Hilarity in Delaware: Christine O’Donnell and J.R.R. Tolkien, sitting in a tree…

As almost everyone now knows, Christine O’Donnell won the Republican Senate primary in an upset, and, as almost everyone now knows and will forget six months from now, she’s also unintentionally hilarious. One of her better moments comes from a 2003 essay on Tolkien discussed in “The Republican Senate candidate’s analysis of “Lord of the Rings” reveals her views on feminine roles.” Unfortunately, Salon’s copy of O’Donnell’s essay has been removed, but not before I caught this bit: “Even as I researched this article, the only writings on Tolkien and feminism I found were on websites for freebee high school essays.”

As Jason Fisher said in an e-mail, “Not a promising opening. When the only writings you can find are high-school level, it’s a strong indication that your research techniques are only high-school level.” Indeed: by 2003, Jane Chance had published extensively on Tolkien. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World came out in 2002. Tolkien Studies hadn’t been founded yet, but a lot of the material cited by it stretches back decades.

Even if you couldn’t find that material for whatever reason, the number of books about gender, gender construction, and gender symbolism in fiction is simply staggering; much of it could be and is being productively applied to Tolkien.

I sometimes say to my students that there is a world of ideas beyond the Internet or not available on it. They often don’t believe me, or if they do, don’t act on that belief. Now at least there’s a concrete example of failing to act on that belief in action.

Since humor is in the air like pheromones, it’s worth pointing to the Borowitz Report: “Delaware Masturbators March Against O’Donnell.” Where’s that parody coming from? See Christine O’Donnell, masturbation socialist on Slate.

I seldom comment on politics because I think most political discussions are really about people signaling what they perceive their values to be, not about the exchange of real information or ideas about the world beyond the individual espousing a particular point of view. But the opportunity to do so here is too rich to ignore and has led to a very amusing juxtaposition of post tags, and with O’Donnell, even Frank Rich gets into the spirit, writing for the New York Times:

But history will always remember her for taking a fearless stand against masturbation, the one national pastime with more fans than baseball.

Our great country has truly come a very long way if being anti-masturbation is now coded as being anti-American. In a world where drug stores are selling sex toys, how could it not be?

Every so often politicians emerge for whom pot shots are the optimal method of engagement; Slate writes from the left and so mostly attacks Republicans, but this bit is pretty hilarious:

And I guess it was those terrible experiences that led her to spend her life telling girls never to feel lust, which is a sensible and realistic thing to recommend.

Just say no to fun has been working well for centuries, whether from the early Progressives on Prohibition, the modern-day versions of the, or the anti-sex Republicans. Telling people not to feel lust is pretty close to telling people not to feel hungry; sure, you find the occasional monk who manages to fast for very long periods of time and primarily eats tea, bread, and fruit. The rest of us, however, will ask you to pass the potatoes, be generous with the wine, and ask whether you’ve tried the sumptuous French-Vietnamese fusion place up the street, the one with the amazing Pho.

Every so often, my students imply (usually they don’t say it outright) that English classes don’t matter, that what they learn in school doesn’t matter, and that they’ll succeed regardless. And every so often, the world offers up a story that implies they may be right.Christine O’Donnell is one such example.

Tolkien conference this weekend

This weekend, I’m presenting “A Hegelian Reading of the Elves: Synthesizing the Master-Slave Dialectic in The Silmarillion” at Tolkien at the University of Vermont 2009. If you’re in the neighborhood, you should drop by—though I imagine that Vermont’s small population makes the “in the neighborhood” part highly unlikely. In any event, expect posting to resume next week or the week after, thanks to travel, practice, paper changes, etc.

Into Thin Air — Jon Krakauer

This article and some of the commentary around it inspired me to get Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which was a blessing and curse; I read the first page, then another, and then found myself still reading six hours later, to the detriment of other responsibilities. It was one of these addictive, incredible books.

Was it worth it shirking the rest of my life? Maybe: but once I began, it was hard to stop. Into Thin Air is probably the kind of book people mean when they say “page-turner,” although that term is usually applied to badly written slop. Qualifying exactly what that means on an individual level eludes me: I look for a place, a word, a sentence, a paragraph that I can reproduce and say, “There! That’s a perfect example of what I’m describing.” But Into Thin Air resists such a reading; the sentences are good but seldom noteworthy. At times there are cliches: “Neal Beidleman […] remains haunted by a death he was unable to prevent,” as we’ve heard from a million melodramatic, sentimental cop books. In the context, however, Krakauer both transcends and reaffirms the cliche: we see that Beidleman, with his heroism and impotence on the face of the mountain, is haunted, perhaps most of all because the death could have been prevented by not climbing the mountain in the first place. But it’s a price for the chance at transcendence, the moment when you’re at 29,028 feet and have achieved a quixotic goal that means nothing and everything. After Into Thin Air, I have a new appreciation for the descriptions of Caradhras and Moria in The Lord of the Rings, where the mountains gain an ominous, almost palpable malevolent darkness.

Krakauer was a journalist and (mostly former) climber who wanted to try Everest, and when he found that Outside magazine would send him, he went. Climbing Everest isn’t a simple task, even for those experienced with high altitudes; it takes at least six weeks of time acclimating as well as north of $50,000 to go. As of 1996, about one of four people who reached the top of Everest died on the way down. Judging from this, the percentage hasn’t changed much, since 881 people died on Everest in the 1990s and 327 did in 2000 and 2001. He went with a “commercial” expedition and was assigned to write about commerce and the mountain.

Instead, he wrote about disaster and the mountain.

At such extreme limits of what the body can accomplish, Krakauer experienced the mind-body problem in what might be its purest form, when he sought the shelter of Camp 4 after summitting. Camp 4 is the last human refuge before the peak, and Krakauer had been fighting Everest for almost two months. In this state he describes himself:

I was so far beyond ordinary exhaustion that I experienced a queer detachment from my body, as if I were observing my descent from a few feet overhead. I imagined that I was dressed in a green cardigan and wingtips. And although the gale was generating a wind-chill in excess of seventy below zero Fahrenheit, I felt strangely, disturbingly warm (193).

I know the sensation from running cross country, but the difference between a half marathon and a near-death experience on Everest gives me only the faintest ability to imagine his circumstance, like comparing a toe stub to cutting off one’s foot. Some of the others are familiar too, but not from climbing; Krakauer writes that the rubber oxygen mask he wore made him “[feel] drugged, disengaged, thoroughly insulated from external stimuli.” Morphine has, in my limited experience, the same effect.

But the greatest lessons from Into Thin Air come from the group mistakes that so often mark human foibles: vanity, competition, status, and monetary incentives combine to push everyone just past the point of safety in a place where the margin is almost non-existence. Bad communication hampers the effort: radios are not where they should be; firm plans for where ropes should be placed aren’t created and follow. I can’t help but think of Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail and Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. The last deals with the Challenger disaster, while the other two deal with disaster in other circumstances.

What the three have in common with Into Thin Air is a general algorithm for how disasters tend to happen among well-meaning, otherwise cautious people: signs are missed and safety precautions ignored; communication breaks down; other goals slowly supersede the goal of making sure everyone is safe; and numerous, relatively small problems combine to create a situation that shouldn’t but does become disaster. With Into Thin Air, no one noticed the thunderstorm clouds building below Everest’s peak; the firm turnaround time of 1:00 p.m. (or 2:00 at the latest) was ignored; few of the teams on the mountain knew what others were doing; the rivalry between guided groups grew; one guide made a decision to go up and down the various camps too many times; and all this was exacerbated by the altitude and the way a lack of oxygen impairs cognition. One Sherpa, Lopsang, decides to “tow” a client, which essentially means hauling the client up by rope, like a human boat traveling vertically. To Krakauer, this “didn’t seem like a particularly serious mistake at the time. But it would end up being one of many little things—a slow accrual, compounding steadily and imperceptibly toward critical mass.”

The above paragraph is relatively dry, almost scholarly or lawyerly, and it lacks the visceral impact of some of the book’s telling details: passing bodies on the way up, left or forgotten because they’re so difficult to carry down; the sensation of looming ice towers; the terrible realization that some people won’t make it; the fact that virtually every person going up that mountain was, on some level, implicated in the deaths that occurred. Krakauer has a disarming way of reminding us of climbing’s sacrifices, great and small. On April 29, 2006, the group makes it so high that “for the first time on the expedition the vista was primarily sky rather than earth. Herds of puffy cumulus raced beneath the sun, imprinting the landscape with a shifting matrix of shadow and blinding light.” That’s one of the smaller: the greater have already been mentioned.

This talk of sacrifice raises an obvious question: why climb? The answer is elusive, like asking the meaning of life or what the wind feels like as it caresses your face: you can give an absurdly simple answer or an equally absurdly detailed answer and still never answer. George Mallory’s famous answer concerning why he wanted to climb Everest—because it’s there—is as good as any and as good as anyone is likely to get. Nonetheless, I would speculate that maybe there is something to being utterly, inalienably alone; Krakauer writes about in this book and Into the Wild, while others—ranging from Thoreau in Self-Reliance to innumerable adventure stories preach the virtues of being cut from the societal network that envelops most of the world, and envelops us with particular force in the West. If this aloneness comes at a cost, it’s the cost of knowing that, out there, you’re not five minutes from a hospital and chinese takeout, and that if things turn ill you’ll die. I mentioned Lord of the Rings before and will mention it again here because in that book, the wilderness has the sense of loneliness and danger that few others can impart: the wild truly feels wild and dangerous—and free. I’m tempted to make grandiose generalizations about how “a society where coddling is the norm,” but I can’t, not and stick to the truth, as the way we think of society says as much if not more about us than it does about the society we comment on.

Regardless of the lessons imparted, what stays with me about Into Thin Air is the sense of foreboding and of empathetic terror at impending death. Those things are beyond the ability of words to describe, but Krakauer gets as close as anyone, and that is why, whatever the sins of Into Thin Air‘s writing style, I kept reading.

Life: thoughts on computers and tools

“Walking into Nathan and Kristi’s empty house was a reminder of why stuff doesn’t really matter: We make the inanimate objects come to life, and not vice versa. Similarly, it reminded me that the fond feelings I have for this place are all wrapped up in the people. There was certainly no charm to those bare walls, studded with hooks where pictures once hung.”

—Alan Paul, “The Annual Expat Exodus Never Gets Any Easier

This is an appropriate quote given a friend’s recent e-mail asking if I’d become overly enamored of computers, given what she called an “almost pornographic” shot of my desk. It’s not dissimilar from Faramir’s comment in The Lord of the Rings, when he separates tools from their uses this way in The Two Towers: “[…] I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend […]”

So too I feel about tools, be they computers or pens, or books themselves, which I see not as objects of reverence, but as bulbs that only shed light when read and shared. This could in part be a decadent opinion born of economic opportunity: five hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, I might not have been so blithe, as books were far more expensive than they are today and have been declining in relative price for almost all of the 20th Century. Regardless of that, I’m lucky enough to live in a time when books are relatively inexpensive; though a book might have symbolic meaning, it is the thing or potential within, not the thing itself, that appeals, and it’s only to the extent that the exterior thing has the potential to manifest what’s within that I’m interested.

A new feature: papers

On the menu bar, there is now a section called “papers” that contains complete copies of academic papers presented at conferences or submitted for publication. The first entry is for The Paradox of Power and Defining Good and Evil in The Lord of the Rings.

The Wonderful Past

I’ve mentioned Grant Writing Confidential several times recently and will do so once more again, this time because I wrote a post that my father and co-writer there, Isaac Seliger, suggested would be well-suited here as well. He saw the many literary references in The Wonderful Past—to The Name of the Rose, My Name is Red, Plato, and traditional Romance. To be sure, the post focuses on grant writing, but it also illustrates a tendency in literature and culture: idealizing the past or recalling a golden time that may or may not have ever been. Novels like The Name of the Rose wink at this, especially because Adso of Melk lived in 1321 and “wrote” from the perspective of sometime around 1380 – 1400, and the eras he recalled appear ridiculous to modern readers and are distorted by the limits of knowledge then. Nonetheless, this theme is developed seriously in many novels, it’s one that The Lord of the Rings deals with explicitly: the passing of the Elves and their works of great beauty at the end of the Third Age are a time of necessary sorrow. There are many references to fading, passing, and parting, as much of what was fair is subject to one of those fates, but the strength of The Lord of the Rings comes from its mingled sense of hopefulness, necessity, and remembrance, which keep it from becoming morose or sentimental. Its tone is tempered and balanced, with hope present even as the past fades.

Perhaps the most obvious example of an entire book devoted to idealizing the past, especially in comparison to a lessened future, is John Banville in The Sea. I began my commentary on it by noting: “It is not clear what we should take from The Sea.” Almost a year later I’m still not sure what we should take, but its sense of wistfulness over the past is the primary feeling I’ve taken away. As such, I have no good explanation about it, though for a novel that I didn’t love it is often in my thoughts, and I perceive similar themes to lesser or, rarely, greater degrees in so many novels. Yet any explanation I give for it will, I feel, be uncertain or overly speculative at best, but such thoughts about the past remain, and remain noticeable.

His Dark Materials

Like so much fantasy, His Dark Materials has more commentary on our world than about its own, just as Paradise Lost is more interested in the world of men than that of God. The fingerprints of Paradise Lost are all over His Dark Materials, and intentionally so, even if one of Pullman’s purposes is the diametric opposite of Milton’s. Pullman has discussed the connections to Paradise Lost in interviews, and a quote from it starts The Subtle Knife.

If Paradise Lost justified the ways of God to Man, then His Dark Materials justifies the ways of Man to Man—or, rather, the fiery spirit and independence of the individual against the poisonous power of authority. It’s more about the relationships of men among each other.

His Dark Materials points toward self-reliance, and the American myth of it informs the books’ championing of the individual against the faceless bureaucracies. The fear of Big Brother is there, although Big Brother is the Church rather than government. It’s anachronistic to cast the Church as a villain—that would’ve been more appropriate five hundred years ago, or at least during the Victorian age, because the major potential oppressors of today are governments, not religions. Still, if Pullman is concerned chiefly with the oppression of a particular individual, his villains work, and when either institution concerns itself with reducing individual liberty, it is as terrible as the other.

Missing all that among the ceaselessly moving plot should be forgiven: The Golden Compass starts fast and never lets up. Not until the middle of The Subtle Knife does the pacing even catch a breath. Lyra, who seems built around the adjective “spunky,” has no one but herself, and like so many Romantic protagonists, begins the story as an orphan. But her parents turn out to be more in the model of the power-crazed and narcissistic ones in Story of My Life or Less Than Zero than the classical model of caring guardians who were forced to abandon her, leading to a joyous reunion. Lyra has to find companions and helpers where she can, and the motley ensemble must take on the mighty, glittering edifice of the dominant social and political structures.Over the course of the flight and then fight Lyra matures. The external plot charts the internal process of growing up: taking on responsibility, dealing with adversity, and a host of other things that, so baldly stated, sound terribly boring. Much better to represent them through a fantastic world filled by marvels and not bound by science as we know it. The external actions are a manifestation of the internal development. In many ways, it parallels the growth of adolescence into adulthood, which is even more explicit in His Dark Materials than most fantastic literature because of Lyra’s age. If the external/internal growth process sounds familiar to regular readers, that’s because it is.

Although featuring children and obviously targeted in part at them, His Dark Materials is a hybrid in the sense that adults can read and enjoy it as well as children, much like The Chronicles of Narnia. The same is true of Harry Potter, although to a lesser extent: His Dark Materials reflects a strong classical education, which allows it to function at deeper levels and with a greater awareness of what has come before. His Dark Materials is stronger than either of those series, both in terms of the writing itself as well as the content; its tone remains strong and serious, even when it is funny, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia at times descends to the level of conventional children’s stories, and Harry Potter never fully leaves that realm.

The ending, like that of Lord of the Rings, is bittersweet: the gains outweigh the losses, but those losses can never be assuaged or made whole; they merely become a burden that can be transmuted to wisdom, but the some aspects of the loss endures despite all efforts to mend them. So it is with the transience of life, and like all the best works of art, His Dark Materials has a lot to say about life—if we are perceptive enough to listen.

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