Monday, May 26, 2008

Kalamazoo & Lilly Too (part one)

So, two weeks ago I got to go to the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo -- not an archaic parliament but an annual meeting of medieval scholars from across the country and beyond. This is a gathering I've wanted to attend for several years -- I even had a paper accepted for the 2004 conference called "To Recall Forgotten Gods From Their Twilight", on Tolkien's, Machen's and Lovecraft's use of Nodens, but had to cancel when I was unable to attend. Not only are there Tolk Folk I enjoy seeing among the regular attendees, but I knew it'd also be a good chance to meet Tolkien scholars I don't know and spend more time with others I don't know well. This year things finally came together, thanks largely to the generosity of my friend Doug in letting me stay at his place, and I was able to attend -- just as a member of the crowd, since I found out I could go far too late to put in a paper proposal, but still able to attend all the sessions, visit the book room(s), &c.

On the day before the conference, though, we had an added treat: Doug and I headed down to Bloomington to spend the day at the Special Collections at the university there. The Lilly Library owns a collection of Denham tracts that is by all accounts the most complete in the world, and the only one known to contain the specific tract that marks the first known appearance in print of the word 'hobbit'. Not only have I now held that page in my hands, but I strongly suspect it was this exact same collection (bound in a handsome volume back in 1860, and more recently belonging to nursery rhyme experts Peter & Iona Opie) that formed the basis for the Folk Lore Society's two-volume edition in 1892 & 1895. Having also recently discovered yet another version of Denham's list, this one published in 1846, two years earlier than the oldest version known to me when I finished up RETURN TO BAG-END, this helps flesh out the history of the Denham-hobbit connection. Also, leafing through this collection I was able to get a better sense of what the individual tracts (merged together by the Folk Lore Society editor) were like, and also to confirm that several favorite bits were original to Denham himself, not interpolations by the latter-day editor.

As for the conference itself, it was huge. At any given time there were perhaps some fifty panels going on, each with three or so participants, each giving a paper or presentation. The "book room" was actually a series of rooms filling most of one building's ground floor, and not only included a lot of university presses with choice releases for sale (or at least pre-order) but also a booth with amber jewelry, one with beautiful reproductions of medieval seals, and (best of all) one with a wonderful selection of medieval coins.

Of the panel sessions, one of the very best papers I've heard in a long time came in the very first session I attended ("Medieval Otherworlds: Faerie and the Ambiguous Supernatural in Romance and Beyond"), a piece by one Richard Firth Green of Ohio State University titled "Did People in the Middle Ages Believe in Fairies? The Case of Broceliande". It was so good that if it were available in a book I'd buy it, and I hope that at some point in the future it will be. The same session also included pieces on Walter Map and on Chaucer's use of Fairye (Faerie).

Midday that Thursday was devoted to many meetings: I got to meet the publisher of TOLKIEN STUDIES, had a chance to visit briefly with Shaun Hughes, whom I'd not seen in years, and had time to catch up with Phil (Kaveny) and Jan (Bogstad), friends from the days when I used to live in Milwaukee and they in Madison. I also got to meet Deidre Dawson, Merlin DeTardo, whom I knew through his postings on the MythSoc list, as well as Anna (Smol?). All this was interspersed with a first prowl through the book room, followed by dinner at a Tolkien themed restaurant. That evening came the first item on the Tolkien Track: the "Teaching Tolkien" panel, with no less than six presenters:

Judy Ann Ford's "Teaching Tolkien in a Team-Taught History and English Class"
Yvette Kisor's "Using THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH in Group Projects"
Jennifer Lynn Culver's "Exploring Syntax and Diction through the Races of Middle-earth"
Eileen Marie Moore's "Teaching Tolkien's Languages"
Kristine Larsen's "Teaching Tolkien in Science Classes"
Stella Wang's "Teaching Tolkien to Chinese-Speaking Students in Taiwan",
--the whole thing moderated by Robin Reid, the administrator of the "Tolkien at Kalamazoo" track.

After the presentations, some of which were v. thought-provoking, I had the chance to meet up with Richard West and also Debby Rogers, the latter of whom I'd not seen in far too long.

(to be continued)

Saturday, May 24, 2008


So, today a treat I'd ordered for myself arrived in the mail, the third and final volume of Martin Bernal's BLACK ATHENA. The first volume of this was one of the books I inherited from Taum back in 1991; I think he'd been attracted by the linguistic element in Bernal's argument, though I don't think he wound up reading more than the first thirty pages or so. I, on the other hand, was more interested in the historical argument and the promise -- made in the lengthy (fifty-page) synopsis of the whole appearing in the Introduction to that first installment -- that the third volume would focus on links between Classical and Egyptian mythology.

Having read Bernal's book, I not only found his thesis thought-provoking but became interested in the controversy that came to surround it. In the years that followed, I read not only the second volume of Bernal's book when it eventually came out but also Mary Lefkowitz's snarky rebuttal NOT OUT OF AFRICA as well as the collection of anti-Bernal essays she co-editing w. Guy McLean Rogers (BLACK ATHENA REVISITED), Bernal's massively detailed point-by-point reply (BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK), and even Bernal's CADMEAN LETTERS, a sort of short simple preamble to his main argument published years before (and an excellent example in miniature of Bernal's method).

While having no interest whatsoever in Afrocentrism -- which I find a rather dubious doctrine -- I do enjoy reading iconoclastic books which attempt to re-examine the assumptions underlying a field or which challenge 'conventional wisdom' on a particular topic, especially when they're of historical bent. Such books can be as interesting when they fail as when they succeed; in either case, they force you to re-think the preconceptions. Bernal's main argument is simple: that Greek civilization was massively influenced by the two ancient civilizations that dominated the eastern Mediterranean before Hellenic culture rose to power. He convincingly demonstrates that this was the opinion of the Greeks themselves. Where the controversy comes in is in Bernal's argument that our modern (18th/19th/20th century) idealization of the Greeks as the starting point of Western Civilizaton owes more to racist Aryan doctrine (which rejected the idea of Indo-Europeans borrowing from Africans or Semitic peoples) than actual evidence.

Whether the reader accepts or rejects Bernal's main argument, his books are well worth reading for all the interesting little asides he touches on in passing -- for example, a suggestion that the 'Philistines' of the Old Testament were probably the Greeks, or his demonstration that the 'Canaanites', 'Hebrews' and 'Phoenicians' were simply three branches of the same people (the farmers, herders, and sea-goers, respectively), speaking dialects of the same language. We'll see whether he can deliver in this final volume of a massively ambitious project.

--John R.

Friday, May 23, 2008

AARP Knows Where I Live!

So, today an invitation to join the AARP arrived. Of course, I'm not old enough to qualify for membership (not quite yet), but looks like they're willing to be broad-minded and let me pay for a membership even if I can't actually become a member for some time yet. Perhaps they've mistaken me for my father, who of course had the same name (with the addition of a "Sr." at the end), not having noticed that he died long, long before reaching retirement age himself (just after his thirty-seventh birthday)? A puzzle.
--JDR (Jr.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Worst Essay? (part two)

First Runner Up: "Evil and God" [1941]

Unlike "Why I Am Not A Pacifist", this little essay (only three pages long in the ESSAY COLLECTION) was definitely written with publication in mind, being a response and rebuttal to an essay by the celebrity philosopher C. E. M. Joad called "God and Evil"* It was also written quickly, since Joad's piece appeared in the January 31st issue of THE SPECTATOR and Lewis's reply in the February 7th issue. As such, it shows Lewis's facility of writing quickly and to the point. Also unlike the anti-Pacifist essay, here CSL's piece is well-organized and well-focused.

The problem comes with the blinding oversimplification of Lewis's argument. His chief concern is to reject dualism -- the idea that there are two equal powers in the universe, one good and the other evil. CSL's first objection is to state that he can't visualize two beings without some kind of framework or background creeping into his mental image, which he claims means both must be derived from some unpresented original. Unfortunately, his confession does not so much disprove dualism as testify to an astonishing failure of imagination on his part. Perhaps he shd have asked Barfield and Harwood, two of his closest friends, whose Anthroposophical beliefs were deeply dualistic, for help here in overcoming this hurdle. Even better wd have been someone showing him the yin-yang symbol, which presents dualism more comprehensively than Lewis's failed anthropomorphic attempt cd ever do.

The second objection, however, is where the real problem comes in, the point which entitles this essay to consideration as one of CSL's worst. Lewis argues that a dualistic religion is untenable because if Good and Evil are coeval -- that is, if neither preceded the other -- then we can't know which deserves our allegiance. In short, he argues that Good is better than Evil because it came first; Evil is bad because it's the younger of the two.** Otherwise, he claims, evil wd not be "parasitic" but have "the same kind of reality as good", making our allegiance to good simply an act of random partisanship.

That seems to me about as silly an argument as it's possible to make in a theological context, a logical and conceptual flaw of the first order. Lewis wd have done well to have paid more attention here than a brief mention in his final paragraph to the Norse concept*** (admirably summed up in Tolkien's "The Monsters and the Critics") where the gods lacked omnipotence: evil preceded good and wd eventually triumph over it, but that unfortunate fact only made our allegiance to the forces of good all the more important, since a heroic defeat cd mitigate the foreordained disaster. In short, his inability to conceptually grasp dualism forces CSL to conclude that anyone who accepts dualism is a lazy thinker who refuses to move on to what for him seems the logical next step: a bigger god behind the scenes.

This essay is emblematic of the overall logical weakness of Lewis's apologetics. This is ironic, since Lewis prided himself on his philosophical training and abilities as a logician, never realizing how poor the logical component of his arguments often were -- similar sweeping assertions and logical fallacies fatally undercut the central argument of MIRACLES [1947], for example, as fellow Xian G.E.M. Anscombe pointed out, much to Lewis's embarassment. Tolkien affectionately described how much fun it was to watch Barfield (who himself wrote a number of Socratic dialogues) skewer CSL's arguments (he also later stated that Barfield's memoir of their mutual friend got nearer to the truth than any other he'd seen). And anyone who reads Leon Adey's account of CSL & OB's years-long philosophical debate, 'The Great War', is likely to come away feeling that Lewis was entirely outgunned and outargued on all points.

Where Lewis really excelled, whether he realized it or not, was in his use of analogy to drive home his point. This is one of the things that made him Oxford's best lecturer: he cd take a complex or abstruse subject and put it in terms anyone can relate to. Examples abound throughout his work (including his fiction and especially his literary criticism), and it's one of the things that make him so readable even now, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years later.

So, this minor essay addressing a major point serves as a good example of something fundamentally wrong in CSL's work as a whole, hence its selection here as among his Worst despite it's being clear, straightforward, and readable, even enjoyable n/
...... I think it's fair to say that the degree to which his works succeed or fail is often specifically tied to the degree to which they rely upon logic. The more he attempted to rely upon logical arguments, the less successful the work; the more he relied instead upon analogy to make his points, the more successful -- although the latter strategy had its limitations as well, as we'll see in the next and final essay of this series.

current reading: AN [ILLUSTRATED] AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Anthony Trollope [1883/1987]

[[*Nt: Joad published a book of the same title in 1942, which I assume built on the ideas outlined in his 1941 essay.]]

[[**Nt: My wife observes that this is an odd position for a man with an older brother to take, but so it goes.]]

[[***Nt: Or, for that matter, the history of the universe presented in Pope's DUNCIAD wherein chaos proceeds order and our hard-won present-day order will one day lapse back again into "Chaos and Old Night".]]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My cat weighs twenty pounds

So, recently we've become worried over our cats' weight. We leave out food so that all three can help themselves, and two of the three overeat -- so much so that we decided to take them to the vet and get them weighed. It turns out Hastur, our middle cat, weighed 16.4 pounds. Accordingly, we got some prescription weight-loss food for her, which fortunately she turns out to prefer to the regular stuff. When I took her back about two months later, she was at 16.2 pounds, so looks like she's moving in the right direction.
Of course, this made me decided it was time that Feanor, the youngest of the three, got his turn, so in he went in April. I was amazed to discover that he weighs 20.8 pounds. The late lamented Parker, whom people often said "now that's a big cat" when they saw him, was only about 15 pounds, so Feanor outweighs him by a goodish bit. Accordingly, the regular (dry) catfood now gets mixed with the 'lite' and 'prescription' stuff, since unfortunately he likes the higher-carb stuff best. We're hoping this gradually brings his weigh down as well. Several of our friends have senior cats whose weight problems have led to diabetes and other woes, and having so narrowly escaped that fate myself we're thinking the same solution might do our cats some good: bring down the weight now before the problems develop and get out of hand. Luckily they're still relatively young (Hastur is now almost six, Feanor about five and a half).
The trickiest part is that Rigby, who at almost ten is now our Senior Cat, weighs only about 8.5 pounds -- just the right size, though we keep imagining that she looks too thin when in fact it's the others who aren't thin enough. So we have to make sure she gets enough, despite her general lack of interest in food (she eats only when she's hungry), while keeping the others from eating too much. With luck, the others will be at a healthier weight by year's end, but it's going to be a slow process.
But then 45.5 pounds of cat is more than enough of a good thing.
current reading: AN [ILLUSTRATED] AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Anthony Trollope.