implication of looking for something sacred that will put things right once it is found — is also a quest for “salvation,” something that can usefully be treated as having a wider reference than just to religious concerns.
It can in the end be said, he claims, that in the two decades under examination “increased freedom did…enable millions of Americans…to lead fuller interior lives than their parents or grandparents had.” If he believes this, in a time when the Johnny Carson Show is the common liturgy and an elaborately educated man can abuse the language as Clecak does, then he believes it.
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