Toni Morrison

Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.

Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).

If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.

Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.

Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.

That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”

For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”

But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when  “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”

Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times.  “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”

Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.

And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.

Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.

She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.

Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.

This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.

This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.

Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.

I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.

Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.

Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.

I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.

And for the last time.

Reviewing Ready Player One, Wool, and The Martian

With a recent announcement by Paramount Pictures that they are going to scoop of the last the ‘holy trifecta’ of self-published fantasy novels I wonder, not for the last time, whether if I am alone in my apathy towards the ‘holy trifecta’ of Ready Player One, The Martian and Wool. They’re almost always mentioned together whenever I browse blogs, reddit or anywhere at all online. I legitimately believe something is wrong with me because I’ve read all three and found all three to be substantially similar, even if the details are all fiddled about, and for those reasons to find them as books to be terrible reads.

Ready Player One was a fluff fest that could be easily devoured and forgotten—sort of like a BigMac. Its careful curator of 80s memorabilia, who occasionally acts like a protagonist, strings together little set scenes that are barely related, which come together and pop apart without much ever happening. Some people come, some die and everyone is steadfastly opposed to personal growth of any sort. Death is followed by resurrection, defeat by victory, but it is impossible to say what, if anything, changed.

Similarly, if read literally, the Martian is about a sociopath stuck on Mars. Read literally it’s someone who has a complete absence of any emotional or psychological depth, much less growth, yet is someone vaguely concerned with proving thirteen year-old science ‘enthusiasts’ wrong about his methods. Or at least that’s the only conclusion I came to after reading this very thin presentation of ‘what-if-stranded-on-Mars?’ Read charitably, it’s a book about someone who has an above average understanding of ‘science,’ if science is periodically explaining a few quirks of chemistry and engineering. That is to say, it’s a book about the author and it shows. It’s certainly not about an astronaut actually on Mars.

I recently read Wool, and I was not entirely surprised for it to be equally devoid of any humanity and primarily concerned with concocting and connecting in a generally linear way a series of somewhat-thought-out scenes that would be more fitting for the ‘big screen’ than literature. It went down easily, sometimes I detected a faint whiff of irony but eventually I assumed that it was unintended self-parody rather than intentional. And again I was struck by the same feeling of not even reading a book, more like a type of frothy summer movie mixed in with an author who never really manages to disguise themselves. An acquaintance sat down with me and sort of hashed out his vision for a movie, but unfortunately we were interrupted so he took it upon himself to inflict on me his vision in an email. Unfortunately because I really don’t have much interest in reading a movie.

In fact, about a year ago, a few months ago and as recently as last week I was recommending for people who were truly divided on what one to begin (of the three, of the two or one of them singularly) to first wait for the movies. “If you really are torn between the three I’d suggest just jumping straight to comic books or a good television series. The books are either written with an eye towards television or edited that way. Or perhaps just read the few pages that are everyone’s “favorite scenes,” because that is exactly what they are. Scenes.” A reader would be much better served by ignoring “the shoehorning into the written word and enjoy them in a few years once Paramount picks them up.”

With obviously bogus protagonists, these authors must now depend on the cunning of their narrative gifts to propel these characters through great events. Finding the keys to the kingdom, finding a way off of Mars with some poop and potatoes, uncovering the secrets of a silo that depends on those very same secrets for its existence. Throughout it all the scenery, while entertaining, never quite matches up with the characters. I’m reminded of an archaic type of film where the scenery, painted on a tarp, is flung through the air by the operators without any prompting from the actors. They can keep up or they can fall behind. They can jump ahead. But the two aren’t related. At most it’s coincidence that they’re in unison.

Of course, Fox ended up picking up the Martian and Wool. Paramount captured Ready Player One. I was sort of right. They finally get to be what they were always meant to be, movies, and I still don’t get why anyone thinks they make good books. They’re scripts, at best, or at least good ideas for scripts. And really I can’t wait for the movies to air because then we can stop pretending that these novels are primarily, or even at all, concerned about sentences.

Notes

Dear Reader, let me apologize for my prolonged absence. I cannot explain the implosion. I have never been terribly productive. I have always felt a little out of place in the cult of the economy. I find myself, as if I was lost, in graduate school. The dual threats of work, fulfilling, and study, less so, strains my soul. I have also found a Dear Other who I love.

As my last post hinted this Dear Other is quite Dear. Like all people, unfortunately, they will always be an Other—no matter how Dear. My energy is sent to cheery exploits of exploring and mapping and existing with Dear Other. I have no other words to describe it, and since I cannot I will not. These energies are gratefully expended but writing becomes difficult. My world has collapsed and have my usual subjects.

In equal parts fortunate and unfortunate I have received a steady supply of comments and views—more than I ever imagined. Fortunate because each encourages me to do something I enjoy like a wink or a nudge. Unfortunate because I feel unable to meet even these humble expectations.

But perhaps I put too much pride in my work. Too much ego. Is writing that difficult? I can hear the silent head shaking from here, ‘producing my drivel, surely, can’t be hard’—is it a question or a statement of fact? I cannot tell. Or perhaps it is precisely because I can’t escape my love of needless literary blandishments that makes writing so hard.

What I do know, and now accept, is that I celebrate novels when they defy those dominations and powers that enslave us. This is my house of worship, and if you would like to take an occasional peek—dear reader—then all the better. If there is pride then I cannot escape it. Prometheus somewhat cryptically observes, “Time, growing ever older, teaches all things.” Or, as Dr Johnson notes, reflecting Matthew’s Gospel, “Pride must have a fall;” thus proving I have the real thing and not merely the mock.

In my spare time, for I have many hours that I fill with trivial pursuits, I write myself notes. I write myself notes about odd things. Recently I wrote some notes while I watched, equal parts amused and bemused, an American-Japanese animated serial called Cowboy Bebop.

I do not think the show needs much introduction, mainly because the exact content I relate well as this note goes along, enough and the actual content you either know, dear reader, or do not. Without firsthand knowledge you are not missing much, and with firsthand knowledge you are not missing much. Suffice to say the series details the exploits of two guys in the far future. Their job, or at least what they occasionally do to acquire money, is odd jobs. Usually capturing or killing people—think of a Western but in space. Needless to say the lessons I drew from my viewing did not relate to the plot.

One thing I’ve noticed from the two or three episodes of Cowboy Bebop that I saw, I’m afraid it never quite caught on with me, is how it paired itself down to two general themes. The first being ‘American Western’ to the point of being a farce or satire, campy, perhaps in the same mold as the Italian spaghetti westerns like the Dollars trilogy (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The second being the Japanese penchant for pinpoint expression bridging a vast emptiness of unspoken (here, unwritten) details. Described, once, as “the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient… not to be taken for the nihilism of the West.”

I’m reminded of this passage from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, which may (or may not) be an excerpt from a fictional Japanese book On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon.

the shower of little ginkgo leaves is characterized by the fact that in each moment each leaf that is falling is found at a different altitude from the others, whereby the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone.

Like much of Calvino’s work it is, curiously and truly, unique. Part of that uniqueness in how he grasps something that, seemingly, Cowboy Bebop grasps. A certain zeitgeist paired away of all the other influences radiating outwards from the Home Islands.

In Japanese literature what does not move, and what goes unsaid, is often as important as movement. Absence propels just as rapidly as presence. I find a reflection of this dynamic on the screen in Cowboy Bebop because there is often never more than a single animation overlaid on a static background. It’s interesting to see this habit reflected, to an almost comical degree, in the show because one can count on a single hand any frame where more than one movement is shown. Even the fight scenes are carefully choreographed routines where one arm moves through the air to connect at one point.

Bebop’s arc captures, for me, the zeitgeist of Japanese literature. Perhaps the Bebop series, much less Calvino’s slender chapter, is too campy to fully capture Japanese literature in total. Actually there is no perhaps at all. But they are useful, at least as useful as Sergio Leone when he captured the American zeitgeist in Clint Eastwood. Because Bebop’s use is that it refracts a unique quality of Japanese literature across the screen, sometimes badly but well enough.

Dear reader, a quick note. My definition of unique is, well, unique. Thus departing widely from the practice of Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, who, if I am to believe the indulgent fourth edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, could bring himself to write at least once of the “less unique” just as the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher could write of the “more unique” and the playwright Arthur Miller could cap it all by writing of “the most unique.” We can only look nostalgically toward that once-upon-a-time when “unique” was an exceedingly powerful and precise word. Now we observe the erosion of its meaning. No longer can we indicate the only one of its kind, having no like or equal. Another victim of sloppy semantic change for the word has deteriorated into a rough synonym of unparalleled–but not even quite. Much more closer to odd, curious, unusual or even quaint.

Japanese writers focus a tremendous amount of energy on the experience of alienation. The recent Murakami craze, which is certainly not limited to Japan, highlights the trend: South of the Border, West of the Sun. The book contains some extremely poignant explorations of coming of age, early relationships, etc. But crucially the protagonist never escapes the emotions and memories from that adolescent period in his life, the period that everyone faces as one of extreme alienation hangs over the protagonist for the rest of his life.

I think this is also why some people have such a strong reaction to his work. Even when Murakami is writing about adult protagonists he is describing adolescence’s (and adolescences’) alienation. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the protagonist is faced with unfathomable changes in himself, his relationships with women, and the world around him. These changes bring him into a new, stranger world that he is unequipped to function but must. Everything from the wet dreams to the confusing inexplicable relationship with the girl next door evokes the creamy confusion of adolescence.

 

In Murakami’s works, the narrator is almost always somehow set apart from the world he ostensibly exists in. In the end of the world portions contained within Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the narrator (apparently) possesses the only ego or mind in Town. This is mirrored in the hard-boiled wonderland portions of the novel, where the narrator is cut off from a portion of his own mind, and apparently unaware of the strangeness around him.

This is something Bebop captures and captures well. Perhaps it is also why the show fares so well with a particular age range and, like skateboarding, if you do not approach it at the right age you feel silly when you try. Ultimately the main protagonist in Cowboy Bebop is an adolescent. The other side-show protagonist plays a fairly conventional father figure. He is needlessly and inexplicably thrown from one situation to another where love, loss and confusion drift interchangeably—and senselessly—in a world where adults’ plans dominate.

As a passing remark, for everyone who enjoys Cowboy Bebop I hope that you would take a look at Phillip K. Dick’s novels, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find the emptiness of Japanese literature reflected in Dick’s “California spirituality,” which was at least sincere and arguably superior to Cowboy Bebop’s heavy handed effort to apply a Zen-like emptiness to wild Japanese conceptions of American westerns.

Admittedly, Dick was not intentional in the same way about the sci-fi. In Bebop I found the sci-fi to be, largely, just enough to make it politically digestible. And perhaps most noticeably in Dick’s there are no real starships flying around the galaxy. But on the other hand Bebop always seemed to be in the future just far enough so one would care about whether he is driving a Toyota or Ford, whether his father killed my dad or your’s, ect. The future, in Bebop, functioned as a mechanism to place it beyond today’s political concerns but not so far we would not worry about alienation.

Somewhat amusingly, in Bebop the date was never important beyond the first few seconds for the obligatory ‘star port’ scene. And I always found those portions of the episodes to be stylistically and thematically at odds with the rest of the episode. The scenes were a simple device to provide a fig leaf of progression to the plot for audiences antsy about the post-modernist, inconclusive endings that characterized the show. The practical effect is rather small.

So Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? has the same setting, generally, and the same Eastern nihilism. ‘Who am I? What am I about?’ The style is generally similar, if we can agree on Bebop’s culture heritage. Finally, it has a great amount of reality-based science that may seem a little old, now, but at the time was quite forward thinking.

Quod scripsi scripsi.

A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

If I am not mis…

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here. 

Tolkien During the Great War

As you know, dear reader, I am something of a C. S. Lewis fan. I am not going to burden you with his biography. I’ve burdened myself with it several times already and it has not stuck. I’m not going to ask from you what I have demanded, fruitlessly, from myself. The factoid I have managed to remember is the fascinating case of the Inklings.

The Inklings were a group of people centered around Oxford and were a book discussion group. When you see people huddled around a table, peering over their caffeine, know that the grouping is trying to recreate this glittering moment in time. The group’s headliners were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis yet they were hardly the only two. I can only imagine how fascinating the conversations were. I wouldn’t have a thing to say. I’d mumble a bit and drool geometric shapes. But that would still be a good time.

The Inklings were shaped by wartime Britain. Who couldn’t be? But Lewis, as far as I know, was not unduly influenced by his time as a soldier in World War I or the Second World War–though there are instances where the intellectual concerns of inter- and post- war Britain infiltrate his works. I find it a bit odd but not unique. Tim O’Brien, the prodigious writer of his time in Vietnam, finds it inexplicable but some soldiers do not let the war come home with them. He isn’t one of them. “Fourty-three years old and I’m still writing war stories. My daughter Kathleen tells me it’s an obsession, that I should write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it all on a Shetland pony.” But some, such as Gore Vidal, summarizes that for many it is a “profound irrelevance; traumatic for some, perhaps, but for most no more than an interruption.” 

Perhaps this is a good thing. I think it is. Too many writers who cut their teeth in Vietnam and in the frumious climate surrounding their military stint, to an extent I see Tim O’Brien in this category, possessed one idea to the exclusion of any others. They became, in Isaiah Berlin’s glittering image, more hedgehog than fox. Since the idea was very often, but not exclusively, their wartime experiences I find that the writings are disturbing. Not depressing but more of a personal, pervading disappointment with the authors. What was common underneath all the pretension–and there is a level of pretention in all but the best war novels–is the belief that all human experience can be connected to the fruitless efforts of soldiers attempting to kill their opposites. It is a disturbing conclusion for anyone to come to.

Lewis, even though he was badly wounded during an attack on the German trenches on 14th April 1918, seems to have viewed the whole experience as more interruption than the genesis of subsequent obsession. He recounts the experience, “Just after I was hit, I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death. I felt no fear and certainly no courage. It did not seem to be an occasion for either.” When Lewis regained consciousness he discovered that Sergeant Harry Ayres, who had been standing right next to him, had been killed by the same shell that had wounded him.

There are similarities when we look at his close compatriot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and his involvement in the Somme campaign. The Somme changed people and without lessening Lewis’ efforts, I knew there were many texts about the Somme by other authors. But even knowing these two things I was still surprised to learn of the battles’ vast influence on J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. In the abstract this influence is conclusive and unabstract. “A soldier in World War I and a worried father whose son was a combatant in World War II, Tolkien faced the monstrous, collective horrors–and evil–of the twentieth century” (pg 130). But, nevertheless, I think it would be a nice diversion from our lives to look at a few explicit instances where his wartime experiences coalesced in his writings.

It would behoove us to learn a little about the man. I admitted that it would be unfair to burden you with too much biographical material but I hope you’ll allow me a paragraph of conceit. For Tolkien ‘starts’ after the conclusion of his graduate studies. Tolkien joined in the British Expeditionary Army. He could have avoided the draft because he was Irish but, for whatever reason, he refused the possibility. As a result Tolkien was in the Somme offensive in 1916. Notably, since he joined after he had finished his graduate studies (as Oxford) he became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. In such a class conscious society like Victorian Britain this put him a head above his fellow infantrymen. He took part in one of the many attacks on the Schwaben Redoubt, a heavily fortified strongpoint in the German line, but was able to spend most of the war away from the front lines while being treated for Trench Fever. It was a devastating case. Without those lieutenant bars, and even with them, he might not be here with us at all. Victorian class strictures have their problems, but they may also have their benefits.

There are two books about the war’s impact on Tolkien’s fiction: John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle Earth and Janet Brennan Croft’s War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Among the passages in Tolkien’s work that seem to echo his WW1 experience is the Journey through the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings. Additionally, Lisa Jardine sees a reference to tanks (first used in WW1) in connection with Morgoth‘s iron dragons, which appeared in a story that Tolkien wrote during a leave of absence in 1916 or early 1917. The iron dragons were ‘iron monsters in the likeness of dragons, which might cross difficult terrain and harbour legions of orcs to transport them safely across the open plain.’ The similarities do not end there. In the comments for Jardine’s piece, Rev. John WaddingtonFeather recounts a story told by Michael Tolkien, according to which the Dark Riders were based on WW1 German Uhlans. According to M. Tolkien (via Waddington-Feather), J. R. R. Tolkien was caught behind enemy lines while riding a cavalry horse and had to flee three pursuing Uhlans. Looking back, Tolkien could see the Uhlans’ ‘skull and crossbone helmet badges’. This gave rise to a recurring nightmare from which arose the Nazgul.

It could be an apocryphal tale. But I am a romantic at heart. The mental image of our Tolkien running in front of a few shouting, virtual Nazguls, sends all the expected shivers up my mildly nerdy spine. One of the criticism that was aired was, strictly speaking, Uhlans didn’t wear skull and crossbone badges. Then again, British soldiers didn’t speak so strictly. They referred to all German cavalry as uhlans. There were at least three German cavalry units in WW1 that adorned their headgear with the macabre decoration. There were the ‘Black Brunswickers‘, who formed the 17th Hussars Regiment, and two regiments of Life Hussars (more here and here). While there weren’t large hussar units on the western front in 1916, several such units were dispersed in smaller groups among the infantry battalions all along the front. Moreover, while the steel helmet had already been introduced by 1916, some cavalry men retained their old skull-and-crossbones hats.

As to the question of why Tolkien, who was a signaler, was riding a horse the answer seems reasonably obvious. Regardless of his rank inside the military he had come from an educated background and was, thus, considered superior. Perhaps it went against regulation, but a few winks were possible. Moreover there was the connection that if signalers had to lay and repair the wire along which their signals ran, then if they had a horse he could do it faster. It is also well within the bounds of possibility that one who had been tasked with such chores would borrow a horse. After all, if a chaplain such as Canon Scott could use a horse to get around, why couldn’t signalers use horses, too?

Aaron Isaac Jackson also published a good article about the War’s influence on Tolkien’s work. His focus is The Hobbit. Jackson says,

In The Hobbit Tolkien is explicit about what they [the goblins] represent, linking them expressly to the mechanized warfare that characterized the First World War: ‘It is not unlikely’ [quoting Tolkien] ‘that they … invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them’. (Aaron Isaac Jackson, ‘Authoring the Century: J. R. R. Tolkien, the Great War and Modernism’, English, 59 [2010], pp. 44–69, at p. 61)

Jackson notes that as Bilbo and his company approach Smaug’s lair, ‘‘Neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished’ greet their approach, echoing the destruction by war of the green farmlands of France.’ (Ibid., pp. 61-2)

I could go on and on. Enough has been written about him on this blog, for now. At Smaug’s lair I’ll leave you, dear reader, until tomorrow.